To secure itself against a possible U.S.-China intervention in case events led to war, India signed on August 9, a 20-year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty provided for immediate mutual consultations and appropriate effective measures in case of either country being subjected to a military threat.
Mrs. Gandhi, who prepared for the war by November-end, was reluctant to take action first, even though December 4, 1971, had been designated as the day the Indian armed forces would directly undertake the liberation of Bangladesh. At this stage, however, Yahya Khan obliged: Pakistan’s Air Force launched a surprise attack on December 3 on eight military airfields in western India, hoping to inflict serious damage on the Indian Air Force and also internationalise the Bangladesh issue. The bid failed in both its objectives.
India immediately recognised Bangladesh and backed it with strong military action. The Indian strategy was to hold the Pakistani forces in the western sector through strong defensive action, while waging a short, swift and decisive war in the east. The U.S. government moved two resolutions in the UN Security Council proposing a ceasefire and mutual troop withdrawal, but these were vetoed by the Soviet Union.
In desperation President Richard Nixon ordered the American Seventh Fleet to set sail for the Bay of Bengal. But India’s ‘Iron Lady’ was not to be cowed down by any threat. She asked Manekshaw to direct the Eastern Command to speed up operations. The Indian Army, actively assisted by the Mukti Bahini, virtually ran through East Bengal and reached Dacca within 11 days. A defeated and demoralised 93,000-strong Pakistan Army led by Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi was made to surrender on December 16. The following day, the Indian government announced a unilateral ceasefire on the western front.
Pakistan was reported to have lost half its navy, a quarter of its air force and a third of its army. The war stripped the nation of more than half of its population. Bangladesh was founded, and 10 million refugees returned to their homeland with cries of ‘Joy Indira Gandhi, Joy Bangladesh’. While A.B. Vajpayee, then a 47-year-old parliamentarian, likened Indira Gandhi to “Durga”, The Economist dubbed her “Empress of India”. It was Indira’s, and India’s, finest hour.
It is also worthwhile to recall with gratitude the names of other eminent heroes of the 1971 war. With General (later Field Marshal) S.H.F.J. “Sam” Manekshaw as Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), who brilliantly led and planned the overall war strategy, the three Army commanders were Lt. Generals J.S. Arora (Eastern Command), K.P. Candeth (Western Command) and G.G. Bewoor (Southern Command). Lt. Generals T.N. Raina, M.M. Thapan and Sagat Singh were affiliated to the Eastern Command with Maj. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob as chief of staff.
The Western Command also had three corps commanders — Lt. Generals Sartaj Singh, N.C. Rawlley and K.K. Singh. The Navy, headed by Adm. S.M. Nanda, Chief of Naval Staff, had two distinguished FOCs-in-C in Vice-Admirals S.N. Kohli (Western Naval Command) and N. Krishnan (Eastern Naval Command). Similarly, the IAF led by Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal had two AOCs-in-C — Air Marshal M.M. Engineer (Western Air Command) and H.C. Dewan (Eastern Air Command), whose pilots dominated the skies with their outstanding skills and valour.
Like Y.B. Chavan in 1965, Jagjivan Ram as defence minister was a great asset and was popular with the troops. A morale-raising phrase from his speech to sailors soon after the war is worth quoting: “Ghazi ko tabah kiya, Niyazi ko sabak diya” (You have destroyed the Ghazi and taught Niazi a lesson). The Lightning Campaign, by Maj. Gen. D.K, Palit, VrC, reflects the views of many historians, military and civil: “The firm and confident political handling of the problem by Mrs Gandhi and her government was matched by the sophisticated management, direction and leadership of the Indian armed forces.”
In recognition of his exemplary military leadership in the war, Gen Manekshaw was promoted to the rank of India’s first Field Marshal and also bestowed with a Padma Vibushan on Republic Day 1972, the day when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was honoured with a Bharat Ratna. That was India’s, and Indira’s greatest moment.
The highest Bangladesh award – the Bangladesh Swadhinata Samman (Bangladesh Freedom Honour) – was conferred on the late PM for her outstanding contributions to the Bangladesh Liberation war in 2011, 40 years after the historic event. It was received by Congress President Sonia Gandhi from Bangladesh President Zillur Rahman in Dacca on July 25, 2011.
(The writer is a political analyst and columnist. Views are personal)