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The Indo-Pak Bangladesh Liberation War, 1971


By Maj Gen P K Chakravorty (Retd) Published: December 2011

Introduction: India has fought three wars with Pakistan. All the three were initiated by Pakistan and India responded with alacrity and military precision. Out of these three, the 1971 War was a classical victory for India. It also witnessed the dismemberment of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Although the separation of East Pakistan was self-created by Pakistan due to the crackdown on East Pakistanis, it resulted in India becoming an important regional power in South Asia.


It may be recalled that the Awami League party headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had secured an absolute majority with 167 seats in the 1970 elections. Pakistan’s army Chief Gen Yahya Khan, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party secured the maximum seats (85 seats) in West Pakistan, did not find it palatable and refused to honour the election results. That led to civil strife, a non-cooperation movement in East Pakistan, Martial Law in the country on Feb 21, and then a brutal crackdown on the people of East Pakistan.

Thousands of troops were airlifted from West Pakistan to the eastern part and Lt Gen Tikka Khan, popularly known as the Butcher of Baluchistan, was appointed the new Governor and Martial Law administrator of East Pakistan.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence and the formation of Bangladesh. Lt Gen Tikka Khan launched a genocide, calling it Operation Blitz. Ten million refugees fled to India, and the army’s violence led to the creation of Mukti Bahini, a liberation force.

Pakistan became more belligerent and threatened war with India, which got no international support in caring for the huge number of refugees. India had to intervene but Pakistanwas confident of American and Chinese support. War clouds were gathering.

Strategic Issues

By May 1971, the situation in East Pakistan was under control except for sporadic protests. With more and more troops moving in from West Pakistan and the absence of a military response from India, Pakistani troops became reckless and careless. They undertook hot pursuit of Mukti Bahini.

troops across the border into India and clashed with Indian paramilitary personnel on the border. Due to frequent clashes these posts had to be reinforced by the Indian Army. Military intervention against the Pakistanis became imperative.

Gen SHFJ (Sam) Manekshaw, India’s Chief of the Army Staff, assessed the situation and came to the conclusion that it was prudent to wait till the end of November or early December 1971. There were reasons: Pakistan had freshly inducted four additional divisions into East Pakistan; to launch an offensive, India would also need adequate number of troops in its Eastern Command; the riverine terrain of East Pakistan needed special equipment and troops needed to be trained and rehearsed; any operations had to be post-monsoons as mobility would be a problem during this period; and the frozen border terrain would prevent the Chinese to interfere by way of incursions into India.

IAF’s Air War in the East

In the east, the overwhelmingly superior IAF was able to attain total air supremacy within 48 hours of the commencement of war with daringly innovative daylight bombing attacks by newly-acquired MiG-21 supersonic fighters, pulverising PAF’s bases at Kurmitola and Tezgaon; and in the process, effectively grounding the PAF for the entire duration of war.

This also resulted in shoring up the mobility of Army IV Corps which was greatly enhanced by the intelligent and effective use of helicopters in the riverine terrain.

The first ever heliborne Army air bridge operation and the first battalion strength paradrop were conducted in furtherance of the ground operations. The main paradrop operation was undertaken on 11 Dec 1971, by 48 aircraft. Six An-12s and 20 Packet aircraft operating from Dum Dum and 22 Dakota aircraft from Kalaikunda landed most of the Para Battalion Group, north of Tangail between 1600 and 1630 h that day.

The paradrop facilitated inclusion of Dhaka as a viable objective for the Eastern Army.

Attack on the Government House

Somehow, BBC reported that as many as 5,000 paratroopers of the Indian Army had been dropped over Tangail, while the actual figure was 540.

This had demoralised the politicomilitary leadership in Dacca.

However, the last straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was the pinpoint rocket attack on the Government House in the East Pakistani capital by MiG-21s of No. 28 Squadron on Dec 14.

That led to the resignation of the Governor, Dr Abdul Motaleb Malik, the surrender of the entire 93,000- strong East Pakistani garrison, and the creation of Bangladesh.

Also, as the US was a military ally of Pakistan, diplomatic support of the Soviet Union was required to ensure that military operations were unhindered by political and international considerations.

Overall the plan was offensive in the East and defensive in the West, and appropriately authorised by Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi.

She also visited the United States and the European countries to seek their support in easing the problem but found they were not prepared to comprehend it or help. On 9 August 1971, a treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation was signed with the Soviet Union to safeguard India’s interests during a conflict.

US in fact sent its 7th Fleet led by aircraft carrier Enterprise, its first nuclear powered ship, to the Bay of Bengal to deter India but Mrs Gandhi managed the situation resolutely.

Declassified documents indicate that the Soviet Union sent a large number of formations on the Chinese border to ensure that no misadventure or posturing was undertaken by the Chinese during this period on its India borders.

It is creditable to note that there was complete coordination between the ministers, bureaucracy, intelligence (RAW) and the Generals. Mrs Gandhi, Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh and Defence Minister Babu Jagjivan Ram strained every sinew to ensure that preparations for war were undertaken with military precision.

RAW helped Mukti Bahini and there were border clashes, in which the Indian Army sometimes used artillery. Mukti Bahini established a base close to the Indian village of Boyra. On the night of Nov 21-22, Pakistani troops supported by tanks, artillery and air force attacked it.

A successful counter attack was launched by the Indian forces supported by artillery and Gnat fighter aircraft, destroying 13 Pakistani Chaffee tanks and three F 86 Sabre jets. At this juncture, the Government of India gave permission to Indian troops to cross the border in selfdefence. Similar attacks took place in Hilli where Pakistan launched two attacks and suffered heavy casualties. Indian forces also suffered heavy casualties but captured 7 km into Pakistan territory.

Meanwhile plans were being made for war. East Pakistan was to be attacked by land from three directions and a blockade by sea in the fourth direction. Indian troops and armour moved towards the borders in steady streams and the civil administration ensured supplies of whatever was asked for.

Force Levels

Pakistan’s combat strength in East Pakistan by end November 1971 was four divisions. In addition there were 25,000 irregulars, one regiment plus a squadron of Chaffee tanks, an ad hoc squadron of Chaffee and PT 76 tanks. Its air force had 25 Sabre jets and a few helicopters. Pakistan navy had sufficient gunboats operating in inland and coastal waters.

The Indian Army could utilise seven infantry divisions diverted from Indo-China border.

India’s mechanised forces comprised three armoured regiments, two independent squadrons and a mechanised battalion. The ratio was approximately 1.75: 1, but the Indian Air force and Navy were far superior.

The Indian forces were grouped under thre Corps Headquarters; 4 CORPS, 33 CORPS and a newly raised 2 CORPS.

On the western front, Pakistan deployed nine infantry divisions, an Army Reserve North and an Army Reserve South, which comprised Armoured Divisions. Out of these, six divisions were to hold ground and would therefore have three infantry divisions and two armoured divisions for launching a Corps sized offensive.

By and large, Indian and Pakistani forces were balanced though Pakistan had marginally superior armour and artillery elements.

Concept of Operations and Design of Battle

Gen A A K Niazi, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOCin- C) in East Pakistan, adopted the fortress form of defence. He occupied important communication centres, filled gaps with patrols, and held all important bridges and communication centres in strength. Accordingly theatre fortresses were created at towns of Jessore, Jhendia, Bogra, Rangpur, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Sylhet, Bhairab Bazar, Comilla and Chittagong.

With regard to Dacca, no defence of the river obstacle or any deliberate defences were planned and no troops were earmarked for Dacca, apparently as no one imagined the fall of Dacca or collapse of East Pakistan.

Broadly the north west sector was allotted to 16 INFANTRY DIVISION with Headquarters at Bogra, 9 INFANTRY DIVISION for the defence of South Western sector with Headquarters at Jessore, 14, 39 INFANTRY DIVISION in the Eastern sector with Headquarters at Ashuganj and Chandpur respectively. Apart from this, he had a brigade at Mymensingh-Jamalpur.

India’s Eastern Command set the Pakistani communication centres as the objective, and as the operations progressed with lightning speed, and windows of opportunity gradually opened, Dacca became the terminal objective. The South Western sector was allotted to 2 CORPS which comprised 4 INFANTRY DIVISION, 9 INFANTRY DIVISION, 50 PARA BRIGADE less a battalion, and an Armoured Regiment of PT-76 tanks with a squadron of T-55 tanks.

They were to head towards Madhumati river, capture Jessore, Jhendia, thereafter secure Hardinge bridge, Goalundo Ghat, Faridpur ferries and Khulna.

The North Western sector was allotted to 33 CORPS which comprised 20 MOUNTAIN DIVISION and 71 MOUNTAIN BRIGADE. Their operations entailed cutting the Hilli- Gaibanda line and to capture Bogra and Rangpur. The Central Sector was allotted to 101 COMMUNICATION ZONE comprising 95 MOUNTAIN BRIGADE and F1 sector. They were to capture Jamalpur, Mymensingh and subsequently Tangail. A para drop by a battalion group was to take place at Tangail near Dacca.

The Eastern sector was allotted to 4 CORPS which comprised 8 MOUNTAIN DIVISION, 23 MOUNTAIN DIVISION and 57 MOUNTAIN DIVISION. Their operations envisaged advance to the Meghna river, capture Maulvi Bazar, Sylhet, Mynamati, Lalmai Hills (South) – Laksham and Chandpur.

In the Western sector, Pakistan planned to capture Poonch, launch a major Corps offensive in the Chhamb sector with 30,000 troops and offensive operations in the desert sector of Rajasthan. India had 15 CORPS and 11 CORPS under the Western Command to operate in Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab. Southern Command had 11 and 12 INFANTRY DIVISIONS to conduct the war in the Desert sector.

Pre-emptive Air Strike

On the evening of 3rd December 1971, at 5.45 p.m., Pakistan launched a pre-emptive air strike at Indian airfields of Srinagar, Avantipur, Pathankot, Uttarlai, Jodhpur, Ambala and Agra. India was fully geared to respond and war was formally declared. Later, the same night, a second Pakistani wave was sent. However, not a single aircraft was destroyed on ground. The Indian Air Force went into action the same night and continued operations at an unprecedented pace of 500 sorties per day, a rate higher than in the Second World War.

Attack on the Government’s House

The 4-aircraft MiG-21 formation was led by the Commanding Officer, Wing Commander (later Air Vice Marshal) B.K. Bishnoi.

Initially, the attack was to be carried out against another government building in Dacca, namely, the Circuit House, or at least that was what the pilots were told.

But, as the formation aircraft were preparing to taxi out from their respective pens, ‘Tiger-1’ (the lead aircraft) was handed over a piece of paper indicating the change of target: the Government House, or the Governor’s Residence.

Luckily, Bishnoi had carried into his cockpit a crumpled tourist map of Dacca city and he was able to locate the target on the map, scanning it during the flight. However, he kept the information to himself till late into the sortie, revealing it to the rest of his formation only after reaching the outskirts of Dacca.

Sweeping over the city, he was able to locate the target. He went in for a low rocket pass followed by his team mates at a preplanned TOT (Time on Target) of 1230 hrs IST.

The formation carried out two attacks, firing their rockets in two salvos against the building. The attacks were so accurate that the lead’s salvos went through the ventilators of the ‘Conference Room’ where a meeting was scheduled to be held by the Governor at 1300 hrs (Dacca local time).

Fortunately, the room was still empty when the rockets pierced through its walls, but it so rattled the Governor, Dr Abdul Motaleb Malik, that he immediately snatched a paper from his aide and wrote down his resignation.

The same was given to a UN official, identified as Kelly, who was in Dacca and probably accompanying Malik for the meeting, with a request to have it transmitted to the US embassy in Rawalpindi, and for relaying it to government in West Pakistan.

Dacca had lost all communications of its own to the outside world.

It is justifiably recorded that it was the IAF action of shooting down three Sabres in the Boyra bulge by a Dum-Dum based Gnat formation on November 22, 1971 which initiated the 1971 Indo-Pak war and it was the IAF’s December 14 MiG-21 attack against the Government House in Dacca that ended the war in victory for India.

Perhaps the most befitting tribute to the IAF came from Lt Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, Martial Law Administrator and Commander, Eastern Command (Pakistan).

When asked after the surrender ceremony as to why he had surrendered his command when his Army was still intact, he turned, and walking up to an IAF officer, pointed at the flying wing on his uniform and said: “Because of this, you – the Indian Air Force.”

In the eastern sector, Indian Air Force Hunters, SU-7 and Mig-21s dive bombed the two PAF airfields, disabling them for flights, and decimated its aircraft. IAF executed more than 4000 sorties to attain the vital air superiority over East Pakistan, and to support the Indian Army’s ground operations. From 7 Dec, jet fighters from Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikrant also attacked coastal targets of Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and Barisal, sinking or destroying most of the Pakistan navy vessels.

The air superiority was so well established that Lt Gen Sagat Singh of 4 CORPS moved freely in his area of responsibility, in his helicopter to ensure the rapid advance of his troops.

Ops Conduct - Eastern Sector

2 CORPS advanced on two divisional thrust lines for Jessore and Jhendia. By 5 Dec, it cut the Jessore-Kushtia railway line, captured Jessore by 7 Dec and destroyed Hardinge bridge by 12 Dec.

33 CORPS sent columns to contain from the north while the main thrust went in at Hilli to cut the railway line south of Rangpur and then to wheel south for Bogra. Pakistan had strongly-constructed defences. At several places, railway coaches were dug into the ground to serve as pillboxes. The resistance was stiff and Hilli was invested on 6 Dec and captured after heavy fighting. The Bogra defences were contacted on 13 Dec and the city was captured on 14 Dec. By 15 Dec, it was cleared and 340 (Independent) Brigade was earmarked for Dacca.

As 20 Mountain Division advanced to Rangpur, all Pakistani resistance crumbled by 16 Dec 1971.

4 CORPS had the largest amount of forces and its operations on the eastern front were pivotal to the success of their overall plan. By all means the troops proved their mettle. Their objective was to reach the Meghna river and pose a threat to Dacca.

8 MOUNTAIN DIVISION was directed to capture Maulvi Bazar, thereafter Sherpur ferries and if possible Sylhet. 57 MOUNTAIN DIVISION was tasked to capture Akhaura, Daudkhandi and also Chittagong. 23 MOUNTAIN DIVISION was responsible for operations in Chandpur sector and clearance of the enemy in Lalmai hills.

The progress made on all avenues was as per plans.

While operations were being conducted for Akhaura, a signal intercept was received that a Pakistani brigade was withdrawing from Bhairab Bazar in a northern direction towards Sylhet and not southwards towards Dacca.

Another piece of information indicated that the enemy was attempting to withdraw to Ashuganj through Sylhet. It was decided to heli-land a battalion group at Sylhet to prevent this action. 4/5 GORKHA RIFLES (FF) was selected for this task and took part in India’s first heliborne operation.

The battalion was launched on 7 Dec with the task of capturing the airfield and the bridge over the Surma. Nine Mi-4 helicopters landed the first wave. Pakistani army reaction delayed further buildup till its counter attacks were repulsed. Ultimately the remaining part of the battalion, a company of 9 GUARDS, two mountain guns and an Air Control Team with tentacle were heli landed.

The battalion held on to the ground and linked up after 9 days, after Indian Air Force pounded Sylhet. The focus was now on Ashuganj as it led to the eastern edge of the giant bridge on the Meghna river.

BBC Report: An error or a plant?
By Gulshan Luthra

Without doubt, the erroneous BBC report on Indian Army’s paradrop of 5000 troops – actually 540 – over Tangail played a very, very significant role in the fall of Dacca.

All India Radio reports were censored and generally broadcast two days after any event due to the censorship and approval process. Radio Pakistan had no credibility as it invariably broadcast lies and was aptly called Radio Jhootistan (liar-istan). BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) reports were trusted, relied and were generally correct.

But how its correspondent/s reported that IAF had airdropped 5000 troops, nearly ten times more than the actual figure of 540, is a mystery.

Either the correspondent made a genuine mistake – thankfully – or it was planted on him by India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, which played a great role in the war.

RAW’ s Director R N Kao monitored and directed behind-the- scene developments day and night while one of his able deputies, Shankaran Nair, was at the eastern front, donning uniforms when needed, and helping Bangladeshis organize the Mukti Bahiti liberation force.

I met both the officials some 30 years back, particularly Mr Nair who was seconded to the Minorities Commission as its Secretary in the post-Emergency phase. Neither of them was willing to share operational details then.

IAF’s supremacy of the East Pakistani skies, the BBC report and the pinpoint, precision IAF attack on the Governor’s House around the same time as if coordinated, the feeling of claustrophobia in the Pakistani leadership due to the breakdown of their communication channels, the Indian Army’s classic operational victories, and the resolute will displayed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made the Pakistani leadership give up when it did.

The war could have lasted a few hours more otherwise, with the same result but costing more lives.

On 9 Dec, Pakistani force blew up four sections of the Ashuganj bridge, compelling 57 MOUNTAIN DIVISION to heli-lift 4 Guards and 10 BIHAR across the Meghna the same day. Later the whole of 311 MOUNTAIN BRIGADE concentrated at Narsingdi for the main attack on Dacca which was planned on 14-15 Dec.

65 MOUNTAIN REGIMENT deployed itself on the evening of 14 Dec and fired into the heart of Dacca for the first time.

The Central sector saw 101 COMMUNICATIONS ZONE capture Mymensingh by 11 Dec. The Tangail airdrop was an airborne operation mounted by 2 PARA on 11 Dec. The battalion group included an artillery battery from 17 PARA FIELD REGIMENT, an Engineers detachment and logistics elements. The objective of the operation was to capture Poongli bridge on the Jamuna river which would cut off 93 BRIGADE of Pakistan army, which was retreating from the north to defend Dacca and its approaches.

The airdrop was successfully carried out at 4.30 p.m. on 11 Dec.

BBC somehow reported that 5,000 paratroopers (instead of 700) were para-dropped at Tangail causing a scare among the Pakistani authorities. The psychological fear was further accentuated by the accurate bombing of the Governor’s residence in Dacca.

Maj Gen Jamshed Khan, who was responsible for the security of Dacca, had no resources. It was under these trying circumstances that 2 PARA, 13 GUARDS, 6 BIHAR, 4 GUARDS, 5 ( Independent ) ARMOURED SQUADRON were in Dacca on 16 December. The surrender was ably negotiated by Maj Gen JFR Jacob and signed within two hours of his meeting with Pakistan’s Lt Gen AAK Niazi on 16 Dec 1971 at 4.30 p.m. at the Dacca Race Course. Lt Gen Niazi wanted only ceasefire but Maj Gen Jacob demanded surrender. But India accepted Lt Gen’s Niazi’s demand that the nearly 93,000 Pakistani officers and soldiers in the then East Pakistan should be treated honourably as POWs under the Geneva Conventions.

The same evening, Mrs Gandhi gave instructions that all Pakistani combatants and non-combatants who surrendered should be humanely treated and their safety ensured.

This concluded the war in the East. And Bangladesh was born within 13 days in one of the swiftest, shortest, and successful wars in world history.

Ops Conduct-Western Sector

The Western sector witnessed Pakistani forays in Poonch, Chhamb, and counter attacks by Pakistan in the Shakargarh bulge and actions in J&K and Rajasthan.

The Pakistani attack on Poonch was effectively dealt by 93 INFANTRY BRIGADE and Pakistani infiltrating forces on Thanpir ridge were also tackled. The attack on the Chhamb sector saw heavy fighting.

Heavy artillery battles took place all over, and in the Ferozepur sector in Punjab, an artillery officer reported firing some 75,000 shells on the Pakistanis to check their movement towards the Indian city.

The Indian Air Force executed great bombing missions by deploying AN 12 transport aircraft, and as neither India nor Pakistan had aerial night fighting capability, the AN 12s freely went in formations of six during nights and did carpet bombing to pulverize huge Pakistani formations. IAF’s Canberras and Hunters did the designated hits during day time.

IAF veterans fondly speak of a young officer, Wg Cdr Vidya Bhushan Vasisht of 44 SQUADRON (Transport), who led sortie after sortie – as if in trance – of AN 12s in their bombing runs. Notably, despite the heavy ground fire, all the aircraft conducted their missions safely and there was no loss at all.

Wg Cdr Vasisht was awarded the country's second highest gallantry award, the MVC.

Pakistanis fought well but India had no objective to intrude in the west.

Indian Army withdrew its 191 INFANTRY BRIGADE on the East of Munnawar Tawi, which enabled 10 INFANTRY DIVISION to stabilise the situation. Operations in the Shakargarh bulge by 1 CORPS of Indian Army met with stiff resistance but operations terminated at Basantar on the Pakistani side where heavy tank battles took place. Indian tank columns maneuvered through three heavy minefields to secure positions there.

In 11 CORPS sector, India achieved success in Dera Baba Nanak but lost an enclave in 7 INFANTRY DIVISION across the Sutlej but captured Sehjra enclave which was a daunting task by 1/5 GR.

In the Southern Command theatre, 11 INFANTRY DIVISION did a remarkable task by capturing Khokrapar, Gadra city and the screen positions of Naya Chor.

In 12 INFANTRY DIVISION area, offensive operations started on 4 Dec. However, these were to be called off due to a strong Pakistani armour offensive on to Longewala. This was beaten back by application of Hunter jet fighters of the Indian Air Force ably directed by Artillery’s Air Observation Post (AOP) Officers.

Pakistanis wanted to capture some Indian territory in the deserts so that it could be used as a bargaining chip in post-war negotiations. Despite the disproportionate strength of the Pakistanis, an Indian Infantry Company of 23rd BATTALION of PUNJAB REGIMENT under Major KS Chandpuri held on in one of the momentous battles of the war. He fought cleverly and bravely, led his men to destroy the first two lead tanks of the advancing columns, coordinated with AOP and IAF to direct artillery fire and IAF strikes. The assault turned to be very expensive for the Pakistan army which lost around 100 tanks and vehicles. Their graveyard is still there to be seen.

The Ladakh Scouts captured Turtuk and we also captured posts in Kargil as also Tut Mar Gali in J&K. The Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command raided Karachi port on the night of 04/05 Dec with three missile boats. They sank a destroyer, crippled a mine sweeper and ignited the Karachi oil refinery. With the surrender of the East on 16 Dec, a ceasefire was declared on the western front on 17 Dec.


The 1971 Victory has been India’s greatest achievement. This was possible due to unprecedented synergy between all organs of the Government and of course the greatest support of the people across the nation. The lessons learnt from the war are applicable today. It was a manifestation of the Comprehensive National Power, which is actually always required.

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