Some truths about the 1971 East-Pakistan war

India is busy celebrating Swarni Vijay Parv (golden-victory festival) to commemorate its “victory” against Pakistan in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh thinks that this victory is even greater than the two world wars fought. It was “the most decisive” as the “Indian Armed Forces in the 1971 War changed the history and geography of South Asia. The Tribune reported “India rightly claims credit for her ‘politico-military midwife’ role in the creation of an independent Bengali-speaking state in 1971 (How Pakistan lost the plot, The Tribune India December 16, 2020).

Like India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, RSS’s Mohan Bhagwat , too declared “India’s partition on religious grounds a ‘historic mistake’’ (The 1971 Indo-Pak war that led to the creation of Bangladesh tells us that the partition of India on the basis of religion was a historic mistake, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh,  India today, December 12, 2021). Rajnath Singh added “India has never invaded any country, nor has it ever captured an inch of the land of any other country.”  He lies.

India did invade East Pakistan

Manekshaw’s  revelations

He makes no bones in a YouTube interview that Indira Gandhi compelled him to attack East Pakistan; He initially delayed the attack in view of impending monsoon. But he later complied with her order. He inter alia admits “The Pakistani forces fought extremely well”.

RAW officers Raman’s and RK Yadav’s disclosures

In a published letter, Yadav made a startling revelation that India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi, parliament, RAW and armed forces acted in tandem to dismember Pakistan’s eastern wing. The confessions in his letter are corroborated by B. Raman’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW. He reminds `Indian parliament passed resolution on March 31, 1971 to support insurgency. Indira Gandhi had then confided with Kao that in case Mujib was prevented from ruling Pakistan, she would liberate East Pakistan from the clutches of the military junta. Kao, through one RAW agent, got a Fokker Friendship, the Ganga, of Indian Airlines hijacked from Srinagar to Lahore. Indian army chief Manekshaw initially refused to carry out Indira Gandhi’s order because of the impending monsoon when rivers flooded in East Pakistan and troops’ movement became difficult. Not only intelligence officers but also officers of armed forces are employed to carry out subversion and sabotage inside Pakistan.

There are several other myths and bitter truths (exposed by Sarmila Bose and others) about the 1971 War.

Some misleading autobiographies

After the failure of the Bay of Pigs, John F. Kennedy told a journalist that, “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” It’s an old idea. The historian Tacitus (who happened to be fascinated by and a peer of Seneca), once said, “This is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.”

Regrettably, the autobiographies of the East Pakistan commanders like AAK Niazi, Abu Bakr Osman Mitha et. al. bear out the victory dictum. Niazi  was rueful that he was removed from service. But several of his colleagues went scot-free, He wrote a 13 page application to the then Pak president Farooq Leghari for restoration of his pension (AAK Niazi, The Betrayal of East Pakistan, pp.291-304).. But “the president of Pakistan chose not to reply” (page304, ibid)

Major General Mitha also lamented that his pension was delayed (Major General A. O. Mitha, Unlikely Beginnings A soldier’s life). The greatest tragedy has perhaps been the treatment meted out to Maj Gen Mitha after his retirement was announced on national television. His pension was withheld for seven years and his life was made very difficult (The forgotten hero, Dawn August 2, 2009).

In psychological parlance, such autobiographies are “defence mechanisms” and can’t be quoted as evidence, as the Indian writers including Indian generals and writers do. In his over-ebullience, Niazi alleges Sahibzada Yaqoob ‘opposed the two nation theory” (page 38, Niazi, ibid). Niazi blamed Yaqoob for war plan  that “the battle of the East will be fought in the West”.

He blamed General Tikka for”atrocities” (pp.46-47, ibid.) which in fact were figments of his own imagination.

Exaggerated figures

True, in a war the truth is the first casualty. The truth about the casualties, strength of the Pak forces, and several other aspects is well exposed by Sarmila Bose n his book DEAD RECKONING — Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War. Bose says, ‘Many facts had been exaggerated, fabricated, distorted or concealed. Many people in responsible positions had repeated unsupported assertions without a thought; some people seemed to know that the nationalist mythologies were false and yet had done nothing to inform the public. I had thought I would be chronicling the details of the story of 1971 with which I had been brought up, but I found instead that there was a different story to be told’.

She points out thatMujeebur Rehman’s landslide electoral victory did not certify people’s desire to secede from Pakistan. She suggests that the people voted for Mujeeb as they were alienated by neglect of their welfare by the then government. In any case, a huge chunk of population, over 40 percent did not vote. They certainly were not enamoured of Mujeeb’s tactics.

Bose examines specific incidents of violence across East Pakistan from about January 1971 until March 1972. She gives eyewitness accounts of the survivors of the incidents as well as the accounts of the kin of those killed, and of the Pakistan Army officers who had served in East Pakistan at that time. She approaches the subject with the élan of a journalist and the seriousness of an academic.

She discredits the Indian and Bangladeshi claim that the Pakistani Army committed genocide of three million Bengalis. She calls it the “ultimate word-number combination” and a “gigantic rumour”. She deflates the figure to between 50,000 and 100,000. It is not unusual to play with numbers of vested interests. For instance, there is a lot of confusion about the numbers of Jews killed in holocaust.

Bose questions the figures like 300,000 deaths of Bengalis and 200,000 rapes of Bengali women. She says that there were more villains and one cannot single out the Pakistan Army in the whole episode of violence which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. Indian involvement, Bengali forces and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman were equally responsible. She has questioned the figure of 93,000 prisoners of war in Indian custody, when the total Army was not 93,000 in East Pakistan. She has challenged the facts with the records; she had conducted the interviews of people who lived the war.

She highlights individual acts of kindness of Pakistani soldiers, narrating them with poignancy. She shrugs off  generalisations about or  “demonisation” of  rivals  epitomized by “Shaala Panjabi” or “Khan sena”.

India’s silent invasion

Forty-five minutes before 12.00 pm on December 14, 1971, Indian Air Force pilots bombed the Government House , Dacca.  At that time, East Pakistan’s Cabinet had begun an emergency meeting to discuss the political measures to avoid the looming surrender of their army at Dacca.  A.M. Malik, head of the then East Pakistan government, survived the bombing along with his Cabinet , but resigned .

India’s Chief of Army Staff issued a secret order to the General Officer Commanding, Eastern Command, initiating the campaign that would end with the dismemberment of Pakistan.

The Eastern Command was to ensure that the guerrilla forces were to work towards “tying down the Pak [Pakistan] Military forces in protective tasks in East Bengal,” “sap and corrode the morale of the Pak forces in the Eastern theatre and simultaneously to impair their logistic capability for undertaking any offensive against Assam and West Bengal,” and, finally, be used along with the regular Indian troops “in the event of Pakistan initiating hostilities against us” (Praveen Swami India’s secret war in Bangladesh, The Frontline, December 26, 2011).

In July 1971, the first Bangladesh irregulars, trained in India, were infiltrated across the border at Madaripur. This first group of 110 guerrillas destroyed tea gardens, riverboats and railway tracks. These acts tied down troops, undermined East Pakistan’s economy and destroyed “communications between Dhaka, Comilla and Chittagong.”

The Indian forces initially set up six camps with some 3000 volunteers each, for training.

By September 1971, recruitment went up to staggering 20,000 guerrillas each month. Eight Indian soldiers were committed to every 100 trainees at 10 camps. On the eve of the war, at the end of November 1971, over 83,000 Gano Bahini fighters had been trained, 51,000 of whom were operating in East Pakistan — a guerrilla operation perhaps unrivalled in scale until that time. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Brigadier Uban sent in Indian soldiers or, to be more exact, CIA-trained, Indian-funded Tibetans using hastily-imported Bulgarian assault rifles and U.S.-manufactured carbines to obscure their links to India. Fighting under the direct command of RAW’s legendary spymaster Rameshwar Kao, Brig. Uban’s forces engaged in a series of low-grade border skirmishes..

Rejecting an offer for conditional surrender in the East, the Indian forces entered Dacca on December 15.

Brutality of Indian forces

Swami writes, ‘The role of irregular forces, though, needs a more nuanced assessment. … They were also, however, responsible for large-scale human rights abuses targeting Pakistani sympathisers and the ethnic Bihari population. There is no moral equivalence between these crimes and those of the Pakistani armed forces in 1971, but the fact also is that the irregular forces bequeathed to Bangladesh a militarised political culture that would have deadly consequences of its own’.

Sarmila Bose writes, ‘Many Bengalis, supposed to be fighting for freedom and dignity, committed appalling atrocities; many Pakistani Army officers, carrying out a military action against a political rebellion, turned out to be fine men doing their best to fight an unconventional war within the conventions of warfare.  The Bengalis splintered into many fragments, those who wanted an independent Bangladesh, those who supported a united Pakistan, those who desired autonomy but not secession, those who actively fought for whichever side they supported and those who like Doctor Zhivago wanted to ‘just live’ but got caught up in the upheaval nevertheless. There were combatants and non-combatants, victims of violence and its perpetrators’.

Brutality of Bengalis

According to Archer Blood, an American career diplomat, “Indian soil was made available for training camps, hospitals and supply depots for the Mukti Bahini” (freedom fighters) and the Mukti Bahini had a “safe haven to which it could retire for rest, food, medical supplies and weapons”. According to Yasmin Saikia , thousands of Bihari women were raped and tortured by the Mukti Bahini (Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh, page 41).

The pro liberation Bangladeshis deny, minimise or justify the brutalities committed by Bengali nationalists against non-Bengalis and non-nationalists during 1971. However, the post-1971 events testify how the Bangladeshi culture had become brutal.

Within months of the creation of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League, turned the country into a personal autocracy formalised later as a one party state. In August 1975 Bengali Army officers who had supported the liberation movement assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and massacred his entire family except for two daughters who were away at the time. Several former freedom fighters and Mujib’s cabinet colleagues were imprisoned and then murdered in jail. So called “international tribunals were set up to execute Awami League opponents, even the elderly and doddering old men.  

Concluding remarks

India’ role in stoking insurgency is obvious. To tarnish Pakistan’s image India has propagated many myths. Some of these myths have been exploded by Sarmila Bose and Praveen Swami. India officially authorised invasion of East Pakistan. Yet it was not declared an aggressor by the United Nations.

The situation in occupied Kashmir is worse than it was in East Pakistan (custodial deaths, fake encounters, rapes, arson, and so on). Even children and women are rounded up and held incognito during cordon-and-search operations. Pakistan is a convenient scapegoat to blame for indigenous insurgency. Orphaned Kashmiri babies are being sold in Indian states. To destroy traditional Kashmir shawl industry, pashmina wool is being exported from Ladakh to Uttar Pradesh.

Amjed Jaaved
Amjed Jaaved
Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.