1971 War in the Eastern Front - A View from Army Headquarters
My first task was to get into the operational picture
The brilliant victory of the Indian Armed Forces during the 1971 India-Pakistan War is rightly being celebrated this year, as Swarnim Vijay as we approach the Golden Jubilee of Vijay Diwas on 16 December. While the media has focused on battles and bravery of individual personnel, very little has come out about the perspective from Delhi, especially about the planning and conduct of operations.
Since I have first-hand knowledge of this, I am writing this piece, so that readers get a glimpse of this important aspect too. My narration will be confined to plans and actions of the Eastern Front only, as I was dealing with operations in the East in the Military Operations Directorate (MO Dte).
From January to November 1971, I attended the Defence Services Staff College Course (DSSC) at Wellington. I had already been bloodied in battle twice; first during operations against the Portuguese in their Daman Enclave, where my battalion, 1 Maratha LI (JANGI PALTAN) had operated in a stand-alone mode; I then had six months service.
My second foray with war was during the India Pakistan War of 1965, in which I had been severely wounded and had lost one leg. I had less than four years’ service at the time.
When I reported arrival at the DSSC, I had the satisfaction of having successfully cleared the DSSC Entrance Examination in my first attempt, obtaining a competitive vacancy. I was also the first student ever to attend the course with an artificial leg!
All of us at Wellington had closely watched the events unfolding in Pakistan since the elections there and the political shenanigans going on in West Pakistan to deny Mujibar Rahman and his Awami League Party the power to rule the country in the East.
As our course progressed, it became apparent that India and Pakistan were going to fight another war, and unlike both the Kashmir War of 1947-48 and the 1965 India Pakistan War, East Pakistan would not only be addressed but would be the focus of our strategies.
It was also obvious that the United States was going to support Pakistan fully. This became certain when US Army Chief Gen William Westmoreland, erstwhile commander of the US Forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968, visited the Staff College for a lecture. He was thoroughly grilled by the students till the Commandant intervened!
By September/October 1971, mobilisation and orbatting of forces was still going on and in mid-November our postings were announced. Mostly everyone was going to units and formations already in their assembly areas/launch pads. I was one of the two officers osted to Army Headquarters. I was posted to MO Dte as GSO2 MO2.
As far as the foreign students were concerned, most were attached to their embassies/high commissions, to follow the impending war closely.
Since my narrative is likely to be long, I will cover it in three contiguous Parts, for ease of reading and understanding.
Preliminaries and Functioning
I reported for duty in MO Dte on 4 December 1971; the war had commenced the previous evening. MO Dte was the smallest directorate in Army Headquarters (AHQ) at the time, consisting of just six Sections. During several subsequent postings to MO Dte, including as DGMO in 1994-95, it remained the smallest and most prestigious directorate in AHQ.
The Director Military Operations (DMO) was one of the ablest Generals of the army, Maj Gen Inder Gill (PARA) and the DDMO was Brig Sukhwant Singh. MO 1 and 2 functioned under one GSO 1; at that time Lt Col Rai Singh Yadav, MVC (GRENADIERS), who had won his MVC in the border war against the Chinese Army at Nathu La in 1967.
Since all troops had been withdrawn from the counterinsurgency operations and amalgamated for operations against Pakistan, and since the major strategic focus was on the East Pakistan Front, MO 2 was temporarily reassigned to work with MO 1. Hence, both MO 1 and 2 functioned from one room (adjacent to the office of DDMO).
The Operations Room was the hub of activities, but unlike later, we worked on massive sliding boards with one-inch maps affixed; there were separate sets of boards for Southern, Eastern and Western Commands, which were used for briefings and were kept updated at all times.
For speedy and safe communications, we had the classified ECL Circuits linked to all Headquarters Commands and selected Corps, located on the Mezzanine Floor above the Operations Room. We also had a number of hotlines, including one on my table linked to Eastern Command.
As my table was next to the door, the Chief (Gen Sam Manekshaw) came a number of times, sat on my desk, waving off a chair, mostly to speak to COS HQ Eastern Command. His favourite order was: “Get me Jakes”, meaning Maj Gen Jacob COS HQ Eastern Command! I vividly remember the Chief coming to my table and articulating his familiar sentence: “Get me Jakes” on 11 December and when the COS, Gen Jacob was connected, he said, “tell Sagat that I want Dacca under artillery fire in the next 48 hours”.
The Joint Operations Room was set up in Room 129-D under the central dome of South Block. It was also used for press briefings. Although manned by staff officers from the three services, it was headed by the then DMI, Maj Gen MN Batra, whose office was opposite the southern door.
Both in the Joint and selected Branches/ Directorates, officers temporarily moved from training establishments were assigned to assist.
Getting in to Picture
My first task was to get into the operational picture, learn major points about the enemy and our own plans that had been formulated and were now being implemented.
Apparently, MO Dte, then under Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) KK Singh had sent the initial Operational Instructions (Op Instrs) to all HQ Commands in June/July and preliminary planning and allotment of troops was set in motion; thereafter, as more information came in, changes continued to be made.
On account of the support of the people of East Pakistan, defectors of the erstwhile East Bengal Rifles (EBR) and inputs from Mukti Bahini cadres, who gradually became very active, the intelligence available was better than in earlier wars.
Gen KK Singh left MO Dte in Sep 1971 on promotion as GOC 1 Corps and Gen Inder Gill was sidestepped from Military Training (MT) Dte to head the MO Dte.
Snippets I Still Remember
The Chief, Sam Manekshaw would come on most days for the morning briefing in the Ops Room. I used to brief him on operations of Eastern Command while GSO1 MO 3 did the same for operations of Southern and Western Commands. What we had not realised was that prior to coming for the briefing, he used to speak to one or two selected corps commanders and thus was slightly better informed than us. I recall that one day while briefing him I said that fierce fighting was going on for the capture of a bridge and that it should fall soon. On hearing this, he calmly stated with finality: “it has been captured”, since he had spoken to the concerned corps commander before coming to the Ops Room!
The defence minister came for a briefing only once, perhaps two or three days after the war had ended. When I told him that I would brief him on how the operations had proceeded in East Pakistan, he pointed to the title on the top centre of the map, which still said East Pakistan and said, “it is now Bangladesh”, with a smile.
Every morning, the A’sDC of the President and the Chief came to me with small-scale maps and I would mark the latest positions on them. I doubt if either the President or the Chief saw the maps, but the drill was carried out without fail!
During the planning stage from September onwards, the DDMO, Brig Sukhwant Singh had been constantly on the move as he attended all operational planning events of corps and divisions. After each event he would come and brief the DMO and proceed to the next formation planning session.
Having worked under Gen Inder Gill, DMO for nearly two years in MO Dte, I am of the firm view that he was not only a great warrior but also a staff officer par excellence. He not only handled all operations, but ensured that all Branches and Directorates also did so. Every morning when he came to the Dte he was always carrying a bunch of chits, which he would give to us to hand over to the concerned heads of Branches/Dtes. These contained his handwritten directions or queries for the incumbents. In this respect, he reminded me of a unit adjutant conveying and implementing orders of the Commanding Officer.
Gen Gill also had a phenomenal memory. I remember that one night, after the war I was on duty in the Ops Room when I was asked to convey a very important and urgent message to him when he returned from Lahore from the delineation talks relating to the new Line of Control being finalised in Jammu and Kashmir.
He came in very late and must have been extremely tired. When I called to convey the message, he had probably just fallen asleep and gruffly told me not to disturb him. After putting the phone down, while I was still contemplating my next move, he called back and asked: “Is it about the eight-figure Grid Reference xxx” and rattled it off without hesitation. On my affirming its correctness he hung up. What a memory!
He was always cool, never lost his temper and hence there was no tension in the Dte, even when urgent reports from lower formations were delayed.
Whenever the Chief visited the MO Dte, one of his staff officers used to warn us. As soon as we got the message we would inform the DMO. I recall that one morning when I informed Gen Gill that the Chief was on his way, he told me to tell him that he was busy and could not see him and that I should deal with him. For a junior Major, it appeared a gigantic task to answer the queries of the Chief, but Sam took it in his stride, came to our office, sat down on my desk and enquired how we were coping up! No wonder the Chief and the DMO worked extremely well as a team!
The Railways kept busy moving troops, ammunition and warlike stores while the war was on. I had first-hand experience of this when I found time to visit the New Delhi railway station to enquire whether my EVK containing my car and household luggage had arrived from DSSC.
Everyone was busy, so I was directed to the unloading siding. I did so and saw that while there was no EVK, my luggage was neatly stacked on the siding with the car beside it, and was told that it had been there for three days! Apparently, the wagon was needed for moving urgent military stores to the front and hence the locks were broken and luggage plus car had been moved out, without a scratch or any pilferage!
The Special Frontier Force (SFF) launched from Mizoram for clearing the jungles of the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) was commanded by their Inspector General (IG) Maj Gen Sujan Singh Uban (Artillery). All signals sent by him, including Situation Reports (SITREPS) were always addressed directly to the Chief and commenced with “Greetings to Gen Sam Manekshaw from your Fifth Army Commander”, and were invariably long without saying much!
The Chakma tribals inhabiting CHT had a fair degree of autonomy under Pakistan. After the war ended, Gen Uban had taken the ceremonial sword of the Chakma Raja, Tridev Roy as a souvenir and this had created quite a diplomatic stir. It was resolved after the sword was returned to the Raja of the Chakmas.
In early 1972, it was decided to launch operations against the Chakma insurgents in Rangamati District of the CHT. I was asked to prepare an Operational Instruction for the operation, which I produced within a few hours and named it Operation Jungle Jim. My GSO 1 was surprised with the speed it was prepared! It was approved the same day and sent to HQ Eastern Command. After the Indian Forces were pulled out of Bangladesh, the operation was handed over to the Bangladeshi forces.
Once in a while one is confronted with a question that is so out of the ordinary that it is difficult to answer it. A situation like that presented itself sometime after the war, perhaps in the second week of January 1972. A note arrived from the Remount and Veterinary Directorate drawing our attention to a media report that the Indian Army had fielded a monkey army in the jungles of CHT during the war – they wanted to know why they were not consulted since they dealt with all animals in the army! We were stumped for some time, but finally a reply was sent stating that MO Dte did not deal “with any monkey business”!
The Causes Belli
The background and events following elections held on 7 December 1970 in Pakistan are well known and need no repetition, but a few brief facts are included for continuity.
In East Pakistan, the Pakistani Army had launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971 against the people of East Pakistan under Lt Gen Tikka Khan, Governor and General Officer Commanding East Pakistan. The army was given a free hand for using maximum force, resulting in a genocide of Bengalis. All domestic and international communications were cut and all Bengali troops were neutralised by seizing their weapons and ammunition.
By 10 April, Pakistan had airlifted two Infantry Divisions from West to East Pakistan and had gained control over all big cities. Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi had assumed command of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan on 11 April 1971.
The continuing military operations by the Pakistani Army resulted in a large-scale exodus of refugees, numbering nearly 10 million fleeing to India. Over 30 million were also displaced internally. Bangladesh government figures estimate that some three million people were killed by the Pakistani army.
By April 1971 the Indian leadership was convinced that a war with Pakistan was inevitable. There were two opposing views about when to wage war. One view was that the Indian Army should commence operations at the earliest and assist the Bangladeshis who had launched their war of liberation. This view was generally advocated by the then Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, Finance Minister Y.B. Chavan, some other Congress Party leaders and some officers of the Border Security Force. The second view was of the Indian Army, and particularly of its Chief General Sam Manekshaw, who were of the view that the operations should be launched more deliberately after due planning and creating logistics infrastructure. For this, the Indian Army required 6-9 months for preparations for an assured victory.
The factors considered were as under:
– The Indian Army was oriented for operations against West Pakistan and China, and there existed only contingency plans to deal with East Pakistan. Hence time was needed for reorientation, training, reorganisation and creating new logistic bases.
– The Pakistani Army had by now built up about four infantry divisions in East Pakistan. India needed to create the force levels to fight the Pakistani troops in East Pakistan.
– The monsoon was about to break, which would make the progress of operations difficult in the riverine terrain of East Pakistan. In addition, it was prudent to wait till the passes on the Northern Borders opposite China had closed.
– India had to create an international environment for a war. Such an environment did not then exist in India’s favour.
– Since a war with Pakistan would be an all-out war, all the three military services would be involved. This required proper planning and preparations.
Part 2 follows
Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, PVSM, AVSM, VSM is an infantry officer (The Maratha Light Infantry) and a former Vice Chief of Army Staff. Despite losing his right leg in the 1965 India–Pakistan War, he soldiered on till his retirement in September 2001. A prolific writer and analyst, he was founder director of the Indian Army’s think tank, the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) for five years where he is now director emeritus. He is currently founder president of the War Wounded Foundation, set up for meaningful rehabilitation of war disabled personnel.