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Where Pakistan lost out to India in 1971

India’s decisive role in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 is praised globally and has been the subject matter of numerous books and articles, many of which have been published on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary.

AMITABHA BHATTACHARYA | New Delhi |

India’s decisive role in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 is praised globally and has been the subject matter of numerous books and articles, many of which have been published on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. At the national level, it has been celebrated as a moment of glory and at the international level, observed as India’s coming of age as a power to reckon with. But the uniqueness of a book, Politico-Military Strategy of the Bangladesh Liberation War, 1971, (South Asia Edition, Routledge (2021), xxxii + 313 pages, ?1495) written by a distinguished former member of the Indian Army, Guru Saday Batabyal, and based largely on his doctoral thesis for a noted central university, lies in its attempt to articulate the largely overlooked ‘practice of operational art during the Bangladesh Liberation War.’ Focused yet comprehensive, the book covers the operational aspects for a wider readership, while providing a historical perspective of the genesis of the war. 

Batabyal discusses the growth of Muslim separatism since the advent of British rule following the Battle of Plassey, flags the defining moments that led to India’s partition and formation of Pakistan, and then traces the tumultuous road from East Pakistan to Bangladesh. Though religion was considered the basis of the ‘two-nation theory’, ‘… Jinnah was aware of the importance of language and culture and, therefore, claimed the whole of Bengal and Punjab arguing that the inhabitants saw them more as a linguistic and culturally homogeneous community rather than a religious group. ‘A man is a Punjabi or a Bengali first before he is a Hindu or a Muslim… under no condition, partition them…’ What happened thereafter in 1947 is all known. 

This book brings out vividly the story of the turbulent period between 1947 and 1971 – the political alienation of the Bengali, the language movement, the widening economic disparity between the two arms of Pakistan, the emergence of Mujibur Rahman as an undisputed leader, and the General Election in 1970 – all leading to the inevitable. Batabyal alludes to Stephen Cohen’s opinion “that in the dominant western wing, 

the idea of Pakistan pertained to a martial people defending its Punjabi stronghold. Bengal and Bengalis only figured in as an investment opportunity or source of foreign exchange.” Admittedly, the culture of East Pakistan clashed with that of the West, as Batabyal muses ‘Fault lines of culture became the battle lines…’ 

The work deals with the nuances of strategy, tactics and operational art in military terms and concentrates on the third level of the war. Starting with the unique military geography of Pakistan, Batabyal quotes Lt. General A.A.K. Niazi, Commander of the East Pakistan Forces, ‘Here the communication system is unique: it is waterway-railway-roads, in that order, while in the rest of the world it is the other way round… A crow’s flight distance of 75 miles from Dacca to Jessore would take two days and involve three trans-shipments.’ Geographical elements are crucial in military operations. ‘Mukti Bahini too, while following guerilla tactics, made use of the terrain… that can be used as a force multiplier by the smaller force and a force inhibitor against the larger force.’ 

The strategic imperatives of cold war geopolitics in South Asia and the role of external powers during the 1971 war demonstrate how the calculated and concerted efforts of diplomats, bureaucrats, and the armed forces under the leadership of Indira Gandhi ensured the victory. The author quotes J.N. Dixit of an incident when US Ambassador Kenneth Keating told Mrs Gandhi that the US wished to avoid stopping economic assistance and cooperation with India, hoping India would reconsider its policies on East Pakistan. “Mrs Gandhi’s response was prompt and decisive. She told Keating that there was no need to be embarrassed and suggested the immediate closure of the US Aid Mission in Delhi. She stuck to her decision. The office was closed down…” How systematically the diplomatic ground was prepared and how well our defence forces were made battle ready by General Manekshaw, with the USSR by India’s side, have all been narrated and analysed with consummate skill. 

India’s politico-military strategy, examined in retrospect, teaches us how a matured approach and careful planning were instrumental in this regard. In the case of Pakistan, ‘the military leadership…fell into Bhutto’s trap’ and ‘everyone was more interested in power than the survival of Pakistan as conceptualised by Bhutto’. On the other hand, ‘Indira Gandhi believed and made it amply clear… there must be a political, rather than military, solution to Pakistan’s problem in its eastern province and that great powers had a special responsibility to help see such a solution through.’ This was statesmanship at its best. 

What were the main ingredients of our ‘planning and conduct of operations? Here Batabyal goes into detail and, derived from painstaking research, summarises how the operations were meticulously planned and executed. How the Mukti Bahini, inspired by the clarion call of Mujibur Rahman, organised itself and fought for the independence of Bangladesh with full support of the Indian forces has been recorded dispassionately. 

The role of the United Nations came under sharp criticism. As on 27 December 1971, Time Magazine appropriately noted ‘Islamabad was the principal loser in the outcome of the war. But there were two others as well. One was the UN and the other was Washington, who appeared wholeheartedly committed to the Pakistan dictator.’ 

In his elaborate appraisal of our effort, Batabyal feels that in ‘selection and maintenance of aim’ India scored over Pakistan. Shuja Nawab of the Pakistan Army admitted that ‘India’s biggest advantage lay in the fact that it had a clear aim for its war effort: to capture and liberate East Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistani troops in the east had an amorphous mandate: Keep India at bay.’ 

In conclusion, while reflecting on the war highlights and outcome, Batabyal seems to be in agreement with General Jacob and a few others who felt that the strategic ‘advantages gained on the battlefield were frittered away at the Simla Conference.’ Indira Gandhi was compassionate and magnanimous. Pakistan got back their 93,000 POWs. According to the author, ‘India could have bargained hard to settle all outstanding issues like Kashmir and the return of some strategically important areas held by Pakistan’. But that is another story. 

On the whole, this exhaustive and authoritative text portrays a clear picture of what led to the freedom of Bangladesh, and how great individuals, in Bangladesh and India, worked in unison to ensure this historic victory. An absorbing saga of leadership, sacrifice and struggle, and of how the war was won in today’s world. A must-read for those interested in the military and South Asian history, international relations and the birth of a nation.