The third India – Pakistan War in December, 1971, was unique in a number of aspects. For the first and only time so far, India had a Prime Minister, that too a lady, Indira Gandhi, who remains to date, the most assertive leader out of all of Indian polity, on matters of national interest and security. It will not be an exaggeration to say that she actually implemented some Kautilyan and Chanakyan rules of engagement and principles of war. As the most illustrative expression of Indian diversity, the Army Chief, late Field Marshal (then General) SHFJ Manekshaw was a Parsi, the GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, late Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora was a Sikh and his Chief of Staff, Lt Gen JFR Jacob, who lives in New Delhi, a Jew. They, along with Navy and Air Force Chiefs and other Commanders, made this first post -1947 tri-service operation culminate within less than two weeks in a victory for India and the birth of Bangladesh. It was after almost a quarter century of oppression by Pakistan in their own eastern wing.
In early 1971, when the problems of phenomenal influx of East Pakistani refugees entering India was being discussed in a cabinet meeting, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had asked for, then Army Chief to be present. When asked by her as to what he had done about this influx, he had replied that he was doing nothing about it as doing anything would amount to an act of war. At the end of the meeting, when she asked him to stay on, he had prepared himself to tender his resignation. This admission from the Field Marshal came during interviews with media subsequently. However, as the account goes, when she resumed the discussion with him in private, he gave her all the reasons why he felt India should not go to war at that point of time. She then asked him to suggest a date and in a sign language, asked him to put it down on a piece of paper. He wrote 4 December 1971. If the war began on 3 December, it was thanks to Pakistan.
Late Brigadier S S Malik, a contemporary of Sam Manekshaw, who I had interacted with, recounted that during the pre- independence period, in Directorate of Military Operations, his colleague with whom he was working out details of partitioning the undivided Indian Army, was then Major Yahya Khan, who was not in favour of partition and of going to Pakistan. It is ironic indeed that during the third India- Pakistan war of December 1971, when Manekshaw was the Indian Army Chief, the same Yahya Khan was his blundering Pakistani counterpart. For the first time since independence, Indian Navy was included in the tri-service operation to strike decisively despite the perceived hesitation based on the often echoed logic “we do mot want to raise the level of conflict”.
The Indian Navy was able to target Pakistan Navy ships and Karachi harbour’s military assets with precision bombing and eventually blockade the sea front. Pakistan Army’s professional weaknesses was exposed like never before. It had fought the first Indo-Pak war of 1947-48 sending in thousands of Kabailis as proxies -and the second one of 1965, similarly by inducting Mujahids. In erstwhile East Pakistan, where Pakistani soldiers, busy suppressing Bengalis and raping thousands of their women, eventually had to fight Indian Army and the Mukti Vahini. They were effectively surrounded in barely two weeks and 93,000 Pakistani armed forces personnel surrendered and were taken as prisoners of war – a record in military history – and the new nation Bangladesh was created. The fairly modern Patton tanks those days, doled by the US to Pakistan Army, were, for the second time, destroyed in disproportionately large numbers by Indian Army’s vintage British Centurian tanks.
Pakistani tank crew, unlike their Indian counterparts, bailed out of their tanks on being hit even when the guns were operational and the tank had not yet caught fire. Demoralised and in disarray, the Pakistani troops were urged by Manekshaw in repeated radio broadcasts “Should you not heed my advice to surrender to my army and endeavour to escape, I assure you certain death awaits you.” He also assured the Pakistanis that if they surrendered they would be treated as prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention. Sam Manekshaw’s famous messages , placed on the placards on the borders read “YOU ARE ENTERING PAKISTAN , NO PASSPORTS REQUIRED, BASH ON REGARDLESS”. And and with special reference to dealing with civilians at a time when Pakistan Army was known to have been indulging in mass-raping thousands of East Pakistani women, was “HANDS IN YOUR POCKETS AND THINK OF SAM”.
Late Granville G ‘Bob’ Watts, my old friend who covered the 1971 war in the Eastern sector for Reuters, was one of a number of foreign journalists who commented that conduct of Indian Army in East Pakistan and then in new Bangladesh was exemplary – with not a single case of any kind of misbehavior against women. In the book ‘Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism’, Pentagon Press 2005, the Pakistani author Hassan Abbas’s description of the scenes in Dhaka and Peshawar-where Pakistan’s second dictator President, General Yahya Khan was celebrating the housewarming of his newly constructed mansion- on 14th December 1971, is too shockingly revealing to give a go by. It reads: “On December 14, 1971, Major General Rao Farman Ali and Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, the military commander in East Pakistan, asked the U S consul in Dhaka (capital of East Pakistan) to transmit a surrender proposal to New Delhi.
Before forwarding the proposal, the US Ambassador in Islamabad was instructed by Washington to get approval from Yahya. The foreign secretary, Sultan Ahmed, speaking on behalf of the President of Pakistan, gave the necessary approval. Yahya Khan did not have time to attend to this matter personally. On the eve of Pakistan’s surrender he was giving a party in his newly constructed house in Peshawar. One of the few guests was Mrs. Shamim, known as “Black Pearl,” the Bengali beauty who was Yahya’s latest sexual affiliate and whom he had recently appointed as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Austria. As drinks flowed, so did the affair go progressively nude.
It was when the whole party was drunk and un-attired, except for Major General Ishaque, Yahya’s military secretary, that “Black Pearl” wished to go home. The President insisted that he would drive her personally, both of them stark naked. General Ishaque could not save Pakistan, but he did manage to knock enough sense into the sizzled head of a fun loving President to put him into his pants. Thus coincided the housewarming of the President’s house with the surrender in East Pakistan.” When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked him to go to Dhaka and accept the surrender of Pakistani forces, Sam Manekshaw correctly declined saying that that honour should go to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C, Eastern Command. His going would be appropriate only if the entire Pakistani army were to surrender. All this and much more is history.
—The author a retired army officer, an independent defence and security analyst, is Editor, Word Sword Features