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Old Sunday, August 05, 2007
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Exclamation Indo-Pakistani War of 1971

The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 was a major conflict between India and Pakistan. The war is closely associated with Bangladesh Liberation War (sometimes also referred to as Pakistani Civil War). There is an argument about exact dates of the war. However, the armed conflict on India's western front during the period between 3 December 1971 and 16 December 1971 is called the Indo-Pakistani War by both the Bangladeshi and Indian armies. The war ended in a crushing defeat for the Pakistani military in just a fortnight.

The Indo-Pakistani conflict was sparked by the Bangladesh Liberation war, a conflict between the traditionally dominant West Pakistanis and the majority East Pakistanis. The war ignited after the 1970 Pakistani election, in which the East Pakistani Awami League won 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan, thus securing a simple majority in the 313-seat lower house of the Pakistani parliament. Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman presented Six Points and claimed the right to form the government. After the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, refused to give premiership of Pakistan to Mujibur, President Yahya Khan called in the military, which was made up largely of West Pakistanis.

Mass arrests of dissidents began, and attempts were made to disarm East Pakistani soldiers and police. After several days of strikes and non-cooperation movements, Pakistani military cracked down on Dhaka on the night of March 25, 1971. The Awami League was banished, and many members fled into exile in India. Mujib was arrested and taken to West Pakistan.

On 27 March 1971, Ziaur Rahman, a rebellious major in the Pakistani army, declared the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Mujibur. In April, exiled Awami League leaders formed a government-in-exile in Boiddonathtola of Meherpur. The East Pakistan Rifles, an elite paramilitary force, defected to the rebellion. A guerrilla troop of civilians, the Mukti Bahini, was formed to help the Bangladesh Army.

India's involvement in Bangladesh Liberation War

On 27 March 1971, the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, expressed full support of her government to the Bangladeshi struggle for independence. The Bangladesh-India border was opened to allow the tortured and panic-stricken Bangladeshis safe shelter in India. The governments of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the border. Exiled Bangladeshi army officers and voluntary workers from India immediately started using these camps for the recruitment and training of Mukti Bahini guerrillas.

As the violence in East Pakistan escalated, an estimated 10 million refugees fled to India, causing financial hardship and instability in the country. The United States, a long and close ally of Pakistan, continued to ship arms and supplies to West Pakistan.

Indira Gandhi launched a diplomatic offensive in the early autumn of 1971 touring Europe, and was successful in getting both the United Kingdom and France to break with the United States, and block any pro-Pakistan directives in the United Nations security council. Gandhi's greatest coup was on 9 August when she signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union, greatly shocking the United States, and decreasing the possibility that the People's Republic of China would become involved in the conflict. China, an ally of Pakistan, had been providing moral support, but little military aid, and did not advance troops to its border with India.

Operation of the Mukti Bahini caused severe casualties to the Pakistani Army, which was in control of all district headquarters. As the flow of refugees swelled to a tide, the economic costs for India began to escalate. India began providing support including weapons and training for the Mukti Bahini.

India's official engagement with Pakistan

By November, war seemed inevitable; a massive buildup of Indian forces on the border with East Pakistan had begun. The Indian military waited for winter, when the drier ground would make for easier operations and Himalayan passes would be closed by snow, preventing any Chinese intervention. On 23 November, Yahya Khan declared a state of emergency in all of Pakistan and told his people to prepare for war.

On the evening of Sunday, 3 December, the Pakistani air force launched sorties on eight airfields in north-western India. This attack was inspired by the Arab-Israeli Six Day War and the success of the Israeli preemptive strike. At, 5:30 PM that day, General Yahya Khan ordered the Pakistan Air Force to bomb Indian Forward Airbases. Pakistan started flying sorties towards India within fifteen minutes of the order. Pakistan launched attacks against eight Indian airfields on the Western front including Agra which was 300 miles from the border. Pakistani bombers dropped around 180 bombs on these airfields of which around 125 hit their targets. These attacks could only achieve partial success. Unlike the Israeli attack on Arab airbases in 1967 which involved a large number of Israeli planes, Pakistan only flew not more than 50 planes to India. Indian runways were non-functional for several hours after the attack. But these attacks gave India a good reason to launch an attack against Pakistan. India started flying sorties to Pakistan by midnight. On the Eastern front, the Indian Army joined forces with the Mukti Bahini to form the Mitro Bahini ("Allied Forces"); the next day the Indian forces responded with a massive coordinated air, sea, and land assault on the West Pakistani Army in East Pakistan.

Yahya Khan counter-attacked India in the West in an attempt to capture territory which might have been used to bargain for territory they expected to lose in the east. The land battle in the West was crucial for any hope of preserving a united Pakistan. The Indian Army quickly responded to the Pakistan Army's movements in the west and made some initial gains, including capturing around 5,500 sq miles of Pakistan territory (land gained by India in Pakistani Kashmir and the Pakistani Punjab sector were later ceded in the Shimla Agreement of 1972, as a gesture of goodwill).
At sea, the Indian Navy proved its superiority by the success of Operation Trident, the name given to the attack on Karachi's port. It also resulted in the destruction of 2 Pakistani destroyers and a minesweeper, and was followed by the similar Operation Python. The waters in the east were also secured by the Indian Navy. The Indian Air Force conducted 4,000 sorties in the west while its counterpart, the PAF put up little retaliation, partly because of the paucity of non-Bengali technical personnel. This lack of retaliation has also been attributed to the deliberate decision of the PAF High Command to cut its losses as it had already incurred huge losses in the conflict.[1] In the east, the small air contingent of Pakistan Air Force No. 14 Sqn was destroyed resulting in Indian air superiority in the east. Faced with insurmountable losses, the Pakistani military capitulated in just under a fortnight. On December 16, the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan surrendered. The next day India announced a unilateral ceasefire, to which Pakistan agreed.

American and Soviet involvement

The United States supported Pakistan both politically and materially. Nixon, backed by Henry Kissinger, feared Soviet expansion into South and Southeast Asia. Pakistan was a close ally of the People's Republic of China, with whom Nixon had been negotiating a rapprochement and where he intended to visit in February 1972. Nixon feared that an Indian invasion of West Pakistan would mean total Soviet domination of the region, and that it would seriously undermine the global position of the United States and the regional position of America's new tacit ally, China. In order to demonstrate to China the bona fides of the United States as an ally, and in direct violation of the US Congress-imposed sanctions on Pakistan, Nixon sent military supplies to Pakistan and routed them through Jordan and Iran [2], while also encouraging China to increase its arms supplies to Pakistan.

The Nixon administration also ignored reports it received of the 'genocidal' activities of the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, most notably the Blood telegram. But when Pakistan's defeat seemed certain, Nixon sent the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, a move deemed by the Indians as a nuclear threat. Enterprise arrived on station on December 11, 1971. On 6 December and 13 December, the Soviet Navy dispatched two groups of ships, armed with nuclear missiles, from Vladivostok; they trailed U.S. Task Force 74 in the Indian Ocean from 18 December until 7 January 1972.

Years after the war, many American writers were of the opinion that the White House policies during the war were badly flawed and ill-served the interests of the United States.[3]

The Soviet Union had sympathized with the Bangladeshis, and supported the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini during the war, recognizing that the independence of Bangladesh would weaken the position of its rivals - the United States and China. It gave assurances to India that if a confrontation with the United States or China developed, the USSR would take counter-measures. This had been enshrined in the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty signed in August 1971. The Soviets also sent a nuclear submarine to ward off the threat posed by USS Enterprise in the Indian Ocean.[4]


The war led to the immediate surrender of Pakistani forces to the allied forces of India and Bangladesh, jointly known as the Mitro Bahini. Bangladesh became an independent nation, and the third most populous Muslim country. Loss of East Pakistan demoralized the Pakistani military and Yahya Khan resigned, to be replaced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Mujibur Rahman was released from West Pakistani prison and returned to Dhaka on January 10, 1972.

The exact cost of the violence on the people of East Pakistan is not known. R.J. Rummel cites estimates ranging from one to three million people killed.[5] Other estimates place the death toll lower at 300,000. On the brink of defeat around December 14, the Pakistani Army and its local collaborators systematically killed a large number of Bengali doctors, teachers and intellectuals, part of a pogrom against the Hindu minorities who constituted the majority of urban educated intellectuals. Young men, who were seen as possible rebels, were also targeted, especially students.

The cost of the war for Pakistan in monetary and human resources was high. In the book Can Pakistan Survive? Pakistan based author Tariq Ali writes, "Pakistan lost half its navy, a quarter of its airforce and a third of its army." India took approximately 93,000 prisoners of war that included Pakistani soldiers as well as some of their East Pakistani allies. 79,676 of these prisoners were uniformed personnel, of which 55,692 were Army, 16,354 Paramilitary, 5,296 Police, 1000 Navy and 800 PAF. [6]. The remaining prisoners were civilians - either family members of the military personnel or Bihari collaborators (razakars).

It was one of the largest surrenders since World War II. India originally wished to try some 200 of them for war crimes for the brutality in East Pakistan, but eventually acceded to releasing them as a gesture of reconciliation. The Simla Agreement created the following year, also saw most of Pakistani territory (more than 13,000 kmē) being given back to Pakistan to create "lasting peace" between the two nations.
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