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Remembering 1971: How IAF and Navy support was vital for Army’s success

Published : Dec 15, 2017, 12:26 am IST
Updated : Dec 15, 2017, 12:26 am IST

Like Y.B. Chavan in 1965, Jagjivan Ram as defence minister was a great asset and was popular with the troops.

The Delta Company defenders of Kalsian Khurd, Capt. Chandrashekar, Havaldar Santhiah, Sub. Perumal Pillai, etc, who held on to their defensive despite overwhelming odds in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
 The Delta Company defenders of Kalsian Khurd, Capt. Chandrashekar, Havaldar Santhiah, Sub. Perumal Pillai, etc, who held on to their defensive despite overwhelming odds in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

December 16 will mark the 46th anniversary of Vijay Divas, when India won its greatest military victory ever following which an independent and sovereign state of Bangladesh came into existence. Generations to come are unlikely to forget that India’s “finest hour” was reached under the outstanding leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose courage, grit and determination charged the course of not only the history, but also altered the geography of our subcontinent. As London’s Sunday Times had then reported: “It took only 12 days for the Indian Army to smash its way to Dacca, an achievement reminiscent of the German blitzkrieg across France in 1940. The strategy was the same speed, ferocity and flexibility.”

At 5.45 pm on December 3, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched pre-emptive airstrikes on eight Indian airfields, including Srinagar, Pathankot, Jodhpur, Ambala and Agra. Later that night, which was a night of full moon, a second wave of aircraft came over to deliver a repeat blow. But these attempts were so clumsy that not one Indian aircraft was lost on the ground. Anticipating this pre-emptive strike, the Chief of Air Staff had taken the precaution to disperse his squadrons and at the same time activated his forward airbases in readiness for a counter-strike. The counter-strike by the IAF was launched at 11 pm on the night of December 3. It attacked six airfields and two radar stations. So effective was this counter-attack that the back of the PAF was broken within the first 24 hours of the war, from which it never recovered. The IAF established air superiority by the second day of the war. Nearly 30 enemy aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the first day itself. Pakistan had 18 Sabre jets in what was then East Pakistan. All these were destroyed by the second day of the war, and the PAF was never again in evidence over the scene of battles in the eastern sector. This was one of the biggest factors in enabling the Indian Army columns to race ahead without the danger of air strafing.

Since the bulk of the surface ships of the Pakistan Navy were based in Karachi, the first task — destruction of the Pakistani naval forces — was given to the Western Naval Command. On the midnight of December 4-5, the Indian Navy’s task forces destroyed seven ships of the Pakistan Navy, including two destroyers and two minesweepers. Three more ships were destroyed by a second task force which also set fire to the fuel fields, totally crippling the Pakistan Navy in the west. In the Bay of Bengal, the INS Vikrant, the Navy’s only aircraft-carrier, supported by destroyers, frigates and submarines, sent out a flight of Sea Hawks to bomb Cox’s Bazar, putting the harbour and airfield out of action. US President Richard Nixon’s attempts to escalate the war by sending a task force of America’s Seventh Fleet failed to deter a courageous Prime Minister, who ordered the armed forces to accomplish their task swiftly. Before the nuclear-powered US carrier USS Enterprise could enter the Bay of Bengal, the lightning campaign was over and it quietly edged away taking a U-turn in the blue waters.

What was remarkable was the incredible speed with which the Army moved across East Pakistan, a vast alluvial delta crisscrossed by a thousand rivers, rivulets, canals and creeks. The Eastern Command was able to beat the deadline because of the bold and imaginative steps taken by its GOC-in-C and the courage and determination of the corps and divisional commanders, as well as the commanders of lower formations and units. But the task became much easier due to the close support provided by the Navy and the Air Force. The role played by the BSF and the Mukti Bahini deserves a special mention as they were involved in the operations much before the regular forces took over, and continued to be of great assistance and guidance to the troops as they sped towards Dacca (as it was called then).

In the western sector, where the bloodiest battles took place, the Chhamb and Shakargarh sectors saw tank battles reminiscent of the tank battle of Khemkaran in 1965. Once again two battle-hardened cavalry regiments, Poona Horse and Deccan Horse, which had acquitted themselves with glory in 1965, bore the brunt of the enemy offensive and repeated their masterly performance with their “chariots of fire”, with 2nd Lt. Arun Khetarpal (Poona Horse) winning the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) at 20, the youngest officer to do so. The other three who got the highest gallantry award were Maj. Hoshiar Singh (3 Grenadiers), L/Nk Albert Ekka (14 Guards) and Flying Officer Nirmaljeet Singh Sekhon. The nearly 70 Maha Vir Chakras (MVCs) included Brig. A.S. Vaidya (9 Horse) who later became the Army Chief and Brig. Hanut Singh (17 Horse).

As the Pakistan Army in the east surrendered with over 93,000 soldiers on December 16, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared: “In order to stop further bloodshed and unnecessary loss of lives, we have ordered our armed forces to cease fire everywhere on the western front from tomorrow (17 December).” This was once again an act of great moral courage, foresight and wisdom on the part of the Prime Minister.

It is also worthwhile to recall with gratitude the names of other heroes of the 1971 war. With General (later Field Marshal) S.H.F.J. “Sam” Manekshaw as Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), who brilliantly led and planned the overall war strategy, the three Army commanders were Lt. Generals J.S. Arora (Eastern Command), K.P. Candeth (Western Command) and G.G. Bewoor (Southern Command). Lt. Generals T.N. Raina, M.M. Thapan and Sagat Singh were affiliated to the Eastern Command with Maj. Gen. J.F.R. Jacob as chief of staff. The Western Command also had three corps commanders — Lt. Generals Sartaj Singh, N.C. Rawlley and K.K. Singh. The Navy, headed by Adm. S.M. Nanda, Chief of Naval Staff, had two distinguished FOCs-in-C in Vice-Admirals S.N. Kohli (Western Naval Command) and N. Krishnan (Eastern Naval Command). Similarly, the IAF led by Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal had two AOCs-in-C — Air Marshal M.M. Engineer (Western Air Command) and H.C. Dewan (Eastern Air Command), whose pilots dominated the skies with their outstanding skills and valour.

Like Y.B. Chavan in 1965, Jagjivan Ram as defence minister was a great asset and was popular with the troops. A morale-raising phrase from his speech to sailors soon after the war is worth quoting: “Ghazi ko tabah kiya, Niyazi ko sabak diya” (You have destroyed the Ghazi and taught Niazi a lesson). The Lightning Campaign, by Maj. Gen. D.K, Palit, VrC, reflects the views of many historians, military and civil: “The firm and confident political handling of the problem by Mrs Gandhi and her government was matched by the sophisticated management, direction and leadership of the Indian armed forces.”

The writer, an ex-Army officer and a former member of the National Commission on Minorities, is a New Delhi-based political analyst

Tags: indira gandhi, indian army, vijay divas