Bangladesh’s Great Liberation War of 1971

Let us rise up and be thankful to India and former Soviet Union

6 mins read
Mass upsurge of 1969, land slide victory of Bangladesh Awami League, historic 7 March speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman deeply influenced and inspired Bangalee members employed in Pakistan Air Force.[ Photo: Bangladesh Post]

Five decennaries ago in 1971, Bangladesh with India’s strong-willed back up won a glorious victory over Pakistan due to the brilliant soldiers of Bangladesh-India, full-fledged support of the Bengalis, an unwavering political leadership of India and Bangladesh governments, and strong military and diplomatic support from Moscow. Well known is Russia’s power play that prevented a joint Pakistan-American-Chinese attack on the soil of Bangladesh in 1971.

“I speak to you at a moment of grave peril to our country and our people,” the-then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said, as she addressed the nation on All India Radio on December 3 evening, 1971.

“Some hours ago, soon after 5.30 pm on December 3, Pakistan launched a full-scale war against us,” Gandhi said, referring to sneak attacks launched by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The PAF targeted Indian Air Force (IAF) bases in Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Avantipur, Utterlai, Jodhpur, Ambala and Agra. These were pre-emptive strikes meant to forestall Indian fighter jets from attacking targets in Pakistan. Emergency has been declared for the whole of India.”

“Today, the war in Bangladesh has become a war on India, and this imposes upon me, my government and the people of India an awesome responsibility,” Gandhi said.  She further said, “India and Pakistan were formally at war.”

The war is not going very well for Pakistan, as Indian armour mowed through Bangladesh and the Pakistan Air Force was blown out of the subcontinent’s sky. Meanwhile, the Pakistan’s military in the West is demoralised and on the verge of collapse as the Indian Army, its Air Force attack and freedom fighters of Bangladesh made onslaught on the Pakistan army round the clock.

But still then, Nixon vauntingly expressed desire was to save Pakistan. He concurred with his buddy Kissinger. Nixon ordered to keep US aircraft carriers moving now.

Kissinger responded, “The carriers—everything is moving. Four Jordanian planes have already moved to Pakistan, 22 more are coming. We’re talking to the Saudis; the Turks we’ve now found are willing to give five. So, we’re going to keep that moving until there’s a settlement.”

Nixon then asked his crony, “Could you tell the Chinese it would be very helpful if they could move some forces or threaten to move some forces?” Kissinger replied in the affirmatory. Nixon unwrapped that they have got to threaten or they have got to move, one of the two.

With the fullest support of Bangladesh’s valiant and patriotic freedom fighters and the freedom-loving people in general, the 1971 war is considered to be modern India’s finest hour, in military terms. The clinical professionalism of the Indian army, navy and air force; a charismatic brass led by the legendary Sam Maneckshaw; and ceaseless international lobbying by the political leadership, especially by PM Indiraji worked brilliantly to set up a glorious victory.

After two weeks of vicious land, air and sea battles, nearly 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered before Bangladesh-India’s rampaging joint army command, the largest such capitulation since General Paulus’ surrender at Stalingrad in 1943. However, it could all have come unstuck without help from veto-wielding Moscow, with which New Delhi had the foresight to sign a security treaty with them in 1971.

However, Russia’s entry thwarted a scenario that could have led to multiple pincer movements against India.

On December 10, even as Nixon and Kissinger were frothing at the mouth, Indian intelligence intercepted an American message, indicating that the US Seventh Fleet was steaming into the war zone. The Seventh Fleet, which was then stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin, was led by the 75,000-ton nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. The world’s largest warship, it carried more than 70 fighters and bombers. The Seventh Fleet also included the guided missile cruiser US’s King, guided missile destroyers USS Decatur, Parsons and Tartar Sam, and a large amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli.

Standing between the Indian cities and the American ships was the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet led by the 20,000-ton aircraft carrier, Vikrant, with barely 20 light fighter aircraft. When asked if India’s Eastern Fleet would take on the Seventh Fleet, the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Vice Admiral N. Krishnan, said: “Just give us the orders.” The Indian Air Force, having wiped out the Pakistani Air Force within the first week of the war, was reported to be on alert for any possible intervention by aircraft from the Enterprise.

Meanwhile, Soviet intelligence reported that a British naval group led by the aircraft carrier Eagle had moved closer to India’s territorial waters. This was perhaps one of the most ironic events in modern history where the Western world’s two leading democracies were threatening the world’s largest democracy in order to protect the perpetrators of the largest genocide since the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. However, India did not panic. It quietly sent Moscow a request to activate a secret provision of the Indo-Soviet security treaty, under which Russia was bound to defend India in case of any external aggression.

Russia dispatched a nuclear-armed flotilla from Vladivostok on December 13, 1971 under the overall command of Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov, the Commander of the 10th Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet). Though the Russian fleet comprised a good number of nuclear-armed ships and atomic submarines, their missiles were of limited range (less than 300 km). Hence, to effectively counter the British and American fleets, the Russian commanders had to undertake the risk of encircling them to bring them within their target. This they did with military precision.

Russian Admiral Kruglyakov, who commanded the Pacific Fleet from 1970 to 1975, recalled that Moscow ordered the Russian ships to prevent the Americans and British from getting closer to “Indian military objects”. The genial Kruglyakov added, “The Chief Commander’s order was that our submarines should surface when the Americans appear. It was done to demonstrate to them that we had nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean. So, when our subs surfaced, they recognised us. In the way of the American Navy stood the Soviet cruisers, destroyers and atomic submarines equipped with anti-ship missiles. We encircled them and trained our missiles at the Enterprise. We blocked them and did not allow them to close in on Karachi, Chittagong or Dhaka.”

The Russian manoeuvres clearly helped prevent a direct clash between India and the US-UK combine. The declassified documents reveal that the Indian Prime Minister went ahead with her plan to liberate Bangladesh despite inputs that the Americans had kept three battalions of Marines on standby to deter India, and that the American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise had orders to target the Indian Army, which had broken through the Pakistani Army’s defences and was thundering down the highway to the gates of Lahore, West Pakistan’s second largest city.

Despite Kissinger’s goading and desperate Pakistan’s calls for help, the Chinese did nothing. US diplomatic documents reveal that Indira Gandhi knew the Soviets had factored in the possibility of Chinese intervention. According to a cable referring to an Indian cabinet meeting held on December 10, “If the Chinese were to become directly involved in the conflict, Indira Gandhi said, the Chinese know that the Soviet Union would act in the Sinkiang region. Soviet air support may be made available to India at that time.”

On December 14, General A.A.K. Niazi, Pakistan’s military commander in the-then East Pakistan, told the American consul-general in Dhaka that he was willing to surrender. The message was relayed to Washington.

Interesting glimpses from history that must be still so fresh in memory for all those who lived in the sub-continent in those eventful days of 1971. India, in 1971 succeeded in defeating a mightier military axis (USA-Britain-France, aided further by the tacit support of China for Pakistan) because primarily of India’s ‘moral power’ and, certainly, because it knew it was going to win the war in the very ‘object’ front (the Eastern Front) which was the cause and reason for the 1971 War.

The ‘peoples war’ unleashed by the allied Bangladesh freedom fighters made the victory in the Eastern Front only a matter of time and a ‘writing on the wall’ for those who could see. Needless to add, the war on the Eastern Front happened to be the cause as well as the ‘object’ of the 1971 War from the point of view of both India and Pakistan. Only the fools of the kind of Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger had any different hope about the outcome.

The 1971 war was the finest among all wars fought by India-Bangladesh joint command against Pakistan. Along with Indian army, over half a million Bengali freedom fighters trained by revolted Bengali army, Bengali East Pakistan Rifles (entire EPR force), Bengali police (almost entire East Pakistan police) and Indian army were very formidable and capable to stand against the combined forces of West Pakistan, USA and witty Britain. The USA (fully)and Britain (lesser extent) played dirty tricks in 1971. Despite having hate and love relation, the Indians and the Bengalis will remain together in any eventuality in the subcontinent. They are naturally brothers. The Bengalis are always grateful to their brother India and former Soviet Russia who stood firmly by us for our (Bengalis) right.

Thus Nixon-Kissinger’s gunboat diplomacy was sunk by former Soviet Union. And the obnoxious nexus of America-Pakistan-China was also given a crushing defeat on 16 December, 1971. And Bangladesh was born. Joy Bangla. Joy Bangabandhu. Joy Four National Leaders.

Anwar A. Khan

Anwar A. Khan is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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