A number of books describing the birth of Bangladesh have appeared in India and abroad, some soon after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country, others a little later; but few analyse the operations as objectively as General Sukhwant Singh has done in this very readable book. For the Indian reader, Sukhwant Singh’s observations are of added relevance because of the strong nationalist sentiment that runs throughout the book. Personalities and events are of consequence only in the larger perspective of national well-being. Sukhwant Singh opens his account of the operations with Bhutto’s profound observation, ‘India should not forget its history’, and proceeds to point out that ours indeed is a sad history of subjugation by the sword of the invader, whether he came from across the north-western mountain passes or from across the seas. Further, the invader was invariably outnumbered by the defender. Nor in all cases was the invader in possession of better weapons. What decided the issue was better generalship of the invading forces. Even more important was the lack of cohesion and unity of purpose among the defenders.
This unfortunate feature of our history has tended to persist even after Independence. Sukhwant Singh would certainly have discussed this theme more thoroughly in his second and subsequent volumes, had fate spared him.
Modern wars are not merely encounters between opposing armed forces but total confrontation between two states or groups of states, where each side employs all the means at its disposal—diplomatic, economic and military—to achieve its objectives and to prevent the opposing side from attaining its objectives.
The Bangladesh war was not of India’s choosing. For a number of reasons this country wanted and still wants peace in the subcontinent. Yet it could not ignore events unfolding across the border. Pakistan’s army had unleashed a reign of terror in Bangladesh. Over 12 million Bangladeshis fled in mortal fear to seek refuge on this side of the border.
Humanitarian considerations demanded that this country shelter them. Further, public sympathy was with these victims of the Pakistan army’s viciousness and brutality. Public support for the just demand of the Bangladeshis for independence was strong. But the burden of maintaining millions of refugees was proving very heavy. Above all, Pakistan’s military rulers, with the tacit support of their great-power patrons, wanted this country to be crippled by this induced human inundation, so that Pakistan might gain time for solving its Bengali problem once and for all by decapitating* the Bengali nation. Had this diabolical plan been allowed to succeed, India would have been hemmed in by powerful and hostile forces in the east as well as in the west and the north.
This apart, there was the danger that Pakistan’s military machine, should it succeed in suppressing 70 million Bengalis seeking autonomy and murdering millions in the process, would lose no time in planning another assault on this country in a bid to snatch Kashmir.
India’s problem thus was to preserve peace while securing the return of refugees to their homes at the earliest on honourable terms, and to take all measures to fight a war, if forced to. In the latter event, that is, if war became inevitable, the aim was to keep it confined to the eastern sector.
Meanwhile, within Bangladesh itself, after valiant but necessarily uncoordinated resistance, Bengali freedom-fighters had to go underground. Tikka Khan had succeeded in restoring a semblance of order, but the vast majority of Bengalis remained unreconciled. On this side of the border, the younger elements among the refugees who had crossed over did not want to languish in refugee camps but desired to go back and liberate their country. Bangladeshi leaders who had managed to escape from Dacca on the night of March 25, 1971, had formed a Government in exile and were just as anxious as the youth to continue the struggle for liberation of their country. With training, and the knowledge that the freedom-fighters had of their country, they could cause considerable anxiety to the Pakistani occupation forces. It was at this stage, as this reviewer had pointed out at that time, that Pakistan’s Commander in the East Wing was faced with the dilemma, of either deploying his limited forces close to the borders to prevent the Mukti Bahini from nibbling territories close to the Indian border, gradually extending its hold and setting up a firm base well inside Bangladesh from where the Government in exile could operate; or alternatively, withdraw his troops to selected and well-defended localities from where Pakistani troops may deal with locals as well as the ubiquitous Bahini. Pakistani commanders reasoned that should they adopt this strategy, the, field would be open for Bahini infiltrators and large areas of Bangladesh would slip out of control.
It is to the credit of Indira Gandhi’s sagacity and leadership and to that of Field-Marshal Manekshaw, that throughout the long and agonizing months of 1971 they never let either external provocations or ill-advised domestic pressures to cloud their judgement regarding the timing of operations, should they become unavoidable. This was based on the time needed for updating contingency plans, equipping forces suitably—not an easy task, considering that most of the spares needed were of foreign origin and moving troops to suitable positions so that they could go into action at short notice. At every stage, calculated risk had to be taken. Above all, much would depend on the correct appraisal of strategic and political risks inherent in an operation of this type which had profound implications for the region and beyond.
Arm-chair strategists within the country—unhampered by any responsibility for the consequences of possible adoption of their ill-advised suggestions—betrayed lack of understanding of possible international reactions to any rash action on India’s part, and advocating, almost from the day Tikka Khan subjected Bangladesh to a blood-bath, that Indian forces march immediately in and liberate Bangladesh. Even in Parliament some members, influenced by these theoreticians, demanded early and positive action to liberate Bangladesh.
General Sukhwant Singh, with his first-hand knowledge of the political and military preparations that the Armed Forces and the newly constituted External Affairs Policy Planning Group under the late D.P. Dhar had skillfully accomplished, explains clearly the many considerations that influenced the choice of timing and the general approach adopted by our military and diplomatic teams. Viewed in retrospect, the magnitude of Indira Gandhi’s own contribution to victory is seen to be even greater than was universally recognized at the time. Likewise, her wisdom in refusing to be hustled by the ill-advised clamour for quick action. Army Chief Manekshaw deserves credit for maintaining his composure. He gathered a team of trusted officers at his headquarters to evolve plans and to choose the appropriate time to launch operations, and meticulously completed all preparations for action so as to ensure, to the extent humanly possible, that the operations would end in triumph.
It is not possible, for want of space, to discuss in detail the conduct of operations in different sectors. Sukhwant Singh assesses, with characteristic frankness, the strong points as well as the weaknesses of different commanders. Those who have had the privilege of serving with the Indian soldier know his virtues. Given good leadership, he will follow his officer to the ends of the earth. The officer must be professionally competent and absolutely fair and upright in all his dealings. In peace-time he must be able to teach his men their craft and train them to acquire that important soldierly virtue—self confidence—and in war he must be able to lead his men and his junior officers by example. Our soldiers and young officers are good but our system is such that the competent and honest officer is quickly eliminated in favour of the courtier in the rat race for promotion to higher appointments. Hence it is seldom that active units and formations get ‘go-ahead’ commanders. It is not surprising that while the few ‘go-ahead’ commanders ‘made it’ in Bangladesh, the others marked. time, incurring avoidable casualties.
Inter-service cooperation, which was at its best in 1971, has to be institutionalized and the ever-expanding Defence Ministry confined to its proper role of serving as the Defence Minister’s secretariat, and looking after co-ordination with other Ministries and State Governments.
The professional military man as well as the student of contemporary affairs will find in the book a critical narrative of great interest and value.
*The phrase was used by a French journalist who visited Dacca shortly after the military crackdown, to describe Tikka Khan’s policy of ‘eliminating’ all Bengalis with any leadership potential.
Col. Rama Rao is formerly of the Indian Army now a specialist on Military Strategy.