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Rediff.com  » News » Brilliant commanders and brave men won India the 1971 War

Brilliant commanders and brave men won India the 1971 War

Last updated on: December 04, 2017 13:01 IST

Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam's book India's Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971 gives the reader deep insights into the sharp military minds that shaped battlefield tactics and the precision with which they were executed.
Here, Air Vice Marshal Subramaniam describes how the 1971 war reaffirmed the importance of inspirational senior leadership in battle and heralded the emergence of a new fighting class amongst younger officers and men of India's armed forces.
Published with the author's kind and gracious permission.

IMAGE: 'There are no good troops or bad troops, only good or bad leaders.' Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and other Indian military commanders proved that adage right in 1971. Photograph: Kind Courtesy Major General B N B M Prasad and DPR Photo Division Archives

The seriousness with which the Indian Navy went about operationalising its new missile boats was reflected in the audacious manner in which they were used during the war. A holistic and integrated approach to preparing for war paid rich dividends for India.

Deception was executed successfully as a mission of war by concealing the presence of the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant as it lay in wait in the Andamans.

Another instance of effective deception by the Indian Navy was seen during the missile attacks on Karachi wherein the crew of the missile boats communicated with each other in Russian, baffling the Pakistanis.

With the Indian Navy's Carrier Battle Group performing well in the Bay of Bengal, concepts of 'sea control' took seed in the Indian Navy as it sought to build significant asymmetry vis-a-vis the Pakistan navy.

Indigenisation of warship design commenced in right earnest after the 1971 war and would pay rich dividends in the years to come. The Pakistan navy, on the other hand, failed to put together an offensive naval strategy, preferring instead to rely on the deterrent capabilities of its submarine fleet.

One of the biggest strategic and operational 'ifs' of the 1971 war would have been: 'If' Manekshaw had acquiesced in Indira Gandhi's compulsions of wanting to go into East Pakistan in April 1971, would there have been a different end result?

Despite many distinguished analysts having since debated Manekshaw's conservative approach, I believe there would have been a less than favourable outcome for several reasons. First and most importantly, the 'eyes and ears' of the Indian Army, the Mukti Bahini, would not have been the 'force multiplier', as they eventually turned out to be.

This would have meant that India's field commanders would have operated in an intelligence vacuum similar to the one that existed on the western front.

Their ensuing progress would have been significantly slower than what actually happened, considering that there would have been no Mukti Bahini to nibble, snipe and harass the Pakistanis in the hinterland.

The second reason for a different outcome would have been the absence of an 'enveloping strategy' that Manekshaw had envisaged. Manekshaw's staff had candidly told him that in the option for an operation in April/May, it was only the 'western option' with an entry into East Pakistan from Bengal that could be supported logistically.

This meant that only XXXIII Corps and II Corps would have been available for operations in full strength and fully stocked. As it turned out, these corps made the slowest progress during the final campaign.

Considering the larger distance from the west to Dacca and the more than formidable river obstacles, whether Dacca could have been threatened in the time frame that it eventually was would be well next to impossible to predict.

The last major reason for the likely stalling of an early attack was the possibility of getting bogged down by the monsoon should operational momentum be impacted by various reasons.

In the desert sector too, 'if' the commander of the Southern Army Command, Lieutenant General Bewoor, had had a backup force, he could have been more aggressive; if' Major General Khambatta, the divisional commander of 12 Infantry Division, had cut off the Pakistan army's 18 Division as it retreated after getting a bloody nose at Longewala despite all his logistics and terrain constraints; 'if' the IAF had been less ecstatic about its exploits at Longewala and pursued the retreating Pakistani brigade in close coordination with 12 Infantry Division; the Indian forces could have scored a major victory in the desert and even contemplated threatening the town of Rahim Yar Khan.

Coming to the psychological dimension of the Bangladesh campaign, (the Pakistan army commander in East Pakistan Lieutenant General A A K) Niazi's will to resist was broken by a combination of 'feeling enveloped' from all directions.

The immense pressure exerted on him by a 'manoeuvrist' commander in the form of Sagat Singh, who used the third dimension of aerial pressure effectively in tandem with the Tangail paradrop, effectively broke his will to resist.

When combined with the precision strike by IAF MiG-21s and Hunters on the Government House in Dacca, the psychological disintegration of Niazi's forces was complete and Pakistan's field commanders were convinced that it was better to surrender than be held responsible for an inevitable defeat and heavy loss of life.

Commenting on the contribution of operational commanders and staff at headquarters, Shammi Mehta says:

If there was no Sagat Singh and no Chandan Singh, there would have been no Dacca. If there was no Jacob (Lieutenant General Jacob was chief of staff at Eastern Command HQ), there would have been no spectacular surrender. One was a genius with troops and the other a genius with manipulating the mind of the enemy. It is as simple as that.

IMAGE: The most famous photograph in Indian military history!
Lieutenant General A A K Niazi, the Pakistan army commander in East Pakistan, signs the Instrument of Surrender, before Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, General Officer Commanding in Chief, Eastern Command, December 16, 1971. Photograph: DPR Photo Division Archives

The 1971 war reaffirmed the importance of inspirational senior leadership in battle and heralded the emergence of a new fighting class amongst younger officers and men of India's armed forces, most of whom were born in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Identifying talent and nurturing it for operational effect seemed to be the forte of all the three chiefs. While Manekshaw placed all the talented officers who had worked with him at Eastern Command, Defence Services Staff College and Infantry School, like Lieutenant General Aurora, Major General Jacob, Lieutenant General Sagat Singh and Major General Inder Gill, in key positions prior to the 1971 war, (Air Chief Marshal P C) Lal too had his men like Malse, Wollen and Chandan Singh as his point men at key places.

In Krishnan, Kohli and Swaraj Prakash, (Chief of the Naval Staff) Admiral (S M) Nanda had chosen an excellent team to execute the naval campaigns on the eastern and western seaboards.

An old military adage says, 'There are no good troops or bad troops, only good or bad leaders.'

What then were the leadership traits of the successful field commanders of the Indian armed forces in the 1971 war?

While all the three services displayed higher leadership skills of an exceptional order, there were some stand-out performances. While initiative and momentum were exploited well by Pinto in Basantar, Sartaj Kargil and Zorawar Bakshi in the Chicken's Neck sector, Swaraj Prakash, the captain of INS Vikrant, dominated the eastern seas off the East Pakistan coast just as Chandan Singh used all his experience from the 1962 conflict to orchestrate the heli-borne operations.

However, it was not too difficult to single out the one operational leader who stood head and shoulders over the rest -- Sagat Singh.

Sagat was a go-getter from his younger days and General Pinto remembers him as a dashing type at the Infantry School and even later as a divisional commander when he controlled the Mizo insurgency in 1966 and gave a bloody nose to the Chinese in 1967 during two successive encounters at Nathula and Chola passes.

What of the younger lot? They were represented by officers and men like Hoshiar Singh, Arun Khetrapal, Albert Ekka, Don Lazarus, Nirmaljit Sekhon, Arun Prakash, and Bahadur Nariman Kavina, who commanded INS Nipat, the missile boat during the Karachi attack.

Bold and fearless, and reflecting the true diversity of independent India, they would prove to be role models for the next generation of war fighters who would be blooded in a completely new genre of warfare.

The 1971 war further demolished the martial race proposition, with troops from the southern part of India and the tribal belt of central India acquitting themselves with honour in various battles, foremost amongst them being in the battles of Akhaura, Basantar and Shakargarh.

Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam