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  • James Houser

December 3, 1971 - The Indo-Pakistani Wars

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

December 3, 1971. There’s a good chance you can blame it all on the British, but you could say that about many things. The continuing turmoil in South Asia blossoms once again into violence, as India and Pakistan find themselves in conflict over territorial disputes left behind by the British Empire. On this date, the Pakistani Air Force strikes India, marking the beginning of the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War.

When Britain finally saw fit to grant India its independence after World War II, the settlement turned out to be a major point of contention. South Asia was and is a heterogenous, diverse, wildly mixed region of the world with over a billion people and dozens of languages. The regions that made up British India – modern Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – had never been part of a unified nation-state. The first time that all of South Asia had been under a single rule was when Britain established the Raj, or their direct rule of India, in 1858. So when Britain announced that they were prepared to given India independence, the various factions that had wanted this for years now had to look at each other and ask themselves what independence was going to look like.

The British Raj was a complicated beast, and this would make the transfer of power to Indian self-rule very difficult. While a great portion of the Raj was under direct British control, there were numerous provinces still ruled by hereditary Indian princes or monarchs under British supervision; these were called the “princely states.” In 1846, the British victory over the Sikhs in northern India had led to the establishment of a Hindu-ruled princely state known as Jimmu-Kashmir, which lay at the northern extremity of British India close to the border with China. 100 years later, Jimmu-Kashmir was still ruled by a Hindu dynasty, but had a Muslim majority living within its borders. This was about to be an issue.

With independence on the horizon, cracks within the Indian independence movements became more prominent. For decades, the face and soul of Indian independence had been Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi wanted a free and unified India where Hindus and Muslims could live together in a democratic state founded on religious pluralism, but unfortunately for everyone his dream was not universally shared. Hindus and pan-Indian nationalists still favored the Indian National Congress, but in 1906 a separatist All-India Muslim League had been founded that favored a separate state for India’s Muslims. At that point, around 20-30% of India was Muslim, and these separatists feared that a unified India would mean Hindu nationalism and supremacy. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it resembles similar strife in Ireland and Israel-Palestine prior to THEIR independence. No one wants to sign up for independence if they’re going to be a permanent minority.

The Muslim separatist movement gained steam in the early 1940s, but it’s important not to paint with too broad a brush: there were Muslims and Hindus who believed in Gandhi’s vision of a unified, religiously tolerant India in addition to those Muslims and Hindus who wanted separate states. The British, caught in the middle, grew alarmed – only more so when the arguments broke out into outright violence in 1946. The similarities with Israel/Palestine are all the more striking because it was happening at the same time; the British were helpless to stop the rising tide of ethnic and religious violence sweeping across the subcontinent.

Since I’ve first learned about this whole disaster, I’ve gradually lost a lot of sympathy for the British. Sure, they were in a tough situation, but it was a pickle of their own making. They had conquered India from what boil down to greedy imperialist impulses, and had been happy to beat the Indians over the head when it was convenient, but now that the country was at the boiling point they wanted nothing more than to get out without accepting responsibility for what they had done. The last British viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, began to speed up the timetable for British handover of power to local authority.

The final partition plan was passed on June 3, 1947, with the Indian National Congress bowing to the pressure of the Muslim separatists. Despite the opposition of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress’s most important public figures, the violence had only been rising since it had begun in 1946. Refugees were fleeing parts of India. The British had failed to keep the peace. Many began to reluctantly accept that there would be no choice but to divide India.

The decision was made to split the British-governed areas of India into two independent states: the Dominion of Pakistan, made up of Muslim-majority areas, and the Dominion of India, made up of Hindu-majority areas. Two provinces, though, had nearly equal portions of Hindus and Muslims that lived in separate areas of the province. These were Punjab in the northwest, with its largest city at Lahore, and Bengal in the southeast with the cities of Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dhaka. The dividing line within these provinces would cause much controversy, especially since the partition would isolate millions of Muslims in Bengal almost a thousand miles from the rest of Pakistan. This territory would be referred to as “East Pakistan,” and its turmoil would be the ultimate cause of the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War.

Mountbatten bent to pressure to speed up the turnover of authority, slating August 15, 1947 as the date when Indian and Pakistani governments would take control of their regions. This disastrous idea only gave Indians six weeks to digest the partition plan and make their arrangements, which placed an exclamation point on the ethnic violence and migration. With the partition looming, millions of refugees and immigrants flocked across the border in either direction. Out of a pre-partition population of 390 million, the new boundaries would leave 330 million in India, 30 million in West and 30 million in East Pakistan, but the ethnic and religious violence was driving a great deal of border crossing. Almost 14.5 million people would be displaced by the partition, with as many as a million probably perishing in the process. Vast population transfers ALWAYS result in hardship, suffering, and death without exception, and the Partition of India was no different.

One final part of the partition plan, though, caused immediate trouble and continues to cause trouble to this day. Remember those “princely states” that were still ruled by monarchs under British supervision? Well, one of those princely states was Jammu-Kashmir, an ethnically divided province ruled by a Hindu prince. The partition plan called for the “princely states” to make statements of accession to either India or Pakistan, creating a dilemma for Maharaja (King) Hari Singh of Jammu-Kashmir. Terrified of the religious violence that he saw breaking out across India, but not wanting to anger his marginal majority Muslim population, Hari Singh wavered and failed to side with either state, even as the partition deadline passed.

Fearing that Hari Singh would join India, Muslim militias attacked from Pakistan into Jimmu-Kashmir on October 22, 1947. The Indian Army responded, and soon a shooting war was underway. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-48, also known as the First Kashmir War, would prove to be a strange conflict since the top officers on both sides were British generals. The transition of power had not yet finished, and the British Indian Army had been partitioned along with India itself, but at the same time all the generals were still British nationals. This led to the very odd reality of British generals commanding two armies technically at war with each other, with each doing their best to avoid conflict but also preserve the subordination of the military to civilian officials.

By the time the dust cleared from the first Indo-Pakistani War, Kashmir had been partitioned just like the rest of India. This division, though, was based on a ceasefire signed in 1949 and has never been truly settled. To this day, both India and Pakistan claim ALL of Kashmir, and it has been the major source of conflict between the two states ever since. Despite the long duration and open hostilities of the conflict, it resulted in very few deaths from direct action – only 1,000 Indians and 6,000 Pakistanis. These losses were vastly outweighed by the ethnic cleansing and insurgent violence that took place all throughout the Partition of India, and the small size of the forces involved – along with British attempts to keep active combat to a minimum – contributed to the small casualty lists. It wouldn’t stay that way forever.

Despite the assassination of Gandhi in January 1948 by a Hindu nationalist angry at his promotion of a unified India, Jawaharlal Nehru led India into a new existence as an independent nation. In 1950, India formally separated from any British dominion and declared itself a Republic, instantly becoming the largest democracy in the world. The new Indian Army, a direct descendant of the old British-led Indian Army, was modeled on its predecessor and inherited much of its organizational culture and doctrine. This was also true of the Pakistan Army, but there was one major difference between the armies of the two states. The Indian Army stayed out of politics and continued to subordinate itself to civilian control, while the Pakistan Army played an increasingly prominent part in it’s country’s politics and in 1958 installed General Ayub Khan as the new President in a coup d’etat.

Both India and Pakistan remained prominent members of the “non-aligned” bloc in the Cold War, a forum of nations that refused to ally with either the United States or the Soviet Union. Despite this official aloofness from the Cold War, peace did not reign in South Asia. The Kashmir conflict continued as an undeclared guerrilla war. The European nation of Portugal still held the key city of Goa on the coast of western India; in 1961, the Indian Army launched an operation to seize this outpost from Portugal’s fascist government. In 1962, India clashed with China on its northern border; this small skirmish was widely perceived to be a humiliation for the Indian Army and bred a slight feeling of military inferiority within India’s citizenry.

India and Pakistan clashed once again in 1965, when Pakistan was caught infiltrating insurgents into Kashmir through its “Operation Gibraltar” plan. This was the last straw on top of a series of border clashes throughout the years over still-disputed chunks of territory on the Indo-Pakistani border. Pakistan believed that India was on the verge of defeat in Kashmir, and only needed a push; 30,000 Pakistani soldiers in civilian garb crossed the ceasefire line into Indian-occupied Kashmir on August 5, 1965. Ten days later the Indian Army launched a major counterattack in Kashmir, and the escalating cycle of violence spiraled out of control.

The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 really began on September 6 when the Indian Army crossed the international border in a frontal assault on Pakistan. This 17-day conflict proved to be a bruising and tough fight for both sides, at least equal to the Arab-Israeli Wars in scale. India had a far larger military and greater numbers of equipment, but Pakistan gave as good as it got. There were several large battles, including the world’s largest tank battle since World War II at Chawinda, September 14-19. Hundreds of Pakistani M48 Pattons and Indian Shermans and Centurions swirled in this great struggle on the plains of the Punjab. Jet fighters battled in the skies, and a few Pakistani coastal towns were even bombarded by Indian frigates. It was a land-air-sea war between peers – something that is supposed to be impossible in the post-1945 world.

The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 ended with a ceasefire on September 23 under pressure from both the Soviet Union and the United States. While the war itself came out to a stalemate, it was evident to everyone that India had gained the upper hand in the final days of the fight, especially after the bloodying they had given the Pakistan Army at Chawinda. With the climactic clash of the Indo-Pakistani conflict yet to come, it was clear that India was making its superior weight of population and resources felt. Their greatest advantage, though, was quickly becoming apparent: the superior professionalism of the Indian Army. By remaining subordinate to civilian control, the Indian Army was free to focus its attention on training, doctrine, and reform rather than meddling in politics and engaging in bitter infighting. The Pakistan Army was an organ for dictatorial control from the Presidential office; the Indian Army could focus on its job, which was to win wars. This would become undeniable when the 1971 crisis escalated into the largest and most decisive of the Indo-Pakistani Wars.

Pakistan faced major internal issues in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely related to the eastern half of former Bengal, aka East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh). The two Muslim-majority sections of former British India, West and East Pakistan, were geographically divided by almost a thousand miles, and India sat between them. The political and military elite of Pakistan were all West Pakistanis, even though the majority of the population lived in East Pakistan; the generals who continued to rule over Pakistan continually squelched the rights and freedoms of East Pakistanis, especially the large Hindu minority.

The Pakistani actions in Bengal can be justifiably described as state-sponsored ethnic cleansing. The riots and protests in East Pakistan led to the resignation of Ayub Khan and the rise of Army chief Yahya Khan as the new President of Pakistan. When the 1970 elections resulted in the Bengali separatist Awami League winning a large majority in the Assembly, Yahya Khan forbade the Assembly to meet and began to impose a strict crackdown. Soon ethnic tensions flared up as the West Pakistani elite sent the military into East Pakistan, outlawing the Awami League and arresting its leaders. But this was only the beginning of Pakistan’s crackdown on Bengal separatism.

After Yahya Khan’s cavalier statement “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands,” one of the 20th Century’s forgotten genocides began. Early in 1971, the military began to undertake a deliberate mass operation to behead the Bengali community, targeting Hindus for special brutality. No one is sure how many Bengalis were killed in “Operation Searchlight,” but the estimates reach as high as three million and included a systematic campaign of rape. Some local religious leaders declared Bengali women as “public property” and urged that they be taken by Muslim Pakistanis. The horror of the Bangladesh Genocide sent almost ten million refugees, largely Hindus, fleeing across the border into India.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, is a divisive figure in Indian memory. She was as close to a dictator as India has ever had, centralizing power at the expense of the states and using emergency powers in the late 1970s to suspend civil liberties and arrest her critics. It was under her auspices that India developed nuclear weapons and moved closer to the Soviet Union. To this day, Indira is associated with nepotism, corruption, and the weakening of Indian democracy. Though she was assassinated in 1984 after attacking and demolishing a Sikh religious site, her shadow hangs over India. She was only able to ascend to the height of her power and gain the prestige to accomplish these feats because she would oversee Indian victory in 1971.

As early as April 1971, Indira Gandhi had asked the Indian Army Chief of Staff, Sam Manekshaw, if he was ready for war with Pakistan. This is the point where your action-movie general says “as soon as you give the word, ma’am,” but Manekshaw stood up to the political pressure. He understood that the media of both India and Pakistan was driving the two nations to war, and that India’s appeals to the United Nations had failed to halt the genocide, but the Indian Army was still refitting with new tanks and was not immediately ready for war. Despite the public demand for war, Manekshaw – exhibiting public courage - told Indira “No.” After offering to resign and being turned down, he then told the Prime Minister that he could guarantee victory if she would give him the time he needed and let him fight the war on his terms. Indira agreed, and the two countries were headed to war once more.

India was not idle as they built up their strength and made their plans. As Pakistan’s people marched in the streets to encourage their country to go to war, the Indian government had used the refugee camps near East Pakistan to recruit and train a large number of Hindu guerrillas. These units were then sent back into East Pakistan to ambush, assassinate, and terrorize any Bengali figures loyal to Pakistan. This forgotten campaign of state-sponsored terror only encouraged further reprisals by the Pakistan Army, which played right into Indian hands. This is why terrorism is so scary: because it often has the intended result. The Indians may have wanted to help the Bengalis, but they also wanted to hurt Pakistan, and it’s sorta clear which one they thought was more important.

With the war fever in both India and Pakistan beginning to hit the roof, Manekshaw prepared the Indian Army for war. Despite his long-term preparations, though, India would not start the conflict. Finally bowing to public pressure, President Yahya of Pakistan ordered a massive air strike to initiate hostilities against India. On December 3, 1971, the Pakistan Air Force launched a surprise attack – Operation Genghiz Khan - on eleven Indian air bases across the border. This was intended to mimic the Israeli Air Force’s successful demolition of the Egyptian Air Force at the start of the Six-Day War, which had caught the Egyptians totally off guard and ensured Israeli air supremacy in that conflict. The Pakistani strike, however, was significantly less successful and failed to seriously damage the Indian Air Force.

Key lesson here: if you launch a surprise attack on a larger nation that has been preparing to fight you for months, you better make sure that it lands. Because if it doesn’t you’re screwed.

Indira Gandhi declared on the evening of December 3 that a state of war now existed between India and Pakistan. Manekshaw quickly mobilized his troops and launched his battle plans. The Indians were significantly larger and better-trained than the Pakistanis, and they exploited this advantage with superior planning. Manekshaw had two objectives as soon as hostilities began: overrun East Pakistan, destroying the isolated Pakistani forces there, and hold the line on the main Indo-Pakistani border.

While conflict erupted on both fronts, the Indian Army’s invasion of East Pakistan became the focal point of the war. It was one of the most carefully planned and impressively executed operational feats since the Second World War. Manekshaw’s army and corps staffs had devised a three-pronged envelopment of East Pakistan by nine divisions with close air support, including an aerial envelopment by helicopter that airlifted much of the 57th Mountain Division to seize the key bridge at Meghna Heli. A celebrated airborne assault by the 2nd Parachute Battalion also seized a key bridge on the road to Dhaka. The Indian invasion of East Pakistan was a masterpiece of combined-arms warfare, with air and ground units supporting each other in decisive and rapid actions that totally unhinged the Pakistani forces. In only 13 days, from December 3 to December 16, the Indian Army overran East Pakistan and forced the surrender of the Pakistani forces in the province.

India experienced similar triumphs elsewhere, with their Air Force gaining supremacy over the skies. On the western border, the Indians not only repulsed Pakistani attacks but counterattacked, advancing deep into Pakistani territory. The Indian Navy also manhandled their Pakistani counterparts in a clash at Karachi, destroying several oil storage facilities and imposing a naval blockade on Pakistan. American concerns about Indian naval activities caused the USS Enterprise to move into the Bay of Bengal, only to be countered by a Soviet flotilla, resulting in one of the typical Cold War standoffs that had nothing to do with the actual conflict at hand. The Indians and Pakistanis didn’t want either of the great powers involved in their personal conflict.

Nevertheless, the Indians were utterly triumphant; on December 16, 1971, hostilities officially ended. The entire Pakistani force in East Pakistan had surrendered, leaving 90,000 POWs in Indian hands – the largest surrender since World War II, and composing a third of the Pakistan Army. Indian leaders were surprised and delighted with the apparent ease of the victory, but Gandhi was surprisingly restrained in her reaction to the victory. Most of the conquered territory in the west was eventually given back to Pakistan as a show of good faith, while East Pakistan officially became the independent nation of Bangladesh. Despite India’s role in its liberation, Bangladesh’s relations with its savior soon soured; India ultimately saw very little political returns for their sweeping victory.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistani War nevertheless destroyed any possibility of Pakistan counterbalancing India within South Asia, since Pakistan lost half of its population and much of its economy in the process of losing Bangladesh. Pakistani morale utterly collapsed, with the trauma and humiliation of defeat resulting in the downfall of the Army and political instability. India’s triumph erased the stain of the 1962 war with China and confirmed the prestige of both Indira Gandhi and the Indian military. Pakistan’s insecurity after the war caused it to begin a nuclear program, and India soon responded out of necessity; India tested its first bomb in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998.

The development of nukes, more than anything, has probably prevented many a major conventional clash between the two nations of India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan engaged in a brief tussle in the mountains of Kashmir in 1999; this conflict, known as the Kargil War, started when – what else – Pakistan was caught slipping militants into Kashmir. Kashmir to this day remains a source of bitter strife between the two nations, and recent troubles between India and China in the same sector have raised concerns that a new contender might be entering into the struggle. Only time will tell.

Yeah, India and Pakistan can blame the British for all of this, I think – but if they have beef with Britain, they’ll have to take a number.

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