The latest, if muted, storm in the military’s tea cup has been the destruction of documents relating to India’s 1971 victory. Apparently, Eastern Command made a search for the documents in order to interact with erstwhile Mukti Bahini fighters as part of a forthcoming observance of the event. It turned out that the documents in question had been destroyed on orders. This was confirmed by Lt Gen Jacob, architect of the famous victory, recalling that this was done before he took over as the Eastern Army commander soon after the war. Promptly, it surfaced that the records of the great naval action – the sinking of the Pakistani naval submarine, PNS Ghazi – were also missing.
The controversy provides an opportunity to revisit 1971. The landmark events have since had considerable resonance, particularly because the Pakistani Army has been engaged in ‘paying back’ India over the past three decades. However, this article dwells on the problems with strategic thinking in India, using the 1971 War as an entry point.
It is now widely known that the decision to go to war was taken sometime in mid April of that year, after the extreme brutality of the crack down on Bengalis in East Pakistan the previous month. Late Field Marshal Manekshaw recounted how he had stood up to his political masters insisting on postponing the date to a more opportune time later in the year for which his army would be better prepared. (It is perhaps his retelling of this ‘legend’ that led to India’s political elite inexplicably keeping away from his last rites.) The interim gave India ample scope for interfering in East Pakistan, by supporting the Mukti Bahini.
While state terrorism that occurred in East Pakistan is inexcusable, it bears mention that in the Third World context of state weaknesses, dealing with foreign interference is usually done through greater violence than is otherwise the case. Therefore, India’s earlier role in sponsoring irregulars and later in conducting operations alongside them prior to the outbreak of war contributed in some measure to the brutality of the Pakistani state and its army. There is also a question mark in history on the hijacking of and blowing up of the ‘Ganga’ Air India flight in Lahore. This enabled India to terminate over-flights between the eastern and western wings of Pakistan as early as February 1971, accentuating its problems of access and heightening its security dilemma. Therefore, to an extent the final figures of three million dead and ten million refugees can also be attributed to India’s strategy. It is no wonder that the records held with the Army are missing.
The costs of India’s strategy are easy to discern. It could have been anticipated that Pakistan’s paranoia would heighten due to the Indian angle to the crisis. Was it perhaps that Pakistan’s despicable behaviour provided India the casus belli? Was the strategy to provoke just such a response? At the UN, India initially alluded to the humanitarian consequences of Pakistani action as the casus belli, swiftly its UN officials retracted and attributed India’s action to self-defence instead; brought on, incidentally, by Pakistani attacks after a fortnight of Indian ground force presence in East Pakistan.
K Subrahmanyam, doyen of India’s strategic community, won his spurs then by making a case for dividing Pakistan. He records insisting with YB Chavan that India also take the war to West Pakistan to dictate the agenda of peace. In the event that India’s aims were limited to taking some territory in the East and being defensive in the West would Subrahmanyam’s case have led to a better outcome? The USS Enterprise was enroute to the Bay of Bengal leaving India with enough time to revert troops from the West to East. Operational level ingenuity resulted in the stunning victory. However, factoring in the entirely predictable human cost preceding it and that continues to rack the subcontinent today, makes it much less so.
The criticism today is that the gains to the east were not exploited adequately at Shimla to force Bhutto’s weak hand. The usual argument is that holding onto prisoners would have been a useful pressure point. This is ignorance of the Third Geneva Convention which requires the return of prisoners at the earliest. In the event India chose to return even the 150 prisoners pointed out by Bangladesh as war criminals. Perhaps returning them, after getting Bangladesh to acquiesce, would have closed the chapter. War crime trials would no doubt have brought out the Indian angle to the internal crisis.
Lastly, the telling lesson of 1971 is that continuing political control over the military is required, even over action seemingly in the military domain. War aims formulated in Calcutta by Eastern Command’s Chief of Staff keeping Dhaka as the center of gravity were not those of Delhi, as elaborated by the General Jacob himself in his surrender at Dhaka. In today’s nuclear environment –a consequence of political inattention then– such a situation cannot be allowed to replicate.