A definitive account of the 1971 war that altered South Asia's geography

If you want to read just one book to know what happened in 1971 and the events that led to Pakistan’s break-up, this is it.

M.R. Narayan Swamy Jan 27, 2022
From East Pakistan to Bangladesh: Recollections of 1971 Liberation War; Authors: Brigadier R P Singh (retd) and Hitesh Singh; Publishers: Vitasta

Even as the United States, China and virtually the entire Islamic world stood by Pakistan despite its butchery of civilians in its eastern wing that became an independent Bangladesh, one country which quietly sided with India – despite being shunned diplomatically by New Delhi – was Israel. This is just one of the gems in this eminently readable book which, contrary to its self-effacing sub-title, should be called the definite history of the 1971 war that altered South Asia’s British-created geography. 

New Delhi quietly sought and got arms from Tel Aviv - despite India not having formal diplomatic ties with Israel - as it readied for war with Pakistan after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary, P.N. Haskar, told the Indian ambassador in France to contact his counterpart in Paris. With the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) - India's external intelligence agency - on board, Israel immediately and covertly shipped arms through tiny Liechtenstein. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did send a note to Indira Gandhi in Hebrew requesting diplomatic ties in return. Unfortunately, this had to wait till 1992. 

What makes this work highly credible is not just because the author took part in the 1971 war and came to know intimately many who played a key role in giving birth to Bangladesh, but because he had access to confidential material of all the three services of the Indian armed forces besides the authentic military history. He read Indian classified documents at the decision-making level. Equally significant, the book beautifully delves into the history of Pakistan’s making in 1947 and exposes how short-sighted and arrogant military and civilian leaders exploited the eastern wing, laying the foundation of grievances which turned an entire population against Rawalpindi. 

Mujib’s early planning 

Bangladesh's Awami League party leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became convinced that East Pakistan would have to separate if Bengalis were to prosper very early on. In 1961, he set up an underground ‘Swadhin Bangla Biplobi Parishad’ (Independent Bengal Revolutionary Council) to work for an independent Bangladesh. He deputed a trusted aide to make contacts with the Deputy High Commissioner in India in Dhaka. A meeting was fixed between Mujib and a senior Indian intelligence officer in Agartala. The 1962 Sino-Indian war derailed these efforts but they resumed once Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Prime Minister. Also in the 1960s, Mujib got Chittaranjan Surar, an Awami League member, to settle down in Kolkata to liaise with RAW. 

The book says RAW star K. Sankaran Nair, who later become the agency's director, worked undercover as “Colonel Menon” and was in contact with a number of East Pakistani nationals who were his sources. India also provided arms and ammunition on a low key to those in East Pakistan opposed to Pakistani military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Brig Singh documents in details, partly on the strength of numerous interviews he carried out both in India and Bangladesh, how Pakistani soldiers displayed the worst human behaviour, using rape as a strategic weapon and killing and burning men, women and children at will in then East Pakistan. They also indulged in mass looting. 

Indeed, the chapters dealing with the Pakistani military conduct in East Pakistan make bone-chilling reading. But it was this “crackdown” – Operation Searchlight – that ended up becoming the obituary for a United Pakistan – just 24 years after its creation.  

After the war, 194 officers of the Pakistan Army and three each from the Air Force and Navy were identified as war criminals by India. Unfortunately, they were let off although Bangladesh wanted them tried in an international tribunal. Barring a few senior officers, all the war criminals were retained by the Pakistan Army and some rose to the rank of Lt Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals. 

“They were part of the teams that trained the Sikh militants in Punjab and J&K terrorists as well the Taliban in Afghanistan. With the help of CIA, they got Sheikh Mujibur Rahman assassinated and the Sikh terrorists killed Indira Gandhi,” the book says. 

Indira and Manekshaw

It was on March 1, 1971 that senior Awami League leaders approached RAW and sought military equipment, medical supplies and transportation facilities. The next day, Indira Gandhi set up a Special Committee of five Secretaries. A day after “Operation Searchlight” began, India decided to provide limited assistance to freedom fighters. When a provisional government was announced in Bangladesh’s Kushtia district, India's Border Security Force (BSF) and Indian Army personnel in civilian clothes -- the author included – provided security. 

“By the end of April, India was fully involved in the Liberation War.” The next month, the responsibility for assisting the resistance forces was handed over from the BSF to the Army. 

Indira Gandhi, the book says, told Indian Army chief, General S.H.F.J. Manekshaw on April 28, 1971 to invade Pakistan. He politely refused and gave the reasons. Indira Gandhi was greatly annoyed and ended the meeting. When everyone was leaving, she asked Gen Manekshaw: “Chief, will you stay behind?” Sensing trouble, he asked if he should resign. She asked if everything he had said was true. When he replied ‘yes’, she responded: “All right Sam, you know what I want. When will you be ready?" 

When, on a later date, Henry Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, expressed reluctance to put pressure on Pakistan to stop the genocide, the same Indira Gandhi proudly pointed to Gen Manekshaw who was in military attire and said: “If the US government and the US President cannot control the situation, then I am going to ask him to do the same.” 

Kissinger’s and CIA’s efforts to cause a split in the Bangladesh provincial government were thwarted by India. Indira Gandhi was simply not bothered by the negativity of the Nixon administration and some Arab countries. She snubbed the pro-Pakistan Shah of Iran twice. At the White House, Nixon was snobbish and conceited; Indira Gandhi was no less uppity and egocentric. Even before she went to Washington, “all pre-D Day preparations and battle procedures had been put in place” by India. 

Calling America's bluff

"Operation Jackpot" was the name India gave to its covert war. Training camps for the resistance came up in West Bengal, Bihar, Tripura, Meghalaya and Uttar Pradesh. By the end of November 1971, 83,000 freedom fighters had been trained and 51,000 were operating inside Bangladesh. Both the Indian and Bangladeshi authorities ensured that leftist students did not infiltrate the Mukti Bahini. Separately, a Mujib Bahini was trained from June 1971 to be loyal to the Bangladesh leader. Among those the author trained as Gentleman Cadets was Sheikh Kamal, a son of Mujibur Rahman. 

By the time war broke out and Indian and resistance forces began advancing deep into Bangladesh, Kissinger began to worry about the very survival of West Pakistan. Pressure was mounted on India, directly and otherwise, not to swallow Pakistan. When he realized it was all over, General A.A.K. Niazi of Pakistan was sobbing like a child in Dhaka. When the US Seventh Fleet sailed into the Bay of Bengal during the war, and Admiral S.M. Nanda, then Indian Navy chief, pointed it out to Indira Gandhi at a meeting, she didn’t respond. Thinking she may not have heard him, he repeated it, only to be snubbed: “Admiral, I heard you first time, let us go on with the briefing.” She had displayed her utter contempt for the American bluff. 

The book says that Nixon was upset over the CIA’s failure to decipher the Indian government thinking. CIA had moles in Delhi but they were unable to leak out minutes of cabinet meetings due to vigilance by RAW and Intelligence Bureau. Many who now criticize Indira Gandhi for not snatching the part of Kashmir with Pakistan or returning Pakistani territory India captured in the war ought to read this classic to know why all this happened. 

If you want to read just one book to know what happened in 1971 and the events that led to Pakistan’s break-up, this is it. This book should be read by all Indians as well as military experts and diplomats. 

Title: From East Pakistan to Bangladesh: Recollections of 1971 Liberation War; Authors: Brigadier R P Singh (retd) and Hitesh Singh; Publishers: Vitasta; Pages: 545; Price: Rs 995

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher) 

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