How people 'fought' the 1971 war: A reminiscence

The Prime Minister said that shortly after 5.30 p.m., Pakistan “launched a full-scale war against us”, its Air Force striking eight Indian Air Force stations and its artillery opening up on several fronts

M.R. Narayan Swamy Nov 25, 2021
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Pakistani general surrendering to Indian general in Dhaka on Dec 17, 1971

Like all across the country, Netaji Nagar felt the first signs of the 1971 war that gave birth to Bangladesh much before the Indian and Pakistani troops took on each other in early December. 

Amid war clouds, L-shaped trenches had been dug outside our two-room government flats in Netaji Nagar, in south Delhi, so that people could take shelter in the event of a Pakistani air attack. It is another matter that the trenches could not have accommodated all those living even in our part of G Block. 

When patriotism is in the air, such failings don’t matter. 

Residents – all government servants barring a handful -- had been told to paste thick brown or black paper on their windowpanes so that no sign of life would be visible to the Pakistani pilots. This was called ‘blackout’ and it came to be enforced even before the India-Pakistan hostilities erupted. 

Who could enforce the diktat except the patriotic young? 

Blackout at night

Every day as sunset heralded an early winter night, groups of young boys – the age ranging from 10 to 20 – would march through various sections of Netaji Nagar to make sure that no street light was functional and no streak of light seeped through any window. 

Some boys carried thick bamboo sticks though it was not clear why. No Pakistani was unlikely to cross the border and travel hundreds of kilometers to reach the obscure Netaji Nagar. 

But who knows, so went the argument, a Pakistan Air Force pilot may bail out over Netaji Nagar if his aircraft was targeted by the Indian Army. 

In any case, there was persistent speculation of a Pakistani spy having taken shelter in a dense and fairly big shrubbery of red berries. The area was widely known as “wireless” – a strange name because it housed a few high-power overhead electrical transmission wires.  

The story went like this: A Sikh auto-rickshaw driver (those days almost all taxis and most autos in Delhi were driven by Sikhs) heard his lone male passenger whisper something to someone under his coat. He realized the man was a Pakistani spy who was probably conveying confidential information through a hidden walkie-talkie. But before he could be caught, the man jumped out of the moving vehicle and ran towards the shrubbery, never to be seen again. 

What if this spy came out during ‘blackout’? Will not the bamboo prove useful in tackling him? 

Pasting thick paper on the window panes was not a difficult task and all houses fell in line. Some used newspapers for this. But some failed to cut the paper correctly so as to cover the window panes well. In such cases, a thin line of light would be visible from the outside, triggering howls of protests from the patrolling patriotic young. 

“Light band karo, light band karo!” (Switch off the lights! Switch off the lights!), the shouts would go up in unison from the ground outside. The guilty household, fearing a barrage of stones on the window, would hurriedly switch off the dim light. Mission accomplished for Bharat Mata! 

Yahya Khan's boast

Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan had pompously declared on November 25, 1971 that in ten days he would not be in Rawalpindi but waging a war against India. 

Military conflict was now very much in the air. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims from then East Pakistan were streaming into India to escape the marauding Pakistani troops. The Indian government ordered everyone using the postal services (postcards were excluded) to buy and affix a special 5 paise stamp for ‘Refugee Relief’. That one decision took the war to virtually every house across the country.  

Thousands of Bengalis had been killed or wounded and raped before they could escape to West Bengal or Tripura. The good news was that the Mukti Bahini (pro-independence Bengali militia in East Pakistan) was increasingly gaining the upper hand. “Amar Sonar Bangladesh!” (My Golden Bengal) became a popular slogan on the streets – even to those who did not know a word of Bengali. The Indian Army was readying for action, both on the western and eastern fronts. One of our relatives, from Palghat in Kerala, was deployed in East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. 

When the war did break out on December 3, I and many others came to know about it from the Joshi family. 

The Joshis were a large family who occupied, like us, a ground floor flat in G block. Joshi Senior was a handsome man and a government employee who had the habit of parking himself on a string cot almost every evening outside his house, gathering a small crowd around him. He had a veritable bank of James Bond stories stored in his head. And he knew the most gripping way to tell, in Hindi, the master spy 007’s unceasing exploits. When he finished one story, his young listeners, some seated on the cot and some standing, would refuse to leave, hoping another story would follow. Joshi Senior would consult his watch and shoo away everyone. It was time to hit the bed. 

Indira Gandhi speaks

It was Joshi Senior who, holding a transistor glued to his ears, signalled everyone to be quiet because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was announcing on All India Radio that Pakistan had declared war on India. 

As a somber silence descended, Gandhi could be heard saying: “I speak to you at a moment of grave peril to our country and our people.” 

The Prime Minister said that shortly after 5.30 p.m., Pakistan “launched a full-scale war against us”, its Air Force striking eight Indian Air Force stations and its artillery opening up on several fronts. “Today the war in Bangladesh has become a war on India.” 

The war had finally started. I – then 12 years old -- broke ranks from the gang and rushed home, only to be given the same news by my father too. He was seated by the dining table and also listening to the radio. The India-Pakistan military conflict had begun. 

The news spread throughout Netaji Nagar, otherwise a quiet residential area built for central government employees that rarely if ever figured in newspapers. 

Our school life continued but with a difference – the main topic of discussion was the war. The teachers broke away from the textbooks for once and underlined the importance of national unity. Even a young boy like me would make it a point to quickly glean through the newspaper before heading to school. And when the war ended, with over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers and 'Razakkars' (Pakistani irregulars) surrendering to the Indian Army, euphoria seized the atmosphere. Some elders offered prayers at temples. 

But mind you, there was no communalism in the air, no suspicion of the nearby Muslim, barring in a few pockets. India had fought as one – and won. 

Pakistani prisoners

The ‘blackout’ got over and the patriotic gangs were ‘dissolved’. However, for weeks thereafter, we heard the captured Pakistani soldiers send out messages on All India Radio that invariably began with the wordings “Agar koi meri awaz sun raha ho… (If someone is listening to me...).” The soldiers would give out their name, rank and hometown and a desire that their family be informed that they were well in Indian custody. The soldiers who thus spoke were from all parts of Pakistan although we were familiar then with only some places: Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Quetta and Peshawar. 

Some Punjabi shopkeepers, their wounds of the 1947 partition still not healed, would keep the radio on full volume when such messages were broadcast. They were immensely happy listening to the incarcerated Pakistani troops.  Frankly, we too enjoyed it. 

Little did we know that the 1971 war would lay the foundation for an ugly India-Pakistani feud that began when the country was partitioned by the British and which would last for decades, leaving thousands of people dead and wounded. Nor did we know then that the Pakistanis were covertly holding some Indian soldiers and officers whom they would never release. We were too young and immature then. 

(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal)