3rd December 1971: The Indo-Pak war began

The 1971 India-Pakistan War, which ended in the formation of a new country, Bangladesh, began on December 3. The war followed months of fighting between the West Pakistan army and Bangladesh liberation forces.

In 1967, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who had announced a six-point programme for provincial autonomy for East Pakistan, and other Bengali leaders were accused of fomenting a secessionist movement with Indian support, but the trial that was held in Dacca (now Dhaka) only made Mujibur a hero in the eyes of most East Pakistanis.

Pakistan backtracked and withdrew the conspiracy case against Mujibur.

In the 1970 elections in Pakistan, Mujibur’s party, East Pakistani Awami League, won an overwhelming 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan, consequently even bagging a simple majority in the 313-seat Pakistan Parliament. However, the West Pakistan establishment refused to let Mujibur form the government. Instead the military was called in to crush dissent in East Pakistan.  

With the discontent and protests in East Pakistan intensifying, the Pakistani army started a brutal crackdown in March 1971, committing large-scale atrocities including mass killings. Mujibur was arrested and several members of the Awami League fled to India.

The Pakistani army in the East reportedly consisted of four infantry brigades at the time of the crackdown. In the next few months, this was rapidly expanded.

On the evening of March 27, Ziaur Rahman, an army officer from East Bengal (who would later become president of Bangladesh), declared on radio: “I…hereby declare…independence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, in the name of our great leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I call upon all Bengalis to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani army. We shall fight to the last to free our motherland.”

The refugee crisis soon engulfed India. Eventually, in less than a year an estimated 1 crore refugees from Bangladesh would swarm into West Bengal. The pressure on India to act against Pakistan grew.

On March 31, 1971, delivering a resolution in the Indian Parliament, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said: “This House expresses its profound sympathy for and solidarity with the people of East Bengal in their struggle for a democratic way of life…This House calls upon all peoples and governments of the world to take urgent and constructive steps to prevail upon the government of Pakistan to put an end immediately to the systematic decimation of the people (of East Bengal) which amounts to genocide…The House wishes to assure them (the people of East Bengal) that their struggle and sacrifices will receive the whole-hearted sympathy and support of the people of India.”

It is believed that by the end of March 1971 the decision to help the Mukti Bahini (the Bangladesh liberation army which included both regular troops of East Pakistan and thousands of civilians) had been taken by the Indian government. Publically, the Indian Parliament stated the country’s resolve to “doing everything possible to lend support to the freedom fighters” on July 29, 1971.

The Indian army began to prepare for what looked like an inevitable war. This including training fighters of the Mukti Bahini. In his book Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, Lt Gen JFR Jacob, who was India’s Chief of Staff, Eastern Army, during the Bangladesh war, gives an insight into the thinking in the Indian military camp: “It was my assessment that the Pakistani Army…would almost certainly defend the main towns and cities, assessing that the Indian aim would be to seize a sizable portion of territory in order to set up a credible Bangladesh Government-in-exile…I had no doubt that Dacca was the geopolitical and geostrategic heart of East Pakistan and that the capture of Dacca was the essential part of any operation.”

In October-November, Indira and her advisors toured Europe and America to explain India’s point of view to world leaders. But talks between Indira and United States president Richard Nixon were not fruitful. In her biography of Indira, Katherine Frank writes: “Nixon would do nothing to help facilitate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s release, nor would he do anything to persuade General Khan to open a dialogue with the leaders of the Awami League. Nixon wanted to give the military government in West Pakistan two years to come to terms with the situation in the East. Indira countered that ‘the situation was explosive and could not be defused until Mujibur was released and a dialogue started with the already elected leaders of East Pakistan’. She also told Nixon ‘in no uncertain terms that India would be forced to retaliate if Pakistan continued its provocations across [India’s] border’.”

With the crisis reaching a boiling point, there were large marches in West Pakistan, with loud calls for military action against India. In response, Indian troops amassed at the border with East Pakistan. On November 23, Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan told Pakistanis to prepare for war.

December 3, 1971, was a Sunday. A little after 5.30 p.m., Pakistan’s air force struck multiple targets in north and west India, including Amritsar and Agra, plunging the subcontinent to war.

On the morning of December 4, Indira Gandhi said in a speech to the Lok Sabha: “…West Pakistan has escalated and enlarged the aggression against Bangladesh into full war against India…We should be prepared for a long struggle”. In the end, it would not be a very long struggle. The 1971 India-Pakistan War ended on December 16, with the surrender of the Pakistani army and the birth of Bangladesh.  

Also on this day:

1882 — Nandalal Bose, renowned painter of the Bengal school of art, was born

1884 — Rajendra Prasad, Congress leader and India’s first President, was born

1889 — Khudiram Bose, Bengali revolutionary, was born

1956 — Manik Bandopadhyay, Bengali writer, passed away

1979 — Dhyan Chand, Indian hockey legend, passed away

1979 — Konkona Sen Sharma, Indian film actress, was born

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