Every year, 16 December 1971 gets remembered for being a historic day in the subcontinent’s military, diplomatic, intelligence and political history. Pakistan not only suffered a humiliating military defeat, but it was both territorially and ideologically dismembered. Muslims of East Pakistan got a new country in the form of a freshly created Bangladesh that, ironically, was carved out on a lingual and ethnic basis from its parent country (Pakistan), created only 24 years earlier on religious (Muslim) lines. And India, which had been partitioned on the basis of a Two-Nation theory and given Independence less than a quarter century earlier, had a grand military and diplomatic victory to boast, despite challenges posed by a then hostile United States and China. It was one of India’s finest hours, which is unlikely to be replicated.

But there are several aspects related to the war that is either not given the attention they deserve or appear altogether to be forgotten. For example, Pakistan’s support to terror and secessionist activities in India had started in the mid-1950s, less than a decade after that country came into existence. Pakistan started by training, arming and funding followers of Phizo, the Naga hostile leader, in 1956 in training camps and safe sanctuaries established in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of then East Pakistan. In the 1960s, Pakistan began similarly supporting the Mizoram National Front. Eventually, Pakistan, which by then had begun forging close relations with China, facilitated the Naga and Mizo secessionists to establish contact with the Chinese intelligence, which, in turn, set up training camps for the Nagas in China’s Yunnan province, starting from October 1968. Ironically, some years after it came into being, Bangladesh’s intelligence agencies, in collaboration with the ISI, the intelligence agency of the very country it broke away from, ended up training insurgents from India’s Tripura and Assam.

The Pakistani ISI’s activities in the 1950s and 1960s partially influenced Indira Gandhi to assist the Bengali speaking people of East Pakistan in their struggle against the Urdu speaking and Punjabi dominated West Pakistan. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), created less than three years prior to the war (on 21 September 1968), was pressed into service to train the Mukti Bahini, without whose assistance the creation of Bangladesh would not have been possible. The RAW was then generously assisted by the Intelligence Bureau (from which the RAW had been carved) and, of course, the Army, in training the Mukti Bahini.

The repression unleashed by the Pakistani army on the Bengalis in East Pakistan led to an influx of refugees into India on a scale larger than even caused by the British induced partition of India. Almost 10 million (9,899,305 to be precise) refugees had entered India prior to the war. As many as 7.2 million refugees had entered India within a span of just four months, between end March and end-July 1971, following the Pakistani army’s merciless crackdown on the night of 25 March. The 10 million refugees, hosted in 825 relief camps spread across 2,800 km across states bordering then East Pakistan, accounted for over one third of the world’s refugee problem (27.6 million) at the time. An insensitive United Nations, internally split because of the Cold War alignments, chose not to take cognisance of the human catastrophe, seeking instead to treat it as an India-Pakistan issue.

Also not widely remembered is that although Indian troops had unofficially entered East Pakistan on 21 November, well before the war officially began, overt hostilities between the two countries had started not on India’s eastern front, but rather on the country’s western front and that too by Pakistan. Based on the belief that the defence of East Pakistan lay in India’s western theatre, Pakistan launched a series of aerial strikes on almost a dozen Indian airbases located in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan on the evening of 3 December. This was followed by army assaults that same night and also the following morning at four places across J&K (Poonch and Chhamb), Punjab (Fazilka) and in the deserts of Rajasthan. What is also forgotten is that the India-Pakistan war in 1971 did not officially come to an end with the signing of the historic Instrument of Surrender by a defeated East Pakistan headed by Lt General A.A.K. Niazi, but rather with India’s unilateral ceasefire on India’s western front today (i.e. on 17 December), 46 years ago.

Yet, little is ever mentioned or discussed about the war fought on India’s western front. The fact is that both sides appeared devoid of clearly defined political and strategic goals on the Western front. Both sides failed to capitalise on opportunities and hesitated to utilise their reserves. Tragically, India did not give the western front the importance it deserved. Despite having lost Chhamb (in J&K) only six years earlier in the 1965 India-Pakistan War (which was fortunately returned as part of the January 1966 Tashkent Agreement), the Indian Army failed to defend Chhamb a second time. Shamefully, India again lost Chhamb to Pakistan and this time it was not returned. While Pakistan re-took Chhamb, which it had to earlier return on the negotiations table, India made no serious effort to retake the strategically important Haji Pir Pass, which it had similarly had to return following the Tashkent Agreement. Clearly, India wasted what eventually became its last major opportunity to settle Jammu and Kashmir through conventional military means. For, immediately after its defeat, Pakistan embarked in earnest to develop nuclear weapons technology after entering into a deeper strategic alliance with China. As subsequent events have shown, India has had to tread cautiously each time a major flare-up between the two sides has occurred.

A foresighted Justice Abu Said Choudhury, who took over as the President of newly created Bangladesh in January 1972, had then warned India against a unilateral ceasefire on the western front, saying “when you chop off the tail of a cobra, its head becomes ten times more venomous”. Subsequent events have proven him right. Lack of strategic thinking and foresight resulted in India paying a huge cost in Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of lives have since been lost and thousands of crores of rupees expended to fight Pakistan’s seemingly endless proxy war in the state, where people remain more angry and alienated than ever. Had India retaken Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in 1971, there would have been no Karakoram Highway or a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Rather than being geographically land blocked by Pakistan, India would have been able to have an independent land access to West Asia and beyond through Afghanistan’s north eastern tip. Alas, all this is likely to remain in the realm of an “if”. Future generations will continue to suffer the consequences of a wasted opportunity.

Dinesh Kumar is a Chandigarh based defence analyst.


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