India’s first decisive military victory came in the Indo-Pak war of 1971 when the Indian Army ‘liberated’ East Pakistan from the tyrannical oppressive rule of West Pakistan and created Bangladesh. It was the coming of age for the young nation which showed unsurmountable determination and unshakeable will power. The Indo-Pak war of 1971 changed the geography of the subcontinent and established India as the regional hegemon.

In the Indo-Pak war of 1971, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led the nation with great patience and restraint. India decisively won the war by dividing Pakistan into two, with a new country, Bangladesh, more than 60 percent of Pakistan’s population. In 1970, the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman won 169 of Pakistan’s 313 parliamentary seats but was refused the post of Prime Minister. In fact, Pakistani military dictator General Yahya Khan has arrested Mujib and imposed martial law on East Pakistan.

From 1970–71, Pakistan faced a civil war where the country’s populated eastern part was controlled by civil and defense personnel from the West (Punjab) – the officials who did not know anything about the Bangla language, customs, and heritage. Operation Searchlight was carried out by the West Pakistani government in April 1971 to eliminate Bengali opposition, politically or militarily. It aimed to curb the rising nationalistic Bengali forces. Independent researchers estimate that 300,000 to 500,000 people died during this period. According to one estimate, 300,000 Bengali-speaking women in East Pakistan were raped. The Mukti Morcha launched the Bangla Mukti Movement, which blew up railway lines and bridges under Mukti Bahini- a rebellious guerrilla force of East Pakistan as a result of Operation Search Light.  India was giving training to these rebel forces. 

This genocide enraged the Bengali speaking population, who declared independence from Pakistan. Indira permitted a government in exile by the Awami League near Calcutta but refrained from any formal status to it. As the opposition became more strident, Indira decided upon Bangladeshi recognition in August 1971. The Pakistani army launched a barbaric invasion in its Eastern part. India faced more than 10 million refugees from East Pakistan.

For six months, between March and October 1971, Indira wrote to world leaders appraising them on the situation pertaining to the Indian border. She tried to arouse the world’s conscience over the merciless butchering of the civilian population in East Pakistan and the savagery of General Tikka Khan. To her defense chiefs, she gave complete freedom and sufficient time and resources for action.  India decided not to intervene militarily till November 1971 so that it can prepare its military build-up. The military build-up was signaling towards an imminent war. 

By 23rd November, the Indian army had penetrated into East Pakistan and allied with Bangladeshi nationalists. Afraid of the Indian attack on Eastern front, PAF launched pre-emptive strikes on 3 December 1971, on eight airfields from Srinagar to Barmer. Pakistani Air Force had named the pre-emptive strikes as Operation Chengiz Khan, inspired by Israeli’s operation. This strike was aimed at Agra too and as a precautionary measure, the Taj Mahal was covered so that the shine of marble won’t signal the PAF aircraft. India now had to retaliate. This involved a huge concerted step- all three forces coordinated together with the aim to free East Pakistan. General Sam had asked the PM to give complete autonomy in deciding the affairs. It was his plan to launch attacks on multiple fronts- East and West Pakistan involving all three armies, navy, and air force.

In her measured voice, the PM informed the nation that “the war is heavy upon us.” This marked the beginning of the war. Indian Air forces carried out heavy retaliatory strikes. It moved towards the western front. Another story of valor of Indian forces was from the Western sector, where the historic Battle of Longewala was fought. Indian army overwhelmingly outnumbered, took advantage of a defensive position and faults in enemy deployment to emerge victoriously. Our army, air force, and navy performed spectacularly – sinking in a Pak submarine, Ghazi that was planning an attack near the Visakhapatnam port and later Indian navy bombarded Karachi port. Indian army made huge gains in Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir sectors. On the Western front, the army and navy of Pakistan were devastated.

In the Security Council, USSR had vetoed a resolution on 4th December calling for a ceasefire and withdrawal of forces. This diplomatic support ensured that India could go ahead. India was heading towards mighty success, the US attempted to intervene, extending its seventh vessel towards the Bay of Bengal. American involvement in the war was major because of its apprehensions that if India invades Pakistan and disintegrates it, leading to Soviet presence in the region thus, threatening the US position as a superpower. China maintained its neutrality and the USSR moved a fleet from Vladivostok to counter the American Armada to respect the Indo- Soviet Peace Treaty. Superpower America was forced to retreat its fleet. Soviet Union-India’s friendship was one of the main factors behind Indian Victory.

Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora was the Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army Eastern Front. While the armed forces were tackling with Pakistani forces on the Eastern front, a complete blockade in the Eastern front had been accomplished by Indian naval and air forces. Indian army had encircled Dhaka and the enemy was left with no choice. It had been bruised morally as well apart from huge casualties. Pakistan received a devastating blow on both fronts and Dhaka, Chittagong and other East Pakistani settlements were all surrounded by the Indian Army. Pakistan ultimately surrendered.

The Instrument of Surrender was signed on 16 December 1971, between Lt Gen.  JS Aurora and Lt Gen AAK Niazi. The war came to end, independent Bangladesh was born after years of oppression. The slogans of “Joy Bangla, Joy Indira” filled the air of Dhaka. 90,000 Pakistani servicemen were taken as Prisoners of War. This was the largest surrender post WW2 and undoubtedly the greatest achievement of Indian military forces. Pakistani casualties were around 33,000(both killed and wounded) and 20,000 casualties for India, many of the Pakistani air force was devastated, naval forces suffered huge losses, nearly 15,000 sq km of land had been captured that was later ceded during Simla accord.

After the victory, Indira was in a hurry to announce a ceasefire. She made it clear to the world that India’s ambitions are aimed at protecting its territorial sovereignty and does not have any expansionist agenda. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of the leaders of the opposition, described Indira Gandhi as ‘Abhinav Chandi Durga’ for defeating Pakistan in the war. The greatest hero of the victory was undoubtedly General Sam Manekshaw. With the victory in war, PM Indira Gandhi announced in the Parliament that Dhaka is the capital of a free country and the nation is proud of its security forces. Celebrations had erupted in the entire nation.

Not to forget, the nation had been humbled by China, a decade before. This was the settling of scores with history. Prime Minister Gandhi’s popularity reached its peak; after all, she was the commander-in-chief of the nation that had vigorously gone ahead with splitting Pakistan. The result of this war was significant in another matter- it brutally exposed that Pakistan had totally failed its minorities. The Simla Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan that ensured the return of PoW. Undoubtedly, this will remain one of the very high points of Indian diplomacy: India stood for her national interest even when the world turned against her. The victory in the Indo-Pak war of 1971 was a testament to the valor of Indian armed forces, the strong leadership, and more importantly to India’s indomitable nationalistic spirit.

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