1971 war: the greatest victory
The Indian military’s habit of not fully recording war diaries has given individuals the opportunity to fiddle around with and fabricate events
Fifty years of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 will be commemorated with great vigor and enthusiasm, recalling the geostrategy, tactics and heroism of the great Indian victory – one of 1,000 years in which the achievements on the battlefield were wasted over the negotiating table. The war corrected the geographical mismatch of Pakistan, which was split into two units separated by 1,000 miles. The late politician and writer Jaswant Singh described the geography of victory as a revenge on history – when the use of force led to the birth of a new country, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. It was the last decisive war of the 20th century, although it failed to resolve the cause of the enmity between India and Pakistan – not J&K, but the hostile behavior of the Pakistani army.
In the last century there is no clear example of a decisive interstate war other than the world wars. But internal conflicts produced results. The extermination of the Khalistan movement was a rare success for India. This is also the case with the first takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia was a unique event. Even in the 21st century, a number of internal conflicts were resolved by violence – the defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the recent recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Another genre of military success without the use of military force were “fait accompli” operations such as the Russian occupation of Crimea, the Chinese occupation of islands in the South China Sea, and the Chinese invasion of eastern Ladakh. In the space between war and non-peace lie gray area operations, the defender’s dilemma. And now, with the advent of cyber war and artificial intelligence, thinkers and practitioners of war and conflict have had a lot to think about. While the nature and character of war have changed, the principles of war are more or less the same, with technology being the consistent key factor in shaping its outcomes.
Past wars and internal conflicts cannot be reproduced. Take the war for Bangladesh. The ten months available to prepare, gain air sovereignty, and assist Mukti Bahini are some conditions that cannot be restored. Also the political cover that the USSR gave through its veto power, which gave India time to ensure that the war did not end with a cessation of hostilities, as Pakistan desired, but ended with Indian terms of complete and complete surrender. The controversial issue of the war was whether Dacca was nominated as the final target of the war. From a study of various historical accounts it is clear that Dacca was not originally the ultimate goal, but that the Eastern Army was assigned a less ambitious mission. Improvisation and innovation from both sides played a big role in the war. Maj. Gen. Nazir Husain Shah, GOC 16 Pakistan Infantry Division and a Fort Leavenworth USA alumni, split a single battalion in two, although the representation of a broad front was also practiced by Indian forces.
I would like to see memorial services put more emphasis on remembering the infantry-led epic battles of Pirgunj, Hilli, Sylhet and Akhaura, to name a few. The road block at Pirgunj by 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF), for example, turned the flank of the Pakistani 16th Infantry Division, which fought the fortress defense at Hilli by crossing the Karatoya River. It was the first turning south towards Bogra and Dacca and divided Pakistan’s 16th Infantry Division. Similarly, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF) conducted India’s first heliborne operations and, although reduced to half a battalion in combat, took on the 15th they had previously carried out the first silent ‘khukuri’ attack on Atgram, although the British Gurkhas previously claimed the honor in Indonesia. These short and sharp battles hastened the end of the war and confirmed the infantry as queen of the battle. It would make more sense to invite officers to take part in these actions than for the post-war generation of officers to preach about the doctrines and dialectics of deterrence.
India needs to cherish the 1971 victory against Pakistan but focus on small unit actions that will be relevant to future external wars. The Kargil Limited War was another classic demonstration of infantry-led small-unit battles that drove invading Pakistani forces from across the LoC. It is a pity that war stories from 1962 and IPKF Sri Lanka, although recorded, have not been published for political reasons. The Indian military’s bad habit of not completely and faithfully recording war diaries has given individual combatants an opportunity to play around with events and invent them to reinforce their personal exploits. The media in general and social media in particular have contributed to this without verifying facts.
Biographies and autobiographies are especially guilty as they embellish the records of units and individuals beyond what is recorded in regimental history. And where there is no official regimental history, some writers have gone to town to improve their stature. All communications regarding past wars must be verified by the MoD’s history department and certification obtained from the authors stating that they have not used material that is not in official records. The government has manipulated events in East Ladakh, pretending that the People’s Liberation Army invaders had not changed the LAC. Even so, success on the 1971 battlefield is India’s great savior and greatest victory.
(The author, a retired Major General, was in command of IPKF South, Sri Lanka, and a founding member of the Defense Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defense Staff. Views expressed are personal.)