Die was cast for Bangladesh’s Liberation War in April 1971 | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 09, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:04 PM, May 09, 2021

Die was cast for Bangladesh’s Liberation War in April 1971

The month of April 1971 was when the die for the future of Bangladesh's Liberation War was cast. Both Indian and Bangladesh governments got busy in planning operations for expunging the Pakistani occupation forces at the earliest. Indira Gandhi held numerous meetings with cabinet colleagues, bureaucrats and the army top brass. She appointed an Advisory Group (AG) consisting of senior officials to deal with the Bangladesh crisis—Durga Prasad (DP) Dhar, Chairman of Planning Commission, Parmeshwar Narayan (PN) Haksar, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Triloki Nath (TN) Kaul, Foreign Secretary, Prithvi Nath (PN) Dhar, Secretary in the Prime Minister's office, and RN Kao, Director of RAW. All of them were Kashmiri Brahmins and acquainted to Indira Gandhi and had worked with her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. Some of them were related to her as well as to each other. The AG came to be known as "Kashmir Brigade" in the corridors of power. They worked in perfect synchronisation and laid down the liberation strategy for Bangladesh. A timetable was formulated to achieve the objectives within the time-frame of maximum one year. By the end of April, India was fully involved in the Liberation War.

A conference chaired by Colonel MAG Osmani—attended by all Bangladeshi senior army officers—was held in the tea garden of Teliapara in Slylhet district on April 4, 1971. From the Indian side, the district magistrate of Agartala Mr Saigal and Brigadier BC Pandey of BSF also attended. A policy paper was prepared for raising liberation forces—called the "Telipara Document", it spelt out the strategy for Bangladesh's liberation. This strategy was later approved by the Mujibnagar Government.

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On April 28, 1971, the PM summoned a meeting with her senior cabinet colleagues in her office to take stock of the situation arising out of Operation Searchlight by the Pakistani Army. Indian Army Chief General SHFJ Manekshaw was a special invitee. She was quite upset after reading the reports of the Chief Ministers of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura about the unprecedented continuous inflow of Bangladeshi refugees. She asked Manekshaw to move into East Pakistan. The General advised her against going to war immediately due firstly, to the shortage of critical arms, ammunitions, equipment and manpower required for offensive operations. Secondly, the state of war worthiness of tanks and other weaponry was quite unsatisfactory due to non-allocation of adequate funds. Thirdly, mobilisation of armed forces to the borders would require all the rolling stock of the Indian Railways for at least one month as the troops were located in the cantonments in the interiors of the country. This would adversely impact the movement of recently harvested Rabi food grains from wheat producing states which may result in famine like conditions in the country. Fourthly, with the impending monsoon and Bangladesh being a flat country with a large complex river system, it would get flooded which would seriously hamper movement of armour. Last but not least, the Chinese PM Zhau Enlai had hinted of helping Pakistan in case of an Indian attack. Any move by the Chinese along the Himalayas would tie down a large number of Indian troops, thus reducing the required numerical superiority for offensive operations. However, by November end, the passes along the northern border would have closed thereby ruling out any major Chinese mischief.

An angry Indira Gandhi abruptly adjourned the meeting till 4 pm. One by one the cabinet members left her office. As the General saluted before leaving, Indira Gandhi told him, "Chief, will you stay behind?" Manekshaw sensing trouble said, "Prime Minister, before you open your mouth would you like me to send my resignation on grounds of health, mental or physical?" Mrs Gandhi smiled and said, "No, sit down. Was everything you told me true?" The COAS replied, "Yes it is my job to tell you the truth. It is my job to fight and win, not lose." The ministers and COAS reassembled in the evening of April 28. Major decisions for the plan to help the Bangladesh government to liberate their country from Pakistani occupation forces were taken in this landmark meeting. The major points of the conference were conveyed to the Bangladeshi government in Kolkata by AK ROY.

On May 1, 1971, General Manekshaw issued Operation Instruction No 52 to the GOC-in-C Eastern Command Lt General JS Aurora and heads of other arms and services which spelt out the broad outline for operational contingencies. The overall aim was to: a) Assist the Bangladesh government in rallying the people of East Bengal to support the liberation movement; b) Raise, equip and train East Bengal cadres for guerrilla operations in their own native land with a view to: i) initially, immobilising and tying down the Pakistani military forces in protective tasks in East Bengal; ii) subsequently, by gradual escalation of guerrilla operations to sap and corrode the morale of Pakistani forces in the Eastern theatre, and simultaneously to impair their logistics capability for undertaking any offensive against Assam and West Bengal; iii) avail the guerrilla cadres as ancillaries to Eastern Field Force in the event of Pakistan initiating hostilities against us. GOC-in-C Eastern Command was ordered to: a) Advise, guide and encourage the Bangladesh government with overall context of independent East Bengal in such a manner so that their concurrence is obtained with regards to: i) Setting up of political and military organisations for waging war; ii) Size of the guerrilla force; iii) Scope and intensity of guerrilla operations to be conducted in East Bengal and; iv) Evolution of an effective intelligence set up. b) Plan for organising and equipping a guerrilla force, initially limited to 20,000 men, which could subsequently be enlarged to 100,000. c) By a process of gradual escalation, enlarge the scope of guerrilla operations in East Bengal. d) Perfect the organisation for waging guerrilla warfare in East Bengal.

The following guidelines were to be kept in view by Lt General JS Aurora: Stage 1: i) The border in respective sector area was to be kept "hotted up" with a view to keep large numbers of Pakistani troops tied down. ii) The isolated Pakistani BOPs, where retaliation by Pakistani troops was difficult, were to be selected and eliminated by Bangladeshi forces with the help of Indian troops. Artillery and mortar fire support for capture of such posts was provided by Indian Army and BSF. Stage 2: i) induction of freedom fighters inside Bangladesh into various safe havens, where support from local population was readily available, was to be planned by the Op Jackpot sector HQs in conformity with the total number of freedom fighters to be inducted, which was to be laid down by HQ Eastern Command. (ii) Destruction of rail, road and water transport was to be planned progressively deeper inside Bangladesh with a view to isolating forward areas and the main support areas such as troops' concentration areas and cantonments (of Pakistan Army). iii) In order to establish guerrilla bases deep inside Pakistani held territory, 145 especially selected students were to be trained and infiltrated inside Bangladesh. The destruction of installations, machinery, and big industrial estates including tea factories, petrol dumps and other installations in Jessore, Rajshahi, Dhaka, Mymensingh, Sylhet, Rangpur and Dinajpur was to be undertaken by specially planned operations.

Lt General JS Aurora passed instructions to his staff and the formations and coordinating conferences were held with the Bangladesh government and its Forces HQ for finalising the nitty-gritty for implementation of the plan. A coordination cell was established under the Eastern Command located at Kolkata for meeting the logistical and training needs of the Mukti Bahini. The Indian army also lent operational support and planning advice. Operation Jackpot was the codename given by Indian Army for Mukti Bahini Operations. Operation Jackpot was initially commanded by Major General Onkar Singh Kalkat, who took charge on April 27, 1971. However, he was replaced barely two months later by Major General BN (Jimmy) Sarcar.

General Sarcar being a Bengali was most suitable in coordinating the operations with Bangladeshi authorities. Colonel Osmani had differences of opinion with the Indian Army leadership regarding the role of the Mukti Bahini in the Liberation War. Indian leadership initially envisioned Bengali forces to be trained as the small elite guerrilla force of about 8,000 members. As per Indian proposal, the liberation force was to be based on the surviving East Bengal Regiment soldiers operating in small cells around Bangladesh to facilitate the eventual intervention by the Indian army. But Colonel Osmani proposed a different strategy. He wanted to raise Bangladesh's conventional force which was to occupy lodgement areas inside Bangladesh. The guerrillas were to be used as an auxiliary force. After a sizable chunk of Bangladesh's territory was occupied by Mukti Bahini, then the Bangladesh government would request international diplomatic recognition and intervention. Initially Mymensingh was picked for this operation but later Colonel Osmani settled for Sylhet as the hub of the intended operation. Simultaneously, it was decided to send the maximum number of guerrillas inside Bangladesh as soon as possible. However, a via-media was found and the raising, equipping and training of Mukti Bahini was carried out smoothly.

 

RP Singh, VSM is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. He is a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, in which he was involved in different capacities from day one till the surrender of the Pakistan Army on December 16, 1971.

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