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Strategic lessons of 1971 war which India never assimilated Bharat Shakti 22 Dec 2021
The fiftieth anniversary of India’s glorious victory was celebrated last week with the accolades it deserved. The Indian armed forces and the Mukti Bahini, working in close coordination, had proved their mettle by freeing East Pakistan from the clutches of the murderous West Pakistan regime. Reports claim millions were killed, hundreds of thousands of women raped and 10 million were displaced seeking refuge in India. Bangladesh is still demanding the UN recognize 25th March as world genocide day.
Despite the US threatening India of sending its seventh fleet in support of Pakistan, India refused to divert its attention from its primary aim of freeing Bangladesh. While Pakistan failed to draw lessons from its defeat and continues to resort to the same policy of genocide in Baluchistan, there are lessons for India which remain relevant and must be imbibed by the polity and the armed forces.
The first major lesson is close military-political coordination. Despite claims to the contrary, the advice of the army chief on needing time to prepare and equip forces was accepted. The logic on impact of weather on operations as also the need to train forces for offensive operations as imperative was successes was never questioned. In addition was the vibrant diplomacy launched by the government to convince the world of India’s intent. The icing on the cake was the Indo-Soviet treaty, which provided it diplomatic support in global forums and kept other nations at bay. Close politico-military coordination ensured victory as it was launched at a time considered most appropriate for success and backed by multiple nations, less the US.
The government had involved the armed forces in national security decision-making and placed its trust on it to succeed. It implied the government took broad decisions and left implementation on the forces. Over the years the armed forces have been moved away from national security decision-making. Even the National Security Council does not have an armed forces member in a permanent appointment. This is a major error as threats to the nation have multiplied. Reconstituting national security organs and increasing the role of the armed forces in national security decision-making is essential.
All forces involved in the operations including the BSF and the Mukti Bahini were placed under the Eastern army commander. It ensured unity of purpose, coordinated operations and employing all troops in a cohesive manner to pursue national objectives. This aspect has been lost sight of in recent times. Central Armed Police Forces including the BSF and ITBP deployed along the LOC, LAC and counter insurgency currently operate under their respective HQs and ministries. This has diluted coordinated security operations. The concept of one commander responsible for a single theatre must be reinstituted.
National will to succeed was evident in 1971. The common Indian bore hardships to ensure the nation succeeded in its goals for liberating Bangladesh. Similar sentiments were displayed during Kargil. Despite internal differences the nation has always stood as one during periods of war and invasion as also in supporting the valour and sacrifice of our soldiers. However, this will lose relevance in case success of the armed forces is politicized and exploited during elections. Political parties must avoid seeking credit or criticizing armed forces for political gains. On the contrary, political parties possess the right to claim credit for decision-making.
During the 1971 war, the US placed restrictions on export of spare parts for their origin equipment operated by the Indian armed forces. This was repeated post the nuclear blast in 1998. During that period India had very little US origin equipment. These incidents should have opened our eyes to the fact that the nation cannot be subservient to global whims and fancies and that indigenization is the solution for success in operations. It took almost five decades for this realization to sink in. Nations always act in self-interest and similar restrictions could be expected in the future. It is therefore in our interest to support our domestic industry and concentrate on indigenization, rather than banking on import.
Synergized operations was the core for success. Though there were no theatre commands nor a CDS, however General Sam Manekshaw and the Military Operations department coordinated operations. Army-air force cooperation in Longewala and crossing of the Meghna river, as also the blockades of Karachi and Chittagong simultaneously with land-based operations ensured national victory. Much water has flowed under the bridge since 1971. Capabilities have enhanced leading to the services reconsidering their own concept of operations, resulting in them acting in independent silo’s rather than in unison. Disagreements in the initial stages of the Kargil war bear testimony. Thus, creating theatre commands for ensuring synergized operations is paramount and must be pursued with vigour.
Intelligence has always been the bane post 1971, despite enhancement in technology. In 1971, it was the Mukti Bahini which provided accurate ground intelligence to enable speedy conduct of operations. Post 1971, with the proliferation of intelligence agencies, quality of output has deteriorated. Kargil and terrorist strikes within India succeeded because of flawed and failed intelligence, as also agencies competing with each other. Failure to determine Chinese intent led to their intrusion being detected post having occurred. Unless India revamps its intelligence networks it will always be fighting post being surprised.
Initially in 1971, the plan involved capturing territory in which a Bangladesh government could be established, and refugees moved back. Capture of Dacca came into the picture much later. As operations progressed, Dacca became the goal along with unconditional surrender of Pak forces in the region. The lesson which emerges is that goals must change with progress of operations.
The victory in 1971 could have been exploited for settling major border issues with Pakistan on the bargaining table. There may have been political and diplomatic logic as to why it was not done. However, there were pockets captured which were vital for future operations and should have never been handed back. Had politico-military cooperation continued post the war, rather than a battle of ego between the polity and the military on grabbing limelight for success, this could have been achieved.
While possession of nuclear weapons has changed future concept of operations and terminal objectives, strategic lessons from 1971 remain relevant. Ignoring them would be at national peril.