Monsoon brings refugee deluge and muktijuddha regrouping

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1971 Muktijuddho

The monsoon season began middle of May and ran into the first week of October. The rains were beating down hard and the muddy terrain negated the development of full-scale war. Large-scale operations became difficult and both sides needed to recoup their losses. This gave both sides time for preparation, reorganise their forces and prepare for strong action when the rains eased. During these months there was another deluge - that of millions of Bengali refugees fleeing Pakistani brutality and pouring over the border into Indian refugee camps. By the beginning of August the figure had risen to over 7 million - and indications were that Pakistan's continuing campaign of terror, coupled with the food shortages that would naturally flow the widespread destruction of Bangladesh's agriculture, would push the figures up to ten, twelve, even fifteen millions by the time the winter was over.

A cyclone that killed as many as 500,000 people. A civil war that claimed perhaps 200,000 more. An exodus that already totals 5,000,000 and is still growing. A cholera epidemic that has barely begun, yet has already taken some 5,000 lives. It is an almost biblical catalogue of woe, rivaling if not surpassing the plagues visited upon the Egyptians of Mosaic days. And yet it is virtually certain that the list will grow even longer for the bedeviled people of East Pakistan. Last week, a fresh waves of refugees poured across the Indian border at the rate of 100,000 a day.

TIME magazine on 21 June 1971

By the end of July, in response to Indira Gandhi's call, and also due to international and humanitarian pressures, Yahya Khan offered to take back the refugees, but under certain conditions. He said that Pakistani citizens who had left their homes "owing to disturbed conditions and for other reasons" were welcome to return to their homes in East Pakistan, where, according to him, law and order had been restored and "life was fast returning to normal". He accused India of exaggerating and distorting accounts of events which has led to the refugee influx. According to Yahya, the number of refugees had been inflated by adding to them the unemployed and homeless in West Bengal and the 'genuine' refugees from East Pakistan numbered only 2 million. And this was all he was prepared to accept back and no more - leaving about 8 million as India's responsibility.

The refugees were not 'refugees' per se. Either they were destitute Indians masquerading as Pakistani citizens or they were ordinary, gullible East Pakistanis, who had fallen prey to Indian propaganda.


An editorial in The Pakistan Times, titled 'A Humanitarian Question', blamed All India Radio propaganda for those who had left as a result of the 'abnormal situation created by the nefarious anti-state and anti-social activities of the miscreants [i.e. Mukti Bahinis]'. Claiming that refugees numbers had been 'inflated out of proportion', the editorial blamed India for 'using a basically human question for the sake of political propaganda against Pakistan', whose aim was to 'mislead the world and create international opinion in favour of and justifying the anti-state activities of those elements who wanted to destroy the peace of the province'.


As a pre-requisite for the refugee's return, he proposed that an observer group under the UN should be stationed along the international border between East Pakistan and India, with a view to overseeing the return of the refugees though more likely to report on India's involvement in the Mukti Bahini movement.

As for a political solution, he [Yahya Khan] promised to call the National Assembly in due course. This was only a pretence as most of the members had either been killed or driven into India. About a 100 of them had been detained unlawfully by presidential decree and the seats thus declared vacant had been filled by uncontested elections under Tikka Khan's rule. A puppet had been appointed Prime Minister in Islamabad, and another as Governor of East Pakistan, replacing the unpopular Tikka Khan. Power still remained with Yahya Khan at the centre as President, and in East Pakistan with Tikka Khan, and later with Niazi, as Martial Law Administrator.


However, the Government of India found these conditions unacceptable. No doubt Yahya Khan could create a fake 'normalcy' in east Pakistan so that India would find it difficult to justify military intervention. They also concluded that in order to induce the refugees to return, it was necessary to create a 'favourable political atmosphere. This meant handing over power to Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League as elected democratically by the people, and nothing less. Posting UN observers in India was seen as a ridiculous idea as the international press had free access to the border and their reports were there for the world to see and hear. These conditions, insisted the Government of India, could only be created by Yahya Khan. And if he failed to do so on his own it was for the world powers to persuade him to do so.

Pakistan could have strived to generate international pressure against India so as to effect a ceasefire and a political settlement suited to its interest before the monsoon lifted and the terrain permitted the resumption of military operations.

Yahya Khan however slipped up on this very feasible option, perhaps because of his belief in Tikka Khan's ability to suppress the Bengali insurgency and bring back normalcy so that India would have no excuse to intervene. Perhaps his fears of the inadequacy of Pakistan's own military preparedness for such lightning action in the west, especially after having lost two divisions of its strike force, influenced his judgment. Yahya Khan thus lost the opportunity of a lifetime.


With the likelihood of the Mukti Bahini movement taking months, even years, to unloosen the Pakistani military stranglehold on Bangladesh, Yahya Khan threatening total war if India uses force to return the refugees, and public opinion intensifying within it's own country, the Government of India gave the go ahead to the service chiefs to 'plan and carry out preparations to meet the contingency' if other alternatives failed.

Initially, most foreign governments, including that of the US, had reacted favourably to New Delhi's diplomatic approaches, but only so long as they sensed that the Indian demands were "moderate", namely stopping Tikka Khan's crackdown, releasing Mujibur Rahman and granting some sort of provincial autonomy to East Pakistan. But the moment India echoed the voice of the Bangladesh government-in-exile, that nothing less than complete independence would do, these governments recoiled from their earlier conciliatory mood. Especially so when India turned down the proposal for UN observers, as they suggested India definitely had something to hide.

The more international pressure became ineffective the more India was pushed closer to thinking of war, and the closer thinking got to war the more it alienated international opinion.


The usual Indian practice in public statements in this period was to refer to East Pakistan as "East Bengal".


A Mukti Bahini training camp

India aids Mukti Bahini

Bangladesh forces entered a period of reorganization to train guerrillas, set up networks and safe houses in the occupied territories to run the insurgency and rebuild the conventional forces during June/July of 1971. As the pace of operations slacked off, public morale was adversely affected, which prompted Pakistani authorities to claim that the situation was 'normal' in East Pakistan.

Colonel Osmani & co restructure the Bengali resistance

Having realised their mistake of trying to fight a conventional warfare with professional armed forces, the Mukti Bahini reorganised itself in July. Colonel Osmani restructured the resistance. He divided Bangladesh into eleven sectors, appointing new commanders, incorporating some officers who had arrived after escaping from West Pakistan, and taking advantage of the arrival of thousands of regular and guerrilla fighters trained by Indian and Bangladeshi instructors. A typical sector would have a commander and, when available, a deputy commander. A local legislator would serve as the civil affairs adviser. Accountants and logistics officers, usually civilians, helped the commander to maintain control over the flow of money, rations and equipment.

Each sector had thousands of fighters, with manpower often exceeding firearms. Ill-equipped youthful combatants, armed with little more than the 'freedom fighters' fiery zeal, went into battle against professional Pakistani soldiers and paramilitary troops month after month, wearing the enemy down. Despite the cost in Bengali blood and Indian treasure, mostly the former, this was perhaps inevitable.


During July, there was a plan to form a brigade that would recover a free zone and establish control over there. To me it was a wrong decision and I opined to Tajuddin Ahmed and Colonel Osmani that in a plain land like Bangladesh, it would not be possible for a brigade to keep hold of a free zone fighting against the well-equipped Pakistani force. Rather, it would severely hamper our original strategy of guerilla war. However, the brigade was formed and Ziaur Rahman, the most senior among the EBR officials, was appointed as the brigade commander.

From 10 - 15 July 1971 Sector Commanders met at the headquarters of the Liberation Force in Calcutta. In the beginning, some commanders proposed formation of a war council. Major Ziaur Rahman played a significant role behind this plan, among others. Colonel Osmani took it personally and got furious over this plan. Later, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed persuaded him to withdraw his resignation letter, and he did so. Several important decisions were taken in these meetings. Existing sectors were restructured and number of personnel for regular and militia forces was fixed. Militias were formed with trained youths and general people.

Air Vice Marshal A. K. Khandker

Indian Army takes over from BSF to train muktijuddhas

Within a short time, Mukti Bahini were temporarily contained by the Pakistan army and driven into the safe sanctuary in the Indian territory. This prompted the Indian Army to take control over supplying the Mukti Bahini from the Indian Border Security Force (BSF). They re-equipped, reorganised and retrained the Mukti Bahini under the supervision of the Bengali sector commanders. The Indian Army organised 6 logistic sectors for supplying the Bangladesh forces, each to be commanded by a Brigadier from the Indian army:

Sector nameServing sectorsHeadquarterCommanded by (Brigadier)
Alpha 6 Murti Camp, West Bengal B. C. Joshi
Bravo 7 Rajgaunj, West Bengal Prem Singh
Charlie 8 and 9 Chakulia, Bihar N. A. Salik
Delta 1,2 and 3 Devta Mura, Tripura Sabeg Singh
Echo 4 and 5 Masimpur, Assam M.B. Wadh
Foxtrot 11 Meghalaya Sant Singh

Source: Wikipedia - Operation Jackpot

You want the official version or the unofficial one (laughs)?

After the Operation Searchlight that took place on the 26th of March, the crackdown, we were monitoring the situation and were shocked to hear radio conversations of the Pakistan army. We heard Mujib's (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) declaration, then Zia's (Ziaur Rahman) declaration of independence. And then the refugees started coming in countless numbers from across the borders. We took note of the situation and lent a hand to the Mukti Bahini, the freedom fighters of your country. Then in April, Tajuddin (Tajuddin Ahmed), Nazrul Islam, Osmani (MAG Osmani) all came to Theatre Road (in Kolkata), organised the Mukti Bahini and the war was on. We provided all possible logistic support to them. Unofficially, it was from April and officially, much later.

To be precise, it was from the 13th April [1971] that we started helping them and it was a continuous process.

General Jacob on India's involvement & training of Mukti Bahini , which was after the war started and not before

The Indian plan for the capture of Dhaka was ready about early July 1971, when Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora was given the task of destroying the Pakistani forces in the eastern theatre and of occupying the major portion of Bangladesh, including the ports of Chittagong, Chalna and Khulna.

[General] Manekshaw personally briefed [Lt. Gen.] Aurora, covering the political background, our aims, his forecast of the shape of things to come, the outline operational plan, with reasoning of the choice and strength of thrust lines, and emphasis on the vigour and determination required for its execution. Written operational instructions were later handed to Aurora, and the machinery started moving for preparations for the war to liberate Bangladesh.


Indo-Pak situation becomes heated

During this period President Yahya Khan stepped up his India conspiracy. He warned the Government of India that a total war was very near. In all the pronouncements of the Pakistani Government and of Yahya Khan, India was accused of instigating the Mukti Bahini against what Pakistan considered to be the legitimate Government of the country.

If India made any attempt to seize any part of East Pakistan this would be treated as an attack on Pakistan. I shall declare war, let the world not. Nor will Pakistan be alone.

President Yahya Khan threat to Indian Government on 19 July 1971

Replying to the threat of war, India asserted that Pakistan was trying to mislead world opinion by asserting Pakistan's problem was with India and not with the people of Bangladesh. The troubles that Pakistan faced were entirely of its own making. Pakistan should therefore come to an agreement with the representatives of Bangladesh, else the Mukti Bahini activities would continue to increase. However, if Pakistan were to launch an attack on India then "we [India] will defend ourselves".

As the Mukti Bahini's forays into East Pakistan became bolder, Yahya Khan's threats against India become more frequent. Almost every time he spoke to the press or made a declaration, he threatened India with war.


Geographical advantage

Once the monsoon was in full force it was advantage for the muktijuddhas. Undoubtedly, geography played a factor in the war - at the very least, the freedom fighters were much more familiar with the lush terrain. The Pakistani army was much better equipped to control urban areas, and muktijuddhas were able to retreat relatively safely into the countryside after setbacks. Also, the war was far away from military and political headquarters in West Pakistan, which presented the Pakistani forces with the most daunting logistic challenge. It made it nearly impossible to move personnel and equipment quickly and efficiently to the 'theatre' of war. Movement was especially difficult because Pakistan could not fly over Indian space, and its ability to use its ports in Karachi and Dhaka was limited.

From its very inception in 1947 till the outbreak of there bellion in East Pakistan in March 1971, the Pakistani Army had comparatively easy going in peacetime soldiering in West Pakistan. Unlike the Indian Army, it had no counterinsurgency commitments, and as a result it was not acquainted with the morale-sapping effects of fighting an elusive adversary in an inhospitable and hostile environment. East Pakistan in the monsoon was such a theatre, for the West Pakistani troops had never experienced such incessant and heavy rain in their lives. Continuous marches on slushy ground, nights spent in flooded trenches without proper waterproof clothing or overhead protection, living and fighting in this rainsoaked environment for about six months had brought footrot, dysentery and other diseases and had worn out both human bodies and fighting equipment.


Guerrilla warfare targets infrastructure

The Mukti Bahini changed their tactics. Now both guerrilla warfare and frontal assaults would be undertaken simultaneously. Irregular forces were trained for guerrilla warfare. Five to ten member guerrilla teams were deployed for specific tasks in different parts of Bangladesh, whilst combat soldiers would continue frontal assaults against the enemy. Volunteers both armed and unarmed were tasked to gather intelligence about the enemy.

Towards the end of the month operations were stepped up: larger groups, often in company strength, were sent out and they penetrated deep into enemy-held territory - even to the extent of fighting pitched battles whenever circumstances were favourable.

Initially the Mukti Bahini's aim was two-fold. Firstly, to intensify economic warfare, and secondly, to kill Pakistani soldiers and capture their weapons. In both tasks the Bengali guerrillas succeeded beyond all expectations. The guerrillas were sent inside to carry out raids and ambushes. All industries, including the flourishing tea industry, were brought to a grinding halt and the electric supply was severely disrupted. Pakistanis were prevented from exporting either the raw material or the finished products from Bangladesh. Communication networks were targeted to disrupt the movement of Pakistani forces, and large quantities of arms and equipment were captured. The guerrilla actions forced Pakistanis to disperse forces to maintain control. In many areas the Pakistani forces were terrorised into confining their movements to daylight hours, and Mukti Bahini attacked scattered Pakistani troops with the intention of annihilating them.

At Belonia, for instance, 450 Pakistani troops were killed in a battle in which the Bahini lost 70 dead. Eventually, the enemy had to deploy a whole brigade to clear the area. Again near Satkhira the Pakistanis lost 300 soldiers against guerrilla losses of about 20. Similarly a number of other well guarded targets were attacked. Over a hundred important road and rail bridges and nearly a thousand minor bridges and culverts were blown up.


Dispersion of Pakistan Army weakens their strategy

Fearing Bengali rebels could, possibly with Indian support, occupy a chunk of East Pakistan territory, declare Bangladeshi control over it, establish a government there and seek international recognition, Yahya Khan ordered that every single inch of East Pakistani territory be defended 'to the last man last round' chasing the Muktis across the border and defending the frontiers from strong-points built around border outposts (BOP). This dispersion along a 2,500-mile border with a few defensible geographical features dissipated Pakistan's military strength in 'penny-packets'. Not only were they defending key points and Dhaka, this dispersion allowed the freedom fighters to operate successfully in the hinterland and, despite losses in pitched battles, inflict severe pain on the Pakistanis.

The Indians also stepped up their developments around this time. They helped create the Mujib Bahini apparently to prevent the establishment of a radical government in Bangladesh should the muktijuddhas attain victory. And if the efforts of the Mukti Bahini were not sufficient then they were prepared to invade East Pakistan if necessary. But for the time being they were content to maintain a low profile to achieve three specific aims - diplomatic neutralisation of the Chinese threats, completion of the re-grouping and the raising programmes of the Indian armed forces, and the training of the Mukti Bahini up to a level of operational readiness.