President Yahya in no mood to negotiate

The hot sweltering months of summer passed by. In September, India moved its troops from inside India to the international borders opposite the eastern and western wings of Pakistan, especially along likely conflict routes. This was done to reduce the time required in moving troops and material to their tactical positions vis-a-vis Pakistan. Since Pakistan already had it cantonments close to the border, it had the advantage of quicker reaction over India.

Yahya Khan had completed the deployment of his troops in West Pakistan by about 12 October 1971 while the Indian formations were still on the move. His propaganda machine accused India of a thinly separated armed confrontation which might ignite into a shooting war any moment. In an address to the Pakistani people on 12 October 1971, Yahya Khan complained bitterly about India's attempts at disintegrating Pakistan and the 'war-like concentration' of Indian troops on Pakistan's borders.

During the same time Indira Gandhi made one final attempt to persuade the international community to persuade Yahya Khan to see reason and create a "favourable situation" for the refugees to return to their homes. She first went to Moscow, then returned home. On 23 October 1971 she proceeded on a three-week tour of several Western countries, including the US, France, West Germany, Britain, Belgium, and Australia.

During Indira Gandhi's visit to Washington in mid October 1971, Nixon offered to have the United States assume full responsibility for all refugee camp expenses, but she displayed no interest. By then, of course, New Delhi had already made the decision to take military action and dump 10 million refugees back on a destitute Bangladesh by the end of 1971.

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Indira Gandhi even proposed to meet Yahya Khan, but any potential settlement would mean negotiating with the people of East Pakistan and their elected leader. That meant negotiating with Sheikh Mujib, then in captivity. Unless he was freed, no negotiations were possible as any settlements otherwise arrived at was likely to be misconstrued as having been attained through threatening pressure. Mere absence of fighting would not be enough to convince the refugees to go back home, whom would return only if 'there is a truly Bengali government'.

But Yahya was in no mood to negotiate. In Paris, repeating her offer to meet him, Indira Gandhi commented "But you know his position. How can you shake hands with a clenched fist?".

Before Niazi took over from Tikka Khan on 16 September 1971 it was agreed that the forces would defend the territorial integrity of the eastern region at all costs. The Pakistani defence was organised in tiers with the intention of giving battle at a series of defence lines based in urban areas and river obstacles. The troops, if hard pressed, were to fall back on the defences of Dhaka, where the final battle was to be given. However, post-monsoon, the forces along the borders were increased by Niazi as they suspected that with Indian support the attacks on the border would increase. This meant consuming the troops around Dhaka. Thus, Niazi sacrificed depth in Dhaka for strength of the forward border posture, but this was a fatal mistake for which he was to pay dearly later.

By October 1971, the Mukti Bahini's offensive increased in tempo and geographic scope. While unable to challenge the Pakistani army in urban areas the muktijuddhas were able to carry out hit-and-run attacks and minor sabotages both in the border regions and in the interior, resulting in significant achievements. In most cantonments, including Dhaka, troops were having to confine their movements to daylight hours - seldom venturing out into the countryside except in large columns. This, together with large-scale sabotage activities was beginning seriously to disrupt the occupation government's administrative control in the country. From the border sanctuaries more ambitious operations were undertaken - company strong bands of guerillas mounting hit-and-run raids on isolated detachments of Pakistani troops, ambushes to waylay vehicle columns and patrols. In some districts of Dhaka, Comilla, Noakhali, Faridpur, and Bakarganj, the Mukti Bahini seemed to almost move about at will and had, in other areas, set up systems of parallel administration.

Through elusive methods, and guerrilla warfare the Mukti Bahini succeeded in making the [Pakistani] invaders "blind and deaf", confessed General A. A. K. Niazi, after the Pakistani defeat.

Mukti Bahini impact

Towards the end of October, Mukti Bahini guerillas began to claim "liberation" of strips of territory - both adjacent to the Indian border and in the interior - in Mymensingh, Dinajpur, Rangpur, Rajshahi, Kushtia, Jessore, Khulna and Noakhali districts. In some of these "liberated" areas the Bangladesh government-in-exile sent in administrators to reorganise the administration at village and union levels.

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In response, the Pakistani forces also intensified their campaign. They became tougher in dealing with the local people, and started to use armoured vehicles and aircraft in resisting the advance of the Mukti Bahini.

To aid the Mukti Bahini, the Indians adopted 'forward military postures' and engaged the Pakistani military in the border areas. Thus, the Razakars and other paramilitary and semi-volunteer organisations collaborating with the Pakistani Army was left largely to deal with the Mukti Bahini.

Indians turn to Mukti Bahinis expertise to quicken campaign

From early October to the end of November the Mukti Bahinis increased their 'nibbling operations' along the borders. If the Mukti Bahini got in trouble they were helped out by Border Security Forces (BSF) and the Indian Army. Use of regular Indian troops were avoided inside East Pakistan as this would've been an act of war, but there were occasions when the intensity of operations - like those at Bayra, Hilli, Kamalpur, Akhaura and Belonia - made this unavoidable.

Mukti Bahini increased their attack on infrastructure such as blowing up rail and road communications, bridges, cement factories, and gas pipeline to isolate Pakistani forces. Along with these attacks and raids close to the border, the intensity of the Mukti Bahini guerrilla operations in the interior, particularly around Dhaka, were stepped up to a high pitch. The rear lines of communication were extensively disrupted. Ambushes of convoys and raids on small bodies of troops were common. The Indian government provided cover for the Mukti Bahini by shelling Pakistan army positions inside East Pakistan from Indian territory.

To hold the border, Niazi had to disperse his troops more widely, eventually leading to a breakdown of formations and of fire units in support to plug holes, here and there, and reinforce the defences at points where threats were increasing. This, along with a number of clearing operations undertaken in the interior (e.g. flushing out Kaderia Bahini from the Tangail-Mirzapur area) lead to wide dispersal of troops and consequently loss of cohesion.

After the monsoon, Yahya Khan expected Indian intervention in Bangladesh in support of the Mukti Bahini. By then, Pakistani diplomacy had been sufficiently active to gauge how much help would be forthcoming, and from what quarters, except perhaps the inscrutable Chinese. He had decided in case of a conflict in East Pakistan to escalate the war to embrace the western wing and resist the Indian and Bangladeshi forces long enough to bring about the end of hostilities under international pressure without losing any vital objective. Loss of a little unprofitable peripheral territory was acceptable as this could be negotiated for Indian territory that might be captured in the west.

In any event, Yahya Khan and his associates felt that India would be content with limited gains of territory, with the sole aim of establishing a provisional Bangladesh government in East Pakistan. Should he fail in both his estimate of India's war aims and military capability, and should the war not be halted in time, Yahya Khan felt that Niazi would be able to carry out an organised withdrawal, combined with a scorched-earth policy, in the direction of the ports of Chittagong and Khulna, from where the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh could be evacuated to the western wing with the help of the navies and merchant shipping of friendly nations. If East Pakistan was lost, at least the four divisions there would be back home to fight another day.

India's planners had to find answers to all the military contingencies emanating from Yahya Khan's options and evolve a plan that would thwart Niazi's efforts to implement these concepts.

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The Indian Army realised that orthodox army techniques were not suitable against fortified Pakistani defensive positions, who fought with courage and rare doggedness, as at Hilli and Kamalpur. The heavy loss both in casualties as well as in time proved costly, and was not apt in the context of the short war envisaged in the Indian operational plan. In order for a swift campaign and for them to advance in the Bangladesh terrain they needed vast engineering resources in the form of bridging equipment, assault and river craft and other requirements which could not be gathered even by pooling the entire country's resources.

Those who had fought in Burma in World War II knew the problems of fighting in lowlying paddy land, and as a result of this doubted our chances of quick success in the quagmire of Bangladesh.

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The Indians concluded that the collapse of the Pakistani Army in the eastern wing could only be achieved by out manoeuvring it and not by set-piece battles. This meant adopting the policy of provocative occupation of sensitive areas as carried out by the muktijuddhas since this was the most effective.

Niazi reacted very violently, launching repeated and often hurried counterattacks, suffering heavy casualties and causing his troops to lose their spirits well before the start of the actual war. For instance, Niazi lost 13 tanks and 3 aircraft in the Bayra battle besides large numbers of men, which he could ill afford, especially because of the precarious and long sea routes to his parent bases.

These initial Mukti Bahini operations helped the Indian Army, which got to know the Pakistani pattern and concept of fighting. In some instances, the initial ingress helped to cross obstacles close to the start lines well ahead of the opening of hostilities. The complete switchover from the original concept of direct to indirect approach, later explained as an "expanding torrent", was itself a great achievement for a tradition-bound orthodox army. This switchover laid the foundation for the eventual Indian victory. Bypassing the Pakistani defensive positions completely threw Niazi's forward posture of balance, and he was never able to recover from it.

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China cools Pakistan support

As late as 5 November, an eight-man high-powered delegation - including three military general - led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went on an urgent trip to China for three days as personal representatives of President Yahya. The reasons for this visit were manifold, however, the main object of Bhutto's mission was to persuade Peking to take a more positive stand with the aim of deterring an Indian attack on East Pakistan, and extract a firm commitment from the Chinese. Pakistan sought strong military and diplomatic aid and China was the only country that was able to provide support. Pakistan wanted to strengthen it's military might especially after India received arms supply from the Soviet, which further widened the military disequilibrium in South Asia.

The timing of the delegation's visit was significant in that in coincided with Indira Gandhi's visit to Washington, USA, and European countries to encourage a favorable world opinion of India and to increase awareness of the Bangladesh issue.

However, Bhutto's visit was fruitless, with the two sides not even able to reach agreement on a joint communique - probably because he was not holding an official governmental post at the time. The Chinese were unwilling to commit themselves to anything that might risk the threat of Russian retaliation under the Indo-Soviet treaty. There were even reports that Bhutto had been subjected to a "spontaneous" demonstration against Islamabad's policies in East Pakistan.

Four possible reasons for China's guarded attitude during 1971:

  • Peking was interested in the possibility of improving its relations with India.
  • China had no direct interest in the East Pakistan crisis.
  • Difficult for Peking to condone Pakistani behaviour which had been almost universally condemned by the rest of the world.
  • Indo-Soviet treaty increased the danger to China of becoming too heavily committed to the defence of what was an untenable position by West Pakistan.

President Nixon’s visit to China had already altered China’s perception of its role in the region and China was working towards normalizing its relations with the US. The Chinese foreign Minister suggested that the issue between two nations should be resolved through negotiations rather than aggression. The Pakistani delegation was unsuccessful in getting solid support from China. China did promise to support Pakistan if India attacked.

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China was also making her official debut in the international forum - a process that carries its own built-in restraint. The 'People's Republic of China' became a member of United Nations on 25 October 1971 and replaced the previous 'Republic of China' which became known for many purposes as "Taiwan". The Republic of China was one of the five founding members of UN on 24 October 1945.

Instead of being a party to the conflict, the Chinese would try to defuse the crisis before it reached the flash-point. Though they provided the Pakistanis with arms, the Chinese adopted a non-intervention policy and repeatedly reminded Pakistan of its support on diplomatic grounds. They continued to indulge in name calling and what it could not do in deeds it sought to do through words.

In both [US and China's] cases, their decision to come down the side of Islamabad was determined largely by two factors: the fact that the only great power beneficiary of the war seemed likely to be the Soviet Union, and the commitments which both had undertaken to support Pakistan. To the delight of Moscow, they were faced with two unenviable choices: to leave an ally in the lurch or to support it in a war which it had no chance to winning and in which world opinion was somewhat in India's favour. They could not emerge creditably whatever choice they made, and in the event the lesser of the two evils seemed to be the course which at least did not make India's (and indirectly Moscow's) victory even easier.

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Sombre Eid

Ramadhan - the Muslim month of fasting - started late October. On 21 November 1971 it was Eid-ul-Fitr. However, just like the year before which witnessed the tragedy of Bhola Cyclone and the general election fiasco around Ramadhan period, this too was a time of mourning. The people of Bangladesh was deprived of the blessing and bounty of this holy period for two years in a row now.

With due respect for the religion, nobody was in a mood to celebrate Eid, when people were in pain and agony." Veteran singer Ajit Roy reminisces how people were to too distraught to celebrate Eid.

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The sombre environment was captured by lyricist Shahidul Islam in his song 'Chand tumi phirey jao' which was composed by Ajit Roy, of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra fame, and sang by Rupa Khan.

However, with the victory crossing line in sight, Prime Minister of Mujibnagar Shorkar, Tajuddin Ahmad - the only leader amongst the provisional government who kept his vow not to meet his family during the period of exile - urged the nation to remain strong and defiant. He delivered a powerful speech to the nation on 23 November 1971, i.e. couple of days after Eid, through Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra encouraging them to an all-out attack.

In exchange of our tears and blood, we are fighting for our freedom. The day of that final destination is very much within our reach. But we have to sacrifice more lives; we have to suffer more. The denotation of independence is deeper and more meaningful. The essence of freedom is related to the price we pay for it during war and how we use it during the time of peace. As we eliminate our enemies in the battlefield, we have to pledge to build a society that befits the blood of our martyrs.

Pradan montri Tajuddin Ahmad's passionate plea

India-Pakistan: Time for another war - officially

It was around late November the Indian Army began more active operations. They began to nibble at Bangladeshi territory. Instead of occasionally entering Pakistan to aid the Mukti Bahini and then withdrawing, the Indian Army made numerous small lodgments in East Pakistan. These maneouvers were in preparation for a full-scale invasion scheduled for early December. Pakistan, instead of cutting its losses and calling quits, in a desperate gamble escalated the conflict by launching air/ground attacks in the West on 3 December 1971.

General Yahya Khan had successfully predicted a war before he left for China on 25 November 1971.

In 10 Days, I might not be here in Rawalpindi, I will be off fighting a war.

President Yahya told reporters days before Pakistan attack India ,

True to his word, hardly ten days had elapsed - nine to be exact - before the Pakistan attack on India had surfaced.