Col Ashwani Sharma (Retd)


As Bangladesh turns 50 this month, a brief journey into its history – particularly its pangs of birth – is important, even though it invites a lengthy editorial. After a referendum in Sylhet decided in favour of Pakistan, East Pakistan became a reality on 14 August 1947. East & West Pakistan were joined by little more than common faith and God, but were separated far more substantially with the Indian landmass wedged between the two. First cracks appeared rather early when the legislative amendment seeking national language status for Bengali along with English and Urdu – was defeated. West Pakistan’s sense of superiority and arrogance failed to understand Bengali nationalist aspirations. Bengali resentment over injustice and humiliation was not just cultural – it was also the result of the economic marginalisation of East Pakistan.

The Pakistani state, run by a military-bureaucratic oligarchy dominated by West Pakistanis, had little by way of a Bengali political say. The situation worsened after Field Marshal Ayub Khan imposed Martial Law in 1958. In November 1969, General Yahya Khan took over from Ayub and announced free and fair elections under a legal framework. The ‘free and fair’ elections held on Dec 6, 1970, produced an electoral mandate which was unexpected by Yahiya – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan, and none in West Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP won a majority with 81 in West Pakistan, but none in the East. Mujib had a clear overall majority in the House to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, a result that neither Yahya nor Bhutto could stomach. Political negotiations to install a weak government with Yahya as the President and power-sharing between the two wings failed. The Awami League was firm in its demand to be the ruling party as it emerged the winner from the free and fair elections.

On March 25, with Awami League cadre in the streets, West gave the go-ahead for military action, codenamed Operation Searchlight, in East Pakistan. Sheik Mujib, till then the PM-designate, was arrested on a charge of treason. Bhutto, a strong opponent of Ayub and Yahya now became an ally. Bangladesh claims that as many as 3,000,000 were killed by Pakistani soldiers in a brutal campaign of rape, murder, and pillage. Some 10 million refugees fled to India.

The Indian Army launched Operation Jackpot to train, arm, equip and advise Mukti Bahini fighters engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Pakistan military. India also began a global diplomatic outreach to highlight the oppression and brutality, and the resulting refugee problem. Pakistan turned towards its allies, the US and China for support. The US did supply battle tanks and other armaments, while China extended support along with the advice to avoid an armed conflict during the winter months. Sensing certain defeat and wilting under the public pressure, East Pakistan’s Martial law administrator, Lt Gen Tikka Khan desperately sought a political solution from Yahya who was constantly blinded by his own misplaced judgement and ambition, and complete lack of political understanding. Furthermore, he was misguided by his military advisors and the political foe-turned ally, Zulfikar Bhutto.

When the Pakistan Air Force launched pre-emptive strikes on airfields in Western India on December 3, 1971, India responded with a formal declaration of war. The speed and scale of victory was unprecedented and surprised Yahya and his military top brass. Indian armed forces ably led by SamManekshaw and the Chiefs of the IAF and the Navy were ready and well-prepared. Unlike Pakistan, there was a complete synergy between the political and military establishments in India. Pakistan’s strategic doctrine that Eastern theater’s defence lies in the strength of the West was in tatters as it faced a humiliating defeat. Further operations would have rendered Pakistan completely defenceless as the IAF had begun to target strategic economic installations deep inside Pakistan. American armaments were destroyed beyond reputation and the Seventh Fleet was nowhere in sight. On the contrary, the Soviet Union kept its promise of support to India. The instrument of surrender was signed by Lt Gen A A K Niazi with Lt Gen J S Aurora watching, at Dhaka at 4.55 pm on December 16, 1971, and that remains the abiding image of the 1971 War.

Meticulous military planning stands out as the major lesson from this swift war in modern history. It can also be termed as an ‘all of nation effort or war’ as every element of the national power contributed towards ensuring victory. That a democratic India was fighting a dictatorial Pakistan also weighed in, and Pakistan failed to garner support to restrain India, despite its numerous attempts and powerful friends.

‘People’s Republic of Bangladesh’ today is 50 years old, a young nation by any measure. It is making huge economic strides notwithstanding sporadic internal strife and high population density. It is a vibrant democracy that occupies a place of pride in the comity of nations. At the time of its Golden Jubilee of independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina is the country’s Prime Minister. May its dream of ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ symbolized by its national anthem always remain true. “Joy Bangla” to all our readers and people of Bangladesh on this historic occasion!

This issue of the magazine carries a detailed account of the war as the subcontinent commemorates its Golden jubilee. In addition, there are a number of features on maritime issues, as the Indian Navy celebrates Navy Day on 04 Dec.

It remains for me to thank all our readers and patrons for their support for yet another eventful year.

We wish you all happiness and joy.

Stay safe, stay fit.