Indo-Pak Conflict 1971: The Strategic Backdrop and Plan

Sub Title : Articulation of the strategic environment under which the 1971 war was fought

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2021

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)

Page No. : 14

Category : Geostrategy

: December 2, 2021

An articulation of  the strategic environment under which the 1971 War was fought. Among them are the existence of the Cold War and Pakistan’s proximity to the Western world, India’s non-aligned status and  the Pakistani perception of the Indian armed forces. It also enunciates the role of the Soviet Union in conflict outcome

Considering the progressive uptick in the strategic culture of India over the last couple of years I was hopeful that there will be considerable enthusiasm to learn much more about India’s most successful military venture in 75 years. My earlier experience with the 50th anniversary of the Indo-Pak Conflict of 1965 was extremely encouraging. The professional events connected with it were of a high standard and the learning value was tremendous. I remain a bit disappointed with the degree of importance given to our finest hour, 1971. It probably deserves more from a professional point of view to spread knowledge and we could have had more events through the year, especially at university and school level. I say this for three reasons. First is the fact that the veterans who fought the war are not getting any younger and therefore the plethora of information they carry from their varied experience, which if  not captured as military literature, is going to be lost. Institutional and public memory does not exist or is at best sketchy on this all important event. Second, our military formations could have done much more to project this to the public mind by organizing events locally like it was done to commemorate World War 1 by HQ Delhi Area in 2014. However, we can hardly expect this to happen unless there are enough people in uniform or veterans who are available to lecture and hold informed discussions with the youth of India who incidentally are bursting with enthusiasm to learn more. Third, we are aware that there is a dearth of literature on 1971 and no official version at all. It is time books such as those on the Indo Pak Conflict 1965 are also written in greater numbers.

The Strategic Dimension

Many things rush to mind when one starts to consider the strategic environment under which the 1971 War was fought. Among them are the existence of the Cold War and Pakistan’s proximity to the Western world, India’s non-aligned status, the history of two previous wars between the two countries in 1947-48 and 1965, India’s ignominious defeat to China in the Border War of 1962, and also its relatively poor economy and self-reliance capability. The strategic environment also considers the confidence level of the protagonists, the relative military orientation of the two leaderships and the broad contours of war fighting capability of the two nations.

The Cold War

1971 was almost the zenith of the Cold War which commenced between the US led Western democracies (and some Asian countries) and the Soviet led Communist world post-World War II. The US made efforts to spread influence and include strategically located nations on its side. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and the United Kingdom were welded into Central Treaty Organisation or CENTO under US leadership. US, UK, France, New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan along with two South East Asian nations Thailand and Philippines formed South East Asia Treaty Organisation  (SEATO). UK and Pakistan were the two nations common to both. Pakistan’s geostrategic location, which continues to make it an inseparable part of the US security matrix, despite the awkwardness that it has displayed in terms of being the core centre of radical ideology and global terror, fetched it various dividends. Prime among these was a frontline status with the US willing to put its weight behind it. Through all this India had consciously chosen to be non-aligned which was more a source of irritation for the US and its allies.

Despite its non-aligned status, when India was defeated in the 1962 Sino India Border War, the US came to India’s assistance but it was the Soviet Union which took the lead in supply of defence equipment and strategic advice. In 1965 it was the Soviet Union which played a far more proactive role in brokering the peace at Tashkent.

Thus, an uneasy strategic balance of sorts existed in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was backed by the US and two alliances while India had an informal but enthusiastic relationship with the Soviet Union even as it remained non-aligned. The Soviets were not inclined against Pakistan considering their concern for the stability of their southern flank. However, ever since 1962 they were inclined to support India against China which by 1971 was emerging as a greater threat to them.  India signed the 20 Year Indo Soviet Treaty for Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union, in August 1971, which played a relatively far more strategic role in the outcome of the war than any other step taken by India.

Indo-US Relations

Much has been written about the icy relationship between Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi. Nixon found her arrogant and not submissive enough towards US power. That was one of the reasons the US openly sided with Pakistan. There is evidence to suggest that Nixon did not mind a Chinese intervention to save Pakistan the blushes. What was more surprising was the fact that despite being a champion of human rights and freedom the US did nothing for nine long months to stop the virtual genocide, nor to stop the exodus of refugees into India. Strategically this was one of the major causes of the war. If the US had pressurized the Pakistan leadership sufficiently there was every possibility of stopping the actions of the Pakistan Army against the civilian population. Whether this could have prevented a war remains a moot point due to Pakistan Army’s intransigence and misplaced confidence.

Previous Wars 

Pakistan continued to delude itself regarding its record in previous wars. It still celebrates 6 Sep as Victory Day for the perceived success it achieved in the Indo Pak Conflict 1965, in the Khem Karan sector of Punjab, where it had made a breakthrough before it was thwarted. It is the misconceived superiority that Pakistan assumed which led it to make most of the bad decisions that led to its ignominious defeat. The defeat of the Indian Army to the PLA in 1962 added to the misperception about Indian military capabilities. Had the Pakistani leadership done a ‘think through’ appreciation of the strategic environment it would not have depended on a Chinese intervention and could have anticipated the surge in the Indo-Soviet relationship. It could also have looked at the deepening crisis in East Pakistan a little differently and perhaps even pulled back from the extreme measures it undertook against Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Bengali intellectuals which was actually the trigger for the escalation.

Pakistan’s various actions lead us to believe that the strategic think through capability of its political and military leadership was extremely limited. It confirms what is mostly believed – that Pakistan remains an effective conflict initiator but a very poor conflict terminator, a phenomenon proven time and again through history. On the other hand, the Indian political leadership’s ability to identify an opportunity proved to be extremely effective.

East Pakistan’s Isolation

Pakistan’s ability to fight an effective war against India on the Eastern Front was contingent upon two factors. First was the support it expected from the Chinese in the north which would put the Indian Army in a dilemma. Second was whether it could prevent the isolation of East Pakistan from the sea. The Chinese did not play up because by 1971 they were actively looking at returning to the mainstream and perhaps did not wish to be seen negatively involved in a war in support of an unjust cause. The US too did not exercise sufficient muscle to prevent the isolation of East Pakistan leaving India to pursue its strategy of weakening Pakistan’s hold over its East wing. During the war itself the US attempted gunboat diplomacy through the move of its  Seventh Fleet and its flagship vessel USS Enterprise  into the Bay of Bengal but circumstances had changed considerably by then and such threats were well neutralized by the Indo Soviet Treaty.

Brief Recall of Events which led to Conflict Initiation

Surprisingly not many among the younger generation in India have much of an idea about the sequence of events which triggered the Indo-Pak Conflict of 1971. A brief recall is therefore necessary.

The start point was the basic difference in culture and language between the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan and the Muslims of West Pakistan; the Punjabi Muslims in particular detested the Bengalis and their culture. While Islam may have been a strong unifying factor it could not override the power of sub-nationalism which in the case of the Bengalis was very strong. An attempt to foist the Urdu language, as the official language of the Bengalis was resisted strongly.  The physical distance between West and East Pakistan did not help. Integration and the relationship between the two halves remained strained even more because revenue generation was apparently higher in the East and the development expenditure on it was comparatively low. Two issues led to further exacerbation of the standoff between the two. In Dec 1970 a massive cyclonic storm Bhola, in the Bay of Bengal laid waste to many parts of Southern Bangladesh killing almost half a million people in its wake. The Pakistan Central Govt’s response was so tardy, insufficient and insensitive that it hugely irked the already seething Bengalis. This was followed by a general election which resulted in East Pakistan’s Awami League gaining 167 out of 169 seats for the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly, and a near-absolute majority in the 313-seat National Assembly, while the vote in West Pakistan was mostly won by the socialist Pakistan People’s Party.  The Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman stressed his political position by presenting his ‘Six Points’ and endorsing the Bengalis’ right to govern. For the next three months parleys to form a government along with additional demands took place but failed. The West Pakistan political leadership led by the mercurial Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was unwilling to budge and the Pakistan Army which ran the Martial Law Administration was incapable of thinking about the impact of refusing Sheikh Mujib the right to lead the government.    This led to the crackdown of the Pakistan Army under martial law on the political leadership and intellectuals of East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was arrested and jailed in West Pakistan. In early March 1971, approximately 300 Biharis were slaughtered in riots by Bengali mobs in Chittagong alone. The Government of Pakistan used the “Bihari massacre” to justify its deployment of the military in East Pakistan on 25 March, when it initiated its military crackdown. 26 Mar 1971 saw the declaration of independence by Maj Ziaur Rehman (later President of Bangladesh) and a Government in Exile was formed on 10 Apr 1971. The Mukti Bahini a Bengali guerrilla force was set up to fight as irregulars against the atrocities of the Pakistan Army.

India and the Decision Dilemma

The events of Mar-Apr 1971 directly affected India’s national security concerns. The trans-border refugee movement was worrisome and the virtual genocide by the Pakistan Army showed no signs of abating in spite of Indian efforts to sensitize the world.  The Indian dilemma was whether to go to war immediately and ameliorate the conditions existing for the people of East Pakistan or await a time when an assurance of attaining political and military objectives would be much more assured. Gen Sam Manekshaw was reported to have advised Prime Minister Indira Gandhi against an immediate campaign as assurance of military objectives being met was low. Manekshaw wanted more time for logistics and equipment refurbishment. He did not wish to conduct operations during the season of standing crops and wanted climatic conditions that would prevent Chinese intervention through the mountain passes and allow rapid redeployment of troops East to West when required.

It’s under controversy today whether Manekshaw actually gave this advice or not. Given his integrity, intellect and relationship with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, there appears little doubt that he did. Operations thus commenced only in Dec 1971 as response to Pakistan’s intransigence which led it to remain mistakenly confident with a perception that it could hold its own militarily.

How the Strategic Dimension Influenced India’s War Fighting Plan

The strategic environment existing in 1971 had a significant influence over the ultimate war strategy and plan:-

  • A short war was the only option as there were too many detractors who could have a change of mind; their entry would upset our strategy.
  • Due to this it was mandatory that the focus of operations had to be on the Eastern Front to bring about the collapse of Pakistan Army’s resistance in East Pakistan. Any force multipliers such as the Mukti Bahini would obviously add to the effort to shorten the war. The Mukti Bahini by virtue of its local orientation was indeed a force multiplier and its presence was on all fronts in East Pakistan.
  • The northern borders also had to remain intact with existing deployment, although in a completely defensive mode. A degree of risk had to be entailed by tasking the various Corps HQ (4, 33) to focus on East Pakistan, leaving the northern borders to ad hoc HQ under the respective Chiefs of Staff.
  • Due to the focus on the Eastern Front and with formations such as 4 Inf Div and 9 Inf Div placed under the newly raised HQ 2 Corps the resources to undertake major offensives in the west were relatively depleted. The Indian strategy was to undertake offensive defence in the west and remain opportunistic. It did not wish to risk a contingency in which it would have to redeploy resources from the east without meeting the plan objectives.
  • The Indian Navy’s task flowed out of the strategic environment involving the effective isolation of East Pakistan and executing a blockade against Pakistan’s only port, Karachi. Pakistan’s ability to fight was withered by these actions. The psychological effect of isolation too was a contributory factor towards defeat.
  • The Indian Air Force (IAF) was tasked to achieve total air superiority over East Pakistan while containing the threat from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the West.

The Pakistan strategy to offset the Indian Army’s plans for a swift offensive into East Pakistan was based on a very basic premise – “the defence of East Pakistan lies in West Pakistan”. The broad interpretation of this has been given by  Lt Gen M Attiqur Rahman in his book ‘Our Defence Cause’  where he has made an analysis of the 1971 War. He feels that the grand strategy by which ‘the battle of East Pakistan would be fought in West Pakistan’ was generally correct, as available troops could fight concentrated, with all the backing of the industrial defence base and the main base for recruitment for the army’s manpower. He considers that if this were the strategy, more forces should not have been sent to East Pakistan and India should have been engaged in the West forcing it to hold back operations against the East. However, it needs to be remembered that the build up to the war was not sudden but progressive. It was not easy to leave East Pakistan undefended while the preparations were on, awaiting a major offensive from the west. The latter never materialized except in bits and pieces on a broad front at selected friction points to include – Jaisalmer, Fazilka, Ferozepur, Dera Baba Nanak, the Shakargarh Bulge, Akhnoor, Uri and Kargil. Of these the Akhnoor offensive was the most serious with an aim of cutting off the Jammu-Rajouri Road. The lack of any concentrated effort to draw out Indian forces actually played into India’s hands which too had limited resources on the Western Front but applied these diligently in low risk limited offensive missions.

Application of Forces and Broad Operational Plan

Notwithstanding the above it is good to reiterate the political and military objectives and the broad application of forces.

Political Objectives

  • To ensure that in liberated East Pakistan (Bangladesh) conditions are created for the return of the 10 million refugees.
  • Liberate as much territory as possible in the East and set up a provisional Bangladesh Government.
  • A swift campaign of short duration in order to achieve objectives as there was a strong likelihood of UN and Big Power intervention.
  • Defend Bhutan at all costs in case of Chinese intervention (obviously the threat to the Siliguri Corridor was a major concern).

Military Objectives. These were derived from the political objectives and were:-

  • Conduct operations in winter to negate any effective military intervention by China to support Pakistan.
  • Time and speed would be of utmost importance as these would dictate the success in the East.
  • Fight a holding offensive defensive battle in the West.
  • In the East ensure maximum speed of operations to force Pakistan to hand over the country to the Provisional Bengal Government established on 10 Apr 1971.
  • Capture Khulna and Chittagong at the earliest and threaten Dacca.

It was not clear whether Dacca was a delineated objective or kept flexible with a task to threaten it or capture it if possible. The latter is not an unusual task as ‘be prepared’ tasks are quite usual in the Indian Army. This almost entailed a ‘be prepared’ task if Dacca was conducive for capture. How Lt Gen Sagat Singh, GOC 4 Corps converted that into something inevitable through the speed of advance of his Corps and the employment of some ingenious application such as heliborne crossings of the Meghna River today make folklore.

Lastly the Corps level application of forces of the Indian Army was as follows:-

Eastern Theatre. Comprised Eastern Command with:-

  • 2 Corps comprised 4 and 9 Inf Divs – Khulna and Jessore
  • 33 Corps comprised 20 MtnDiv – Bogra, with 27 and 17 MtnDivs deployed for the security of Sikkim and preventing ingress to the Siliguri Corridor. 6 MtnDiv too was partially deployed for operations in East Pakistan and kept reserve for response towards Bhutan if necessary.
  • 4 Corps comprised 101 Communication Zone Area (in an ad hoc operational role of an infantry division), 8 MtnDiv (Sylhet sector) and 57 MtnDiv  (Akhaura sector). 101 Communication Zone Area covered the area bounded by the Rivers Meghna in the east, Jamuna in the west and Padma in the south-west. It became the first formation to enter Dacca.

Western Theatre

  • Southern Command comprised 11 and 12 Inf Divs, for the defence of Barmer and Jaisalmer. 10 Para Commando remained under HQ Southern Command and conducted offensive operations and raids across the International Boundary (IB) in the NayaChor area.
  • Western Command comprised of 11 and 15 Corps. 11 Corps was deployed from the River Ravi to the Ranjitpura sector north of Jaisalmer. It in turn comprised 7 Inf Div, 15 Inf Div and 16 Infantry Div. It also had 1 Armoured Div on its orbat which was not deployed for offensive battle. 15 Corps held the area from Eastern Ladakh to the River Ravi to include Jammu & Kashmir. It consisted of 3 Inf Div, 19 Inf Div, 25 Inf Div, 10 Inf Div  and 26 Inf Div. Some Independent BSF Sectors and Infantry brigades also formed part of the order of battle.
  • 1 Corps formed a part of Western Command. It had 39 Inf Div, 36 Inf Div and 54 inf Div on its orbat along with 16 Independent ArmdBde and 2 Independent ArmdBde. The Battle of Shakargarh was fought by 1 Corps to deliver Pakistan a hard blow at the moment of conflict termination.


The surrender of 93,000 Prisoners of War of the Pakistan Army and the signing of the Instrument of Surrender at the Maidan in Dacca  under international glare was Pakistan’s lowest moment. It reportedly had the supplies, equipment and the ammunition to fight a more protracted war. It, however, chose to save lives and live to fight another day. The desire for revenge for what happened at the Dacca Maidan on 16 Dec 1971 and the entire course of events from Mar to Dec 1971 drives the Pakistan Army today to perpetuate conflict by other means in the subcontinent.