The bloody massacre on Bangladesh caused Allende to be forgotten,the din of war in the Sinai Desert drowned out in the groans of Bangladesh…..and so on and on and on until everyone has completely forgotten everything“*

1971 was a year of national and international crisis in South Asia. The year started with 2 historic elections – In Pakistan the first national election based on universal franchise was held as the Pakistan army sought to transfer power to a civilian government. In India, Indira Gandhi had won a massive mandate. The year ended with 2 massive wars.

The 1st war saw an army kill its own people in a massive racial genocide. The refugees (as a consequence of the first war) led to the 2nd war – The birth of a new nation Bangladesh.

The year 1971 was also the year that saw the death of a dystopian state based of religious supremacist ideals and a bloody birth of a new nation that would grow up to be as bigoted and as supremacist as its fundamentalist parent, pakistan. pakistan fought both the wars and lost both.


Pakistan in those days was a country divided – racially, linguistically and geographically. Punjabis, Sindhis, Pushtuns, Bengalis as diverse as they were, were forced into an artificial construct that was called pakistan. Suffice to say, pakistan was born a catastrophic oddity. It was divided into 2 parts East & West pakistan – separated by 2000 kms. Pakistan had only 3 things to keep it united – ISLAM, ENGLISH & the PIA (Pakistan International Airlines). The linguistic difference was insurmountable – Urdu, an Indian language, had been imposed on pakistan. West pakistan had grudgingly accepted urdu but the people of east pakistan resisted any attempts to impose urdu over their mother tongue – bengali.

The road to restoring “democracy’ was a rocky road. Gen Yahya Khan passed a Legal Framework Order (LFO), 1970. The LFO stipulated that elections would be held in October 1970. The LFO promised shariah and quranic laws and it also promised a very loose federal structure.


LOOT & DISCRIMINATION – A sizable net transfer of resources had taken place from east to west pakistan. It is estimated that the total transfer from east to west pakistan over the period 1948/49-1968/69 was 2.6 thousand million dollars. Earning of the east pakistan were used to industrialize west pakistan eg – in 1948 there were 11 textile mills in the east and only 9 in the west but by 1971 there were 26 in the east as opposed to 150 in the west. Constant loot transformed east pakistan’s economy from a surplus one to a deficit one. The population in East was 54% of pakistan but its share of jobs was also disproportionately low

                               West Pakistan     East Pakistan
Central Civil Service        84% 16%
Foreign Service 85% 15%
Foreign Mission’s Head 60 9
Army 95% 5%
Army: Officers of General Rank (Numbers) 16 1
Navy Technical 81% 19%
Navy-non technical 91% 9%
Air Force Pilots 89% 11%
Armed Forces (Nos) 500,000 20,000

THE CYCLONE – 13th November 1970 a cataclysmic cyclone hit east pakistan. It claimed over 2,50,000 lives (American estimates the dead to be around 50,00,000). The devastation was so massive that it flattened the country, the tidal wave that followed swept away towns and cities. The entire coast line was destroyed. The people screamed for help but the response of the state i.e. West Pakistan was indifference. They made little to no effort to help and this caused a permanent rift in relations between east & west pakistan. As the world sent help, it too, was stolen by the pakistani army and siphoned off to west pakistan.

ELECTIONS & AMBITION – Elections were held and Awami League, an east pakistani party led by Mujib-ur Rahman won absolute majority (167/169 seats). In west pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto led Pakistan People’s Party won. But Awami League held absolute majority). This created a tense impasse where both parties wanted to rule and they threatened disruption if denied power. During negotiations, claims of Awami League were viewed with suspicion. The consequent impasse forced the army to, once again, start thinking in terms of a military solution. The army moved in and arrested Mujib-ur-Rahman while the party leadership fled to India where they formed the Government of Bangladesh (GOBD) in Mujb Nagar (in reality 7 Theater Road, Calcutta).

In the meantime, Zulfiqar Bhutto (described by Kissinger as anti american, violently anti-india & pro china) had started advocating a tough communist line to deal with rising bengali nationalism. He had Yahaya on his side and the superpower – Nixon’s America had chosen to side with his old pal, General Yahaya & consequently with Bhutto.


On February 22, 1971 the generals in west pakistan took a decision in
to crush the Awami League and its supporters. It was recognized from the first that a
campaign of genocide would be necessary to eradicate the threat. “Kill three million of them,” said President Yahya Khan at the February conference, “and the rest
will eat out of our hands” (Robert Payne, Massacre [1972], p. 50.)
On March 25 the genocide was launched at the university in Dacca was attacked and students were exterminated in their hundreds. Death squads roamed the streets of Dacca killing some 7,000 people in a Dacca in a single night. It was only the beginning. “Within a week, half the population of Dacca had fled, and at least 30,000 people had been killed.” (Payne,Massacre, p. 48 )

OPERATION SEARCHLIGHT – it was a systematic military operation of selective genocide – eradicating bengali people and race from their motherland – code named Operation Searchlight – it started on 25, March 1971 by taking control of the major cities on 26 March, and then eliminating all opposition political or military within one then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within one month. Tikka Khan, a West Pakistani general, flew to Dhaka to become the Governor of East Bengal. He was tasked to conduct Operation Searchlight. But, the East Pakistani judges denied him entry. This was the excuse Tikka Khan was looking for. On the night of March 25, the Pakistani army started the operation. On March 26, the Pakistani forces arrested Mujib ur Rahman. On the same day, Mujib signed an official declaration for the independence of Bangladesh. M. A. Hannan, an Awami league leader, is said to have been the first person to read and announce the Declaration of Independence.

Before the beginning of the operation, all foreign journalists were systematically deported from East Pakistan. The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid-May. With the operation also began Bangladesh atrocities. These systematic killings served only to enrage the Bengalis, which ultimately resulted in the secession of east pakistan later on 16th Decemeber 1971. The international media and reference books in English have published casualty figures which vary greatly, from 2,00,000–30,00,000 for Bangladesh as a whole.

Among those marked for extinction in addition to the A.L. hierarchy are student leaders and university faculty. In this second category prominent academicians were killed, their families wiped out and their women raped and killed. Also on the list are the bulk of MNA’s elect and number of MPA’s. Moreover, with the support of the Pakistani Military. non-bengali muslims were systematically encouraged to attack poor Hindus and murder them.


Indian government had hoped that the pakistani establishment would find a solution to the political problems. Sadly the solution they found was neither political nor humane. They resorted to genocide. Young men (even teenagers) were killed as a rule. The women were raped (A pakistani soldier later, claimed that they did not kill women because they were not animals, so they raped them – repeatedly). This led to a massive exodus of people towards India and this created a massive refugee problem for India.

India set up 69 training camps where the refugees and volunteers were trained in guerilla warfare by BSF. In these months BSF trained over 30,000 volunteers. By November, Indian army had formed joint groups with mukti bahini and started operating inside east pakistan. These groups were called Mitro Bahini.


OPERATION JACKPOT – With the crackdown, war between pakistan Army and bengali freedom fighters, the Mukti Bahini, began. The head of the Mukti Bahini was General Muhammad Osmani. India gave shelter to the refugees and trained the Mukti Bahini. They in turn attacked the pakistani army. In response to the attacks by Mukti Bahini, the pakistani army encouraged Razakars, (the Bengalis who did not want Bangladesh to become an independent country), to suppress the rebellion. Arrival of monsoons in August 1971, helped Mukti Bahini and they intensified their offensive against pakistan army. By now pakistan army was forced to stay inside their cantonments and barracks.

Inspite of an imminent threat of war, pak army believed that the “Hindu Baniya was no match for the Mujahid of the islamic pak army” They believed that any intervention in the east could be countered by attacks from the western border. On 21st November, India assumed an active role. Air and ground attacks were ordered and executed with precision. India, having superior equipment and forces, mounted a three-pronged movement on Dhaka from the Indian province West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura.


THE BATTLE OF GARIBPUR – On November 21, 1971, a major battle ensued on India’s eastern front and it happened before the official declaration of war on December 3, 1971. Garibpur was a finger-shaped land protrusion into India from erstwhile East Pakistan in the Boyra Salient. The Pakistani artillery was using Salient and Garibpur protrusion to launch artillery fire assaults and raids into Indian positions along the border and in the depth areas. A decision was taken to prepare for the Indian offensive by securing the area by denying the Pakistanis use of Salient by capturing Garibpur. 14th Battalion, The Punjab Regiment (Nabha Akal) along with ‘C’ Squadron, 45 Cavalry were tasked for the operation.

The attacking forces planned a silent attack on night 20–21 November and moved a patrol ahead of the main body of troops to be the eyes and ears of the main force. The patrol unfortunately encountered an enemy patrol and a clash ensued thus losing the element of surprise. The commanding officer Lt Col R. K. Singh ordered the troops to close in onto the objectives swiftly so as to regain the initiative. Four companies of the battalion and the squadron of tanks swiftly occupied Garibpur by 3 am on November 21 after fierce fighting. The enemy was expected to react violently and resort to a counter-attack to retake the position.

A reconnoitring patrol under Captain M.S. Gill and an artillery observer was sent ahead of the position in the cold foggy wintry night and the patrol picked up the sounds of approaching Pakistani tanks as they thundered down the road to Garibpur. A message was sent to the battalion and the troops and tanks then readjusted to face the enemy. The infantry with its recoilless guns held the area of Garibpur and tanks were sent ahead to meet the Pakistani charge. The counter-attack came as expected and the enemy moved 107 Infantry Brigade and 3 (Independent) Armoured Squadron of American made M24 Chaffee tanks. The first attack came at 6 am and the Squadron Commander of ‘C’ Squadron 45 Cavalry Major D. S. Narang was well prepared. He had skillfully deployed his PT-76 light tanks.

PS – The Indian tank was an amphibious tank and has very little armor protection as compared to a main battle tank like the Chaffe

The Pakistani assault was stopped in its tracks by the accurate and lethal fire from the much lighter and inferior PT-76 tanks, as the enemy lost tanks and infantry. Major D.S. Narang was martyred. He was later awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. Three more assaults came as the Pakistani infantry brigade stepped up the tempo and ferocity of its attacks, but 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal) and ‘C’ squadron 45 Cavalry stood firm and fought like tigers even as the last assault reached within 25 yards of their frontlines. Pakistani losses were 60-70 killed, 100 wounded and 11 tanks. Indian losses were 7 killed, 22 wounded and 3 tanks destroyed.

One infantry battalion and a squadron of tanks had stopped and beaten back a Pakistani brigade attack. The enemy now resorted to air attacks as 4 Pakistani F-86 Sabre jets strafed the defenses at 9:30 am and damaged the ferry across the Kadadak river in an attempt to cut off the forces.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) were on 22 November, given clearance to intercept the intruding aircraft. The Pakistani aircraft attacked Garibpur three times that day and at 3 pm during a third attack by four Sabres the IAF engaged them with 2 Gnat and 2 MIG aircraft (the Gnats earned the sobriquet ‘Sabre Killers’ due to the tremendous success its pilots had in downing the much superior and mint condition newly acquired Sabre Jets of Pakistan). 3 Sabres were shot down and the fourth was hit but it scurried back damaged.

The Gnats was flown by Flight Lieutenant M.A. Ganapathy and Flying Officer Donald Lazarus and the MIGs were flown by Flight Lieutenant Roy Andrew Massey and Flying Officer S.F. Soarez as his wingman all four pilots were awarded the Vir Chakra for their gallantry. Two Pakistani pilots bailed out and were taken as prisoners by the Mukti Bahini. One of these pilots was Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi who later on rose to become the chief of air staff of the Pakistani Air Force(PAF).

THE BATTLE OF HILLI – One of the most decisive battles of 1971 was the Battle of Hilli and it was the most intensely fought battle in the history of Indian Army. The operations comprised two battles; the first Battle of Hilli was fought from 22-24 November, and the second from 10-11 December 1971. The main objective was to capture Bogra, and cut off Pakistani forces in the North from the rest of East Pakistan. The best way of reaching Bogra was through Hilli. Indian Forces 20 Mountain Division was led by Major General Lachhman Singh, comprising of 66 Mountain Brigade, 165 Mountain Brigade, 202 Mountain Brigade, 340 Mountain Brigade, 3 Armoured Brigade, 471 Engineer Brigade and two Artillery Brigades augmented by 33 Corps Artillery. The ground troops were aided by aerial support provided by the Indian Air Force which had acquired air superiority. Pakistan Forces 205 Infantry Brigade of 16 Division of Pakistan Army led by Brigadier Tajammul Hussain Malik.

The attack was launched by 202 Mountain Brigade on the night of November 22/23. Prior to the midnight attack on November 22, the Indian artillery pounded the Pakistani defenses, however, the attack failed to damage the well fortified pak positions. At around 0100 hours, under the cover of artillery bombardment, the assault commenced with leading 2 companies of 8 Guards. They were met with murderous machine gun fire.

The assaulting Company Commanders of 8 Guards showed exemplary grit and courage
and led from the front. They were always at the head of their companies, encountering mines, wire obstacles, booby traps and waist deep water. The hand-to-hand combat continued throughout the night of November 23/24, with the situation still being fluid.
Bitter fighting continued during the night as the pakistanis managed to retain control of most of Morapara, with the Guards holding only a small pocket. By the morning of November 23, the situation was uncertain, with the Guards running out of ammunition and the enemy carrying out intense shelling. Support from the T-55 tanks was not coming as these heavy tanks got stuck in the paddy field of the area . However, it was clear that the Guards had a tenuous hold in Morapara. They had to withdraw under intense fire and shelling and, along with the rest of the battalion, they organized at Naopara and again engaged the enemy.

Towards dawn, Brig Bhatti ordered 5 GARHWAL to capture a locality from which the Pakistanis had been supporting Morapara. In a gallant assault, the battalion captured the enemy locality. Throughout the day on November 23, a stalemate continued. On the night of November 23/24, all the three infantry battalions of 202 Mountain Brigade carried out probing actions by vigorous patrolling and commando raids. All attempts to achieve a breakthrough from the north and west met with stiff enemy resistance. However, by first light of November 24, the Guards managed to secure a foothold on the eastern side of Morapara and exploiting the opportunity, the Commanding Officer, Lt Col
Shamsher Singh
quickly reinforced this foothold. The enemy launched a counter-attack to evict this foothold; however, the Guards stood firm and repulsed the enemy attempts with the support of artillery and tank fire of the light PT-76 tanks of 69 Armored regiment, which had reached by now, and were much more maneuverable in comparison to the heavy T-55 tanks.

Thus, Morapara finally fell at 1000 hours on November 24; though the casualties strewn on and around the objective told their own story and reflected the savagery of the action.

Milan Kundera, The book of Laughter and Forgetting

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