Hits & Misses: Lessons from 1971

Several strategic and operational lessons from the two-front India-Pakistan War of 1971 remain relevant even in today’s vastly different geostrategic and conflict landscapes in South Asia. Revisiting them may not offer contemporary solutions to existing security challenges in the region, but they offer deep insights into the still-fractured India-Pakistan relationship. Western analysts and commentators have been  reluctant to praise India for its strategic decisiveness and willingness to covertly and then directly intervene militarily in East Pakistan on an R2P platform and risk a two-front war with Pakistan.[1] However they do admit that despite its fractured polity, for once India was united across party lines as its leadership combined ‘realpolitik’ with genuine empathy for victims of the genocide.

          Mulling over the idea of going to war from March 1971 onwards and heeding the advice of her army chief, Gen Manekshaw, to delay commencement of operations for many reasons, Indira Gandhi had examined the political consequences of war and its possible outcomes carefully. Though Indira Gandhi initially thought that given the training and significant material assistance being given to the Mukti Bahini; it would be able to defeat the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan on its own, she had not reckoned with the increasing brutality of the Pak Army and the spiralling refugee crisis. With over 10 million refugees streaming into India by November 1971, there was no alternative to direct military action on the eastern front. So certain was she of the need to go to war that one can’t but help benchmark her decision against the seven markers for assessing the relative strength of countries on the brink of war laid out by Geoffrey Blainey, the noted Australian military historian. These are:

‘military strength and the ability to apply that strength efficiently in the chosen zone of war; predictions of how outside nations would behave in the event of the war; perceptions of internal unity and of the unity or discord of the enemy; memory or forgetfulness of the realities and sufferings of war; perceptions of prosperity and of ability to sustain economically; the personality and mental quality of the leaders who weighed the evidence; nationalism and ideology; and the personality and mental qualities of the leaders who weighed the evidence and decided for peace or war.’[2]

On every count, India, Indira Gandhi and her team were well ahead of Yahya Khan, Bhutto and the fragmented Pakistani strategic leadership. Provoked by India’s constant probing in East Pakistan from mid-November, Pakistan struck first on the western front on 03 December, 1971.

 Hoping for some irrational success through pre-emption, it allowed India to supplement its operational superiority with the opportunity to occupy the moral high ground in the ensuing 14 day conflict. The surrender of Dacca and the splitting of Pakistan remains the single most impactful strategic event of the war. Lt Gen Shammi Mehta (Retd) put the whole campaign in the East in the right perspective, albeit with a touch of drama and flair when he remarked:

‘The Indian Armed Forces had in 14 days, liberated a country from where it withdrew in 90 days, picked up 93,000 prisoners, and released them one year later at an average body weight of one-and-a –half times their original weight.’[3]

The defeat further shattered the martial myth of the Punjabi and Pathan dominated Pakistani Army as it crumbled in the face of a secular and diverse Indian Armed Forces and the non-martial Bengalis. The scars of the dismembering remain a debilitating legacy, particularly within the Pakistan Army though the PAF and PN took the defeat more objectively. This is reflected in much of the writing that has emerged from Pakistan on the 1971 war in recent times.[4] The slow normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan since the 1971 war can mainly be attributed to the obsession of the Pak Army to ‘get even’ with India and avenge the loss of 1971.

India emerged as the clear regional power in South Asia after the 1971 war with Pakistan by demonstrating significant national will to tackle a crisis of enormous proportions. By diplomatically engaging with Russia, Western Europe and the US, and sensitising them about the ongoing human tragedy in East Pakistan and the spiralling refugee crisis in India, the Indian government succeeded in conveying to the world that it wanted a peaceful solution to the problem. However, the speed with which it commenced military operations indicated its resolve and willingness to use military force in pursuit of its national interests.

If India was outmanoeuvred strategically at any stage, it was during the Simla Conference of 1972 where a wily Bhutto managed to convince Indira Gandhi of the need to de-link a Kashmir settlement from the negotiations to release the 93,000 Pak prisoners held by India. This, he emphasised, was essential for the survival of his democratically elected government.[5] An internationally recognised agreement over Kashmir in terms of converting the Cease Fire Line into a clearly delineated and demarcated boundary may have sorted out the Kashmir issue once and for all. Hussain Haqqani offers telling comments on the Simla Agreement when he writes:

‘He (Bhutto) pleaded with Gandhi not to insist on including a final resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in any bilateral agreement although, from India’s point of view, this would have been the ideal opportunity to impose a solution.’[6]

In a moment of triumphant magnanimity, Indira Gandhi lost a golden opportunity to remove the ‘Kashmir’ thorn from India’s flesh. It also allowed Pakistan to keep the pot boiling till it re-worked its strategies to wrest Kashmir from India. Indira Gandhi’s Grand Strategy during the 1971 war was to adopt a ‘balance of power’ model by combining key tenets of non-alignment, realpolitik and an element of altruism. One cannot but drawing parallels between these strategies and the one adopted by PM Vajpayee during the Kargil Conflict.

There is little doubt that the metamorphosis and ‘hardening’ of Indian diplomacy took place in the run-up to the 1971 conflict. Recently declassified White House conversations with Kissinger reveal Nixon as a self-serving President with little interest or empathy for the developing world in general, and South Asia in particular. Kissinger, on the other hand comes across as a brilliant, hard-driving and mercurial czar of US diplomacy – he understood the crisis, but chose to go along with Nixon on the path to restoring relations with China as that is where he felt lay the most tangible gains for US foreign policy.[7] As the crisis unfolded and the India-Pak war ended in a decisive victory for India, both Nixon and Kissinger were clearly irked by Indira Gandhi’s assertiveness and refusal to cower before US hegemony in the region.  Her refusal to get rattled by the posturing of the Seventh Fleet, only increased their frustration at not being able to coerce India into ceasing military operations before its objectives were met. Hard-ball realpolitik coupled with a fair degree of empathy for the suffering population of East Pakistan forced Indira Gandhi to ‘do the right thing’ and wage what can easily be called today as a ‘just war.’

At the operational level, clear and congruent objectives the service chiefs to subordinate formations and effective politico-military interfaces between the service chiefs and key interlocutors from the Prime Minister’s office resulted in a commonality of purpose. Capability building was given top priority and the service chiefs enjoyed a fair degree of independence when it came to designing their concept of operations. Even though the Indian Army and its talismanic chief Manekshaw retained their importance as ‘first among equals’ in a predominantly land-centric armed forces, Indira Gandhi and Jagjivan Ram, her portly and jovial Defence Minister realised the value of air and maritime power in a two-front battle. Due credit must go to them, Air Chief Marshal P.C.Lal and Admiral S.M. Nanda for transforming Indian air and sea power from being mere adjuncts of land power, into tools of military power that had the ability to contribute significantly to a joint military campaign. This ensured that Manekshaw as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee had no other choice but to create joint-war fighting capability by amalgamating air and sea power into his overall theatre battle plans in both the eastern and western sectors. That there is a pressing need for the improvement of such synergies in the current strategic and operational environment is a given should India want to realize its power potential.

Air Vice Marshal (Dr) Arjun Subramaniam (Retired) is a Visiting Prof at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the author of ‘India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971.’


[1] Arjun Subramaniam, Brave Diplomacy amidst Genocide, The Hindu, 03 December, 2013 at http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/brave-diplomacy-amidst-genocide/article5415254.ece

[2] Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War (New York: The Free Press,1988, p.123

[3] Arjun Subramaniam, India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017), p.425.

[4] Shuja Nawaz, Hussain Haqqani, Sajjad Haider, Kaiser Tufail and Agha Humayun Amin are amongst those whose writings emerge as objective and incisive.

[5] Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military ( Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), pp.98-99. The book has excellent chapters on the India-Pakistan relationship and is one of the most objective books on the Pakistan Army in the modern era.

[6] Hussain Haqqani, pp.98-99.

[7] See Arjun Subramaniam, Brave Diplomacy amidst Genocide, The Hindu, 03 December, 2013 at http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/brave-diplomacy-amidst-genocide/article5415254.ece