East Pakistan Operations, 1971

Indo-Pakistani War of 1971

The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 was a major military conflict between India and Pakistan. The war is closely associated with the Bangladesh Liberation War (sometimes also referred to as the Pakistani Civil War). Although there is some disagreement about the exact dates of the war, hostilities between India and Pakistan commenced officially on the evening of December 3, 1971. The armed conflict on India's western front during the period between 3 December 1971 and 16 December 1971 is called the "Indo-Pakistani War" by both the Bangladeshi and Indian armies. The war ended in the surrender of the Pakistani military after armed hostilities on two fronts.


The Indo-Pakistani conflict was sparked by the Bangladesh Liberation war, a conflict between the traditionally dominant West Pakistanis and the majority East Pakistanis. The Bangladesh Liberation war ignited after the 1970 Pakistani election, in which the East Pakistani Awami League won 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan and secured a simple majority in the 313-seat lower house of the Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament of Pakistan). Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, presented the Six Points to the President of Pakistan and claimed the right to form the government. After the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, refused to yield the premiership of Pakistan to Mujibur, President Yahya Khan called out the military, which was made up largely of West Pakistanis.

Mass arrests of dissidents began, and attempts were made to disarm East Pakistani soldiers and police. After several days of strikes and non-cooperation movements, the Pakistani military cracked down on Dhaka on the night of March 25, 1971. The Awami League was banished, and many members fled into exile in India. Mujib was arrested and taken to West Pakistan.

On 27 March 1971, Ziaur Rahman, a rebellious major in the Pakistani army, declared the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Mujibur. In April, exiled Awami League leaders formed a government-in-exile in Baidyanathtala of Meherpur. The East Pakistan Rifles, an elite paramilitary force, defected to the rebellion. A guerrilla troop of civilians, the Mukti Bahini, was formed to help the Bangladesh Army.

India's involvement in Bangladesh Liberation War

On 27 March 1971, the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, expressed full support of her government to the struggle for independence by the people of East Pakistan. The East Pakistan-India border was opened to allow refugees safe shelter in India. The governments of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the border. Exiled East Pakistan army officers and voluntary workers from India immediately started using these camps for recruitment and training of Mukti Bahini guerrillas.

As violence in East Pakistan escalated, an estimated 10 million refugees fled to India, causing financial hardship and instability in the country. The United States, a long and close ally of Pakistan, promised to ship arms and supplies to West Pakistan.

In the early autumn of 1971, Indira Gandhi launched a diplomatic offensive with a tour of Europe. She was successful in getting both the United Kingdom and France to break with the United States to block any pro-Pakistan directives in the United Nations security council. Gandhi's greatest coup was on 9 August when she signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union, greatly shocking the United States, and decreasing the possibility that the People's Republic of China would become involved in the conflict. China, an ally of Pakistan, had been providing moral support, but little military aid, and did not advance troops to its border with India.

Operation of the Mukti Bahini caused severe casualties to the Pakistani Army, which was in control of all district headquarters. As the flow of refugees swelled to a tide, the economic costs for India began to escalate. India began providing support including weapons and training for the Mukti Bahini.

India's official engagement with Pakistan

By November, war seemed inevitable; a massive buildup of Indian forces on the border with East Pakistan had begun. The Indian military waited for winter, when the drier ground would make for easier operations and Himalayan passes would be closed by snow, preventing any Chinese intervention. On 23 November, Yahya Khan declared a state of emergency in all of Pakistan and told his people to prepare for war.

On the evening of Sunday, 3 December, the Pakistani air force launched sorties on eight airfields in north-western India, including Agra which was from the border.. This attack, called Operation Chengiz Khan, was inspired by the Arab-Israeli Six Day War and the success of the Israeli preemptive strike. Unlike the Israeli attack on Arab airbases in 1967, which involved a large number of Israeli planes, Pakistan flew no more than 50 planes to India. Indian runways were non-functional for several hours after the attack.

India reacted strongly and declared war on Pakistan. India started flying sorties to Pakistan by midnight. On the Eastern front, the Indian Army joined forces with the Mukti Bahini to form the Mitro Bahini ("Allied Forces"); the next day the Indian forces responded with a massive coordinated air, sea, and land assault on the West Pakistani Army in East Pakistan. Unlike the 1965 war, when PAF continuously attacked Indian air force base, this time there were few attacks on IAF bases after the initial assaults, which permitted IAF attacks both army movement in East and West Pakistan throughout the 1971 war.

Pakistan had two primary objectives during the war:

1)to hold Indian forces from East Pakistan to the maximum extent. It was not easy for Indian troops to go long into Bangladesh as Bangladesh had many rivers and subrivers separating the land. Transporting the entire army and artillery across these rivers was not easy.
2)to occupy as much territory as possible on the western side of India. Pakistan expected that all India could achieve was a stalemate. In the end, a cease fire would be ordered and the territory procured prior to the stalemate would be theirs.

The main Indian Objective on the western front was to prevent Pakistan from entering its soil. It had no intention of occupying Pakistan.

Pakistan attacked at several places along India's western border with Pakistan, but the Indian army successfully held their lines. The Pakistan Army suffered a defeat at Battle of Longewala, where a 2000-3000 strong assault force of the 51st Infantry Brigade of the Pakistani Army, backed by the 22nd Armoured Regiment, was repulsed by the 120-odd soldiers of Indian 'A' company, 23rd Bn, Punjab Regiment. The Indian Army quickly responded to the Pakistan Army's movements in the west and made some initial gains, including capturing around of Pakistan territory (land gained by India in Pakistani Kashmir, Pakistani Punjab and Sindh sectors was later ceded in the Simla Agreement of 1972, as a gesture of goodwill).

At sea, the Indian Navy achieved success in Operation Trident, the name given to the attack on Karachi's port, which resulted in the destruction of 2 Pakistani destroyers and a minesweeper. This operation was followed by Operation Python. The waters in the east were also secured by the Indian Navy.

The Indian Air Force flew 4,000 sorties in the west while its counterpart, the PAF put up little retaliation, partly because of the paucity of non-Bengali technical personnel. This lack of retaliation has also been attributed to the deliberate decision of the PAF High Command to cut its losses as it had already incurred huge losses in the conflict. In the east, the small air contingent of Pakistan Air Force No. 14 Sqn was destroyed, resulting in Indian air superiority.

The Indian campaign employed "blitzkrieg" techniques, exploiting weakness in the enemy's positions and bypassing opposition, and resulted in a swift victory. Faced with insurmountable losses, the Pakistani military capitulated in less than a fortnight. On December 16, the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan surrendered. The next day Pakistan surrendered.

American and Soviet involvement

The United States supported Pakistan both politically and materially. Nixon, backed by Henry Kissinger, feared Soviet expansion into South and Southeast Asia. Pakistan was a close ally of the People's Republic of China, with whom Nixon had been negotiating a rapprochement and where he intended to visit in February 1972. Nixon feared that an Indian invasion of West Pakistan would mean total Soviet domination of the region, and that it would seriously undermine the global position of the United States and the regional position of America's new tacit ally, China. In order to demonstrate to China the bona fides of the United States as an ally, and in direct violation of the US Congress-imposed sanctions on Pakistan, Nixon sent military supplies to Pakistan, routing them through Jordan and Iran, while also encouraging China to increase its arms supplies to Pakistan.

The Nixon administration also ignored reports it received of the 'genocidal' activities of the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, most notably the Blood telegram. When Pakistan's defeat in the eastern sector seemed certain, Nixon sent the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, a move deemed by the Indians as a nuclear threat. The Enterprise arrived on station on December 11, 1971. On 6 December and 13 December, the Soviet Navy dispatched two groups of ships, armed with nuclear missiles, from Vladivostok; they trailed U.S. Task Force 74 into the Indian Ocean from 18 December 1971 until 7 January 1972. The Soviets also sent a nuclear submarine to ward off the threat posed by USS Enterprise in the Indian Ocean.

American policy towards the end of the war was dictated primarily by a need to restrict the escalation of war on the western sector to prevent the 'dismemberment' of West Pakistan. Years after the war, many American writers criticized the White House policies during the war as being badly flawed and ill-serving the interests of the United States.

The Soviet Union sympathized with the Bangladeshis, and supported the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini during the war, recognizing that the independence of Bangladesh would weaken the position of its rivals - the United States and China. The USSR gave assurances to India that if a confrontation with the United States or China developed, it would take counter-measures. This assurance was enshrined in the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty signed in August 1971.


The war ended with the surrender of the Pakistani military to the allied forces of India and Bangladesh, jointly known as the Mitro Bahini. Bangladesh became an independent nation, the world's third most populous Muslim state. Loss of East Pakistan demoralized the Pakistani military. President Yahya Khan resigned, to be replaced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Mujibur Rahman was released from a West Pakistani prison, returning to Dhaka on January 10, 1972.

The extent of casualties in East Pakistan is not known. R.J. Rummel cites estimates ranging from one to three million people killed. Other estimates place the death toll lower, at 300,000. On the brink of defeat around December 14, the Pakistani Army, and its local collaborators. systematically killed a large number of Bengali doctors, teachers and intellectuals, part of a pogrom against the Hindu minorities who constituted the majority of urban educated intellectuals. Young men, especially students, who were seen as possible rebels were also targeted.

The cost of the war for Pakistan in monetary and human resources was high. In the book Can Pakistan Survive? Pakistan based author Tariq Ali writes, "Pakistan lost half its navy, a quarter of its airforce and a third of its army." India took approximately 90,000 prisoners of war, including Pakistani soldiers and their East Pakistani civilian supporters. 79,676 prisoners were uniformed personnel, of which 55,692 were Army, 16,354 Paramilitary, 5,296 Police, 1000 Navy and 800 PAF. The remaining prisoners were civilians - either family members of the military personnel or collaborators (razakars). The Hameedur Rahman Committee Report instituted by Pakistan lists the Pakistani POWs as follows:

Branch Number of captured Pakistani POWs
Army 54,154
Navy 1,381
Air Force 833
Paramilitary including police 22,000
Civilian personnel 12,000
Total: 90,368

The war resulted in one of the largest surrenders of forces since World War II. Although India originally wished to try some 200 prisoners for war crimes for the brutality in East Pakistan, the government eventually acceded to releasing all prisoners as a gesture of reconciliation. The Simla Agreement signed the following year, also resulted in control of Pakistani territory (more than 15,000 km²) that had been captured during the war being given back to Pakistan, in order to create a "lasting peace" between the two nations and to affirm that India had no territorial ambitions.

Important dates

Military awards

For bravery, a number of soldiers and officers on both sides were awarded the highest military award of respective countries. Following is a list of the recipients of the Indian award Param Vir Chakra, Bangladesh award Bir Sreshtho and the Pakistani award Nishan-E-Haider:


Recipients of the Param Vir Chakra:


Recipients of the Bir Sreshtho


Recipients of the Nishan-E-Haider:


Further reading

  • An Army Its Role and Rule (A History of the Pakistan Army from Independence to Kargil 1947-1999). Muhammad Ayub ISBN 0-8059-9594-3
  • D K Palit The Lightning Campaign: The Indo-Pakistan War 1971 Compton Press Ltd (1972), ISBN 0-900193-10-7
  • J R Saigal Pakistan Splits: The Birth of Bangladesh Manas Publications (2004), ISBN 81-7049-124-X
  • J Hanhimaki The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy Oxford University Press (2004)



  • Border, a 1997 Bollywood war film directed by J.P.Dutta. This movie is an adaptation from real life events that happened at the Battle of Longewala fought in Rajasthan (Western Theatre) during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
  • Hindustan Ki Kasam, a 1973 Bollywood war film directed by Chetan Anand. The aircraft in the film are all authentic aircraft used in the 1971 war against Pakistan. These include MiG-21s, Gnats, Hunters and Su-7s. Some of these aircraft were also flown by war veterans such as Samar Bikram Shah (2 kills) and Manbir Singh.
  • 1971 - Prisoners of War, a 2007 Bollywood war film directed by Sagar Brothers. Set against the backdrop of a prisoner''s camp in Pakistan, follows six Indian prisoners awaiting release after their capture in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

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