Indian airplanes fighting during Bangladesh Liberation War 1971

India's official entry into war on 3 December 1971

By December, it became apparent to Islamabad that it was not regaining control of East Pakistan. The muktijuddhas were striking deeply into East Pakistan in greater strength, and with border tension intensifying with India, the war took a decisive turn in favour of the muktijuddhas when Pakistan mounted a surprise attack on India.

Pakistani 'Operation Chengiz Khan' commences Indo-Pak war, lasting only 13 days

Indira Gandhi visited refugee camps in Kolkata on 3 December 1971, where she told a mass rally of Indian citizens and Bengali refugees gathered at the Brigade Parade Ground that India would "do what she considered to be in her national interest". Speaking in favour of the liberation struggle of Bangladesh and pledging all support and assistance to their cause, her speech was suddenly cut short. Yahya Khan, at 5.30pm, had opted for allout war against India.

Wary of the growing involvement of India and inflated by their support from the United States, China and the Gulf Arab states, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched a pre-emptive strike on India on Sunday 3 December 1971. Code named 'Operation Chengiz Khan', Pakistan Air Force attacked eleven Indian airbases along the 1,400 miles border on the western front (separating India and Pakistan) on airfields in Punjab, Kashmir, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

By escalating the conflict Pakistan had hoped to rope in China and the US in widening the conflict and hoped for a UN intervention a la Kashmir. Their aim was to destroy as much Indian combat power as possible before she herself was attacked by India, and capture some territory which could be used to bargain for territory that was expected to be lost in the east. In opening up the western front to a full-scale war, Pakistan's military rulers were putting into practice their firmly held belief that the defence of East Pakistan lay in the west.

Yahya Khan sought to impose military means to resolve the mounting insurgency. Like the previous military dictator before him, President Ayub Khan, had once spoken of using "the language of weapons" if the "weapon of language" was unable to deal with a somewhat similar situation. Though Ayub had not lived long enough to see his phrase transformed into brutal fact, Yahya did.

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However, the plan failed to achieve the desired success. The Indian Air Force (IAF) had dispersed their aircraft to hardened shelters on a large number of airfields where only a direct hit could damage them. The late afternoon forced the attack to be brief as it could not be sustained in darkness. Not only were too few airfields struck for too short a time, but not every available aircraft were used - upto 50 planes were used. Indian runways were non-functional for several hours after the attack. The Pakistani action was not only unsuccessful but also seen as an open act of unprovoked aggression against the Indians.

The sudden attack took India by surprise. Whilst the Indian PM was in Kolkata, Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram was visiting his constituency in Bihar, Finance Minister Chavan was in Bombay, and President Giri was attending a reception on the lawns of Parliament House when an air alert was sounded at 5.45pm. When Indira Gandhi was informed in Kolkata, she flew at once to Delhi escorted by squadrons of air force fighter planes to ensure she not fall prey to Pakistani air strike in midair. Upon arrival in Delhi, she addressed the nation and declared war on Pakistan.

Today a war in Bangladesh has become a war on India... I have no doubt that by the united will of the people, the wanton and unprovoked aggression of Pakistan should be decisively and finally repelled... Aggression must be met and the people of India will meet it with fortitude, determination, discipline and utmost unity.

PM Indira Gandhi in a radio broadcast shortly before midnight on 3 December 1971

Following this, a full-scale, two-front war broke out between India and Pakistan - the third between India and Pakistan during their first quarter century of independence and the first that did not take place over Kashmir. New Delhi declared a state of national emergency, and the Indian Parliament passed the Defence of India Act giving emergency powers to the government. India also imposed an air and naval blockade of both East and West Pakistan, and publicly threw its support behind the Mukti Bahini.

Indian Air Force hit back hours after the Pakistan attack. Up until now there was limited use of Indian Army in Bangladesh cause, now it was used in full force. Indira Gandhi ordered the immediate mobilisation of troops and launched the full-scale invasion of Bangladesh in aid of the Mukti Bahini. This marked the official start of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and would last until Pakistan Army surrendered in Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. Lasting just 13 days it's considered one of the shortest wars in history.

India was far superior to Pakistan militarily and played its hand cleverly. In particular, India had a larger, better-armed army and superior naval forces. It also had the advantage of being able to attack Pakistan on both its eastern and western fronts. Indian forces responded to Pakistani attack with a coordinated and massive air, sea, and land assault on East Pakistan.

Indian Army divided into three corps ready for action

In order to carry out their offensive, the Indian Army divided Bangladesh into three fronts - eastern, south-western and north-western - and split their ground forces accordingly. The capture of the eastern front was to be carried out by IV (or 4th) Corps commanded by General Sagat Singh. The south-western front by the newly raised II (2nd) Corps commanded by Lt. General T. N. Raina, and the north-western front by XXXIII (33) Corps commanded by Lt. General M. L. Thapan. With these Indian forces were the three Mukti Bahini brigades and sector troops numbering in their dozens of thousands.

The main thrust was to be delivered by IV Corps under Sagat Singh. He was tasked with launching an offensive to destroy the Pakistani forces deployed east of the Meghna Nodi. This included capturing Sylhet in the north, Comilla to the east, and intercepting surface communications, including road, rail and waterways, between Chittagong and the main hinterland and to the north. This operation may have also been called 'Operation Jackpot', similar to the famous naval attacks on August.

The eastern area was also the only area in which all three wings - army, navy and air force - of both the combatants took part in the military operations. As such this was the strongest of all the Mitro Bahini army corps. The main road and rail link of Dhaka with the important port of Chittagong passes through this area. The strategic bridge on the Meghna lies in this sector and so are the river ports of Chandpur and Daudkandi, located nearby. This entire area was a protecting shield for Dhaka.

The basic strategy for the war in 1971 was an offensive in the eastern wing of Pakistan and a defensive in the western wing.

  • Sagat Singh ()
  • Tapishwar Narain Raina (1921 - 1980) Chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army during 1975–78. Later he served as High Commissioner to Canada.
  • M. L. Thapan ()

Bengali 'Kilo Flight' commences air attack

The first 'Indian' air attack was actually carried out by Bengali air force of Kilo Flight. They launched successful air attacks on depots and communication lines on 2 December 1971 (i.e. the day before Pakistan attacked India). They then attacked a number of targets in Chittagong and Narayangonj in the early hours of 3 December 1971. The brave Bengali pilots destroyed the Jet Fuel Station at Chittagong and Godnail, Narayanganj and attacked the Mirpur Radar Station and Savar Radio Station and successfully destroyed it after the Mukti Bahini guerrillas had been unable to sabotage them due to the tight security. They flew the aircraft at an altitude of 40 to 250 feet so that enemy radars couldn't get the signal.

It must be remembered that this very fleet [i.e. new bangladesh airforce] struck first when all-out attack on the Pakistan forces began on 3 December 1971. We destroyed two fuel dumps - one at Godnail of Narayanganj and another in Chittagong - in that strike. It caused severe damage to the movement of the Pakistan army.

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Without any navigation equipment and proper air to air defense equipment, with obsolete planes, these people dared to fly and bomb Pakistani strategic position on 3rd December 1971. Their mission was to bomb 2 oil reservoirs, Godail and Chittagong. They flew from Kamalpur and bombed these two locations. This mission destroyed most of the reserve fuel of the Pakistani army.

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President Yahya: India's "aggression" leads to "point of no return"

On 4 December 1971 President Yahya addressed the nation where once again he blamed India's "aggression" for causing a situation which has led to "point of no return". He vowed to safeguard Pakistan's "territorial integrity" with all the forces in their command.

...India's hatred and animosity for Pakistan is world renowned. They have always attempted to weaken Pakistan and to destroy it...But this is the final straw. It's now time to give a solid response to the enemy. O' mujahid [one who engages in jihad] of Pakistan...rise and become a protective wall against this enemy. You are truthful and just...

Extract from President Yahya's radio speech on 4 December 1971

The radio in Islamabad proclaimed that Pakistan was waging a jihad against India. However, it became quickly clear that the Pakistani military had grossly overestimated its capabilities and the extent of the foreign support it might receive.

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Battle in the sky

These attacks were followed by several sorties against Pakistan by Indian Air Force (IAF), and within a week, IAF aircraft dominated the skies of East Pakistan. It achieved near-total air supremacy by the end of the first week as the entire Pakistani air contingent in the east, PAF No.14 Squadron, was grounded because of Indian airstrikes at Tejgaon (in Dhaka), Kurmitola (in Dhaka), Lal Munir Hat (Rangpur area) and Shamsher Nagar (below Moulvi Bazar, Sylhet Division). This enabled the advancing army columns to move without any fear of detection even in daytime.

For us in Dhaka, the war came in the form of strikes by the Indian Air Force over PAF base in Tejgaon in the midnight of 3 December. We could not sleep the whole night from the wailing sirens, the thunderous sounds of bombs that fell and the shrieking sound of the jets. We were excited that the war was finally there, but we were equally fearful that we could become victims of collateral damage. Fortunately, the accuracy of the bombing over targeted areas spared largely any civilian damage in Dhaka. Over next two-three days, we would witness thrilling low-level dog fights between PAF and IAF jets. The results of the IAF's assault were that by 7 December, the PAF in the East was effectively grounded.

Ziauddin M. Choudhury , author of "Fight for Bangladesh: Remembrances of 1971" (2011)

With supply from the air assured, the army did not have to be dependent on opening of roads, which were heavily defended by the Pakistanis. The five division-strong Indian forces advanced from three directions and secured choke points well in the rear.

Battle in the sea

Sea hawks from Indian navy ship INS Vikrant also struck Chittagong, Barisal and Cox's Bazar, destroying the eastern wing of the Pakistan Navy and effectively blockading the East Pakistan ports. This cut off reinforcements, supplies, and any escape routes for the stranded Pakistani soldiers. The Bangladesh Navy, which had only been formed four months back by defecting Bengali navy officers from Pakistan Navy, aided the Indians in the marine warfare.

Pakistan gave the first hint of surrender on 9 December 1971, within just six days of the joint attacks of the Indian armed forces and the Mukti Bahini began. Finally, they surrendered unconditionally on 16 December 1971.

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India become the first country to recognise 'Bangladesh' - followed by Bhutan

On 6 December 1971, India took the bold and decisive step of recognising Bangladesh as an independent nation. PM Indira Gandhi told Lok Sabha (Lower House, India's Parliament) that the Government of India, "after most careful consideration", had decided gladly to grant recognition to the new country which the Mujibnagar Shorkar has proclaimed as the 'Gana Prajatantri Bangladesh' (People's Republic of Bangladesh).

I am glad to inform the House that in the light of the existing situation and in response to the repeated requests of the Government of Bangladesh, the Government of India have after the most careful consideration, decided to grant recognition to the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

I'm confident that in future the government and the people of India and Bangladesh, who share common ideals and sacrifices, will forge a relationship based on the principles of mutual respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit. Thus working together for freedom and democracy we shall set an example of good neighbourliness which alone can ensure peace, stability and progress in this region. Our good wishes to Bangladesh.

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The Prime Minister's declaration met with raptuous applause from the House where Humayun Rasheed Chowdhury, Chief of the Bangladesh Mission in New Delhi, thanked her and India for their generosity and support.

Indira Gandhi was pragmatic, determined and courageous. She stood up to Nixon [US President Richard Nixon] and the pressures from the United Nations.

To counter American and Chinese support for Pakistan, she had DP Dhar [PM's adviser for Bangladesh] to negotiate a treaty of friendship with the Soviets, thus giving us freedom of action. She led the nation to its greatest military victory, restoring our prestige and raising India's status to that of a regional superpower. The liberation of Bangladesh was Indira Gandhi's finest hour.

General Jacob, who drafted the historic "Instrument of Surrender", praises Indira Gandhi

Following India's recognition, the next day the government of Bhutan became the second country to extend recognition to Bangladesh. Bhutan had been admitted to the membership of the United Nations earlier and, therefore, her recognising Bangladesh made the new country a member of the World community.

Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad thanked India and Bhutan for their recognition whilst reminiscing about Sheikh Mujib's contribution. Going forward, he appealed for law and order to prevail and requested cooperation from both the Bengalis and the Pakistani occupation forces.

The peril from the common enemy has brought the people of Bangladesh and India closer than ever. Our forces are now fighting shoulder to shoulder with Indian forces, and their blood is mingling with ours on our soil. This seals the bond between two peoples who are destined for friendship... This indeed a fine hour for both Bangladesh and India. This is but natural that India, the largest democracy in the world, should be the first to welcome us to the committee of independent nations...The Bengali nation owes an infinite debt of gratitude to Sreemati Gandhi's sagacity and statemanship. Following India, Bhutan has given us recognition, and we are also grateful to the King and people of that country.

The joy of the people of Bangladesh is, however, darkened by a cruel irony, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the Bengali nation, is in the prison of the enemy at this hour, when Bangladesh, his dream, has come true on the international plane.

...I call upon all enemy troops and razakars to lay down their arms and surrender. They can yet save themselves by heeding this call. I also call upon all citizen of Bangladesh to avoid the temptation to take the law into their own hands. We must remember that it is the prerogative of the state to punish offenders according to the due process of law. If a single citizen of Bangladesh is harmed or hurt because of his language or race it will be a betrayal of the ideals of the founder of the nation and the flag of free Bangladesh.

PM Tajuddin Ahmad addresses India’s formal recognition of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign nation, broadcasted on 8 December 1971

Mutual understanding between Bangladesh and India

Four days after India's recognition, on 10 December 1971, both India and Bangladesh had reached an understanding whereby India would offer assistance to Bangladesh for reconstruction and restoration of normalcy after liberation. In response, Bangladesh had promised to repatriate the refugees as quickly as possible and restore to them their lands and properties. The civil administration was to be strengthened with the help of the Indian civilian officers. The economic burden and the social and political tensions created by the refugees were to be common concern of both Bangladesh and India.

India's recognition had angered the Pakistanis who claimed that the recognition of "so-called Bangladesh" had "exposed" India's hatred towards Pakistan and its desire to destroy Pakistan. Pakistan broke off diplomatic relations with India, five hours after the Indian decision. This was the first time since the birth of the twin countries that either country had taken such a step. Pakistan also claimed that the action was contrary to the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Bandung Principles.

This is the first time that either country had taken such an extreme step in 25 years since their emergence into freedom. Not even during the last war in 1965, when troops from both sides pitted against each other in a bloody battle, did severance of ties take place.

Bharat Rakshak website

The Government of Pakistan requested Switzerland to look after its interests in India and thus withdrew its diplomatic staff from New Delhi.

Bangladesh was now a reality. The flag of the People's Republic of Bangladesh was hoisted with the ceremony at the Bangladesh Mission premises in New Delhi on 9 December 1971, in the presence of a large gathering. With this the theory of two nations in the subcontinent based on religion came to an ignominious and costly end.

Anti-Basha Andolan Bengali appointed Prime Minister

On the same day that India officially recognised Bangladesh, President Yahya Khan installed a civilian setup at the Centre on the request of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Nurul Amin - the controversial Chief Minister during Basha Andolan, who was also anti-Mujibur Rahman - was made the Prime Minister on 6 December 1971, whilst Bhutto became the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Bhutto was apparently integrated into the government so that 'he would be easier to control'.

Before his departure for the United Nations, Bhutto informed the US embassy in Pakistan that he expected to be installed in office after his return.

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Nurul Amin's premiership would only last 13 days as on 20 December 1971 Bhutto would take over as the civilian Chief Marshall Law Administrator (CMLA) and President. However, two days later Nurul Amin was appointed as Vice President of Pakistan, the first and only person to have held this post. He continued to hold this post until the lifting of Martial Law on 21 April 1972.

General Aurora: Local Bengali's help during Battle of Ashuganj was the "turning point" of the war

The Battle of Ashuganj on 9 December 1971 resulted in a Mitro Bahini victory after a serious fighting in which both sides suffered heavy losses. With Ashuganj captured, now Dhaka was only 80 km away. However, the worst thing happened.

In a desperate effort to stem the flow of the Mitro Bahini, the Pakistanis blew up the Ashuganj railway bridge over the Meghna nodi (river) and retreated on the other side. This was the only bridge that spanned the huge Meghna Nodi - a river of great width which at its narrowest point was from 4,000 to 4,500 yards (over 3,650m) wide. The Ashuganj Bridge, which was about 2,950 feet (900m) long, was the only way to cross the Meghna Nodi and approach Dhaka from the east. By destroying this strategic bridge, the Pakistani force had hoped to slow down the Mukti Bahini and Indian Army and prevent them quick access from the east to the capital Dhaka.

General Sagat Singh had anticipated that the Pakistani troops would blow up the rail bridge before his jawans could get to it. But he made no effort to capture the bridge intact. This tactical mistake, proved costly in terms of reaching Dhaka first and that is why General Nagara's troops were first to enter the East Pakistani metropolis followed by the stronger, advanced elements of the IV Corps.

Had General Sagat Singh taken pains to capture the bridge intact, his entry into Dhaka would have been possible on the 14th instead of 16th December.

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Undeterred, the Mitro Bahini decided to cross the river about 10 km south of the destroyed bridge. It would have taken a long time to repair the blown up bridge, so General Aurora sent 12 helicopters to facilitate river crossing.

The Indians used all available helicopters to air bridge the Meghna and establish a bridgehead on the other side of the river. All available river-craft were also pressed into service to carry the heavy equipment, artillery and armour. Even unorthodox means such as primitive rafts were used to take more troops to the other bank, beyond which lay their ultimate objective. The helicopters flew non-stop to ferry about 700 jawans to five different points on the other bank, all these making a widening bridgehead on 10 December 1971.

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The first lift was organised on 9 December and, working non-stop for 10 hours, two battalions and a few heavy mortars were put across the Meghna. The Pakistani garrison at Bhairab Bazar did nothing to dislodge this force. The rest of the brigade crossed with amphibious tanks (i.e. assault crafts) and a motley fleet of local river boats. The eastern terrain, except the hill tracts, is generally low-lying and waterlogged by paddy fields. Like the rest of Bangladesh, it is interspersed with numerous rivers and drainage channels. Since the rivers frequently change course and causes bridging problems, ferries are the only reliable means of crossing.

This was the "turning point" of the war according to Lieutenant Aurora.

We knew the Pakistani forces would destroy bridges. They thought they had cut us off after they blew up a bridge over the Meghna River. But we took them by surprise and crossed it at night with the help of the local [Bengali] people. That was the turning point.

Lt. Gen. Aurora reminiscing how local Bengali help snatched victory

On 11 December 1971 another heli-lift was organised to take the second brigade across the Meghna. On 13th, the feat was repeated, and finally the other side of the Meghna was now captured and secured for use by the Mitro Bahini.

Bir Srestho Mohammad Ruhul Amin killed trying to save Padma and MV Polash, the first two battleship of Bangladesh

Both Padma and MV Polash were mistakenly hit and destroyed by the Indian fighter planes on 10 December 1971, when they were about to launch a major attack on Mongla seaport in Khulna. Bir Srestho Mohammad Ruhul Amin was one of those who was killed during this friendly fire.

Others who have contributed to the advancement of the Bangladesh Nu-bahini and sacrificed their life in the process include: Mohammad Farid Uddin Ahmed (Radio Electrician-I), Mohammad Daulat Hossain Mollah (Able Seaman), Mohammad Akter Uddin (Able Seaman) and Lieutenant Commander Moazzam Hossain who sacrificed himself in the beginning of the Liberation War.

  • Mohammad Ruhul Amin ()
  • Mohammad Farid Uddin Ahmed ()
  • Mohammad Daulat Hossain Mollah ()
  • Mohammad Akter Uddin ()
  • Moazzam Hossain ()