Updated: October 26, 2021 3:52:54 pm
The 1971 victory wasn’t a matter of chance or gifted to us by our adversaries. It was the result of careful, meticulous planning involving strategic, tactical, logistic, diplomatic and administrative (i.e., the civilian government) factors. The planning and the preparations initiated thereof were spread over a period of eight months resulting in a spectacular win fashioned by the most dedicated set of men and women this country’s ever seen. How did it all start and what went into the crafting of the plan?
One fine day in early April 1971 the two staff officers who manned MO4, the section in the Military Operations Directorate at Army HQ dealing with the operational plans of Eastern Command were called to see the Director, Major General KK Singh. These were Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh who had won a Maha Vir Chakra for his leadership of 2nd Grenadiers in the Nathu La clashes with the Chinese in September 1967 and Major Sukhjit Singh, Scinde Horse. The latter was the Maharaja of Kapurthala having chosen a career as a professional soldier. He was a graduate of the Staff College at Camberley in the United Kingdom. Sukhjit had served with KK Singh earlier as his Brigade Major (senior operations staff officer; in effect a chief of staff) in 1 Armoured Brigade during the 1965 War where heavy attrition had been caused to Pakistani armour at the battles of Phillora and Chawinda. These two were MO4’s General Staff Officer Grade 1 and 2, respectively.
KK Singh came straight to the point. The duo was to produce within 24 hours a plan to raise and operate a guerrilla force to exploit the emerging insurgency in East Pakistan (in a state of civil war after the military crackdown beginning 26th March). The two burnt the midnight oil, did due diligence, pored over files and came up with a 30-page draft the next day, KK Singh, brilliant military mind that he was, went through the plan, made liberal use of the red pencil and reduced it to some eighteen pages of concise, precise military text. This was interspersed with explosions like ‘Who the hell wrote this?’ or ‘Have you guys ever learnt how to make a military appreciation?’ This formed the basis of the Chiefs of Staff Committee paper on which the final plan was based.
The government accepted the plan and ordered its implementation. The plan. Codenamed Operation Jackpot called for operational and logistics support, training, equipping and tasking of Bengali deserters from the Pakistan Army, East Pakistan Rifles, Police and civilian volunteers to take on the Pakistani forces within East Pakistan with a view to ultimately liberate the land. An organisation was set up for the purpose under a Director of Operations at HQ Eastern Command. The first incumbent was the doughty infantryman, Major General OS Kalkat who set the force working in the field and laid the foundations for its success. He was succeeded by Major General BN Sarkar. Seven sector headquarters were set up under Brigadiers all along India’s borders with East Pakistan to coordinate the training and operations.
As summer progressed to monsoon and autumn, regular Indian forces were inducted to seize launching pads for the offensives aimed at the heart of East Pakistan, cause attrition to the enemy and draw out their forces from their strongholds in the interior to the frontiers. This was codenamed Operation Windfall and led to bloody clashes among them in the battles of Garibpur, Hilli, Kamalpur, Dhalai and Akhaura. Operation Windfall was actually the name of the entire operation in East Pakistan. The Army Chief, General Maneckshaw reasoned that the war itself should have one codename cutting across Services, theatres and formations for reasons of cohesion, recording of history, accounting and war/casualty benefits. That is how the codename Operation Cactus Lily came to be applied to the 1971 war.
KK Singh after preparing the entire war plan (punctuated by long excursions for golf much to the Army Chief’s annoyance!) and coordinating a good part of the preparations moved on promotion to I Corps. The Army’s premier strike formation, it launched an offensive to neutralise the threat from the Shakargarh Bulge capturing a large chunk of territory. Sukhjit Singh was there too spiritedly commanding his regiment, and his leadership was recognised with the award of the Maha Vir Chakra. Other veterans of the Shakargarh Sector remember him as being well up in battle, always where the action was, a true commander in the old cavalry tradition with a keen eye for ground and the opportunity to thrust ahead. He retired as a Brigadier in the late 70s.
The next Director of Military Operations (DMO) was Major General AM ‘Vir’ Vohra who had worked on Maneckshaw’s staff in key general staff (the branch of the staff dealing with operations, intelligence, training; broadly speaking warfare) positions in both IV Corps and Eastern Command. However, he wasn’t available as he away on a course at the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) in the United Kingdom which would get over only in December. Major General IS Gill, the incumbent Director of Military Training (DMT) was asked to officiate as DMO. Inder Gill, a paratrooper had a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense commander who on occasion stood up to the Army Chief, General Sam Maneckshaw where he felt he was right. His contribution to the victory was immense. So much so that he was made the regular DMO with Vir Vohra sidestepping as DMT. Both retired as army commanders.
Presiding over all these brilliant staff officers and getting the best out of his subordinate formation commanders was Sam Maneckshaw, the charismatic Army Chief. Maneckshaw used his staff very adroitly. After giving clear directions and a feasible aim he left them alone to work out the details. Once they had won his confidence the staff could take decisions at their own level. The end result was success in each operation undertaken under his command.
The 1971 War wasn’t just the first strategic victory won by India in ten centuries but a most spectacular feat of arms. Such a brilliant victory was fashioned by some of the most extraordinary soldiers, seamen, airmen, politicians, intelligence officers, administrators and diplomats to ever serve this country. To them we owe a very great debt of gratitude.
Tailpiece: One can get to hear Brigadier Sukhjit Singh’s story and that of many of those who fought in 1971 at the Military Literature Festival, Chandigarh being held online again this year in December.
(Please contact the writer with your military story on firstname.lastname@example.org or 093161-35343)
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