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RECOLLECTIONS OF A COMMUNICATOR: Fortieth anniversary of 1971 Indo-Pak war (Article)


December 15, 2011 - New Delhi

The sub-continent will be observing the fortieth anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh on Friday. In Bangladesh, it will be celebrated as the fulfillment of the wishes of the people, who led a brave battle under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In Pakistan, it will be an occasion to recall with regret how the country was dismembered due to the ambitions of a few leaders, both military and political, because of their refusal to honour the verdict of the people in elections held for the National Assembly which would have made Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the natural choice for being the Prime Minister of the country.

In India, the event will be observed as a unique achievement by the country, which looked after the safe return of over ten million refugees from East Pakistan back to their country with honour.

I am sure for many of us who participated in the national effort; the anniversary would bring back many fond memories. I was the Public Relations Officer of the Army in Delhi, functioning next door to the office of Chief of Army Staff, General Sam Manekshaw, and involved in the dissemination of information of the progress of the war during the period.

I recall how I took two bus loads of Indian and foreign correspondents at the start of the war to airfields in Jullundar to show how Pakistan started the war, continued the dissemination of information of the operations during the crucial two weeks, and coordinated the coverage of the surrender ceremony.

It would also be fitting if the nation recognizes the occasion as a unique achievement of the Armed Forces of the country, which helped to end the war with reduced violence and the safe return to Pakistan of over 90,000 Pakistani prisoners-of-war.

The 1971 India-Pakistan war was a joint effort of the Indian Armed Forces and the Mukti Bahini, ably supported by all arms of the government, including the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the intelligence agencies. The war, which could have lingered on for months, was brought to an end in twelve days, thanks to the ability and sagacity of those who were involved in the effort.

Much was achieved by psychological warfare methods, which was used as a support weapon by the Armed Forces in the conduct of the war. This was done both in the battlefield as well as through the airwaves and newspapers.

According to estimates, Pakistan had nearly four divisions in its eastern wing. Three divisions were deployed along the border with India, to plug the main arteries that converged into East Pakistan. The presumption of Pakistan military was that if the roads were blocked, the Indian Army would not be able to negotiate the rivers and reach Dacca.

Meanwhile, international pressure would Force India to continue the Status Quo. The strategy of the Indian Army was to avoid the highways and negotiate the rivers to cut the rear of the Pakistan Army. The Indian Air Force neutralized the Pakistan Air Force in its eastern wing during the first two days of the war, and the Sea Hawks of Indian Navy's aircraft carrier INS Vikrant flattened the landing sites at Chittagong and Cox's Bazar. In addition, surprise attacks by the Indian Navy through the missile boats in the West tied down the rest of the Pakistan Navy, which suffered the loss of it submarine Ghazi, which was stalking INS Vikrant.

Much to the surprise of the Pakistan commanders in the east, the Indian Army dropped troops of the Para Brigade in Tangail in the rear of the Pakistani forces. I remember running into Director of Military Operations Major General Inder Gill on December 10 when he told me that next morning the Indian Army would be organizing a para drop and to ensure good publicity for the operation.

I requested the Chief Public Relations Officer of the Eastern Command and asked him to do the needful at his end. In Delhi, I secured photographs of an airdrop by the Para Brigade and released the pictures in the afternoon with an appropriate caption. The picture was published on the front pages of newspapers all over the world, including the Times London. We had kept the number of troops airdropped a secret, but the fact that the men were from the 50 Para Brigade was disseminated widely.

The march of the Paratroopers from Tangail towards Dacca unnerved the Pakistan Army. The Indian Army had taken steps to ensure that the mobility of the Pakistani troops towards Dacca from positions they had occupied earlier was blocked. While pressure was kept on the border, the Indian Army crossed river obstacles particularly on the Tripura border to converge towards Dacca. Lt.-Gen Sagat Singh led the onslaught of the Indian Army in that sector.

As per the Operational Publicity Rules, representatives of the national and international press were permitted to cover the operations in the field. The images that were displayed included the people of East Pakistan welcoming the Indian Army soldiers as they marched towards Dacca. The Pakistan Army, which was tied down, was to be seen nowhere.

General Yahya Khan was living in his own world. He had visualized that the Pakistan Army attack in the West would make the Indian Army move its troops towards the Western border. Added to this, he put a great deal of faith on the Chinese to put pressure on India in the northeast. But the passes, as assessed correctly by India, were snowbound Worse, the biggest supporter of Pakistan during the conflict, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, tried their best to put pressure on India.

The United States announced the movement of the Seventh Fleet towards the Bay of Bengal. The United States had to be cautious in the use of words, as India had concluded during the middle of the year the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union. Any move within the United Nations Security Council had to face the Soviet veto.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi displayed cool and the momentum of the war increased on each succeeding day. In the Army Headquarters, I used to hear discussions on how to tackle the entrenched Pakistan Army even as our troops were marching towards Dacca. One of those afternoons, I was called to the Army Chief's room to ensure the recording of the message to Pakistani troops in the East. The substance of the message was an assurance from Sam Manekshaw to the Pakistan Army: You are living in hostile territory among a population who hate you. You are surrounded as the landing ports in the East Pakistan are under the control of the Indian Navy.

The Pakistan Air Force in the East has been grounded and no reinforcements are possible. I give you an assurance with full authority of an Indian Army Officer that if you surrender you will be looked after honourably and I will ensure that you will be able to return to your families safely.

Simultaneously, surrender documents were printed with the message of Sam Manekshaw and airdropped at various places in the East. I read later that the surrender documents were printed in the Statesman Press with the help of late Cushrow Irani, the editor of the paper.

The message of Sam Manekshaw, particularly in Urdu, was broadcast over the All India Radio, both in the national and in the medium wave channels from Calcutta at intermittent intervals. The surrender documents were in the hands of Pakistani troops and soon we had information of response to those documents. This too was widely disseminated.

Meanwhile, Eastern Command of the Army, led by Lt.-Gen J.S. Aurora and his Chief of Staff, Maj.-Gen (later Lt.-Gen) J .F. R. Jacob were in touch with Lt.General A.A. K. Niazi and finalized the details of the surrender. We were busy organizing the coverage of the events.

I went through an agonizing time, as I could not tell anyone about the time of the ceremony or the formal announcement of the surrender ceremony. I remember being pilloried by Dr A.R. Baji, the head of the News Services Division of the All India Radio, who was my mentor for many years. All that I could tell him was that he should wait for a formal announcement by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the Parliament.

I still fondly display in my showcase the Khukri presented to me as a token by Sam Manekshaw at the end of his tenure.

I.Ramamohan Rao (Former Principal Information Officer, Government of India) e-mail: raoramamohan@hotmail.com

ANI

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