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The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 was a military conflict between Indiamarker and Pakistanmarker. Indian and Bangladeshimarker sources consider the beginning of the war to be Operation Chengiz Khan, Pakistan's 3 December 1971 pre-emptive strike on 11 Indian airbases. However, Pakistan considers it to be a part of the overall Bangladesh Liberation War, in which India had been providing direct financial and military support for the Mukti Bahini Bengali rebels.

After 14 days of armed hostilities on two fronts, the war ended with the surrender of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Military and secession of East Pakistan, recognizing the independent state of Bangladeshmarker. Around 97,368 West Pakistanis who were in East Pakistan at the time of its independence, including some 79,700 Pakistan Army soldiers and paramilitary personnel and 12,500 civilians, were taken as prisoners of war by India.


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 the military, dominated by West Pakistanis to suppress dissent.

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 Dhakamarker on the night of 25 March 1971. The Awami League was banished, and many members fled into exile in India. Mujib was arrested on the night of 25–26 March 1971 at about 1:30 a.m. (as per Radio Pakistan’s news on 29 March 1971) 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 Meherpurmarker. The East Pakistan Rifles, a 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

The Pakistan army conducted a widespread genocide against the Bengali population of East Pakistan and in particular to the minority Hindu population, leading to approximately 10 million people fleeing East Pakistan and taking refuge in the neighboring Indian states. The East Pakistan-India border was opened to allow refugees safe shelter in India. The governments of West Bengalmarker, Biharmarker, Assammarker, Meghalayamarker and Tripuramarker established refugee camps along the border. The resulting flood of impoverished East Pakistani refugees placed an intolerable strain on India's already overburdened economy.

Indian government repeatedly appealed to the international community, but failing to elicit any response, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, on 27 March 1971, expressed full support of her government to the struggle for independence by the people of East Pakistan. The Indian leadership under Indira Gandhi quickly decided that it was more effective to end the genocide by taking armed action against Pakistan than to simply give refuge to those who made it across to refugee camps. Exiled East Pakistan army officers and members of the Indian Intelligence immediately started using these camps for recruitment and training of Mukti Bahini guerrillas.

India's official engagement with Pakistan


Illustration showing military units and troop movements during operations in the Eastern sector of the war.

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 Himalayanmarker 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 3 December Sunday, at about 5:40 PM, the Pakistani air force launched a pre-emptive strike on eight airfields in north-western India, including Agramarker which was from the border. During this attack the Taj Mahal was camouflaged with a forest of twigs and leaves and draped with burlap because its marble glowed like a white beacon in the moonlight.

This attack, called Operation Chengiz Khan, was inspired by the Arab-Israelimarker 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. As a result, Indian runways were cratered and rendered non-functional for several hours after the attack.

In an address to the nation on radio that same evening, the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi held the airstrikes as a declaration of war against India and the Indian Air Force responded with initial airstrikes that very night that were expanded to massive retaliatory airstrikes the next morning.

This marked the official start of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the immediate mobilisation of troops and launched the full-scale invasion. Indian forces responded with a massive coordinated air, sea, and land assault. Indian Air Force started flying sorties against Pakistan from midnight and quickly achieved air superiority. The main Indian Objective on the Western front was to prevent Pakistan from entering Indian soil. There was no Indian intention of conducting any major offensive into West Pakistan.

Naval hostilities

In the western theatre of the war, the Indian Navy, under the command of Vice Admiral Kohli, achieved success by attacking Karachimarker's port in the code-named Operation Trident on the night of 4-5 December, which resulted in the sinking of the Pakistani destroyer PNS Khyber as well as the PNS Shajehan, and a minesweeper PNS Muhafiz. This resulted in tactical Indian success with Pakistan losing 720 sailors killed and wounded apart from losing reserve fuel and many commercial ships, thus crippling the Pakistan Navy's further involvement in the conflict. Operation Python followed Operation Trident which was on the night of 8-9 December, in which Indian rocket-armed motor torpedo boats attacked the Karachi Roads that resulted in further destruction of reserve fuel tanks, as well as the sinking of three Pakistani commercial ships in Karachi Harbour.

In the eastern theatre of the war, the Indian Eastern Naval Command, under Vice Admiral Krishnan, completely isolated East Pakistan by establishing a naval blockade in the Bay of Bengalmarker, trapping the Eastern Pakistani Navy as well as eight foreign merchant ships in their ports. From 4 December onwards, the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was deployed in which its Sea Hawk fighter-bombers attacked many coastal towns in East Pakistan including Chittagongmarker and Cox's Bazaarmarker. Pakistan responded by sending the submarine PNS Ghazi to negate the threat. Though Indians claim to have laid a trap to sink the submarine, the Ghazi sank off Vishakapatnammarker's coast under unclear circumstances thus reducing Pakistan's control of Bangladeshi coastline . But on 9 December, the Indian Navy suffered its biggest wartime loss when the Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor sank the frigate INS Khukri in the Arabian Seamarker resulting in a loss of 18 officers and 176 sailors.

Air operations

The Indian Air Force flew 4,000 sorties while its counterpart, the PAF offered little in 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, putting the Dhaka airfield out of commission and resulting in Indian air superiority in the east.

Ground operations

An Indian newspaper cover (1971)

Pakistan attacked at several places along India's western border with Pakistan, but the Indian army successfully held their positions. 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 Punjabmarker and Sindhmarker sectors was later ceded in the Simla Agreement of 1972, as a gesture of goodwill).

On the Eastern front, the Indian Army joined forces with the Mukti Bahini to form the Mitro Bahini ("Allied Forces"); Unlike the 1965 war which had emphasized set-piece battles and slow advances, this time the strategy adopted was a swift, three-pronged assault of nine infantry divisions with attached armored units and close air support that rapidly converged on Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan.

Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, who commanded the eighth, twenty-third, and fifty-seventh divisions, led the Indian thrust into East Pakistan. As these forces attacked Pakistani formations, the Indian air force rapidly destroyed the small air contingent in East Pakistan and put the Dhaka airfield out of commission. In the meantime, the Indian navy effectively blockaded East Pakistan.

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 16 December, the Pakistani forces stationed in East Pakistan surrendered.

Surrender of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan

The instrument of surrender

The Instrument of Surrender of Pakistani forces stationed in East Pakistan was signed at Ramna Race Coursemarker in Dhakamarker at 16.31 IST on 16 December 1971, by Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-chief of Eastern Command of the Indian Army and Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi, Commander of Pakistani forces in Bangladesh. As Aurora accepted the surrender, the surrounding crowds on the race course began shouting anti-Niazi and anti-Pakistan slogans.

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 Hamoodur Rahman Commission 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

American and Soviet involvement

The United States supported Pakistan both politically and materially. President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger feared Soviet expansion into South and Southeast Asia. Pakistan was a close ally of the People's Republic of Chinamarker, 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 Jordanmarker and Iranmarker, 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. This prompted widespread criticism and condemnation both by Congress and in the international press.

When Pakistan's defeat in the eastern sector seemed certain, Nixon ordered the USS Enterprisemarker into the Bay of Bengalmarker, a move which was a nuclear threat. The Enterprise arrived on station on 11 December 1971. On 6 December and 13 December, the Soviet Navy dispatched two groups of ships, armed with nuclear missiles, from Vladivostokmarker; they trailed U.S. Task Force 74 into the Indian Oceanmarker from 18 December 1971 until 7 January 1972. The Soviets also had a nuclear submarine to ward off the threat posed by USS Enterprise in the Indian Oceanmarker.

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 stripped Pakistan of more than half of its population and with nearly one-third of its army in captivity, clearly established India's military dominance of the subcontinent. In spite of the magnitude of the victory, India was surprisingly restrained in its reaction. Mostly, Indian leaders seemed pleased by the relative ease with which they had accomplished their goals -- the establishment of Bangladesh and the prospect of an early return to their homeland of the 10 million Bengali refugees who were the cause of the war.

In announcing the surrender to the Indian Parliament, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared,"Dacca is now the free capitol of a free country. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. All nations who value the human spirit will recognize it as a significant milestone in man's quest for liberty".


For Pakistan it was a complete and humiliating defeat, a psychological setback that came from a defeat at the hands of India. Pakistan lost half it territory, significant portion of its economy and its geo-political role in South Asia. Pakistan feared that the two-nation theory was disproved and that the Islamic ideology had proved insufficient to keep Bengalis part of Pakistan.

The Pakistani people were not mentally prepared to accept defeat, the state controlled media in West Pakistan had been projecting imaginary victories. When the surrender in East Pakistan was finally announced, people could not come terms with the magnitude of defeat, spontaneous demonstrations and mass protests erupted on the streets of major cities in West Pakistan. The cost of the war for Pakistan in monetary and human resources was very high. Demoralized and finding himself unable to control the situation, General Yahya Khan surrendered power to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who was sworn-in on 20 December 1971 as President and as the (first civilian) Chief Martial Law Administrator. A new and smaller Pakistan emerged on 16 December 1971.

The loss of East Pakistan had shattered the prestige of the Pakistani military. Pakistan lost half its navy, a quarter of its airforce and a third of its army. The popularized myth that one Muslim had the fighting prowess of five Hindus no longer held any water. The war also exposed the shortcoming of Pakistan's declared strategic doctrine that the "defence of East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan". Haqqani in his book 'Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military' writes—

Moreover, the army had failed to fulfill its promises of fighting to the last man. The eastern command had laid down arms after losing only 1,300 men in battle. In West Pakistan 1,200 military deaths had accompanied lack luster military performance.


On the brink of defeat around 14 December, the Pakistani Army, and its local collaborators, systematically killed a large number of Bengalimarker 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 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.

Bangladesh became an independent nation, the world's third most populous Muslim state. Mujibur Rahman was released from a West Pakistani prison, returned to Dhaka on 10 January 1972 and to become first President of Bangladesh and later its Prime Minister.

Hamoodur Rahman Commission

In aftermath of war Pakistan Government constituted the Hamoodur Rahman Commission headed by Justice Hamdoor Rahman in 1971 to investigate the political and military causes for defeat and the Bangladesh atrocities during the war. The commission's report was classified and its publication banned by Bhutto as it put the military in poor light, until some parts of the report surfaced in Indian media in 2000.

When it was declassified, it showed many failings from the strategic to the tactical levels. It confirmed the looting, rapes and the killings by the Pakistan Army and their local agents. It lay the blame squarely on Pakistani generals accusing them of war crimes and neglect of duty. Though no actions were ever taken on commissions findings, the commission had recommended public trial of Pakistan army Generals.

Simla Agreement

In 1972 the Simla Agreement was signed between India and Pakistan, the treaty ensured that Pakistan recognized the independence of Bangladesh in exchange for the return of the Pakistani PoWs. India treated all the PoWs in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention, rule 1925. It released more than 90,000 Pakistani PoWs in five months. Further, as a gesture of goodwill, nearly 200 soldiers who were sought for war crimes by Bengalis were also pardoned by India.

The accord also gave back more than 13,000 km² of land that Indian troops had seized in West Pakistan during the war, though India retained a few strategic areas; most notably Kargilmarker (which would in turn again be the focal point for a war between the two nations in 1999). This was done as a measure of promoting "lasting peace" and was acknowledged by many observers as a sign of maturity by India. But some in India felt that the treaty had been too lenient to Bhutto, who had pleaded for leniency, arguing that the fragile democracy in Pakistan would crumble if the accord was perceived as being overly harsh by Pakistanis and that he would be accused of losing Kashmir in addition to the loss of East Pakistan.

Long term consequences

  • Steve Coll in his book Ghost Wars, argues that the Pakistan military's experience with India, including Pervez Musharraf's experience in 1971, influenced the Pakistani government to support jihadist groups in Afghanistan even after the Soviets left, because the jihadists were a tool to use against India, including bogging down the Indian Army in Kashmirmarker.

  • The war left deep scars in Pakistani society. After the war, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to power, Pakistan launched Project-706, a secret nuclear weapon development program, to defend itself from Indiamarker. A vast majority of Pakistani nuclear scientists who working at the IAEAmarker and European and American nuclear programs immediately came to Pakistan and joined Project-706.

Important dates

  • 7 March 1971: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declares that, "The current struggle is a struggle for independence", in a public meeting attended by almost a million people in Dhaka.
  • 25 March 1971: Pakistani forces start Operation Searchlight, a systematic plan to eliminate any resistance. Thousands of people are killed in student dormitories and police barracks in Dhaka.
  • 26 March 1971: Major Ziaur Rahman declares independence from Kalurghat Radio Station, Chittagongmarker. The message is relayed to the world by Indian radio stations.
  • 17 April 1971: Exiled leaders of Awami League form a provisional government.
  • 3 December 1971: War between India and Pakistan officially begins when West Pakistan launches a series of preemptive airstrikes on Indian airfields.
  • 6 December 1971: East Pakistan is recognized as Bangla-Desh by Indiamarker.
  • 14 December 1971: Systematic elimination of Bengali intellectuals is started by Pakistani Army and local collaborators.
  • 16 December 1971: Lieutenant-General A. A. K. Niazi, supreme commander of Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, surrenders to the Allied Forces (Mitro Bahini) represented by Lieutenant General Arora of Indian Army at the surrender. Bangladesh gains victory
  • 12 January,1972: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman comes to power

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, Bangladeshi 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:


  • 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 prisoners' camp in Pakistan, follows six Indian prisoners awaiting release after their capture in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.


  1. , Chapter 3, pp 87.
  2. Sarmila Bose Anatomy of Violence: Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971: Military Action: Operation Searchlight Economic and Political Weekly Special Articles, 8 October 2005
  3. Salik, Siddiq, "Witness To Surrender.", ISBN 9-840-51373-7, pp63, p228-9.
  4. Annex M (Oxford University Press, 2002 ISBN 0-19-579778-7).
  5. U.S. Consulate (Dacca) Cable, Sitrep: Army Terror Campaign Continues in Dacca; Evidence Military Faces Some Difficulties Elsewhere, 31 March 1971, Confidential, 3 pp.
  6. , pp802
  7. Khan, Muazzam Hussain (2003), "Killing of Intellectuals", Banglapedia, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh
  8. Rummel, Rudolph J., "Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900", ISBN 3-8258-4010-7, Chapter 8, table 8.1
  9. pg 221, 475.
  10. Kreisler interview with Coll "Conversations with history", 2005 Mar 25, UC Berkeley Institute of International Studies

Further reading

External links

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