16 December 1971 in Dacca
On Independence Day this year, this Manu Chobe short film titled Mukti, with the attraction of Milind Soman in a starring role, became quite a hit in India. Easily accessible, at least to those who could get YouTube, and technically accomplished, it told a dramatised version of the negotiations between then-Major General JFR Jacob of the Indian Army and Lieutenant General AAK Niazi of the Pakistan Army, which led to the Pakistani surrender that afternoon.
It definitely did its bit, in raising awareness of an inadequately-remembered moment in Indian history. But on a couple of military-interest mail and social media groups that I lurk on, it sparked considerable, and sometimes heated, debate on historic accuracy, and on whether the historic accuracy mattered.
As it happens, on 16 December last year, I had posted a version of the story of that day, based partly on Gen Jacob’s own book, and partly on some Pakistani recollections. This post isn’t intended to be an analysis of the historic accuracy of the film, but simply to offer a hopefully more fact-based version of the story. In my view the story is quite dramatic, even as it stands.
So, without criticising a creative professional’s attempt to add to the pitifully tiny corpus of Indian-created stories of Indian military exploits, here is another version — of
What happened in Dacca on 16 December 1971 — as drawn from a post written on 16 December 2016:
45 years ago on this day, 16 December 1971, India was seeking to bring to a close its swift, effective military campaign in the former East Pakistan, while leaving no opportunity for the military victory, and the sacrifice of some 2,500 lives, to be negotiated away in a diplomatic or political “settlement”.
On the Eastern Front, Indian troops were now on the very point of entry into Dacca, from several different directions. They had captured several towns on the way, mostly communications centres; but had also bypassed others, leaving garrisons of Pakistani troops isolated and with paralysed communications. This was thanks partly to some intelligent staff work at Eastern Command, which had calculated (sometimes against the advice of more cautious generals) that there was no point in attempting to occupy every town on the way; there were enough Bangladeshi freedom fighters to keep Pakistani troops penned up in their cantonments. And it was also partly thanks to the daring, imaginative way in which some Indian line commanders, in particular Lt Gen Sagat Singh, GOC of IV Corps, had exploited unexpected successes, and kept up the momentum of advance.
There remained perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Pakistani troops in Dacca, plus a few thousand more who had abandoned other positions and streamed into the city. This, in the built-up environment of a sizeable city, would have been enough to mount a fairly extended resistance, should they have chosen to fight, street by street and house-to-house. Urban warfare is one of the most unpleasant forms of combat, and inevitably results in civilian casualties (as has been seen in recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria). It is no disgrace to the Indian Army that they wanted to avoid it if possible.
The Pakistan Air Force had virtually ceased to operate, certainly by day, since around 6 December. The Pakistan Navy’s strength in the Eastern theatre, consisting of a number of gunboats and one US-provided submarine, had been sunk at sea or crippled in port. There was no possibility of any military turnaround — except for the risk that Pakistani leadership would continue to fight in the hope of a bailout by China or the United States. The larger risk was the mounting pressure on India at the United Nations (UN), to suspend military operations.
Starting two nights previously the Indian Army had been broadcasting radio messages on Pakistani channels, talking up the strength of the Indian Army approaching Dacca, and warning that Bangladeshi freedom fighters would slaughter all West Pakistani military personnel and those perceived as having collaborated with the puppet government, unless they surrendered and placed themselves under the protection of the Indian Army. On the 15th the radio broadcast was supplemented with the announcement that the Indian Army would observe a ceasefire, represented as strictly temporary, until 9:00 am on the 16th, to give the Pakistanis time to surrender.
Early on the morning of 16 Dec, the Indian Army Chief, General Manekshaw, received a response to his signals from Lieutenant General AAK Niazi, Commander of Pakistan’s Eastern Command (and hence the seniormost Pakistani in Bangladesh), in Dacca. Niazi requested a six-hour extension of the Indian ceasefire, to 3 pm that afternoon, suggested a “preliminary staff meeting” in Dacca, and agreed to go ahead with “cease-fire formalities”.
By his wording, Niazi was clearly still attempting to salvage an agreement that could be represented as a “cease-fire” rather than surrender. General Manekshaw responded, agreeing to the extension of the ceasefire but reiterating that the Pakistanis would have to surrender. Either he, or Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command, ordered Major General JFR Jacob, the Chief of Staff (CoS) of Eastern Command, to fly to Dacca and secure the Pakistani Army’s surrender.
Maj Gen “Jackie” Jacob was born in Calcutta, into the small community of Indian Jews. His family had been settled in India for over 200 years, and he often described himself as “Indian through and through”. He had joined the Indian Army in 1942. During World War 2 he served in North Africa, Burma and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and attended training in the UK and the US. He remained in the Indian Army after Independence, and was a Brigadier in the Rajasthan sector during the 1965 war. He had built a reputation as a strong staff officer, and written one of the Indian Army’s training manuals. He was appointed CoS of Eastern Command in 1969.
In early 1971, when Pakistan launched its “crackdown” in East Pakistan and refugees, eventually numbering 10 million, began to stream into India, Maj Gen Jacob started work on contingency plans to engage Pakistan in the Eastern theatre, with all the difficulties of its swampy, river-riddled terrain. The strategy of selective bypass was his idea. Once the fighting started, as Indian forward troops (in particular those of IV Corps) advanced even faster than planned, Gen Manekshaw and Lieutenant General JS Aurora, the Commander-in-Chief of Eastern Command, initially sceptical, came to support and reinforce Jacob’s ideas.
On the morning of 16 Dec, Maj Gen Jacob flew to Dacca in a single helicopter, accompanied only by a single staff officer, carrying a draft of the Instrument of Surrender. He was met by representatives of the UN, with offers to arrange the withdrawal of the Pakistani military and Pakistani civilians. Gen Jacob declined their offer.
The Indian Army was on the outskirts of the city, but not yet in the city in any strength. There was sporadic fighting in the city between the Mukti Bahini and the Pakistan Army. The Pakistan Army staff car which met Jacob at the airport was stopped by angry Mukti Bahini fighters, on the way to Niazi’s headquarters. The Mukti Bahinis calmed down only on recognising Jacob’s olive green Indian Army uniform. They demanded custody of the Pakistani officer in the car, who had come to the airport to receive Gen Jacob; and it took all Gen Jacob’s persuasive powers to get the Pakistani safely past them.
A few members of the international press also caught up with Gen Jacob. Clearly focussed on his task, Gen Jacob brushed them off. The Time magazine correspondent reported dramatically that Jacob had threatened to shoot them. Gen Jacob scoffs at the accusation, saying he didn’t carry a firearm on this trip (which speaks volumes to his confidence — even if partly-assumed).
By the time he reached Lt Gen Niazi’s office, Major General Gandharv Nagra, commanding the Indian force approaching Dacca from the north, had already secured entry, by trading on old connections — he and Niazi had served together at the pre-Independence Indian Military Academy, and Nagra had served later as the Military Advisor at our High Commission to Pakistan. Early that morning, Nagra had simply sent a note to Niazi, addressing him by his first name “Abdullah”, and offering sympathy like an old friend. Niazi had sent an escort, with orders that Nagra be escorted into Dacca and to his office. A Pakistani officer present at the time wrote of Nagra that “the Indian general entered Dacca with a handful of soldiers and a lot of pride … It fell quietly like a heart patient”.
(In his own memoir, Gen Jacob makes it clear he was not best pleased with Gen Nagra’s initiative; perhaps because he had exceeded his brief. But much of the Bangladesh victory was in fact due to imaginative officers on the ground, up to and including Lt Gen Sagat Singh, exceeding their brief. Whatever the reason, the sheer confidence and positive body language with which Gen Nagra had swaggered into Dacca clearly added to the cumulative disintegration of Gen Niazi’s own confidence.)
Lt Gen Niazi was still hoping to negotiate a ceasefire and not surrender. There are multiple versions of how the discussions between Jacob and Niazi played out, from several Pakistanis and from Jacob’s own book. They identify sometimes different turning-points in the discussion, but all of them make it clear that Niazi was by this time mentally a completely defeated and traumatised man.
Later, Lt Gen Niazi complained that Jacob blackmailed him into surrender by threatening to turn the Mukti Bahini loose on Pakistanis in Dacca. Jacob always denied having made any such threat. But whether by threats, by persuasion, or by the sheer power of Maj Gen Jacob’s personality, after three hours of intense negotiation, Lt Gen Niazi eventually agreed to sign the Instrument of Surrender, to do so in public (he tried to negotiate for a signature in his office), and to provide a Pakistan Army guard of honour for the Indian contingent at the surrender ceremony.
At around 3 pm, Lt Gen Niazi and Maj Gen Jacob drove to the airport, in Gen Niazi’s staff car. Mukti Bahini fighters, who were about in far greater numbers than Indian troops at the time, swarmed the car, and again it took all the force of Jacob’s personality as well as that of his staff officer, a powerfully-built and Stentorian-voiced Sikh, to reach the airport safely. They picked up an escort along the way, of a jeep with all of two Indian paratroopers. The two paratroopers had come into Dacca on a preliminary scouting drive, when they and their jeep were commandeered by Gen Jacob. They stuck by his side for the rest of the day, probably nonplussed at their sudden responsibility, but in the manner of most paratroopers, admirably game for the unexpected.
At the airport, a Mukti Bahini commander, a former Pakistani Army officer of Bengali origin, appeared with a truckload of fighters, threatening Niazi. Jacob stared him down, with the judicious back-up of the two paratroopers, and ordered him off the airfield.
Around 4:30 pm, Maj Gen Jacob’s direct superior and Niazi’s Indian counterpart, Lt Gen JS Aurora, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command, arrived with a fleet of nine IAF helicopters. He was accompanied by Eastern theatre Commanders-in-Chief of the Indian Navy and Air Force, Vice Admiral N Krishnan and Air Marshal HC Dewan. Also included in the entourage was Lt Gen Sagat Singh, who more than any other commander had effected successes on the ground, and some of his division commanders, as well as some senior officers of the Bangladeshi government in exile in Calcutta.
The surrender ceremony was held at the Race Course, where thousands of Bangladeshis had already gathered. After inspecting the guard of honour, Aurora and Niazi sat at a small table and signed the Instrument of Surrender. The famous photographs of the occasion show Lt Gens Aurora and Niazi seated, and V Adm Krishnan, Air Marshal Dewan, Lt Gen Sagat Singh, and Maj Gen Jacob standing behind them.
After signing Niazi removed his epaulettes, took out his personal revolver and handed it to Aurora, with tears rolling down his cheeks. The crowd at the Race Course began shouting anti-Pakistan slogans and threats to lynch Niazi. The Indian officers present formed a cordon around Niazi and whisked him off in an Indian jeep.
So ended the 1971 war in the Eastern theatre. Mrs Gandhi announced the victory in the East in Parliament, with the ringing words, “Dacca is now the free capital of a free country”. Parliament erupted in cheers, and even Opposition leaders over the next few days praised her as the embodiment of Durga and Shakti.
Having secured its major strategic objective, and thereby put an end to major humanitarian crimes — and just by the way, re-shaped the geography of the sub-continent — India announced a ceasefire in the Western sector as well, from 17 December. Over the next few weeks, the new country began the process of setting up national institutions, with support from India.
16 December is celebrated by the Indian armed forces as Vijay Divas, but its significance is not widely remembered outside the armed forces. We lost about 2,500 men killed, and about 4,000 injured; Bangladesh, of course, lost literally lakhs of people (some say up to three million), mostly civilians, over the period from March 1971 onwards. India’s comprehensive victory remains one of the most significant since World War 2, one of the few ethically “just wars” of the 20th century, and was widely studied for applicable lessons.
In a tiny Delhi-based souvenir of that war, the inverted rifle and bayonet at the Amar Jawan memorial under India Gate belong to an unknown Indian soldier who gave his life in the Jessore sector.
War is never a good thing; but if there has to be a war that plays a large role in the awareness of Indians, it should have been the 1971 war. We still seem to be a little embarrassed rather than otherwise about our involvements in any war (which in some ways is definitely a Good Thing); but 1971 was unequivocally one of India’s finest achievements after Independence, and (this is important) not just — perhaps, not even primarily — for military reasons.
The military reasons are just the start. We won an overwhelming military victory; but that was only the enabler. We put a stop to humanitarian crimes on a truly massive scale (which should guide us, as we consider the plight of the Rohingya in Burma); we changed the world map by helping to create the new nation of Bangladesh; and we withdrew all our military forces from the new country in a period measurable in weeks (unlike the aftermaths of many Western countries’ recent military successes).
So remember this victory and the Indians who died for it, and honour those who wear the Sangram Medal. They were part of something admirable that India did, 46 years ago.