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OPINION

Updated December 19th, 2023 at 16:34 IST

Unraveling the tactical ingenuity that catapulted Indian Armed Forces to Victory in the 1971 war

Employing holding and attack formations simultaneously, India showcased a nuanced approach to strategic planning during the 1971 Indo-Pak War.

Senior WriterYuvraj Tyagi
Indo-Pak War
The conflict reshaped geopolitical dynamics, highlighting the importance of a well-prepared and agile military. | Image:AP
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The Indo-Pak War of 1971 stands as a pivotal chapter in the history of South Asia, marked not only by geopolitical realignments but also by the exceptional strategic success achieved by the Indian Armed Forces. The conflict emerged from long-standing political and ethnic tensions in East Pakistan, leading to the creation of the independent nation of Bangladesh. However, it was India's military intervention that led to a swift and decisive culmination of the crisis and altered the regional landscape.

Notably, this was the first time the Indian Armed Forces engaged Pakistan on two fronts and subsequently employed two military strategies- holding and attack formations- simultaneously. The contemporary combat doctrine of the Indian Army underscores the strategic deployment of holding formations and strike formations, reflecting a nuanced approach to address diverse military scenarios. This doctrine is rooted in the effective utilization of forces to both contain and neutralize enemy forces.

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Roots of war and Indian response

The roots of the conflict lay in the political and economic disparities between East and West Pakistan, exacerbated by a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani military on Bengali nationalists in March 1971. As the humanitarian crisis unfolded, millions sought refuge in India, putting immense pressure on the Indian government. Diplomatic efforts to address the situation failed, and the inevitability of military action loomed large.

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India's military preparedness before the war was a critical factor in its strategic success. The Indian Armed Forces, having learned valuable lessons from the 1962 Sino-Indian War and the 1965 Indo-Pak War, underwent significant modernization and restructuring. The Indian military leadership, led by Chief of Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw, had meticulously planned for various contingencies, including a potential conflict with Pakistan.

Credit- X/@rajnathsingh

Notably, as per the Indian military doctrine, holding formations played a crucial role by containing and restraining Pakistani forces in the West. Holding formations created a defensive barrier, preventing the enemy from making significant advancements. This containment strategy was instrumental in buying time, enabling the Indian Army to assess the situation and respond strategically.

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Conversely, strike formations were employed for counterattacks with the aim of neutralizing enemy forces. Indian forces employed the strategy on the Eastern frontier during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. These formations became instrumental in launching precise and powerful counter-offensives in Dhaka. The intent was to not only repel the adversary but to take the initiative and dictate the terms of engagement. The choice of attack points was strategic, allowing the Indian Army to exploit vulnerabilities in the enemy's defense.

Indian military campaign: Offence is the best defence?

The Indian military's rapid and well-coordinated response was a key element of its strategic success. Operation Trident, launched on December 4, 1971, targeted Pakistani naval assets in Karachi and dealt a severe blow to the Pakistani Navy. This preemptive strike set the tone for India's military strategy, showcasing a proactive approach that caught the Pakistani military off guard.

The Indian Air Force played a crucial role in establishing air superiority, particularly in the eastern theater. The Indian Air Force's (IAF) Operation Cactus Lily targeted Pakistani airfields, crippling their air capabilities. The IAF's effective use of ground-attack aircraft and fighter jets ensured dominance over the skies, a critical factor in military operations.

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On the Eastern Front, the Indian Army, in coordination with Mukti Bahini (Bangladeshi freedom fighters), executed a well-planned campaign. The Battle of Garibpur, where the Indian Army decisively defeated Pakistani forces, set the stage for further advances. The rapid progress of Indian forces in the East demonstrated superior military strategy and coordination.

Encirclement in the West

In the western theater, the Indian military adopted a strategy of encirclement. The Battle of Longewala, a significant engagement in the deserts of Rajasthan, showcased the resilience of Indian forces against numerically superior Pakistani forces. The Indian military's ability to thwart Pakistani offensives and strategically deploy its forces contributed to the overall success.

Credit- X/@rajnathsingh

The most iconic moment of the war occurred on December 16, 1971, when Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi, the commander of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, signed the Instrument of Surrender in Dhaka. This historic event marked the creation of Bangladesh and the end of the war. The decisive military victories on both fronts forced Pakistan to accept defeat, leading to the largest military surrender since World War II.

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Beyond military victories, India's approach to the conflict had a profound humanitarian and diplomatic impact. The Indian military's conduct during the war, characterized by a commitment to international law and the humane treatment of prisoners of war, garnered global respect. This principled approach bolstered India's diplomatic standing and strengthened its position in subsequent negotiations.  

Legacy and lessons learned

The 1971 Indo-Pak War left an enduring legacy. India's strategic success not only reshaped the geopolitical dynamics of South Asia but also provided valuable lessons in military planning, coordination, and execution. The war showcased the importance of a well-prepared and agile military in responding to evolving challenges.

Credit- X/@rajnathsingh

It is noteworthy that Holding Corps, despite their defensive nature, possess significant offensive capabilities. A skilled Holding Corps Commander strategically plans to create large salient within enemy territory, acting as launch pads for incoming Strike Corps. This allows for a proactive approach without revealing the actual intent of the strike formation, adding a layer of complexity to military operations. The dynamic and adaptable nature of the Indian Army Corps showcases its versatility and effectiveness in diverse operational scenarios.

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The 1971 Indo-Pak War was a defining moment in the annals of military history, and India's strategic success underscored the effectiveness of its military planning and execution. The conflict not only led to the birth of Bangladesh but also solidified India's position as a regional power. The lessons learned from this historic conflict continue to resonate in India's military doctrines and contribute to the nation's security preparedness.  

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Published November 15th, 2023 at 10:04 IST

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