The triumphant race to Dacca

Ajay Banerjee

I give you 30 minutes to reconsider the decision not to surrender” was the simple but stern message that Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) JFR Jacob had for his Pakistani counterpart, Lt Gen AAK Niazi, at about 11 am on December 16, 1971. “Hostilities and bombing Dacca (now Dhaka) would resume,” the rotund, pipe-smoking but otherwise soft-spoken General would add, leaving nothing to imagination.

Lt Gen Niazi and Pakistan were hoping for international intervention. A UN-mandated ceasefire was ordered. Maj Gen Jacob, backed by the spectacular encircling of Dacca by the Army, got Lt Gen Niazi to surrender at 4:30 pm the same day; 93,000 troops were taken Prisoners of War in East Pakistan.

The Tribune, Friday December 17, 1971

Lt Gen Jacob, in his autobiography, recounts the meeting: “As I made this offer, I was worried. Pakistan had some 26,000 troops in Dacca, we had about 3,000 and those too some 30 miles out.”

The ‘race to Dacca’ has enjoyed relatively less focus as against battles in the western sector during the 1971 war. It was immaculate planning, decisive thrusts and calculated risk-taking that led to the abject surrender of the Pakistan military and birth of a new nation.

Between December 3 and 16, troops under 2 Corps, 33 Corps and 4 Corps approached Dacca from multiple directions and some pitched battles were fought all along. On the western border of East Pakistan (facing West Bengal), the newly raised 2 Corps and 33 Corps made a push, beating the Pakistan army comprehensively.

Week of spectacular events

The decisive thrust came from 4 Corps, which was on the eastern flank of East Pakistan and approached it from Assam, Tripura and Mizoram, to finally reach Dacca. This was in an era without live satellite imagery or the tactical reconnaissance ability of drones. The outcome of battles was largely dependent on the resilience of a ground attack — infantry, tanks, artillery and para-forces. All had to be backed by ground intelligence, military engineers, communications and ingenious use of equipment. However, the final push towards Dacca from December 9 is an enthralling run of events.

Dacca is wedged between two mighty rivers — the Padma/Brahmaputra to its west and Meghna to its east. The 4 Corps reached the eastern bank of Meghna on December 9, 12 days ahead of the plan. The task to first cross to the west bank started as Pakistan had blown up the bridge at Bhairab Bazaar. Six days later, troops, tanks and artillery encircled Dacca just in time for Jacob to famously give ‘30 minutes’ to Niazi. The USSR used its veto power at the UN Security Council from December 3 to 14 to hold back international pressure and the ceasefire was announced on December 15. But before this, crucial battles were fought. Notably, the 4th battalion of 5 Gurkha Regiment, despite casualties, stuck to a tactical position in Sylhet to hold back two brigades of the Pakistan army.

Gen Manekshaw meets troops in this famous photo.

Niazi’s plan scuttled

Lt Gen Niazi, the Governor of East Pakistan and commander of the Eastern Command, had used some seven brigades (some 5,000 men in each) besides para-military to forge a ‘fortress policy’. This included turning a number of major towns into defensive positions. The Indian Army used all elements from tanks to artillery and from paratroopers to infantry to helicopters to counter these positions, while finding alternative routes to move ahead.

The Pakistani plan was to stall the Indian advance at these ‘fortresses’ and after a point fall back to Dacca, making it ‘impregnable’ and holding it till international intervention would ask India to back off. Pakistani defences held large obstacles: water courses, deep rivers. The Indian Army avoided these and here came out-of-the-box thinking like the use of tanks in riverine terrain and heli-lift of a brigade across the Meghna.

The final thrust

Around the evening of December 9, 4 Corps started its famous crossing of Meghna river. Within five days, it had lined up nine infantry battalions and, supported by artillery, tanks and engineers, it was ready to assault Dacca. Jacob arrived at 11 am for the meeting followed by a public surrender ceremony, but hours before that, Indian troops had reached the outskirts of Dacca. 2 Para under Brig Sant Singh and a part of 101 Communication Zone led by Maj Gen G Nagra had got vacated Mirpur bridge. The 8 Mountain Division came down from Sylhet and closed in on Dacca. The first tanks of 5 Independent Squadron of 63 Cavalry rolled into Dacca.

In July 1971, military plans did not talk about Dacca being the final objective. India looked to block and isolate East Pakistan, segmenting Pakistani defences to prevent withdrawal or entry of reinforcements. The original plan of 4 Corps was to advance to only up to the Meghna. It was quick thinking to first cross it and then race towards Dacca.

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