The victory of the Indian Army that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 was a splendid achievement. Like all wars, things did not go according to plan, but the Generals, in particular Lt Gen Sagat Singh and Maj Gen JFR Jacob, were able to quickly adapt, and the war was brought to a close in quick time. The huge Pakistani army had to meekly surrender without a real fight. But the same cannot be said of the West, where, to put it simply, the Indian Army failed.
In the East, India won the war, which it could not have lost. So, the real challenge was in the West, where there was a rough parity between the two sides. To an extent, the Indians handicapped themselves by political directions that called for maintaining a defensive posture till the Pakistanis revealed their hand. But once war broke out, bad Generalship, poor plans, indifferent execution and the dogged defence by the Pakistanis became the norm. Learning from history should provide an important corrective to those who think that India can steamroll Pakistan in the event of a war.
Jammu & Kashmir
The one big success in the West came from a more or less unplanned local operation launched at the instance of Maj Chhewang Rinchen, commander of Ladakh Scouts that comprised four companies (around 400 men) and who catered for both the Chinese and Pakistani threats in the Nubra valley. Beginning with the capture of a high feature overlooking the Pakistani part of Shyok valley, Rinchen rapidly captured the Chalunka mountain complex. The Pakistani Karakoram Scouts resisted, but they were overwhelmed. The small Indian force captured Turtuk and by December 17, they had advanced to Thang.
Some 800 sq km of territory was captured. Maj Rinchen got a Bar to his MVC, earned in 1947-48. The territory gained has been invaluable for the defence of the Siachen area subsequently.
Had the operation been properly planned, there is no reason why Indian forces could not have reached the confluence of the Shyok with the Indus. It could have worked well with another operation that had been launched to capture Pakistani positions in Kargil. These posts had been captured twice and returned to Pakistan in 1965. They overlooked the Srinagar-Leh highway and the local commanders had decided to capture them again in 1971. But the Pakistanis had by now fortified their approaches well and the Indian offensive up the Shingo river found the going tough. By the time of the ceasefire, some 35 posts had been captured. Casualties were heavy, especially cases of frostbite.
At the time of the ceasefire in 1947-48, the Pakistanis were at Burzil Pass, but they surreptitiously came forward after the ceasefire and occupied posts overlooking Kargil, requiring repeated action. A look at the map would have suggested a better supported operation that could have pushed the Pakistani forces back 20-30 km into Gilgit-Baltistan, an action that would have prevented the Kargil war.
The 19 Division operations in Kashmir valley had only limited success. In the Lipa valley, they claimed they had captured 150 sq km. But the Pakistanis infiltrated back and forced the Indians out in March 1972.
In Poonch, India won an excellent defensive victory by foiling a Pakistani plan to capture the town and all the area up to Pir Panjal. To capitalise on the Pakistani failure, the Indian side decided to improve its defensive positions but the ambitious operation to secure Daruchain failed because of the poor handling of the forces.
Finally, India suffered a big loss by the capture of Chhamb by Pakistani forces. This was, in many ways, a repetition of 1965.
The story was more or less the same down the International Border to Kutch. There were important local victories such as the capture of Chicken’s Neck, and outstanding bravery all around, but a breakthrough eluded the Indian Army. There were also setbacks in Hussainiwala and Fazilka.
A lot of Indian opinion of the battle of the Shakargarh bulge is tinged by tales of valour, especially that of 2nd Lt Arun Khetarpal, PVC. But in terms of what India put in and what it got out of the operation, there is little doubt that it was a failure.
The Pakistani defences were deep and the offensive by 1 Corps soon got bogged down in clearing them. The Indian force was unable to even capture its initial objectives. As the official history says, “The failures only added regrettable chapters to a ponderous story of excessive caution and no ingenuity.”
The average person’s recall of the Rajasthan end of the war comes from the movie ‘Border’ and the gallant defence of the area by Maj Chandpuri. But, don’t forget, this was well inside Indian territory and had Pakistani plans succeeded, they would have, indeed, been breakfasting at the Jaisalmer air base. Instead, as soon as they heard of the Longewala battle, the IAF decimated the Pakistani tanks. The failure was in not detecting the Pakistani build-up and then not mounting a counter-offensive and capturing Rahim Yar Khan in Sindh.
The Western Army Commander, Lt Gen KP Candeth, claimed that the task of his Army was “to hold the enemy at bay, while Eastern Command overran East Pakistan”. It was not as though offensive tactics were not deployed. It is just that they failed. As Maj Gen Sukhwant Singh, a military historian, put it, “Candeth and his Generals come out the worst. They had no concept of conducting a short war. They dissipated their efforts in outmoded World War II ideas.”
1971 is a cautionary tale for those ready to make war on Pakistan at the drop of a hat.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, ORF