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What led to the war

  • Published at 12:05 am December 16th, 2019
Anwar Hossain's photo of 1971-1
Photo: Courtesy: Anwar Hossain Foundation

And how a dream became reality

After nearly nine months of a brutal war of independence was coming to an end in early December, the foot soldiers of Mukti Bahini liberated large swathes of occupied Bangladesh backed by the mighty Indian Army, while the ragtag Pakistan soldiers were on the backfoot, converging to the nearest military garrisons.

Pakistan, in desperation, declared “Operation Chengiz Khan” and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bombers began bombardment of six Indian military bases on December 3, 1971. The strike caused little damage.

The Indian armed forces in anticipation of air-strikes had kept their planes in bunkers.

 day before the Pakistan attack on Indian airfields, Indira Gandhi addressed her last public meeting in Kolkata after visiting the refugee camps in the city. Moments after the air-strikes in India’s western war theatre, few top military brasses briefed Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi regarding the PAF attacks on India.

Lieutenant General Sam Manekshaw, chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army, paused for a moment in silence and advised her (Indira) to delay the declaration of war against Pakistan.

She was told that a surprise was waiting at the eastern theatre. Soon, Indira informed her senior aides that India would not declare war against Pakistan. Instead, Bangladesh would strike Pakistan targets in the east. 

She explained to her aides that the imminent declaration of war would jeopardize the diplomatic efforts mustered around the Bangladesh cause -- the genocide and millions of refugee issues. On the eve of a formal war between India and Pakistan, telephones started to ring at the Mukti Bahini headquarters on December 2. The two-month-old Bangladesh Air Force was entrusted to strike targets deep inside occupied Bangladesh.

Earlier on September 28, 1971, Bangladesh Air Force was formed with three fighter pilots defected from PAF and six civil pilots from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), and another 60 strong ground technical crew also from PAF.

The formation of the Bangladesh Air Force, dubbed “Kilo Flight,” began its journey with three vintage aircraft on October 8, 1971.

Indian civilian authorities and the Indian Air Force gave one American-made stubborn DC-3 Dakota (donated by the Maharaja of Jodhpur), one Canadian-built DHC-3 Otter plane, and one French Alouette III helicopter for the newborn “Kilo Flight.”

The pilots and ground crew gathered for a special mission on September 28 at Dimapur in Nagaland, where they took advantage of the lack of night-fighting capability of the PAF to launch hit-and-run attacks on sensitive targets inside occupied Bangladesh.

After months of intensive training, the formation was activated for combat.

The first sortie was scheduled to take place on November 28 but was postponed by Indian high commands to December 2, which invited frustration among the “Kilo Flight” crews, eagerly waiting to strike inside Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the three civilian aircraft were renovated, suitable for guerrilla warfare operations.

The Otter boasted seven rockets under each of its wings and could deliver 10 of the 25-pound bombs manually through a makeshift door in the bottom of the plane. The helicopter was rigged to fire 14 rockets from pylons attached to its side and had .303 Browning machine guns installed.

It was fitted with a one-inch (25mm) steel plate welded to its floor for extra strength.

The Dakota was also modified, but for technical reasons, it was used to ferry exiled government officials and supplies only.

The Otter took off from Kailashsahar with a two-member crew -- Flight Lt Shamsul Alam and co-pilot Akram Ahmed -- for a mission against targets in Chittagong, the vital seaport, to disrupt logistics and supplies of Pakistani troops.

The second unit -- a helicopter sortie from Teliamura base in adjoining Tripura state -- was piloted by Flight Lt Sultan Mahmood and Flight Lt Badrul Alam and made a deadly strike at Godnail fuel depot, Narayanganj. The smoke from the flames was seen from the capital Dhaka for days.

Two sorties on crucial targets on December 3 completely demoralized the Pakistan military.

Well, the Indians commenced air-strikes from December 4 in the eastern theatre and, by December 7, the lone airfield at Tejgaon airport was disabled and knocked out of operation.

The 13 days was the shortest war in military history, followed by a historic surrender ceremony, and in fact, the second surrender after WWII.

On December 16 in 1971, a dramatic push led to the fall of Dhaka. The jubilant Mukti Bahini chanting “Joy Bangla” and Indian troops riding battle tanks marched into the capital. Indira Gandhi at Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi. on December 12, 1971. said: “The Bangladesh of their dream has today become a reality.” 

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, also recipient of Ashoka Fellow and Hellman-Hammett Award.