How Sam Manekshaw crafted a 'perfect war'

PTI4_2_2014_000166B Leading from the front—Manekshaw with his soldiers during the war | PTI

On March 25, 1971, General Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw received a call in Pune, while visiting the Southern Command headquarters. His military assistant Depinder Singh was on the line from Delhi. Pakistan army had begun a crackdown in East Pakistan; prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had been sworn in a week ago after her resounding victory in the general elections, shall see him in the operations room in Delhi at 10:30pm.

Indira got Sam every toy he wanted. The bureaucracy, known for its delaying tactics, was told to get him what he fancied. Why, Sam could get even his man appointed as head of an ordnance factory!

Reaching just in time, Sam received the prime minister and defence minister Jagjivan Ram at the South Block steps. Maps had been rolled out; the ops room officers were ready. But Sam was not.

As the general spoke of the precarious military position, the smile on Indira’s face vanished. She had hoped to see a democratic government in Pakistan, where, too, an election had been held in December. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, which was popular in the east, had won most seats in the National Assembly; but military ruler Yahya Khan, on the advice of his predecessor Ayub Khan’s foreign minister and Pakistan People’s Party leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was refusing to hand over power. This had led to Rahman seeking autonomy for the east which, though richer in resources and education, had been getting less government funds and fewer jobs than the west. The east had also been demanding Bengali as the national language in addition to Urdu, which had been imposed by the rulers from the west.

The prime minister informed her Army chief that Rahman had been arrested the previous night and taken to the west, and there were street protests in the east. The Pakistan army was shooting people, looting homes, burning shops and raping women. Refugees could soon be flowing into India. Could Sam do something?

Sam looked at her in the eye and told her where most of his soldiers were: spread across the country, not having returned from election duty. He needed time to concentrate on them, equip them and plan strategies.

Was there not anything that the Army could do? Sam said gravely: “No, prime minister, I had been requesting permission to raise a force of badmashes; you have not given me permission.”The gravity of the words shocked all. “Thank you, general. Good night,”she said and walked out.

Later, Sam would get the permission to raise a force of badmashes—his fond term for guerrilla groups of East Pakistanis, who would weaken Pakistani defences.

Indira called him to a cabinet meeting a few days later. The cabinet was unanimous—that India should intervene militarily. The Army chief alone was unwilling. Sensing the outrage among the ministers, the prime minister ended the meeting but asked Sam to stay back.

Twice earlier in his career, Sam had rubbed politicians the wrong way. While he was commanding the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon’s protege Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul had found that he was running down politicians; had decorated his office with pictures of Robert Clive, Warren Hastings and Lord Kitchener and so his loyalty was suspect; condoned an officer who mocked at a Shivaji statue in Mumbai; and so on. Luckily, he was exonerated. Another time, when he, as a major general, was commanding the 26th Indian Infantry Division, Menon asked what he thought of his chief, General K.S. Thimayya, whom Menon despised. Sam said he was not permitted to “think” about his chief. Now he had defied the entire cabinet on a policy decision.

After everyone had left, Sam explained to Indira why he wanted operations to be postponed. Soon the rains would flood riverine East Pakistan, and his tanks and guns would get bogged down. The Chinese, who had attacked India in 1962, could make a southern thrust through Chumbi Valley and march across north Bengal. That would cut off India’s northeast. Instead of Pakistan, it would be India that gets cut into two. And, he needed a lot more and newer weapons. Then he asked: “Prime minister, should I claim insanity and resign?”

Manekshaw with prime minister Indira Gandhi Manekshaw with prime minister Indira Gandhi

Indira smiled and asked the chief to do things his way. The crafting of a perfect war began at that moment.

A perfect war is one in which everyone gets it right, plays it right, and achieves a clean victory—the political leaders, the diplomats, the generals, the planning staff, the field commanders, the strategists, the tacticians, even the quartermaster.

Sam told her that he would be ready for war by November, by which time the rains would have stopped, the rivers would have receded, and the snow on the mountains would block the Chinese. He wanted a few months to set up his logistics—move the strike divisions to the borders, equip the engineers with bridges to cross the Bengal rivers and canals, move a few tank formations to the west where holding operations and token intrusive strikes would have to be undertaken, mobilise the northern formations to hold back the Chinese and get even the medical teams ready.

In the next few months, Indira got him every toy he wanted. The bureaucracy, known for its delaying tactics, was told to get him what he fancied. Why, Sam could get even his man appointed as head of an ordnance factory! Indeed, mistakes happened. The Grad-P single-barrel rocket launcher, bought on Sam’s insistence, was a disaster. But they carried on, knowing that to err was human.

Indeed, it helped that Sam was then the senior-most among the service chiefs, and thus chairman of the chiefs of staff committee. Navy chief Admiral S.M. Nanda was most cooperative, but Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal, a man of reading and contemplation, did have problems at times with the overbearing Sam. Once, the Army chief’s office issued certain orders directly to the Eastern Air Command, bypassing the Air Force headquarters. But when Lal protested, Sam is said to have given his word that such lapses would not happen again.

Sam made it fairly known to everyone that he was preparing for war. He told the troops in virtually every formation that he visited—he visited all—what equipment they would get. Then he made it known to every senior commander that they could report to him if they distrusted any of the subordinates, and the Army headquarters itself would check upon the subordinate, replace him if required or persuade the senior commander of his qualities. To win a war, he believed, every commander had to have faith in his subordinates.

So it was with the political leadership. Though he knew he had the trust of the prime minister, Sam knew he had to keep her advisers also in the loop. He took care to keep her closest aides like P.N. Haksar and D.P. Dhar in the loop, about almost every major move that he made, so much so that he even sought Haksar’s help when he had to tackle politically sensitive matters in the military. His informal way of addressing everyone—male or female, including his military assistant, a burly Sardar, as sweetheart or sweetie—helped often to break the ice.

Leaving Sam and the other chiefs to plan and arm for their war, Indira went on a diplomatic offensive. First, the Arab world, which controlled the oil that fuelled not only the economy but also the battle-tanks, fighter jets and warships, had to be won over. She sent family friend and diplomat Mohammad Yunus to talk to the Arabs.

Cooperation from the US—which had been arming Pakistan even earlier and was now tilting heavily in its favour—was ruled out from the beginning. Yet, Indira made a whirlwind tour of western capitals including Washington, more to get a public opinion in India’s favour and also to ensure that the regimes did not impose sanctions on India. That was crucial because the bulk of the weapons that Manekshaw, Lal and Nanda had were of British or European origin and they would need spares. In the United Nations, Indian diplomats struggled to make themselves heard—once getting just five votes in favour.

Indira’s diplomatic masterstroke was achieved in Moscow. The Soviets had been offering a treaty of friendship for long, but India had not responded citing non-alignment. Suddenly in August, Indira remembered the offer and signed the treaty.

Once he got the treaty in his pocket, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev shook the world for India. His ambassadors cast veto after veto in the UN Security Council to block resolutions against India. As Indira and Manekshaw worried about the chicken neck of Siliguri Corridor through which the Chinese could still come in, Brezhnev got into his combative best. He ordered a few dozen divisions—they never had a shortage—to mobilise on the Chinese border. For once, the dragon trembled before the mighty bear, forgot about the Indian border and kept its gaze fixed on the border with the Soviet Union.

The Americans were a different cup of tea. President Richard Nixon, who was secretly befriending the Chinese, sent his Seventh Fleet led by nuclear-powered carrier USS Enterprise, which packed enough firepower to sink half the Indian Navy, into the Bay of Bengal. As the fleet crossed the Strait of Malacca and steamed towards Chittagong, Brezhnev ordered his nuclear submarines to tail it and put his long-range missiles on high alert against the US mainland.

Meanwhile, Sam was on another worry. Occupying armies have been rapacious the world over, and he did not want such a blot on his Army. He went to virtually every station and addressed his troops. “I have been all over the world,” he told them, “and I can say with authority that we have the most beautiful women in the world. Then why go to lesser women? When you feel tempted, put your hands in your pockets and think of Sam.”

March on—Indian troops advancing in the Rajasthan sector | Minisrty of I&B March on—Indian troops advancing in the Rajasthan sector | Minisrty of I&B

By August, the strategies had been worked out. As Eastern Army commander, in Calcutta, Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora suggested, there would be a quick thrust into East Pakistan from the north, west and east. Already, he had told his field commanders to leave the highways and stick to the by-lanes. He knew the enemy would be holding towns and highways in force; instead of defeating them one by one and moving forward in the conventional British army style, he would bypass them, race towards Dacca which was his final objective, capture it, and end the war before big powers or the UN intervened. Meanwhile, Nanda’s Navy would blockade the Bay of Bengal and cover the south. Lal’s Air Force would go for surgical strikes to destroy all air defences in East Pakistan. Western Army commander Lieutenant General K.P. Candeth would defend Indian territory and make a few inroads into West Pakistan to offset any possible loss of territory.

By mid-November, as an unconfirmed story goes, Sam sought an appointment with Indira. He walked into her room, locked the door, and announced with a smile, “Sweetheart, I am ready”. She put her fingers to her lips, cautioning him to be silent. She was worried the room was bugged. She asked him to write down the date on which he wanted operations to begin. She read it—December 4—and burned the paper.

All the same, there was a dispute on when to strike. Sam wanted the Air Force to start hitting at dusk, so that Army columns could move in at night. But Lal wanted to strike at first light on the 4th, so that the whole day could be utilised to decimate Pakistani defences.

Yahya Khan settled the dispute for them. On the evening of December 3, his war-jets screamed into Indian airspace, and simultaneously attacked several airfields and the radar network all along the western sector. Sam called Aurora and gave the go-ahead. Aurora drove to the prime minister who was addressing a rally in Calcutta and gave her the news. She smiled, took his hand fondly in hers, and said, “Good luck to you, general.”

In the next few days, as Aurora’s field commanders raced towards Dacca through the by-lanes, and paradropped in one place, Lal’s fliers destroyed most of Pakistan’s air assets in the east on the ground, but they had to put up a brave fight in the west with their old puny Gnats and the supersonic MiG-21s to which they were fairly new. They made up for their inferiority with brilliant tactics, shooting down Sabre after Sabre, and even supporting the Army, which was on a holding operation in the west and facing enemy armoured thrust into the Rajasthan desert. As Pakistani tanks rolled into Longewala in Rajasthan, IAF jets took to the air and simply bombed them out. The battle has been re-enacted brilliantly in the film Border, by far Bollywood’s best war film.

Meanwhile, Admiral Nanda, who had made the boldest move ever made by any naval commander in India’s history, sent petty missile boats twice to bomb out Karachi and sink virtually the entire Pakistani fleet (see box). Yet, he was worried about the Americans. What could his INS Vikrant do against the USS Enterprise? He called the prime minister. The Americans are on a “dry”run, the prime minister is said to have told him. Call them on board and give them enough drinks.

As his field commanders waged the war as per his plans, Sam was mostly speaking. He made regular radio broadcasts, asking Pakistani troops to surrender. The speeches were also dropped as leaflets over Pakistani columns in the east. The message on December 9 read: “Indian forces have surrounded you. Your air force is destroyed.... Chittagong, Chalna and Mongla ports are blocked. Nobody can reach you from the sea. Your fate is sealed. The Mukti Bahini and the people are all prepared to take revenge for the atrocities and cruelties you have committed. Why waste lives? Don’t you want to go home and be with your children? Do not lose time. There is no disgrace in laying down your arms to a soldier. We will give you the treatment befitting a soldier.”

The message put the fear of God and man in the Pakistani soldiers. For they knew that if they surrendered to the Mukti Bahini, the volunteer force of East Bengalis, they would be lynched. In just about a week, it was clear that there was no way the Indian offensive could be stopped in the east. The Pakistani forces were going to be surrounded unless the US Seventh Fleet could reach Chittagong and rescue them.

The Pakistani strategy now was to seek time, and Sam was determined to deny it. On December 11, the military governor in the east appealed to the UN to effect a Pakistani withdrawal from the east. General Yahya Khan vetoed this. On December 15, Porter King, defence attaché in the US embassy in Delhi, told Sam that Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, commander of the Pakistani forces in the east, was willing to a ceasefire. Indira agreed to it, provided that the ceasefire was unconditional.

On December 14, A.M. Malik, governor of East Pakistan, convened a meeting at the Governor House in Dacca. Just as the meeting commenced, a precise strike by Indian MiG-21s drilled holes into the roof (see box). Malik wrote his resignation and sought refuge at the UN refugee office at Hotel InterContinental. On December 15, Niazi sent a message to Sam through the US consul in Dacca. Sam replied through another radio broadcast: he was willing to a ceasefire if Pakistani forces surrendered unconditionally to the Indian armed forces by 9am on December 16. Niazi wanted time till 3pm, Sam agreed.

As Niazi surrendered his pistol at 3pm to Aurora, along with more than 90,000 of his troops, Pakistan split into two.

The war was perfect in terms of achievement of political and military objectives, too. The military objective, as Sam had defined, was to hold on in the west with minor intrusions into enemy territory, and to completely overrun the east. The political objective was to liberate the east and show utmost restraint in the west so as not to provoke the world into thinking that India wanted the complete elimination of Pakistan.

The final act of brilliance was in halting the war. The moment Dacca was surrounded, Indira Gandhi called for a unilateral ceasefire to which Sam agreed. As she admitted later, she did it then because she knew she would not be able to do it later.

It was here that the sagacity of the political and military leadership showed in sparkling colours. History tells us that stopping a war when everything is going in one’s favour is the most difficult politico-military decision. Heaven-born generals have walked into traps of temptation, as Charles Townshend, triumphant at Basra, walked into the quicksands of Mesopotamia in World War I. The names of the Indian soldiers who walked with him, and to death without him, are inscribed on the India Gate in Delhi.

No such fate befell the boys under Indira and Sam. They knew that in triumph, one had to be modest and moderate.