By Akshaya K.Gupta
The partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 created two independent countries: India and Pakistan. India, which became independent on 15th August 1947, stood for a secular, equitable polity based on the universally accepted idea that all men are created equal and should be treated as such. Pakistan, which officially came into existence a day earlier, was divided into geographically separated East and West, based on the premise that Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent constitute two different nationalities and cannot co-exist.
India’s relations with Pakistan deteriorated when civil war erupted in Pakistan, pitting the West Pakistan army against East Pakistan which was demanding greater autonomy. The fighting forced ten million East Pakistan Bengalis to flee to India. In April 1971, an Indian parliamentary resolution demanded that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi supply aid to the rebels in East Pakistan. She complied but declined to recognize the provisional government of independent Bangladesh.
A propaganda war between Pakistan and India ensued in which Pakistani President General Yahya Khan threatened war against India if it made any attempt to seize any part of Pakistan. On 3rd December 1971, Pakistan launched a massive coordinated air strike on several airfields in northwest India after which, at midnight, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared that India was at war with Pakistan.
Battle of Longewal
The Battle at Longewal, fought in the Rajasthan desert, merits inclusion in any account of the 1971 India-Pakistan War because of the sheer audacity of the Pakistani generals who had planned it. Had it succeeded, India would have lost thousands of kilometres of vast expanse of desert. The Rajasthan sector was rather thinly held by both the Indians and by the Pakistanis because the Thar Desert is not conducive to vehicular movement. Unlike in North Africa where the desert surface is relatively hard and the coastal areas allow for easy movement of traffic, the loose shifting sands of the Thar cannot be crossed by wheeled vehicles and even tracked vehicles are liable to get bogged down. The region also has very few dirt tracks and even fewer paved roads.
On the Pakistani side, the principal town is Rahimiyar Khan which is also an important railway junction connecting prosperous Pakistani Punjab in the north with the barren province of Sindh and its capital, Karachi, in the south. On the Indian side, the four principal towns are Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bikaner and Jodhpur. Most Indian forces in 1971 were concentrated near the border towns of Barmer and Jaisalmer, both of which are supported by a forward air force base. The original Indian plan was to attack Rahimiyar Khan from Jaisalmer, to cut the main railway artery in West Pakistan.
The Pakistani plan was no less ambitious and a surprise attack was launched along the Gabbar-Longewal axis. The main axis lay to the north, connecting the Indian town of Jaisalmer with the Pakistani town of Islamgarh and Rahimiyar Khan beyond it. The intruding Pakistani armoured column and accompanying towed artillery were spotted by an Indian patrol on 4th December after it had entered 16 km into Indian territory. The first reports were dismissed, until the enemy took up position just 300 meters away from the isolated Indian Army Company located at Longewal. The unit had no anti-tank weapons or mines. The Pakistanis could have overrun the post within hours, but the Indian company commander, Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, showed presence of mind by bringing in the company’s recoilless guns and heavy machine guns and directing concentrated and sustained fire at the enemy positions. The Pakistanis were taken aback by the extent of the fire and felt that the Indians must have a much larger force at Longewal than reported by their intelligence. Instead of storming the post and carrying on to Jaisalmer according to plan, the Pakistanis encircled the post and decided to set up their artillery to soften it up before attacking.
By this time, the GOC of the 12th Indian Infantry division based at Tanot north of Jaisalmer was aware of the situation and realized that the Pakistanis had launched a full-scale armoured thrust to take Jaisalmer by outflanking 12 Division’s main forces concentrated in the Tanot-Kishengarh area. In complete contrast to the Pakistani divisional commander’s audacity was the over-caution of the Indian generals. Confronted by the surprise attack, both the Indian divisional commander and his senior in charge of the Southern Command dithered. They neither continued with their planned attack on Rahimiyar Khan nor did they send a large enough force to engage the Pakistani intruders. The job of relieving pressure on the beleaguered Indian company was left to the Indian Air Force.
The IAF at that time had only two Hawker Hunter aircraft positioned at Jaisalmer, primarily for reconnaissance purposes. Amongst the two pilots posted there was Squadron Leader R N Bali.
Squadron Leader Bali and his colleague flew sorties through 5th December and completely broke up the enemy formation. The second contingent of Pakistani armour following the spearhead also got bogged down and was shot. On December 6, the two hunters were joined by two more Hunters and, by the next day, the Pakistani column was in full retreat. The Pakistani Air Force started flying sorties to cover them.
The Indian army should have pursued and destroyed the enemy force, but failed to do so. The Hunters had done their job well. Of the 54 or so Pakistan T-59 and Sherman tanks that had come in, as many as 40 were destroyed or abandoned. Another 138 vehicles of all types were destroyed along with 5 field guns and three anti-aircraft guns. The desert around Longewal was a smoldering graveyard of tanks and vehicles.
The Pakistanis replaced the commander of their 18th Division based at Rahimiyar Khan, well before the retreat probably because it was clear that he had not considered coordinating air support or even arranging for adequate air defence guns before launching his attack. The pity is that the Indian generals in that sector also failed to take advantage of the rout. The 12th Division ultimately advanced cautiously to the town of Islamgarh. In contrast, the 11th Division, operating from near Barmer, did a much better job and continued its advance across different terrain, which required the laying of duckboard before tanks or vehicles could advance. At the cession of hostilities, the 11th division was poised to take the town of Naya Chor about 50 kilometres inside Pakistan.
Acting in accordance with its strategy to grab as much territory in the West as possible, Pakistan also launched a major attack on Poonch in Jammu & Kashmir. This attack, unlike the one on Chamb, was completely repulsed, although the Indian Army was at a locational disadvantage since the Pakistanis controlled the heights around the town.Smaller attacks were launched by Pakistanis in Punjab at Fazilka and Hussainiwali. Here the forward Indian defences were breached but the Pakistani Army could not sustain its attack. In all, it appeared that the Pakistani military high command could not make up its mind where it should deliver its main punch and kept pulling back until it was too late.
Within six days of the war, on the eastern front, Indian troops were deep inside East Pakistani territory and moving fast. The Mukti Bahini section of the advancing forces played a crucial role in guiding the Indian Army through the treacherous riverside areas and providing critical intelligence. By the seventh day of war, the Pakistan Army High Command, headquartered in Rawalpindi, was in a complete panic.
Soldiers on both sides fought hard. The Pakistanis fought to a man and in many areas, the fighting often ended in hand-to-hand combat. The Indians clung on to every inch of territory they had conquered and the Indian Army was able to defeat their enemy on these very killing fields. Had the war dragged for even a week more, things would have been very difficult. That is why the Pakistani high command, despite having lost all its strategic objectives, readily agreed to a cease-fire. The Indian Army in the West proved that the regimental colours its men carried were still a matter of honour.
Stories of the 1971 war ensured that those traditions would be carried on by many generations of fighting men in the future. Most of all, Indian troops had learned that after all was said and done, honour in battle meant standing one’s ground and fighting - even to the last man or tank if necessary.
The lessons of Longewal are clear. Success in any endeavour requires balancing caution with courage. Under great power pressure , a U.N. ceasefire was arranged after the Pakistani defeat. Pakistan lost its eastern half, an army of 100,000 soldiers and was thrown into political turmoil.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto emerged as leader of Pakistan, and Mujibur Rahman as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Tensions were alleviated by the Shimla Accord of 1972, and by Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh in 1974.
(The author is a strategic affairs researcher and writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)