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This day in History: 16 December

16th December 1971: India defeated Pakistan in Bangladesh War

‘Jai Bangla! Jai Bangla!’ From the banks of the great Ganges and the broad Brahmaputra, from the emerald rice fields and mustard-coloured hills of the countryside, from the countless squares of countless villages came the cry. ‘Victory toBengal! Victory to Bengal!’ They danced on the roofs of buses and marched down city streets singing their anthem Golden Bengal . . . As Indian troops advanced first to Jessore, then to Comilla, then to the outskirts of the capital of Dacca, small children clambered over their trucks and Bengalis everywhere cheered and greeted the soldiers as liberators.

— Time magazine, December 20, 1971

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The dramatic scenes described by the Time correspondent culminated in Pakistan’s defeat in the war, on December 16, 1971. The war began on December 3, 1971, after Pakistan’s air force bombed several targets in India, following months of steadily increasing tension along India’s eastern border.

Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was in Calcutta, addressing a rally of around 5 lakh people, when the Pakistani raid started. Katherine Frank writes in her biography of Indira: “Just as she [Indira] was saying, ‘India stands for peace. But if a war is thrust on us we are prepared to fight, for the issues involved are our ideals as much as our security,’ an aide rushed to the podium and handed her a slip of paper on which was scrawled the news of the Pakistani attack. She made no announcement, but hurriedly wound up her talk.”

Later, in a radio address to the nation that evening, she said the air strikes were a declaration of war against India. The Indian Air Force soon responded with strikes of its own. With Indian forces launching multiple attacks from air, land and sea, the overall military aim was two-fold: to invade Bangladesh in the East and restrict Pakistani adventurism in the West.

The Indian Army quickly captured some Pakistani territory in the West and advanced in the East using nine infantry divisions with attached armoured units and backed by air support. The Indian Air Force made Pakistan’s limited air strength in the East quickly redundant, and the Indian Navy chipped in by an effective blockade of East Pakistan.

In his book Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, Lt Gen J.F.R. Jacob, who was India’s Chief of Staff, Eastern Army, during the Bangladesh war, describes the nature of operations the Indian troops undertook: “After the capture of Jessore, 32 Infantry Brigade of 9 Infantry Division commenced the advance to Khulna. The enemy had prepared a series of delaying positions in the built-up area . . . The terrain astride the road on this axis was marshy. The enemy engaged in stiff delaying actions and demolished a large number of bridges and culverts during withdrawal. However, the delaying positions were pushed back one by one.”

In the West, the Indian Navy targeted Karachi’s port in Operation Trident on December 4 and 5. Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was deployed in the East, and its bombers hit coastal towns in East Pakistan. But India suffered one of its biggest losses of the war with the sinking of the INS Khukri after it was hit by a Pakistan submarine in the Arabian Sea.

On the ground, with Indian soldiers closing in on Dacca (now Dhaka) several days into the war, Pakistan realised it would have to tell its people that the East was a lost cause. As Time reported, “An official [Pakistani] spokesman admitted for the first time that the Pakistani air force was no longer operating in the East. Pakistani forces were ‘handicapped in the face of a superior enemy war machine,’ he said.”

On December 14,Pakistanpresident Yahya Khan in a message to Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi, Commander of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, said: “You have now reached a stage where further resistance is no longer humanly possible nor will it serve any useful purpose. It will only lead to a further loss of life and destruction. You should now take all necessary measures to stop the fighting.”

Finally, on December 16, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-chief of Eastern Command of the Indian Army, and Niazi signed the Instrument of Surrender of Pakistani forces stationed in East Pakistan (India would end up taking around 90,000 Pakistani prisoners). The same evening a triumphant Indira Gandhi announced to the Indian Parliament: “The West Pakistan forces have unconditionally surrendered in Bangladesh…Dacca is now the free capital of a free country . . . All nations who value the human spirit will recognise it as a significant milestone in man’s quest for liberty.”

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