History records the India-Pakistan war of 1971 as the shortest war lasting 13 days – December 3 to 16, 1971. It was an unfortunate civil war for the liberation of East Pakistan which had given a call for secession from the unity of Pakistan on March 26, 1971. Whether long or short, a war is a brutal event that leaves only destruction and sorrow. Liberation and freedom that follow are like a side-dish accompaniment to the main menu.
Brig. Suresh C. Sharma takes us through some foregoing episodes to the war.
Background to the War
The late 1960s was a period of youthful dissidence – a worldwide phenomenon in more than thirty countries. Pakistan was one of them. The student population had increased steeply over the last two decades. Dacca had more than 50,000 students, 7000 staying within the campus itself. The number of years for completion of degree courses from two to three, in 1962, led to protests in both the wings (of Pakistan) as it delayed job opportunities by one year. The declaration of Urdu as the national language had already caused discontent in East Pakistan, as also the economic disparity between the two wings. Restlessness among the East Pakistanis increased when the Planning Commission report stated that 22 families controlled all the industries. The student community aimed at a change of regime. This movement gained strength due to absence of democratic institutions in Pakistan. A minor event can trigger a major rebellion under such circumstances, and that is what happened.
On 7 November 1968, some students from Rawalpindi were returning from a post on the Afghanistan border after purchasing a few thousands worth of contraband items. This was a common practice, still those students were charged and their goods confiscated. The students organized a demonstration which led to lathi-charge and firing which resulted in the death of one student. The students then responded by a country-wide demonstration. By November end, the workers also joined in. Children aged 10 to 12 years took to violence and hundreds of students and workers were arrested and injured in the strike call on 6th December. In West Pakistan, ten thousand students and twenty thousand workers took part in a demonstration. The students in East Pakistan organized an Action Committee in January 1969. The Action Committee demanded free elections, full autonomy, non-alignment and repeal of all emergency laws.
In February 1969, President Ayub Khan relinquished power and handed over the reins to Army Chief Yahya Khan. He took over the presidency, enforced martial law and suspended the Constitution. The attempt by the Pakistan military to solve the crisis through “final solution” led to this civil war and subsequent birth of Bangladesh.
March 1971 saw a large number of East Pakistanis leaving their hometown and taking refuge in India in parts of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. The Government of India (GOI) decided to bring all refugees to West Bengal and the Indian Air Force [IAF] flew 8 to 10 sorties a day. The Antonov AN-12* aircraft with payload capacity of 9000 kg could carry 90 passengers with an average weight of a passenger and essentials fixed at 100 kg. The average weight of a refugee was about 50 kg plus just one bag each that they had. The IAF crew managed to carry 150 passengers per flight.
To speed up the operation, the GOI requested the USA for four Hercules* aircrafts, knowing well the pro-Pakistan attitude of the USA Government. In 1971, President Richard Nixon was hostile towards India. Even though, the GOI managed to get the USA to provide aircrafts for refugee evacuation. After consulting the US Embassy in Pakistan, the US Government advised the GOI to route their request through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). India approached the UNHCR and four C-130* aircrafts were made available to evacuate the refugees from Agartala and Assam to West Bengal. This airlift operation was given the code name Bonnyjack.
US Air Force to the rescue
The aircrafts operated from 12 June to 14 July 1971. Col. Charles Turnipseed was the commander of the group. One of the pilots, Captain Wayne Wiltshire, a Texan used to fly the Hercules like a fighter plane. On one occasion, he executed a tight turn on the runway of Gawahati airport so sharply that a pregnant woman passenger delivered a baby during the run. The Americans christened the baby Bonnyjack.
The group carried out 308 sorties, evacuated 23,000 refugees and flew 2000 tons of medical supplies and food. Sadly, the aircrafts were withdrawn after a month. The US Government did not wish to get involved in an operation resulting from a crackdown by West Pakistan!
*AN-12 and C-130 Hercules are four-engine turboprop military transport aircrafts.
Brig. Suresh C. Sharma (retd.) is a freelance writer and adviser to the telecom industry. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org