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Celebrating Vijay Diwas

  • 19 Dec 2023

Every year on December 16, India celebrates Vijay Diwas, in commemoration of its success in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. Bangladesh came into existence on this day in 1971 when the Pakistani military in Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan) submitted to the combined forces of India and the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). Vijay Diwas is a celebration of the freedom of Bangladesh from the repressive rule of Pakistan. In India, the day is celebrated with a variety of activities and festivities that pay tribute to the valour and sacrifices made by the military forces as well as the historical significance of the 1971 war.

Historical Background and the Causes of Conflict

In the year 1971, the people of Bangladesh (previously, East Pakistan) fought in an armed conflict against Pakistan, which helped Bangladesh gain its independence from Pakistan and hence called the Bangladesh Liberation War. This long-standing dispute between East and West Pakistan had political, linguistic, and economic reasons that led to the outbreak of the conflict.

The language gap that separated East and West Pakistan was one of the major sources of political unrest. While Bengali was the language spoken by most people in East Pakistan, Urdu was the common language in West Pakistan. The linguistic divide between East and West Pakistan is evident from the protests that broke out in East Pakistan when Urdu was made the only official language. Furthermore, the majority-Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan was subjected to marginalisation and prejudice by the West Pakistani ruling class.

Most conflicts involve an economic reason and this was no exception. East Pakistan made a substantial economic contribution to the country, but the benefits were received on the other end. This wealth disparity between East and West Pakistan stimulated further discontent. Since West Pakistan held a disproportionate amount of political power, East Pakistan was underrepresented. This was seen in the elections of 1970.

The elections of 1970 in East Pakistan saw a clear victory of the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, the rulers from West Pakistan were not willing to pass the power to anyone from East Pakistan. General Yahya Khan, who was the ruler of present-day Pakistan began a crackdown on the people of East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). Following the breakdown of diplomatic talks, General Yahya Khan of Pakistan's army chose to launch the offensive.

Under Yahya Khan, the military of West Pakistan was ordered to launch Operation Searchlight to suppress the Bengali nationalist movement in former East Pakistan. Contrary to the reaction expected by the military of West Pakistan, the resistance came from the Bengali military, resistance groups as well and civilians. Known as Mukti Bahini or the Liberation Army, this group was instrumental in the fight for Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.

India Amid the Conflict

On March 26, 1971, Operation Searchlight was initiated by the Pakistani army throughout all of East Pakistan. Millions of people were forced to flee from their homes and moved towards the borders of India. The Indian states mainly West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura saw a huge influx of refugees. The state of West Bengal was particularly affected by the disproportionate number of migrants and several requests made by the state for food and shelter were taken into notice by Indira Gandhi, the then-Prime Minister of India. India’s initial response was to address the developing crisis through diplomatic means. The Prime Minister made diplomatic attempts to win international support and suggested a peaceful resolution of the conflict. However, the reaction of the world was rather slow.

A catastrophic humanitarian crisis developed along the India-East Pakistan border as a result of the large-scale refugee inflow. As a result of the millions of people who fled to India, tensions and resource shortages increased. India decided to act more decisively in response to the humanitarian catastrophe. India decided to militarily engage in support of the independence movement in East Pakistan after diplomatic efforts proved futile and the crisis worsened. In launching a concerted military effort, the Indian Armed Forces supported the Bengali freedom forces, Mukti Bahini, strategically.

Operation Vijay

As stated, Operation Vijay was the codename for the military intervention of the Indian Armed Forces that sought to both help the establishment of an independent Bangladesh and shield the Bengali community from crimes carried out by the military of West Pakistan. There were numerous military encounters during the battle, with India successfully opposing the armies of West Pakistan.

The Chief of Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw was ordered by the Union cabinet to “Go into East Pakistan”. General Manekshaw requested the PM for some time and for the monsoon to pass and his request was accepted. Meanwhile, Operation Jackpot was launched by India on May 15 1971 to recruit, train, arm, equip and advise Mukti Bahini fighters engaged in guerilla warfare against the Pakistani military.

On December 3, the Pakistan Air Force launched unexpected strikes on Eight Indian Airfields which also included places like Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Avantipura, Ambala, Sirsa and Agra. In response, India declared the air strikes as a declaration of war against India followed by an all-out action from the three forces, and a coordinated attack through air, land and sea.

Indian forces engaged in combat on multiple fronts while conducting airborne and maritime operations. The successful operation was largely due to the cooperative efforts with the Mukti Bahini, which demonstrated excellent military planning and coordination. Thirteen days later, on December 16, 1971, more than 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered in Dhaka.

Operation Vijay thus yielded striking consequences. The military intervention resulted in the military of West Pakistan being decisively and quickly defeated in East Pakistan. This was also the largest surrender of military personnel that took place since the end of WWII. It also had a profound effect on South Asia's geopolitical environment by demonstrating the efficacy of military strategy in resolving humanitarian crises and defending the right to self-determination.

Battle of Longewala

During the 1971 India-Pakistan War, one of the pivotal engagements on the Western Front was the Battle of Longewala. During the night of December 4-5, 1971, a medium artillery battery, T-59 and Sherman tanks, and 4,000 soldiers from Pakistan attacked the Longewala border post. This location has a strategic significance and the Pakistani military had plans to attack the airbase of Jaisalmer by this route.

Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri led the Indian Army’s 23 PUNJAB Regiment which was stationed at this border outpost of Longewala. Although being outnumbered (only 120 Indian soldiers), Indian forces bravely maintained the position throughout the night and obtained IAF backup. The Hunter planes, stationed at Jaisalmer, unleashed their lethal firepower on the Pakistani forces at dawn on December 5, 1971. In a short amount of time, the Hunters of 122 Squadron conducted 18 missions, destroyed 36 enemy tanks, and 100 vehicles, and killed 200 Pakistani soldiers, halting the Pakistani army's advance in the region.

Operation Trident, an audacious and victorious operation against Pakistan by the Indian Navy, took place in Western theatre. The Indian Navy launched a missile boat attack on Karachi harbour on the evening of December 4-5,1971, seriously damaging Pakistani naval capabilities and sinking many warships in the process. Operation Python was the next, and it was directed on Karachi's surviving ships. These operations severely damaged the Pakistani Navy while showcasing India's naval might.

Birth of Bangladesh

On December 16, 1971, a new nation was born. Celebrated as Victory Day in Bangladesh, the national holiday commemorates the defeat of PAF in the Bangladesh Liberation War and celebrates it as Independence Day. For Bangladesh, the Liberation War signified the end of a period characterised by marginalisation and structural inequalities. The triumph gave the Bangladeshi people a strong sense of pride and identity and encouraged a resurgence of resilience and unity.

The triumph has had a long-lasting positive effect on India's relations with Bangladesh. Strong ties have been forged between the two countries by their shared history of hardship and sacrifice during the conflict. A strong sense of gratitude and unity has been generated by India's backing of Bangladesh's Independence. India was after all the first country to recognise the Independence of Bangladesh. Over time, the bilateral connections between India and Bangladesh have only been strengthened by cultural exchanges, mutual respect, and diplomatic collaboration based on their common history.

What did Victory mean for India?

For India, the triumph in the Indo-Pak Bangladesh Liberation War demonstrated its diplomatic skills and garnered recognition worldwide for its involvement in a humanitarian crisis. The creation of Bangladesh resolved long-standing political tensions in the region and fostered a cordial relationship between India and Bangladesh.

The signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty in August 1971, has been argued by some as a departure from non-alignment. However, in the context of what was happening in the neighbourhood, India’s decision was justified. Regardless of the debate of whether it meant a departure or not from NAM policy, Indian foreign policy witnessed a change.

Conclusion

On this momentous day in history, the combined forces of India and Bangladesh triumphed over the repressive Pakistani rule, ushering in the independence of Bangladesh. Upon reflection of this momentous occasion, it is clear that Vijay Diwas is a celebration of a people's unwavering spirit, not merely a military victory but also their unwavering desire for freedom.

Vijay Diwas honours the innumerable warriors who valiantly fought for freedom. It's also an occasion to acknowledge the diplomatic skills of India during these pivotal movements. India not only negotiated the intricate geopolitical dynamics but also stood for the ambitions of the Bangladeshi people, as the world witnessed the justice of the cause.

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