Operation Cactus Lily 1971- A saga of bravery, valor, and chivalry

The Indian Army has since independence been in a No War No Peace scenario. Once the Radcliffe line was drawn on a map, the world saw one of the largest migrations from West to East and vice versa.

“Do not neglect the graves of the heroes. Do not forget that they died for your necessity. Died, in so many cases without romance, almost ridiculously, hung on barbed wire like scarecrows, or mixing their blood with the rain and filth of some lonely shell hole.”

The Indian Army has since independence been in a No War No Peace scenario. Once the Radcliffe line was drawn on a map, the world saw one of the largest migrations from West to East and vice versa. There were killings, rape, and plunder, the Indian Army was directed to assist in safeguarding the population and set up refugee camps, and provide medical assistance.

The incursions in 1948 by the raiders assisted by Pakistan Army, was resisted and they were pushed back from the fringes of Srinagar airfield.

The forward posturing in 1962, and misreading the tea leaves by the political leadership, led to a debacle never experienced before, which reminded the Prime Minister of a strong military, which he intended to disband on achieving independence as India was to follow a path of non-violence.

1965, the military leadership in Pakistan saw that the Indian Army was in a disarray and with the tacit support of the US, having been armed with the latest weapon systems of those days undertook an operation which resulted in proving the adage, it’s not the weapon systems but the man behind the gun that matters.

The Pakistan armor was defeated and Patton Nagar was created. The brand new M 48 Patton tanks captured are displayed at various cantonments. The Indian Army and 3 JAT in particular under Lt Col Desmond Hayde, MVC, crossed the Ichhogil Canal, not once but twice and were on the outskirts of Lahore.

Nathu La and Cho La clashes, referred to as the Sino-Indian War of 1967, consisted of a series of border clashes between India and China alongside the border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, then an Indian protectorate.

The Nathu La clashes started on 11 September 1967, when China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched an attack on Indian posts at Nathu La, and lasted till 15 September 1967. In October 1967, another military duel took place at Cho La and ended on the same day.

According to independent sources, India achieved a “decisive tactical advantage” and managed to hold its own against and push back Chinese forces. Many PLA fortifications at Nathu La were destroyed, and the Indian troops drove back the attacking Chinese forces. The competition to control the disputed borderland in Chumbi Valley is seen as a major cause for heightening the tensions in these incidents. Observers have commented that these clashes indicated the decline of ‘claim strength’ in China’s decision to initiate the use of force against India, and stated that India was greatly pleased with the combat performance of its forces in the Nathu La clashes, seeing it as a sign of striking improvement since its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

I am not dwelling in the internal operations of the liberation of Hyderabad, Goa and Junagadh. The Naga and Mizo insurgencies, which had led to substantial operations being carried out.

The Genesis of 1971 War of Liberation of Bangladesh

General elections were held in Pakistan on 7 December 1970 to elect members of the National Assembly. They were the first general elections since the independence of Pakistan and ultimately the only ones held before the independence of Bangladesh. Voting took place in 300 general constituencies, of which 162 were in East Pakistan and 138 in West Pakistan. A further thirteen seats were reserved for women (seven of which were in East Pakistan and six of which were in West Pakistan), who were to be elected by members of the National Assembly.

The elections were a fierce contest between two social democratic parties, the west-based Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the East-based Awami League. The Awami League was the sole major party in the East wing, while in the West wing, the PPP faced severe competition from the conservative factions of the Muslim League, the largest of which was the Muslim League (Qayyum), as well as Islamist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), JamiatUlema-e-Islam (JUI) and JamiatUlema-e-Pakistan (JUP).

The result was a victory for the Awami League, which gained an absolute majority, winning 160 of the 162 general seats and all seven women’s seats in East Pakistan. The PPP won only 81 general seats and five women’s seats, all in West Pakistan. In the provincial elections held ten days later, the Awami League again dominated in East Pakistan, while the PPP were the winning party in Punjab and Sindh. The Marxist National Awami Party emerged victorious in Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan.

The National Assembly was initially not inaugurated as President Yahya Khan and the PPP chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not want a party from East Pakistan in the federal government. Instead, Yahya appointed the veteran Bengali politician Nurul Amin as Prime Minister, asking him to reach a compromise between the PPP and Awami League. However, this move failed as the delay in inauguration had already caused significant unrest in East Pakistan.

On 25 March 1971, the Pakistan Army, led by Lt Gen Tikka Khan, who later went on to become Pakistan’s first COAS, launched Operation Searchlight to quell the rebellion in East Pakistan. Massive human rights violations were reportedly perpetrated by the Pakistan Army during this operation.

This resulted in 10 Lakh refugees crossing over to India, which was under strain due to food shortages and domestic issues. The Indian Prime Minister undertook a whirlwind tour to apprise world leaders of the genocide in East Pakistan.

The Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation was a treaty signed between India and the Soviet Union in August 1971 that specified mutual strategic cooperation. This was a significant deviation from India’s previous position of non-alignment during the Cold War.

The Indian Prime Minister was keen to undertake military operations for political reasons, which the then Chief of Army Staff Gen Sam Maneckshaw did not agree to and advised against.

However, meticulous planning and execution of the 13-day war, post-World War II led to the liberation of Bangladesh. The three services carried out their operations seamlessly leading to victory all around. The battles fought on the Eastern and Western front have countless tales of bravery on both sides.

This anecdote depicts the bonhomie between Sam Bahadur and his principal staff officer Inder Gill.

I quote “This is what leadership was all about and I am not talking about going for a pee but conveying a point and defusing a situation. This is what we need to be talking about in leadership seminars to youngsters and maybe even to senior management.

There is an apocryphal anecdote about what happened in the Ops Room on or about December 13, 1971. The Pakistanis had broken through Chhamb; elsewhere the campaign wasn’t going well. And there was a Soviet ultimatum to move fast, or to forget about another veto.

Sam Bahadur summoned the Vice Chief and the DMO, Gen Inder Gill, to the Ops room and blasted them.

Reviewing the bleak situation, he thundered ‘ Inder, what are we going to do about this situation?’

Inder calmly replied,’ I don’t know what you are doing about it, but I’m going for a pee!’

Sam looked at him, smiled and said’ Jolly good. I was also thinking the same.’

It speaks volumes for the equanimity and courage of Inder Gill to have defused the situation, and Sam to have appreciated it. Unquote.

Nixon Administration Pressures

In November 1971, Mrs Indira Gandhi was meeting the US President Richard Nixon. Some statements reflect the pressure the US Administration imposed on the Government of India.

“If India pokes its nose in Pakistan, the US will not keep its trap shut. India will be taught a lesson.”

Richard Nixon

“India regards America as a friend. Not a boss. India is capable of writing its own destiny. We know and are aware how to deal with each one according to circumstances.”

Indira Gandhi

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi articulated these exact words while sitting with US President Richard Nixon in the White House while maintaining eye-to-eye contact. This incident was narrated by the then Secretary of State and NSA, Henry Kissinger, in his autobiography.

That was the day when the Indo-US joint media address was canceled by Indira Gandhi who walked away from the White House in her inimitable style.

Kissinger, while ushering Indira Gandhi into her car had commented, “Madam Prime Minister, don’t you feel you could have been a little more patient with the President?”

Indira Gandhi replied, “Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your valuable suggestion. Being a developing country, we have our backbones straight – & enough will and resources to fight all atrocities. We shall prove that days are gone when a power can rule and often control any nation from thousands of miles away.”

Thereafter, as soon as her Air India Boeing touched down at Palam runway in Delhi, Indira Gandhi summoned the leader of the opposition, Atal Behari Vajpayee to her residence.

After an hour of discussion behind closed doors, Vajpayee was seen hurrying back. It was thereafter known that Vajpayee would be representing India at the United Nations.

Donald Paul of BBC had jumped in with a question to Vajpayee, “Indira ji regards you as a staunch critic. In spite of that, are you sure you’d be at the United Nations shouting your throat (voice) out in favour of the Incumbent Government?”

Vajpayee had a repartee “A rose adorns a garden, so does a Lily. Each is beset with the idea that they are individually the most beautiful. When the garden falls in a crisis, it’s no secret that the garden has to safeguard its beauty as one. I have come today to save the garden. This is called Indian Democracy.”

Burma-Shell, the only US company supplying oil to India, was told to stop. They were sternly told by the US to cease dealing with India anymore. India’s history thereafter was only about fighting back. Indira Gandhi’s incisive diplomacy ensured oil came in from Ukraine.

Even before the declaration of war on December 3, the two most decisive victories had been attained by the Indian Army in East Pakistan. The first in the morning hours of November 21, the first full-fledged defensive battle at Garibpur, 7 km inside East Pakistan’s Western front, had been fought and decisively won by 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal), with direct support from 6 Field Regiment (Artillery) and ‘C’ Squadron of 45 Cavalry (Armour). The second by 10.30 am on December 3, six hours before the declaration of war, 14 Guards had completely decimated the seemingly impregnable defenses at Ganga Sagar complex inside the Eastern front of East Pakistan West of Agartala, and its braveheart Lance Naik Albert Ekka had earned the first ParamVir Chakra during Operation ‘Cactus Lily’, commonly referred to as Bangladesh War.

2/Lt ArunKhetarpal of Poona Horse, who had just been commissioned, displayed immense valor, Flt Lt Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon who by himself shot down three sabers which attacked Srinagar AirField. The missile boat attack on the night of 04 December caused significant losses to the Pakistan Navy.

Maj KS Chandpuri in the battle of Longewala in conjunction with the Indian Air Force stopped a Pakistan Armour thrust and destroyed the tanks.

One of the most audacious and memorable among them is the raid on Chachro and several other Pakistani military positions 80km inside enemy territory. Specially-trained commandos of the 10 Para hit enemy positions and returned without suffering a single casualty.

The Tangail paradrop was a successful para battalion-sized operation launched on 11 December 1971 by the 2nd Battalion (Special Operations) (2 PARA) of the Indian Army’s Parachute Regiment during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 for the liberation of Bangladesh. The main objective of the operation was the capture of Poongli Bridge on the Jamuna River which would cut off the Pakistani 93rd Brigade which was retreating from Mymensingh in the north to defend the capital of East Pakistan, Dacca.

The crowning glory was standing up to the US when it threatened to send in its 7th Fleet to threaten India, which left Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger squirming in their seats.

93000 Prisoners of War were captured and brought to India. Sam Maneckshaw ensured their safety and well-being.

While the Military Victory was decisive, the parleys between Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at Shimla, leading to the accord, frittered away the gains. 93000 prisoners went back home and sadly we have no account of 54 Indian Prisoners of War languishing in Pakistan jails.

Around 3000 Indian soldiers died and 12,000 others were wounded in the war. They are not to be forgotten, while the gallantry award winners are remembered, not all bravery is awarded and rewarded. The fog of war and individual perceptions on reward and recognition vary between the decision makers in the chain of command.

In conclusion, a few things stand out clearly, which is something to think about by the present-day leadership at all levels and across the board.

· Clear political and military aim.

· Meticulous planning, including equipping and training at all levels.

· Creation of friendly international support against the genocide.

· No bowing down to the US pressure, which was of course with tacit Russian support.

· No inter-service / inter-arm turf wars; but a cohesive effort to win and achieve the aims.

· Close interaction between the Service Chiefs and the troops on the ground.

· Decentralisation and delegation of responsibilities down the chain of command.

· The training and utilization of Mukhti Bahini was a major force multiplier.

· Lastly military gains should not be frittered away by keeping the Military Leadership away from the discussions and that advice is a necessity and not to be ignored.

In the present day environment, such operations may not be undertaken; nevertheless, we must develop and encourage R&D, design and development, capacity and capability development within the country. This is being encouraged, but a lot still needs to be done.

Source: Financial Express


  • Dr. Biplab Rath

    A Forensic Medicine and Toxicology expert from AIIMS Bhubhaneswar. He takes keen interest in ballistics, CBRN warfare and related subjects. He has been associated with the IADN since very initial time.

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