Tuesday, May 22, 2007

1971: Who Ordered The Capture Of Dhaka?

Praveen Swami writes a terrific article that illuminates one of the rather more interesting controversies surrounding the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh's independence: was there a standing order to capture the capital city of Dhaka (then called Dacca), and if so, who ordered it? The story pits two key players against each other.

The debate has polarised supporters of India's then Army Chief Sam `Bahadur' Manekshaw, who went on to become its first Field Marshal, and the then Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command, Major-General J.F.R. Jacob.
Soon after deciding to enter the fray, the Indian Army’s initial goal was to capture and secure the western half of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Any further advancement could have led to a Pakistani counterattack towards India's borders.
Although Pakistani forces were positioned for the defence of the country's eastern wing, Indian planners anticipated the possibility of a two-division thrust towards Silchar or Agartala, as well as a counter-offensive against Kolkata, along the Jessore-Bangaon and Satkhira-Bashirhat axes. In addition, Pakistan expected both China and the United States to intervene on its side. Plans had to be drawn up not just to secure offensive victory, but guard against defeat in these worst-case scenarios. Indian strategists hoped to take as much territory as possible in a short-duration war, and use it to facilitate a subsequent political settlement.
It didn't matter in the end. Both the United States and China, after some sabre-rattling, did not interfere as first feared; and the Indian Army made better then expected progress on the ground, so the decision to capture Dhaka was almost an afterthought. The psychological victory of capturing Dhaka—where the whole mess began and Pakistani forces were based—would be worth the effort. The question still remains, though: who ordered it? Manekshaw or Jacob?

This question, and all facts relating to India’s involvement in Bangladesh’s independence, can be found in the official History of the Bangladesh War, 1971. The problem is that it is still classified by the Indian government. The odd thing, however, is that it’s been available to scholars and students for over ten years. I think it’s high time to release it to the public.