An iconic signpost on the Indo-Pak border read: “You are now entering Pakistan. No passports required. Bash on regardless.” This was for India’s 54 Infantry Division under the command of the charismatic Maj Gen WAG Pinto, spearheading the Indian offensive into the Shakargarh Bulge in December 1971.
For the nation, 1971 was a historic year and we, as newly commissioned second lieutenants, were part of this history, part of this great military success. And this victory is since celebrated every year on December 16 as Vijay Diwas.
Unfortunately, over the years, it appears that the 1971 war is gradually fading from public memory and being overtaken by Kargil, Balakot, Doklam and Galwan. Vijay Diwas has been replaced by Kargil Vijay Diwas. Has the nation forgotten the greatest ever victory achieved by its armed forces? Have all the sacrifices of our young officers and men gone in vain?
Today, many of us who were part of this great campaign are no more. The youngest alive are in their 70s. All that is left for these veterans is a brief wreath-laying ceremony on December 16 at a war memorial, for which most of them are not even invited. The rest of the nation, in any case, hardly remembers this war.
In the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the war next year, the nation needs to commemorate December 16, 1971, when under the leadership of the iconic General Sam Manekshaw, the Indian Army, supported by the IAF and the Indian Navy, blitzkrieged its way to achieve one of the greatest victories by any modern-day military, dismembering Pakistan, and bringing about one of the biggest humiliations any country could ever have to undergo.
The ‘famed’ Pakistani Army was disgraced in the eyes of the world when Gen AAK Niazi and his 93,000 soldiers prostrated themselves in front of the Indian Army in the biggest military surrender after World War II. Till today, the Pakistani military smarts from the ignominy of this defeat by an Army which it used to sneer at.
December 16 is a day of rejoicing because on this day we, along with the Mukti Bahini, liberated and created a free new nation, Bangladesh, and ended a barbaric pogoram by the Pakistani Army of mass killing and rape of its innocent and hapless people.
In a memorable conclusion to the war, young Major Ashok Tara, VrC, in a brilliant operation, rescued the entire family of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, held prisoner by the Pakistani Army, including his wife Begum Fazilatunnesa and daughter Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh and a great friend of India.
"Next year is the golden jubilee year of the war. On this landmark occasion, not just the Indian military, but India as a nation also needs to celebrate Vijay Diwas 1971 and remind the world of this great victory of the ‘righteous over evil’."
The war produced heroes like our young Param Vir Chakra (PVC) recipients 2/Lt Arun Khetrapal, Flying Officer Nirmaljit Sekhon and Lance Naik Albert Ekka, who along with several thousands of unrecognised, gallant soldiers laid down their lives with the words ‘Naam, Namak, Izzat’ on their dying breaths.
We had inspiring officers like Major Hoshiyar Singh, awarded the PVC for his extraordinary bravery at Shakargarh, Major Ian Cardozo, who, given up for dead due to gangrene, chopped off his leg with his khukri and went on to become a Major General, or Maj KS Chandpuri, MVC, who with his small force, gallantly defended the post of Longewala against the greatly superior Pakistani forces, thus enabling the IAF to decimate the attacking enemy tank regiments.
A special place of honour should be reserved for the silent service, the Indian Navy. In a daring operation, its missile boats attacked the Karachi port, sinking and damaging several Pakistan ships and destroying critical logistics facilities. The Navy dominated both the western and eastern seaboards, thus greatly restricting freedom of action of the Pakistani Navy.
The new generations also need to learn about and honour extraordinary commanders like Capt MN Mulla, MVC, who, in the highest traditions of the Navy, chose to go down with his ship INS Khukri, along with near 200 officers and sailors.
On this occasion, we, as a nation, should forever remember with great pride and gratitude the ultimate sacrifice made by 4,000 Indian soldiers who laid down their lives on the battlefield and 10,000 more who went home wounded or disabled.
Let us also never forget our 54 officers and men taken prisoners of war, who are dead or dying in Pakistani prisons. How unfortunate and tragic that we as victors, allowed 93,000 Pakistani prisoners to return home to their families but could not bring back our own soldiers, while also returning 13,000 square km of captured territory won with the blood, toil and sweat of our men.
Next year is the golden jubilee year of the war. On this landmark occasion, not just the Indian military, but India as a nation also needs to celebrate Vijay Diwas 1971 and remind the world of this great victory of the ‘righteous over evil’. Apart from declaring 2021 as the Year of the Soldier, December 16 should henceforth be celebrated as the Armed Forces Day and do away with the irrelevant and antiquated Armed Forces Flag Day on December 7.
Let a chapter be added to our history books so that future generations read about this momentous victory and continue to remember and honour the sacrifices made by the gallant soldiers of India.
(The author is a Former GOC-in-C, Western Command and is a military luminary who has held several challenging & high profile appointments throughout his highly decorated career. He is a prolific writer on National Security issues. This article was first published in the 'Tribune' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India.)