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Thursday, May 23, 2024

1971 War – Washing Hands

After discussing the military situation in East Pakistan, both Gul and Rahim surmised that East Pakistan was doomed and Pakistan Army would not be able to withstand the Indian Army onslaught once an all-out war started.

Pontius Pilate was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius from 26/27 to 36/37 AD. He is best known for being the official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ultimately ordered his crucifixion.

In St. Matthew’s gospel, Pontius Pilate ‘washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person. This was to show the crowd he did not want Jesus dead but ordered his death because that is what the people wanted. He was washing his hands of the responsibility. Pontius Pilate’s ‘washing hands’ entered the English lexicon.

If you wash your hands of something that you were previously responsible for, you intentionally stop being involved in it or connected with it in any way.

Read more: 1971 War: A military or a political defeat?

Understanding the matter better

The lengthy preamble to my article is related to the recent debate on whether or not the 1971 war between Pakistan and India was a military defeat or a political fiasco. I had been mentioning earlier that the 1971 War, in the case of Pakistan, was a choreographed war involving four main characters – General Yahya Khan, Bhutto, Lieutenant General Gul Hasan – and  Air Marshal Rahim Khan. Gul Hasan and Rahim Khan were CGS Army and   Air Chief respectively. About Yahya Khan, the President and Chief Martial law Administrator of Pakistan, Kissinger (2011) wrote:

“For eleven days he had stood by while Indian forces pressed deeper and deeper into East Pakistan, in effect dismembering his country… On December 3 he launched his army into an attack in the West. The reaction in our government was to use the Pakistani attack as a perfect excuse to defer the statement attacking Indian transgressions”.

As for Bhutto, Gul Hasan, and Rahim Khan, In mid-November 1971, a few days before the Indian Army launched an all-out offensive against East Pakistan, Yahya Khan had sent Bhutto as head of a high-level delegation to China. He was accompanied by Lieutenant  General Gul Hassan Khan and Air Marshal Rahim Khan. Considering that Bhutto had a personal equation with the Chinese leadership, Yahya had chosen him to lead the delegation on the recommendation of Gul Hassan. The mandate of the mission was to ascertain the extent to which China would be willing to support Pakistan in case of war with India, which was looming with the deterioration of our position in East Pakistan by the day.

After their political deliberations with the Chinese had concluded, Gul Hassan and the Air Marshal sat together to evaluate the proceedings after returning from a private dinner with Premier Zhou Enlai. Bhutto had retired for the evening, saying he was not feeling too well

After discussing the military situation in East Pakistan, both Gul and Rahim surmised that East Pakistan was doomed and Pakistan Army would not be able to withstand the Indian Army onslaught once an all-out war started.

Read more: The Afghan cross-border terrorism against Pakistan

Having convinced themselves about the hopelessness of the situation, both of them agreed that they should join hands with Bhutto, and, when the ill-fated eastern wing falls, “we should somehow make Yahya willingly step down in favour of civilian set up that would protect the likes of us who were only marginally involved in Yahya’s martial law”.

In other words, the three of them (Bhutto very cleverly absenting himself while Gul Hasan and Rahim Khan discussed East Pakistan) decided to let East Pakistan go. This implied not launching any meaningful ground or air offensive in the western sector, thus facilitating the cracking up of the Pakistan Army’s Eastern Command under Lieutenant General Niazi. An obvious expression of this strategy was the conduct of army operations in the Thar desert.

I have written earlier that in the battle of Longewala the Indian air force harassed a Pakistani infantry brigade group (51 Brigade under command 22 Cavalry). This force was launched into action without air cover and was without even troop-carrying vehicles (TCVs) for the infantry. IAF action disabled 50% of our tanks (around 20) and many vehicles carrying ammunition and POL. A large number of surviving soft vehicles had to be abandoned as they got bogged down in deep sand.

More than three decades later the Indian Army and Air Force were locked in a battle over which service should get the credit for repulsing the Pakistani attack. Baweja, an Indian writer,  writes that the Indian 12 Infantry Division had not even expected trouble on this western part of the border. The likelihood of a Pakistani infantry brigade with under command armour regiment crossing the international border and advancing deep inside Indian territory was unpalatable for the Indian Army top brass. Instead, they had laboured over an extensive counteroffensive plan to cross over into Pakistan and go all the way up to Rahimyar Khan. The opposite happened.

IAF claims that there was no ground battle at Longewala (the subject of an Indian blockbuster movie), it was their show all the way, and that India was saved from humiliation because of the four Hunters that blunted Pakistani thrust entirely by air action. Rebutting the Indian Army’s narrative, the War Diary of IAF’s 14 Care and Maintenance Unit based at Jaisalmer records that on 4th December 1971 when the 12 Division was building up in its concentration area for an advance towards Rahimyar.

Khan, the enemy sneaked in with an infantry brigade and an armoured regiment from Gabbar, via BP 638, towards Longewala. The leading armour bypassed Longewala’s post and was seen advancing towards Ramgarh past midnight. The enemy movement was passed by the company commander at Longewala to 12 Division Headquarters (via his battalion Headquarters), but the same appeared to be discarded. According to Baweja (2008), the advancing armoured column reached the outskirts of Ramgarh but had to recoil as it had lost contact with its rear.

Read more: How India is an obstacle in Kashmiri freedom movement

The force thus withdrew all the way to Longewala

The company commander at Longewala again reported to the division headquarters about more tanks rolling in. On receipt of this message, the GOC tried to get through to the base commander at Jaiselmer but he found that Mujahids had cut the telephone line at Ramgarh. The radio relay link was established between the GOC and the base Commander in the early hours of 5th December. At around 0715 hours, the enemy was engaged by the IAF aircraft.

As a result of the Pakistani raid, the 12 Division’s offensive (Operation Dare Devil) was postponed till the Indians, smarting over what would have happened if the Pakistani force had entered Ramgarh, regained balance. Ramgarh, we are told, was without any defences whatsoever.


Saleem Akhtar Malik is a Pakistan Army veteran who writes on national and international affairs, defense, military history, and military technology. He Tweets at @saleemakhtar53. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.