Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
16 Dec (Vijay Diwas) every year is an important date for India and the Indian people. It symbolizes success, patriotism and commitment. It also acts as a reminder that we have achieved much as a nation and need to remain united and positive for the future while working to take India to its destined position in the world.
For many of us of the generation which was then in existence the Indo-Pak conflict of 1971 generates nostalgia. It was a time when the Indian polity was at its best providing the required leadership in a crisis situation. The political opposition and government worked as one to back the Indian Armed Forces. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave the Army Chief General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw the required freedom of action which any military requires and the armed forces delivered as per the trust reposed in them. The year 1971 is all about heroics of the armed forces. Whether it was Major Hoshiyar Sing PVC, 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, PVC, L/Nk Albert Ekka PVC, Fight Lt Nirmaljit Sekhon, PVC or Capt MN Mulla, MVC, all of them are etched in memory as national heroes. Battles such as Basantar, Tangail (Dacca), Hilli, Akhaura or Naya Chor have become part of military heritage. The photograph of Lt Gen AAK Niazi, Pakistan Army’s overall commander in the then East Pakistan, surrendering before Lt Gen Jagjit Aurora at Dacca adorns the walls of many military museums today splendidly conveying the achievement of India and its armed forces. In less than 14 days of focused battle the Indian Army supported ably by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy, cut through the heavily defended fortresses of the Pakistan Army and reached the outskirts of Dacca. It was a strategy now recognized as brilliant. The Indian Army simultaneously held and maneuvered around the Pakistani defenses penetrating the heartland and reached the center of gravity, Dacca. The Pakistan Army had enough forces and wherewithal to fight a battle to the end but prudence prevailed as India’s political, diplomatic and military pressure mounted. The combined effect of the latter had the required psychological effect and the Pakistan Army surrendered en masse; 93,000 prisoners fell into Indian hands. They were protected from lynch mobs, safely transported to the Indian mainland and housed in the Army’s barracks which acted as Prisoner of War camps. All principles of the Geneva Convention were followed and India’s image received a boost.
It was unfortunate that the sagacity and strategic maturity displayed in the handling of the 1971 conflict with Pakistan did not travel to the conference table when in 1972 the leadership’s of the two countries met at Shimla for peace talks. While the restoration of status quo ante on the western borders was still an acceptable deal the return of the 93000 prisoners without gaining anything was a strategic blunder. The Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) issue was still live and a better handling of the bargains at Shimla could have possibly resolved things for the future. The Indian military’s opinion was perhaps not sought on the misplaced notion that the post conflict deliberations were a political-diplomatic responsibility with no role for the military. While India helped create the independent nation of Bangladesh through a resounding military victory the victory appeared incomplete without a matching achievement on the conference table at Shimla. Ironically India only extracted from Pakistan an assurance that J&K would be resolved between the two countries through mutual consultation. We are aware how Pakistan flouted the Shimla Agreement by attempting to secure for itself the Siachen Glacier from 1978 to 1984; India finally beat it to position itself there in a daring operation in 1984.It is also little known that we blundered in our homework by not ensuring the release of all the Indian prisoners in Pakistan’s custody. Even as 93000 Pakistani prisoners of war were released at least 56 of ours continue to languish in Pakistani jails till date leaving their families distraught.
Victory days such as Vijay Diwas are a great symbolism for national self-assurance, self-esteem and expression of confidence in the capability, valor, patriotism and sacrifice of the armed forces. That is how it should be. However, as generational change takes place it is important to not only use this symbolism to unify the nation but equally to impart knowledge about the events of the past that we celebrate. The 1971 war needs better capture in history books, films, museum artifacts, memorials and such like things which can remain constant reminders for the nation. The Indian film industry did a good job with films such as ‘Border’ but these are just too few. Many more need to be sponsored. The military uniform and profession in India is respected by the public but only peripherally without understanding the depth of commitment, valor and sacrifice that men in uniform make for the nation. Little is known about the military profession and national security as a subject is just beginning to attract attention of scholars and researchers. We desperately need a National Defence University (NDU) which has been hanging fire for the last 16 years, so that knowledge management on the crucial aspect of national security receives a fillip and much greater interest.
Unfortunately the threat from Pakistan which should have ended after 1971 progressively re-emerged. In 1989 it decided to launch a low cost proxy war in J&K with the strategy of a ‘war by a thousand cuts’. Aware of its inability to match India in the conventional battlefield it chose to engage it in an asymmetric war. The aim is to exploit India’s perceived fault lines, attempt wresting J&K through cultivation of alienation and keep India embroiled in an asymmetric situation to prevent it attaining its national aspirations. It takes confidence from its ability to calibrate the proxy war and the backing it receives from China.
India has little option but to be militarily strong. Its armed forces need to be manned, equipped and trained optimally to ensure maintenance of our ascendancy. We have the dual threat from China and Pakistan and the threat is no longer limited to the land borders. In the modern world the threats transcend various domains. The maritime, space, cyber, psychological, social and economic domains are equally areas where our adversaries can embroil us in conflicts of different kinds with the aim of preventing us from achieving our true potential.
No nation ever progresses if it forgets the sacrifice of it warriors. Many of these warriors have lost their lives or experienced the most intensely challenging conditions to make India safe. On a day such as Vijay Diwas let us remember these sacrifices and salute the men and women who continue to proudly don the uniform of the Indian Armed Forces. They deserve the best the nation can give and nothing should be held back to empower them to do their duties with utmost honor. The best recognition that the public can give the armed forces is by enhancing the knowledge of the new generations on their role and functioning. The military profession needs to be placed on a pedestal so that the best from India’s young flock to wear the uniforms and contribute to the security of their nation.
(The author is former GOC of Srinagar based 15 Corps)
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain