In a typical Indian account of the liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, the critical and heroic role played by Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini guerillas and their Indian trainers gets only a passing mention.
These lungi kurta-clad, lightly-armed groups of Bengali youth from the villages of East Pakistan had taken on Pakistani army units across the country for nine months prior to December 16, when Pakistani resistance capitulated to the Indian army and 93,000 troops were taken as POWs, the largest haul of POWs since the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, according to Gen.M.M.Naravane, a former Indian army chief.
The guerillas and regular Bengali soldiers who had defected from the Pakistani army, inflicted heavy damage to Pakistani morale and logistics.
Dr Ahmad Ahsan, Director in the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh wrote in The Daily Star of Dhaka on December 26, 2020, that the 83,000-strong Mukti Bahini destroyed or damaged 231 bridges and 122 railway lines, disrupting the Pakistan army’s supply lines and mobility. The guerillas not only targeted army detachments in the countryside but took on targets in the urban areas, including Dhaka.
Towns across Bangladesh plunged into darkness as guerrillas blew up 90 power substations and transmission towers. “One of the most significant attacks took place in Dhaka on June 6, 1971 when the East Pakistan Governor, Tikka Khan, was hosting a dinner for a visiting high-powered World Bank mission that had come to evaluate the situation. Just when the Governor and his officers were making the case that everyday life had resumed, the Mukti Bahini launched coordinated attacks around the Government House, Ahsan recalled.
He quoted Hassan Zaheer, later Pakistan’s Cabinet Secretary, as saying that bomb explosions and machine-gun fire at regular intervals drowned out any attempt by Pakistani government officials to persuade the visiting mission that things were normal.
By November 1971, 237 Pakistani officers and more than 3,695 soldiers had been killed or wounded in Mukti Bahini attacks, Ahsan says. Quoting from Gen. Shaukat Riza’s book entitled: The Pakistan Army 1966-71, he says: “Pakistani troops facing the enemy in one direction found themselves outflanked, their rear blocked. Troops moving from one position to another got disoriented and then encountered hostile fire when they expected friendly succor. By November 1971 most of our troops had fought for nine months in a totally hostile environment. By November 1971, most of the troops had been living in waterlogged bunkers, their feet rotted by slime, the skins ravaged by vermin, their minds clogged by an incomprehensible conflict.”
According to Ahsan, Mukti Bahini attacks broke the Pakistan Army’s morale; forced the Pakistanis to spread their forces thinly over the country and stay put in their bases without reliable supply lines. Cut off from the population, the troops were denied field intelligence.
The Mukti Bahini was set up by an order of Indian army chief, Gen.Sam Maneckshw by an order dated May 1, 1971. In a December 26, 2021 article in The Hindu entitled India’s Secret War in Bangladesh, Praveen Swami said that the Indian Army Operational Instruction No. 52 formally told the Eastern Commander, Lt.Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, to “assist the Provisional Government of Bangladesh to rally the people of East Bengal in support of the liberation movement,” and “to raise, equip and train East Bengal cadres for guerrilla operations in their own native land.”
The Eastern Command was to ensure that the guerrilla forces worked towards “tying down the Pak [Pakistan] Military forces” and “sap and corrode the morale of the Pak forces in the Eastern theatre and simultaneously to impair their logistic capability for undertaking any offensive against Assam and West Bengal.” Finally, the guerillas were to be used along with the regular Indian troops “in the event of Pakistan initiating hostilities against us.”
The Eastern command was instructed to provide training facilities and logistical and operational support for the liberation of Bangladesh on the basis of an assessment by Gen. Aurora. According to Praveen Swami, the task was then handed over to Brig.Sujan Singh Uban of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a unit originally put together for operations in Chinese-held Tibet. Sleuths of the Research and Analysis (RAW) under R.N.Kao, were a key part of the operations throughout.
The selection of Bangladeshi recruits, discipline, motivation, planning and execution of operations were an exclusive prerogative of the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) Bangladesh, Gen.M.A.G Osmani, formerly of the Pakistan army.
The recruits were trained in the Indian Army’s “Operation Jackpot” camps, each led by a Brigadier. The camps were in West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Bihar with the Indian government meeting all expenses including salaries. Training for four to six weeks was on handling small arms, light automatic weapons, mortars, and explosives. Advanced leadership training was to be given by instructors under the command of the C-in-C Bangladesh, Gen.Osmani.
An article written by Indian army Brigadier R.P.Singh in The Daily Staron May 24, 2021, entitled: How the Mukti Bahini was trained, says that the Mukti Bahini had two wings – a regular force (Niyomito Bahini) and a guerrilla force (Gano Bahini). The Niyomito Bahini comprised offers and men who had defected from the Pakistan army. The Gano Bahini, a force of irregulars, had a separate unit called Mujib Bahini, composed of youths loyal to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. When there was a serious rift between the Mujib Bahini and the rest of the guerillas, the Indian army and RAW brought about reconciliation.
R.P. Singh says that Gen. Osmani had divided Bangladesh into 11 commands. To politically motivated the fighters, Bengladeshi politicians were employed. Broad political directions were issued to the sector commanders by the leaders of the Provisional Government of Bangladesh headed by Prime Minster Tajuddin Ahmad located at Mujib Nagar in Kolkata.
Singh says that at a conference in July 1971, the Provisional Government and the Indian army decided that (i) a large number of guerrillas must be inducted inside Bangladesh to strike at every conceivable place through raids and ambushes, (ii) industries would not be allowed to run; their electricity supply would be cut off by blowing electric sub-stations, poles etc., (iii) Pakistanis would not be allowed to export any raw material or finished product from Bangladesh, (iv) vehicles, railways, river crafts and ferries which enemy used for supplies to their troops were to be systematically destroyed, and (v) after isolating the enemy, guerrillas would strike deadly blows on the isolated groups.
In August, 80 Bengali soldiers from Pakistan’s artillery regiments crossed over into Tripura and were organized into Number One (Mujib) Field Battery. They were equipped with 3.7-inch guns transferred from Indian regiments. Later, it was equipped with 105mm Italian field guns.
By November 1971, battalions of East Bengal Regiment were grouped into three infantry brigades named after their commanders. ‘Z’ Force was commanded by Major Ziaur Rahman, ‘K’ Force was commanded by Major Khaled Mosharraf and ‘S’ Force was commanded by Major Shafiullah. Bengali officers from the Pakistan Air Force and Navy also joined. The naval personnel and the guerillas inflicted heavy damage on Pakistani boats.
By November 1971, the Mukti Bahini numbered 83,000, out of which 51,000 were operating inside Bangladesh. In addition, 10,000 strong Mujib Bahini cadres were trained by the Special Security Bureau (SSB) of the RAW, Brig.R.P.Singh says.
At the cost of just 56 dead and 190 wounded, Brig. Uban’s guerillas had done a lot of damage. After the war, some 580 members of his covert force were awarded cash, medals and prizes by the Government of India, Swami points out.
“On December 3, Pakistan attempted to relieve the pressure on its eastern wing by carrying out strikes on major Indian airbases. India retaliated with an offensive of extraordinary speed that has been described as a blitzkrieg without tanks,” Swami concludes.