“BRICS: in the Mirror of Times” The role of the USSR in settling the Indo-Pakistani war
The eighth episode of the joint project by TV BRICS and GAUGN is dedicated to the relationship of the three parties in the 1970s
In the eighth episode of the joint project by the TV BRICS International Media Network and GAUGN “BRICS: In the Mirror of Times”, dedicated to the events of the third Indo-Pakistani war, Aleksey Kupriyanov, Head of the Centre for the Indian Ocean Region of the National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke about the role played by the Russian navy in the Indo-Pakistani war.
The project was supported by a grant from the Russian Ministry of Education and Science as part of the federal project “Popularisation of Science and Technology”.
In 1971, a bloody war broke out between India and Pakistan. What role did the Soviet fleet play in resolving the conflict, and how did it all end?
Tell us what happened in 1971? Why did this conflict erupt and what role did the Russian navy play?
This was the third armed conflict between India and Pakistan. The first Indo-Pakistani war began almost immediately after British India broke up and Pakistan and India became independent. The conflict started over Kashmir, over who would own that principality in the mountains, and it ended, it is believed, more or less in a draw because India got the eastern part of Kashmir, the former principality of Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistan got the western part. The Pakistani territory of Kashmir formed the state of Azad Kashmir, i.e. free Kashmir, recognised only by Pakistan. The Indian part became a state. In doing so, both sides claimed territories that were left to the opposing sides.
The second Indo-Pakistani war began in 1965. India, although it seemed to have a great advantage, because it has a larger population, a larger army, a larger navy, performed rather unconvincingly.
The third Indo-Pakistani war began in 1971. The situation had been simmering for probably several years, and the key issue was East Pakistan. Pakistan then consisted of two parts: the present Pakistan and what we now call Bangladesh. And it seems that both parts were Muslim, both parts were fellow believers, but at the same time, Bengali nationalism was quite developed in the eastern part of Pakistan. People were unhappy that they were under-represented in parliament, that a large number of taxes went to the central government – there to West Pakistan, that Bengalis played a minor role in the country’s economy and politics. Then the Awami League emerged, which aimed to achieve autonomy for East Pakistan, and then when the Pakistani authorities rather stiffly refused to make concessions in any way, Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, announced that it was necessary to fight for freedom. Detachments of mukti bahini – freedom fighters – were set up. Pakistan responded with terror and then the Mukti Bahini were helped by India. The Indians were training them in their camps, helping them with money, weapons, everything was heading towards direct conflict, by about mid-December somewhere.
It so happened that a treaty of friendship and co-operation between India and the Soviet Union was signed in the summer of 1971. And the USSR by that time had already started (from about 1965, from the second Indo-Pakistani war) to help India quite actively with weapons and military equipment. And then the flow of Soviet aid went directly to India. The Pakistanis decided to strike first and organised Operation Genghis Khan, when Pakistani aircraft launched a series of surprise strikes on Indian airfields. However, the operation was unsuccessful, they failed to destroy any Indian aircraft, and it was after this that India, which was attacked, fully entered the war. Indian troops have launched an offensive on Dhaka, the capital of eastern Pakistan.
What role in this situation, in this war could or did the strike group of the American aircraft carrier Enterprise play?
You know, there was a pretty complicated situation there. The fact is that the war started for Indian sailors when they carried out a very daring raid on the Pakistani port of Karachi. It involved missile boats supplied from the Soviet Union carrying Thermite missiles. And they were relocated before the war closer to the Pakistani border to conserve more fuel. They were towed before moving into combat position. Since the crews of these missile boats were trained in the Soviet Union, they negotiated in Russian. This was very confusing to the Pakistanis, and the Indians carried out this operation called Trident very successfully.
They sank one Pakistani frigate, severely damaged another, sank a minesweeper. Inspired by the success, they then conducted another similar operation, where one missile boat had already fired off a missile, the operation was called “Python” – the merchant ships that were stationed there were very seriously damaged. And in the east (the Coromandel coast, washed by the Bay of Bengal, and the eastern group of the Indian fleet is based there, which included the “Vikrant” aircraft carrier), where at that moment the Indian army carried out its main operations, aircraft from the Vikrant and Indian ships blocked the Bay of Bengal and the planes simply loitered over the rivers of Bangladesh, shot down Pakistani boats, and did not allow the Pakistani army to establish logistics routes.
At one point the Americans said they were moving forces there, to formally protect the interests of American citizens who were stranded in East Pakistan, they were moving a strike group there led by the “Enterprise” aircraft carrier. Of course, this could have changed the whole situation at sea altogether, and there was a real risk for the Indians of clashing with the Americans directly. The USSR at that time had a very weak squadron in the Indian Ocean – one submarine, a certain number of ships. But nevertheless, when the Indians contacted Moscow and expressed their concerns, Marshal Grechko (then Minister of Defence) said: deal with Pakistan, but leave the Americans to us, we will deal with them.
We do not know to this day how many of our ships and vessels were there at that moment, but it had a very positive effect on the Indians: they began to continue their operations in East Pakistan without fear. The Indians were mentally prepared that they would have to face the Americans. When you have the support of Soviet friends behind you, it is understandable that you feel much more confident. In the end, the Enterprise did not move towards Dhaka, changed course and left the Bay of Bengal.
So the situation resolved itself, you might say?
No, not by itself, India, so to say, did not tremble, India did not retreat. It was, of course, quite a serious step. That is, this show of force did not play the role the Americans had hoped for, and it did not help the Pakistanis at all.
As I understand it, the Soviet Union did not fully intervene in this conflict?
A full scale intervention at that point meant nuclear war. It’s just that both sides understood pretty well at the time that no one wanted a nuclear war. A scenario was considered in which China, Pakistan and the United States are involved in the conflict on one side and the Soviet Union and India on the other. But soon enough the Americans realised that, firstly, the Chinese did not want to get involved in this conflict, and secondly, the Soviet Union was not going to interfere much either. In doing so, the USSR gave all the help it could to India by effectively removing the need for India to worry about the American grouping.
How did the fighting develop in East Pakistan?
Unpleasant enough for Pakistan: at that point in time generally India had two fronts, western and eastern, because there was East Pakistan and West Pakistan. Here in the west, the Pakistanis tried to counterattack, tried to somehow draw Indian attention away from Bangladesh, but not very effectively, that is, at that point they faced the same problem that the Indians faced in 1961. It is very difficult for either the Indians or the Pakistanis to conduct major military operations on the western border, because the terrain is very inconvenient: if it is Kashmir, there are mountains there, it is very difficult to supply a group advancing either one way or the other. And it is hard on most of the rest of the border, because in the south there is a marshy area where it is also very hard to advance, especially for tanks, and in the centre there is desert, and it seems to be convenient for tanks to advance through the desert, but on the other hand, they themselves are very vulnerable.
Pakistani attacks, for example, in the central section were massively thwarted by aviation because the Pakistanis were literally in the palm of their hands, aviation corrected artillery fire and struck on its own. In the east it turned out differently: the territory of Bangladesh is an area of hills on one side, on the other side there are very many rivers, very many swamps, and it was very difficult for both sides to fight there. The leader was the one who had the ability to attack quickly, to attack decisively or, on the contrary, to defend effectively.
The wand for India in this operation was, firstly, good planning and secondly, the presence of Soviet floating tanks because we were supplying PT-76s at that time. The Pakistanis were also familiar with them, but they greatly underestimated them. When you have a fast-paced offensive, a race against time, and you also control all the air, it’s understandable that the tank can swim, that it has a big gun, and that this big gun can be in the right place and support the advancing troops – solves the situation. That is, by and large, Pakistan’s defences have begun to crumble. At some point it just broke down, and Pakistani soldiers began surrendering in droves in a disorganised fashion, fleeing in droves to Dhaka, where the final surrender was signed.
India has got a friendly state on its eastern border: on the one hand Bangladesh is an independent state with an independent foreign policy, sometimes in conflict with India on the border issue, but never this border dispute develops into something serious. India, of course, has greatly relieved its strategic position for the future because it has eliminated the dangerous hotbed for itself, which was East Pakistan.