Military History and the Bangladesh War

History is popularly understood to be a narrative of wars. I mean ‘popularly’ in both senses of the term: not only is that understanding of history ‘mainstream,’ it has many fans, especially on the right. These fans, who are almost entirely male, are commonly known as 'history buffs.' (The readership for leftist historiography includes women, but is miniscule in comparison; in no sense is it popular.) The history that 'sells' is military history, which is assumed to be right-wing by default. At the college where I teach, a standing joke among faculty worried about enrollments is that they should insert the words “World War Two” into the title of the course, as in “Alternative Chinese Sexualities in World War Two.” Students will come.

Sadly for history buffs as well as historians, there is very little Indian military history. This is not surprising, since military history of the popular sort requires a particular kind of population: the kind that writes, reads and can afford to buy mass-marketed books that stimulate a national identity that everybody agrees upon. In India, that market and the industry that feeds it are only now reaching critical mass. Also, there is not a whole lot to write, read or feel good about, since India has had no wars in which a significant portion of the country was involved. In spite of the ostentatious display of hardware at the annual Republic Day parade in Delhi (which appears Stalinist but is actually colonial in inspiration), the military has had a fairly small public profile in India, unlike in Pakistan or the US. There has never been a draft, no compulsory military service, and very little fighting. India’s wars since independence have all been fought on the margins of the land, by marginal institutions and personnel. None except the first Kashmir conflict has lasted more than a few weeks. The casualties have numbered in the hundreds or thousands, not in the five, six, seven or eight figures. Most Indians have never encountered a soldier, let alone known a dead one. Hardly anyone would be able to name the current army chief, which can only be a good thing.

Some of that is changing. Since the Kargil skirmish of 1999, there has been a visible cult of military-worship. Cricket stars are now given honorary ranks in the army and promised rides in fighter planes. But military history still remains marginal and under-developed: developing, one might say tactfully. There are a handful of memoirs by retired officers like P.C. Lal, L.P. Sen and John Dalvi, and there is Neville Maxwell’s banned account of the 1962 war with China. These are often informative and, indeed, fascinating, but the genre is very small, both in volume and in scope.

So when one comes across a well-written and substantial work of Indian military history, it can be gratifying. Samir Chopra (my colleague at CUNY) and Jagan Mohan happen to be two of the more active military historians of India, specializing in air force history. They recently came out with Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the Liberation War of 1971: a nice, fat addition to their book on the 1965 air war. A third book – a study of the air war over West Pakistan in 1971 – is in the works.

It should be said at the outset that Eagles Over Bangladesh (EOB) is not an academic history. As anyone who has read John Dower, Stanley Karnow or Neil Sheehan will confirm, military history as an academic and even semi-academic discipline has changed tremendously over the past generation: it now not only requires a thorough engagement with the political context of war, but also overlaps with social and cultural history, including histories of race, gender and class. EOB has very little of that. It is for the most part a straightforward analysis of battle, and as such, an old-fashioned book of the sort that appeals immediately to history buffs and armchair warriors. If one considers the nature of the project, however, it is a fascinating book that raises some broad questions about South Asian history and historiography. EOB ‘works’ quite well within the limits the authors have set for themselves, but whether those limits are helpful or obstructive is another matter. So I shall first discuss the book on its own terms, and then take up the issue of what remains to be done in a history of the 1971 war. 

EOB is, first of all, a meticulously researched study of one portion of the fighting that led to the bloody break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. Using sources ranging from interviews and squadron logs to newspaper reports and video footage, Mohan and Chopra provide a vivid picture of the air war in November and December of 1971, from the particulars of individual missions to the processes of operational planning. That thoroughness is occasionally counterproductive. Sections of the book can be tedious: it is really not necessary to detail every mission flown in the eastern sector of the war, or to reproduce every bit of information available on the movement of squadrons from base to base. The authors seem to have proceeded under the impression that information must be included regardless of its value, without first establishing the criteria for what makes information relevant. The result is a methodological slippage: the work drifts periodically from the terrain of the historian, who must evaluate and organize material with a ‘so what’ question in mind, into that of the chronicler, who wants to catalog ‘everything that happened.’

All the same, if one objective of military history is to place the reader in the cockpit or briefing room, the book succeeds. It is absorbing, poignant and witty. Chopra and Mohan write obviously from an Indian perspective and Indian research materials are predominant, but EOB is mercifully free of jingoism or cheap insults directed at the enemy. The authors have, in fact, gone out of their way to consult Pakistani sources when these have been available. That has heightened their credibility and enriched the narrative with details and perspectives that would otherwise be lost. This also a well-produced book. The index is frustratingly inadequate, but as if to compensate, an excellent collection of photographs is included.

Not only does the book provide a wealth of information about the operations themselves, at its best it historicizes the war effectively, illuminating the shifting objectives and perceptions of those who planned and participated in it. The narrative confirms that the Indian decision to go to war was taken quite early in the year. By the time fighting actually broke out in late November, the air force – and presumably the army and navy as well – had spent months planning and training. Squadrons had been assigned their tasks and territories, pilots had been assigned their partners, weapons and strategy had been rationalized, and the modalities of inter-services coordination worked out. This allowed the Indian military to avoid some of the amateurish mistakes it made in the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, not to mention the war with China three years before that. As the Pakistani air force officer Sajjad Haider (who planned one of the most effective operations of the 1965 war) noted wryly, the Indians learned from their mistakes, the Pakistanis did not.

At the same time, EOB makes clear that the Indian war effort was not as effortless, lubricated and rational as it is sometimes made out to be. The well-known destruction of the runway at Tejgaon is a case in point. The M-62 bomb which was used with spectacular success in those missions had been in the air force’s possession for years; yet few pilots were aware of it, and none had trained with it. The necessary tactics had not been devised or tested. Even after the frustrating and expensive raids on Sargodha in September 1965, the IAF had not bothered to find out what works, and what does not work, in disabling a heavily-defended enemy airfield. Those lessons had to be improvised quickly after another day of frustration and high costs (the December 4 attacks on Tejgaon). Intelligence was astonishingly poor: in spite of the defection of large numbers of Bengali PAF personnel, the IAF had not learned the layout of the airfields in Dhaka, and flew sortie after sortie looking in vain for aircraft shelters and radar installations. There was much wastage of effort, resources and lives: targets were bombed even after intelligence had confirmed they were worthless, simply because attacking aircraft had already loaded up with ordnance and fuel and were ready to go.

Now for what EOB does not do, which is also a plea for a different type of Indian military history. 'Air force history' is by definition a troublesome concept: unless the historian is very careful, it remains airborne, abstracted from the mess on the ground. Yet it is the mess that is the stuff of history. The 1971 war is obviously not just about Indian bombing tactics. It is, for instance, also about curious medical nomenclature. In Indian Bengal, the common name for conjunctivitis is Joi Bangla (the slogan of the Bangladeshi rebels), because the conflict coincided with a plague of eye infections. A forty-year-old war has remained embedded within language and inflamed eyes. On a more serious level, the war is a complex text of about what went wrong with Pakistan, and the Indian investment in a particular neighborhood and world order. Chopra and Mohan do try to include a political narrative, especially in the introduction, but it is somewhat cursory: they are anxious to get to the real topic, which is the fighting. The war tends to get cut off from its own political context. (The exception to this is the very good discussion of Kilo Flight, the rebel air force.) This leads of unfortunate errors of omission. There is insufficient discussion of the American posture, which leaves Task Force 74 sailing in a contextual void. The Blood Telegram gets no mention, and the very interesting section on Dhaka on the eve of surrender has no reference to the massacre of the city's intellectuals on December 14 (image below) as Indian forces closed in on the city, although it was one of the most dramatic and sinister episodes of the war.

 1971 is also a highly compelling ideological text of race and gender, which inform the origins and conduct of the war. The conflict cannot fully explained without analyzing anti-Bengali racism in West Pakistan. Where did this racism come from and why was it so pervasive? India also has Punjabis and Bengalis, after all, but their relationship has not been marked by the contempt and violence that emerged in Pakistan. To understand racism in Pakistani history, we need to ask why the Martial Races Theory became institutionalized in Pakistan to a degree that had no parallel in India. It seeped into the economy (as the work of Ayesha Siddiqa shows), into the administration, into popular culture, and of course into the military itself. Any history of the Bangladesh War needs to confront that dynamic.

The Bangladesh War remains to a great extent an unconfronted war. The reluctance to confront is, understandably, most acute in Pakistan: not only was this a lost war, it was a particularly shameful one, marked by mass murder and rape. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Pakistani memory of 1971 is marked either by outright denial (there were no massacres and rapes) and blustery accusations (bloody traitors), or by a grudging admission (mistakes were made) that  acknowledges neither responsibility nor the scale of the crime. It’s similar, in some ways, to the American retrospective on Vietnam.

Other silences are peculiar to Pakistan. Going into 1971, the two most celebrated combat pilots in the PAF were M.M. Alam, with four victories against the IAF in the 1965 war, and Saif-ul-Azam, who had one victory against India in 1965 and three against Israel in the Six Day War. (By way of comparison, no Indian pilot had more than one to his credit.) Alam, in fact, was a much-hyped hero: he was credited (incorrectly) with an absurd number of kills in 1965, including five in a single battle. Pakistan’s Air Force Day was created to commemorate his exploits. Yet in 1971, both men were grounded and took no part in the air war. Alam and Saif were both East Wingers. Even that political identity is complicated: Alam was not a Bengali. He was a religious fundamentalist at a time when Pakistani officers were mostly secular. His grounding reflected not so much ethnicity as the politics of faith and zeal in the Pakistani military, which cannot be talked about too openly. But Saif was a Bengali, and shared the fate of other Bengali officers in the Pakistani forces: they were harassed, grounded, imprisoned and worse. None of this is easy to talk about within a narrative of perfidy and treason.

But the Bangladeshi and Indian retrospectives of 1971 come with their own silences. Saif had the chance to leave the PAF before the war; he refused. He had already been humiliated and removed from flying duties, but he chose to sit out the war behind a desk in the West Wing, moving to Bangladesh only afterwards. Many other Bengali officers, who had been trained to think of themselves as Pakistanis, did the same, while others – like A.K. Khandokar and Sultan Ahmed – joined the Mukti Bahini or Kilo Flight. M.G. Tawab left the PAF and moved to Germany, but remained pro-Pakistan in exile. Khandokar, Tawab and Saif all went on to head the new Bangladesh air force. Who was the traitor and who was the patriot? The answer is not always clear, either for the Pakistani or for the Bangladeshi: salt can be a tricky thing. In a similar vein, the role of the Biharis in the terror of 1971, the savage reprisals against them after the Pakistani surrender, and their internment for years in independent Bangladesh, do not fit the narrative of the Liberation War. The role of Bengali collaborators has only recently entered mainstream political debate in Bangladesh, although it has been simmering on the edge of polite conversation for years.

Then there are the rapes, which defined the conflict as much as anything else. That tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of Bengali women were raped between March and December of 1971 is both well-known and obscure; it has been shouted from the rooftops and also hushed up. There is a curious echo here of the British narrative of rape-by-darkies in the ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ In 1857-58, whites who talked or wrote about the ‘Mutiny’ highlighted rape: the imagined violation of white womanhood by natives was a basic justification for counter-insurgency. After the war, the rape-talk suddenly vanished, white women who had fallen into Indian hands did a second disappearing act, and the sahibs themselves insisted that there had been no rape. The restoration of political normalcy required an end to talk of sexual disarray. Similarly, Bangladeshi hesitations on the issue of the birangana – simultaneously national heroines and icons of shame – reflect the difficulty of coming to terms with what was, for the women and men of East Pakistan, very much a total war: not a marginal war, as it was for India.

In Bangladeshi discourse, 1971 was a genocide. EOB accepts that highly charged terminology at face value. This is not necessarily incorrect, but it is a missed analytical opportunity. How many people were killed in the East Wing by Pakistani troops and their local allies between March and December? Why does the number matter? Three million died, according to conventional wisdom in Bangladesh. That number gives ‘genocide’ a certain credibility. If we look at news reports closer to 1971, the number falls, but still remains very high, in the vicinity of a million. If we look at the Pakistani military’s own report, we have a precipitous drop in numbers, to about thirty thousand. That is also the number given recently by the Indian historian Sharmila Bose in her deeply flawed book (in which she relied primarily on Pakistani military sources). Would thirty thousand still be genocide? Would three hundred thousand be genocide? When Mujibur Rahman was released from Pakistani custody after the war, he tried to ascertain what had happened in his absence by asking aides how many people had been killed. About three lakh (hundred thousand), we think, they told him. To their shock, Mujib promptly told the British press that the number of dead was ‘three million.’ Was this the common South Asian error of translating ‘lakh’ as ‘million,’ or a deliberate tenfold exaggeration? Whatever the truth, once a number becomes iconic within a national narrative, it becomes almost impossible to walk back, or talk back.
       There is an additional problem with talking about genocide in Bangladesh. Who was murdered? Who became refugees? Here we are on firmer numerical ground, since the UN gives us a figure of nine million refugees. The Indian government’s figure was ten million. Of those refugees, seventy percent were Hindus, although Hindus were barely twenty-five percent of the population of the East Wing. There can be little doubt that Hindus were deliberately targeted by the Pakistan Army for ethnic cleansing. So although Hindu and Muslim Bengalis were both killed in large numbers, we can talk more confidently about a genocide of Pakistani Hindus. But Pakistani discourse cannot acknowledge this for obvious reasons, and Bangladeshi discourse cannot acknowledge it without fracturing the narrative of Bengali martyrdom. Just as interestingly, India has not acknowledged it either. If the Indian government had let on in 1971 that Hindus were disproportionately the victims of the Pakistani military crackdown, the conflict would have become uncontrollable. Mrs. Gandhi might not have been able to gain public support for a war to help Bengali Muslims, and probably faced an anti-Muslim pogrom at home. It remains difficult for Indian nationalists on the left to talk about the killing of Hindus in 1971, because the topic itself holds the door open for right-wing politics of communal grievance.

For Indians who think about military history, 1971 was the ‘good war,’ almost American in its combination of altruism and righteousness. We acted to save those poor bastards, or alternately, we did nothing until we were attacked. (Which was it? Never mind.) It is an enormously compelling narrative: as Chopra and Mohan’s interviews reveal, Indian officers entering Dhaka after December 16 felt like Americans entering Paris after D-Day. That 'American' feeling makes it unnecessary to face details, or even be consistent with details. When did the war begin? December 3, says the accepted Indian narrative, pointing at the PAF raids on Indian airfields. Unprovoked aggression! Yet the first air battles took place on November 22, or November 21 if you count attempted interceptions. By then, Indian Army units were already operating inside East Pakistan. It can be argued with considerable force that the Indian decision to go to war was morally justified in view of what was happening in Pakistan. Yet the Indians have felt the need to sugarcoat their own medicine with a ‘They attacked us’ myth. Mohan and Chopra don’t try to hide the contradiction; it can be discerned between the lines. But they don’t talk about it either, although these little self-deceptions are precisely what make history interesting.

 Sugar-coating the war has made it easy for Indians to forget certain things. For instance, the Pakistani POWs who were sent home instead of being handed over to Bangladesh to be tried for war crimes can be forgotten. The fact that Indian soldiers stood by and watched the Bengali reprisals against Biharis can be forgotten. The hundreds, probably thousands, of East Wing refugees who died in Indian refugee camps can be forgotten. These were mostly children succumbing to malnutrition and disease, in terrible conditions of overcrowding and filth. The Indian government could not provide for them adequately, but it would not let them leave the camps either, insisting that they – Muslims and Hindus – must return eventually to Pakistan/Bangladesh. To talk about them would be to concede at least some Indian responsibility in the genocide.

The language of a good war makes it difficult to talk about collateral damage. On the night of December 8, a bomb dropped from an IAF Caribou destroyed the Rahmat-e-Alam Islamic Mission orphanage in Dhaka, leaving a crater thirty feet deep and killing between two dozen and three hundred children. (The different numbers come from different sources.) It was an accident; the Caribou was aiming for the airfield. But the airfield was already out of action, the PAF was already grounded, and in any case, the declared objective of the bombing was merely ‘harassment’ of Pakistani forces in the area. For that, the IAF loaded 1000 lb. bombs on to transport aircraft, and when the crews thought they were generally over the airfield, pushed the bombs out the back. One missed by a mile. Indians don’t talk about this, and the Bangladeshis don’t either: there’s no point in spoiling your Liberation story by bringing up children killed by your own allies. (The French and Belgians know that very well.) The Pakistanis did try to talk about it but nobody believed them, assuming they had done it themselves.

The Indian use of an extremely crude bombing technique in a populated area at night, for negligible gains, can be described only as criminally irresponsible. Mohan and Chopra, to their credit, lay this episode bare, although they also try to downplay it. The bombing was not vicious, after all. It was just some mid-level officer’s idea of jugaad, or the improvisation at which the Indian and Pakistani militaries have excelled for decades. The Caribou pilots had been asked if they had any objections; no one had raised his hand, because a twenty-five-year old air force officer has been trained to solve technical problems, not ponder the ethical implications of the solutions.

Indeed, one wishes that the authors had told us more about the pilots involved in the 1971 operations, converting their interviews into oral histories. Who were these men? What were their backgrounds, and what drove them? What role did ethnicity play - why, for instance, were there so many Anglo-Indians in the IAF (and the PAF, for that matter), and why did so many of them emigrate to Australia? How did Bengali and Muslim officers in the IAF perceive the war and their role in it? These questions are vital to understanding the place of the IAF in Indian society as well as the internal culture of the air force, and those details matter enormously in military history.

Neither India nor Pakistan has fought a major war since 1971. That in itself is interesting, because between 1947 and 1971, India fought three major and four minor wars. Five of those came in just about a decade, beginning with the eviction of the Portuguese from Goa in 1961. The calm since then reflects the heightened costs of war in a nuclear-armed environment, and perhaps a more stable neighborhood, in which some irregularities – like the East Wing – have ceased to exist. Ironically, military-consciousness in India has emerged in this atmosphere of relative peace. This is, I think, a very good thing, because it allows for a more contemplative and ‘comprehensive’ military history, which begins with the presumption that modern wars are fought in society as much as they are fought in bunkers and cockpits. Restricting our field of vision to the latter not only limits our ability to grasp the big picture, it also replicates a segregation between the bazaar and the cantonment, which ultimately allows soldiers and civilians to disavow complicity in the actions and ideologies of the other. Chopra and Mohan have one book on 1971 left, and I hope they will approach it as a challenge to write a fleshed-out and nuanced military history, engaging with a wider scholarship on the place of war in modern South Asian society. They would then be doing full justice to the demands and possibilities of the genre.

January 24, 2014