This is an edge-of-the-seat account of a glorious chapter from contemporary Indian military history, brought to life through rigorous research and pacy writing. History buff and lay reader alike will gain pleasure from it.
One of the authors, 1971 war hero Captain Samant, died just a few months short of the release of the book (in July 2019). He and leading defence writer Sandeep Unnithan provide a detailed account of perhaps one of the greatest, but little known, episodes from the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 – ‘Operation X’, the story of a naval commando operation, planned by some brilliant officers of the Indian navy and executed on the ground by a brave band of Bangladeshi freedom fighters. (The year 2021 marks the golden jubilee of the formation of Bangladesh.)
In March 1971, Pakistan’s military junta unleashed genocide upon the Bengalis living in the eastern part of the country, compelling millions to flee to India for refuge. Determined to fight for liberation, they were willing to be trained in guerrilla warfare. ‘Operation X’ was conceived of as a ‘jackpot-underwater guerrilla operation’. Then director of naval intelligence, Captain (later Vice Admiral) Mihir Roy, scion of an East Bengali zamindar family, and his boss, Admiral S. M. Nanda, orchestrated the training of hundreds of naval commandos from the ranks of Bengali freedom fighters at a secret facility at Plassey on the banks of the river Bhagirathi. Seven Bengali submariners, assigned to a Pakistani submarine which had docked at the French port of Toulouse, were shocked upon hearing on the radio about the atrocities being perpetrated on fellow Bengalis. They took the help of Indian diplomats to fly to India to join the naval commandos. Their arrival was providential as they were already trained in warfare and Adm Roy and Capt Samant made them the leaders of Operation X.
The first salvo by the commandos on 14-15 August 1971 resulted in the blowing up of ships, support vessels and port infrastructure, vital to the Pakistani military. The 457 Bengali naval commandos destroyed nearly 100,000 tonnes of ships in the sea and river ports of East Pakistan between August and December 1971. The debris disrupted shipping, while sustained sabotage by the naval commandos kept merchant ships away, leaving Pakistani troops demoralised and woefully short of vessels to bolster the war effort in the East.
Operation X was carried out by naval commandos, plucked from the Mukti Bahini (the Bangladesh Liberation Army), which was spearheaded by the Awami League. The Awami League, led by the charismatic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had swept elections in Pakistan. Its proficiency lay in organising mass street protests to press for autonomy and non-violent agitations that had brought down military rulers, like General Ayub Khan. But it was not geared to leading an armed insurrection – it had no armed wing, like the communist and nationalist parties of Myanmar or Vietnam had. But when the Pakistan army launched its brutal military crackdown, ‘Operation Searchlight’, on unsuspecting Bengalis on the night of 25 March 1971, armed insurrection it had to be.
The Mukti Bahini, consisting of Bengali soldiers and policemen from the Pakistan army – they were Pakistani citizens of the country’s eastern wing at that time – and a rag-tag bunch of students, peasants, workers and professionals, was inadequately trained and outfitted. The ruthless Pakistan army, with its substantial force of Islamist irregulars – paramilitary groups it had created for support in fighting the Bengali insurrection – drawn from the local Urdu-speaking population, beat them back initially. The Muktijuddho (Liberation War) looked like it was going to be a long haul.
But ‘Operation X’ changed everything. It was a turning point in the Liberation War. It led to the birth of the Bangladesh Navy, with Captain Samant being ceremonially honoured as its first chief by Bangladesh’s first army chief and defence minister, General M.A.G. Osmani.
The year 1971 marked a distinct change also in the way India was to plan and fight future wars. For the first time, the navy had made a huge impact on the final outcome of a war, and was no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the army or air force. The seed of integrated battle planning and fighting wars was sown in 1971 and the importance of the navy’s role in disrupting sea supply routes was brought home to decision-makers. The success of ‘Operation X’ also testifies to the need for a convergence of objectives in wartime between the military and political establishment.
Much has been written – in Bengali — about this and other operations, such as an account by naval commando Mir Mustaque Ahmed Robi (now an Awami League MP from Satkhira), in his book, Chetonay Ekattor (The Spirit of 1971.) Sezan Mahmud, whose real name is Saleh M. M. Rahman, has written a wonderful book, Operation Jackpot, that has been translated into English by Sagar Choudhury, a former BBC producer. But these are mostly from a Bangladeshi perspective and do not provide details of the elaborate planning that took place within the Indian military. This book by Samant and Unnithan fills that void admirably and provides the global big picture as well.
There is a local as well as global aspect to ‘Operation X’. It is symptomatic of how the Bengali Muslims demolished Jinnah’s two nation-theory, making their new-born country a secular nation, inspired by India, and showing how religion alone is not adequate as a glue to hold people together. Their enterprise became a model for the Baloch, Mohajir, Sindhi and Pakhtun peoples, who have all asserted their independence from time to time since the 1971 war.
Operation X: The Untold Story of India’s Covert Naval War in East Pakistan 1971 by Captain M.N.R Samant and Sandeep Unnithan (Harper Collins 2019)
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author of three acclaimed books on India’s North East and its volatile neighbourhood. He has been a fellow at Oxford University, East-West Centre, Washington and Goethe University, Frankfurt.
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