The Air Raid on Government House, Dacca (Indo-Pak War 1971) triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the historical surrender of a 93,000 strong Pakistan Army on December 16, 1971.
Many events led to the historic surrender of a 93,000 strong Pakistan Army on December 16, 1971; some stand out. One of them is the bombing of the Government House in Dacca which, according to many historians, was the proverbial last straw which broke the camel’s back. It is interesting how it came about.
In about a week since its breakout on December 3, the Indo-Pak War in the eastern sector had reached a turning point. The Indian Air Force was in command of the skies and was striking Pakistani military targets with impunity. The Indian Navy had achieved a blockade in the Bay of Bengal so that no assistance could reach the battered and bruised Pakistani forces from the sea. The biggest and the most successful paradrop since the Second World War (Tangail, December 11, 1971) had shattered the morale of the Pakistani forces. The Indian Paratroopers who had landed at Tangail had linked up with the troops from the north and had closed in on Dacca. Dacca with 26,400 Pakistani troops was surrounded by 3,000 Indian troops. The numerical asymmetry favoured Pakistan. Hereafter, it would be a bloody street fight between desperate Pakistani troops fighting for survival and the Indian troops and the cadres of Mukti Bahini flushing them out in an effort to wrest control of the city.
The rudderless and helpless Pakistani leadership holed up in Dacca knew that a fortified Dacca would be costly and time-consuming for the Indian troops to capture; holding on to it would give them the possible time needed to clamour for international support, and maybe, get it. Several ceasefire resolutions had already been tabled in the UN. The US, siding with Pakistan had tried to pressurise India in to a ceasefire by moving its aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and other warships into the Bay of Bengal. The Soviet Union had vetoed all the resolutions that did not link a ceasefire with the recognition of the will of the people of East Pakistan. But under diplomatic compulsions, Moscow had conveyed to Delhi that there would be no more vetoes. Under those circumstances, any prolonging of the War would be detrimental to the interest of the freedom fighters seeking independence from Pakistan and for the Indian armed forces who had brought the War so close to a favourable conclusion. Victory and the achievement of the goal was so close, yet so far. Something had to be done before a third party could intervene and ‘thrust’ a ceasefire.
To work out a concrete plan to delay the fall of Dacca until international support could be mustered, Governor Dr AM Malik had called a very high-level meeting in the Government House around mid-day on December 14. The who’s who of the administrative machinery, the military leadership, a few foreign diplomats, the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN representative, John Kelly would be present. The main aim was to find a way to bring about a face-saving ceasefire rather than a shameful surrender by the Pakistani Army.
There were several transmissions by the Pakistanis on the radio air waves sharing the details of the meeting called by the Governor. It is a matter of chance that those communications were picked up by a vigilant Wireless Experimental Unit of the Indian Air Force. A flight lieutenant officiating as the Commanding Officer, heard and re-heard those messages because they indicated a congregation of the top Pakistani leadership at a place at a given time. He wasted no time in bringing it to the notice of his ‘higher ups.’
Thereafter things happened really fast. The Signal Intelligence Directorate, Army Command and the Eastern Air Command shared the leak with Delhi. Those in Delhi, realised the strategic importance of the leaked message. To thwart the Pakistani design to manoeuvre a ceasefire or to tether the Indian troops on the periphery of Dacca until ‘help’ arrived, it was imperative to somehow prevent decision making by the Governor. It was of strategic importance to disrupt that planned meeting. The stymieing of the meeting would also send the administration and defence of Dacca into total disarray. With the time of the meeting fast approaching, the window of opportunity to throw a spanner in the works was rather small.
Acting fast, Air Headquarters ordered the Eastern Air Command in the morning of December 14, to strike the Circuit House where the meeting was to take place. The First Supersonics, the MiG-21 fighters of 28 Squadron, Air Force based at Guwahati, were tasked with the responsibility. Wing Commander BK Bishnoi, the Commanding Officer, who had just returned from a close-support mission from Mainamati Cantonment in the morning received the instructions through Group Captain MSD Wollen (Station Commander, Air Force Station, Guwahati).
The time was 10:55 am when Bishnoi was directed to strike the Circuit House in Dacca at 11:20 am. It was a tall order in as much as, the flying time from Guwahati to Dacca was 21 minutes. And, to add to the woes of the pilots, none in the Squadron knew where in Dacca was the Circuit House located. The building was not clearly indicated in the quarter-inch and the one-inch maps available in the Squadron. Under those circumstances, striking the target without causing collateral damage would be difficult.
To help out Bishnoi with the location of the intended target, Wollen produced a tourist map which gave the location of the Circuit House. Even on that map of the city of Dacca, pinpointing a particular crossing and the Circuit House on that crossing in a crowded locality was difficult. How to strike the target in that crammed locality and yet avoid harming the civilian population in the vicinity, must have been uppermost in the mind of a conscientious Bishnoi when he took the tourist map from Wollen and accepted the daunting task. Since time was running out, he decided to fly over Dacca with the tourist map and look for the Circuit House. He could afford that luxury because there was practically no resistance from the Pakistani Air Force.
Four MiG-21 aircraft loaded with 32 High Explosive Rockets each were readied for the mission. It was when Bishnoi was strapping up in the cockpit that one of his officers came running to him and gave him a slip of paper which said that the target was Government House and not Circuit House. A major faux pas was averted.
Once the formation was airborne and was on its way to execute the mission, Bishnoi scanned the tourist map and identified the Government House on it. The other three members of the strike team––Flight Lieutenants Vinod Bhatia, Raghavachari and Malhi––were still oblivious of the last-minute change of the target from Circuit House to Government House. Bishnoi had not announced the change on the R/T, to maintain secrecy to the extent possible.
Barely a minute before the formation was over Dacca, Bishnoi shared the ‘revised’ target information with his team. He described it for them and gave them the approximate location and asked them to look out for it. Bhatia who spotted the Government House first, identified it as a magnificent old styled palatial building with a high dome, in the middle of a lush green compound, eleven o’clock to them, about 500 yards away. A few vehicles were parked on its premises.
Bishnoi orbited once to confirm the identity of the target and then ordered the attack, himself taking the building from the wider side. He aimed at the room below the dome. The others targeted other parts of the building. In two passes, the team fired 128 rockets at the Government House. Two MiG aircraft of No. 5 Squadron Air Force followed Bishnoi’s formation. They made four passes each, firing rockets at their target. The IAF aircraft remained unscathed by the half-hearted firing by the Pakistani anti-aircraft guns
Smoke and dust rose from the seat of Pakistani power in East Pakistan.
Like Wing Commander Bishnoi, Wing Commander SK Kaul, the Commanding Officer of 37 Squadron, Air Force located at Hashimara, too didn’t get much time to prepare. At about 10:30 am on the same day he also received instructions to target the Government House in Dacca. When he raised questions about the location of the building, a young officer of his Squadron came up with a Burmah Shell tourist map of the city of Dacca. It amazed the Commanding Officer to no end. But, according to Kaul, the map was more detailed than the quarter-inch and the one-inch maps used by the pilots. At least, it served the intended purpose at that crucial moment.
Before, the Governor and the people in the Government House could absorb the shock of the rocket attack by the MiG fighters, they were attacked by two Hunter aircraft flown by Wing Commander SK Kaul and Flying Officer Harish Masand, respectively. They made several passes over the target and emptied their guns. On their way back they saw the spectator gallery that was on the rooftop of the Dacca Intercontinental Hotel. Standing atop the hotel building, the foreigners and the media-persons were watching the spectacle at the Government House.
Those in the Government House didn’t have a respite; they didn’t have time to raise their heads. The raid by the duo of Kaul and Masand was followed by a raid by Squadron Leader Bose and Flight Lieutenant Menon. Again, there was a feeble response from the Air Defence elements on the ground. The Indian MiG and Hunter formations had inflicted severe damage on the seat of power in East Pakistan; the air attacks had shattered the pride and morale of the leadership.
Down below, the massive roof of the main hall of the Government House was ripped. There was pandemonium in the building as people ran for cover. The Governor rushed to the air-raid shelter. Between the raids, he quickly scribbled his resignation to General Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan. He was seen taking off his shoes, washing his hands and feet and kneeling down for prayers in an air raid shelter. Allah alone could save him and the Pakistanis from the wrath of the Indian Armed Forces.
After tendering his resignation, Dr Malik, his Cabinet and the West Pakistani Civil Servants based in the city, made a beeline to the Dacca Intercontinental Hotel, which had been converted into a Neutral Zone by the International Red Cross. As per diplomatic norms Serving Pakistani officials couldn’t have taken refuge in the Hotel. So, the top brass dissociated themselves in writing from the Government of Pakistan to become eligible to get admission in the Neutral Zone.
The same evening, in a desperate bid, Lieutenant General Niazi rushed to Mr Herbert Daniel Spivack, the US Consul-General in Dacca with a request to negotiate a ceasefire with India on Pakistan’s behalf. The American diplomat declined the request outright, instead he offered to ‘send a message’. The air attacks on the Government House in Dacca broke the back of Pakistani command and control in the eastern sector. In the following two days, it took a little more of arm-twisting of Lieutenant General AAK Niazi by Lieutenant General JFR Jacob to make him agree to an unconditional surrender by the Pakistani Army.