In 1971, Bangladeshis demanded independence from Pakistan. The Pakistani government gave a heavy handed response in the form of Operation Searchlight. The Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan said,
Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.
The resultant violence led to the death of up to 3 million civilians. Roughly 10 million refugees fled across the border into India. In light of the humanitarian crisis, India did not seal her borders but it was clear the migration had put an intolerable strain on her resources.
A guerrilla resistance force of Bangladeshis came into being, the Mukti Bahini. With Indian support, they struck at the Pakistani authorities. Tensions between the subcontinental nations arose. War seemed inevitable.
Mukti Bahini poster
Internationally, there was debate. Whereas Europe, USSR, Japan and India condemned the Pakistani action, the US (under President Nixon and Henry Kissinger) and China insisted that the issue was an internal affair of Pakistan and did not require intervention. The American public was divided over the issue with Democratic Senator Robert Kennedy visiting the refugee camps in India and mobilizing the US Congress to restrict all arms sale to Pakistan. The White House however sidestepped such constraints and continued to send arms via intermediaries like Jordan.
From the recollections of the Indian Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, as early as April the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had asked the Army to prepare for war. Climatic factors, the necessary logistics buildup and the threat of Chinese intervention meant that immediate action was out of the question.
Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw describing his meeting with Indira Gandhi
Over the next several months, the Indian army planned and prepared. Their activities were closely monitored by the Pakistanis. On 30 November 1971, at a meeting, the Pakistani High Command chose to go on the offensive. A single powerful blow that could cripple India for the duration of the war.
The Pakistani Air Force (PAF) based their strategy on the one used by Israelis against the Egyptians in the Six Day War of 1967. A surprise aerial attack on all key forward airbases and radar positions to knock out the enemy’s air force and achieve air superiority during the battle.
The decision was made to strike on the Muslim Sabath, Jumuah on Friday 3rd December 1971 at 17:45hrs when the shift at IAF centers changed.
PAF F86 Saber
On the day, the first two waves of 24 Pakistani F86 Sabers, 8 Mirage IIIs and 4 F104s flew in low to India maintaining radio silence. The ruse was successful and they remained undetected till they reached their targets achieving total surprise.
The raids were limited to a single pass at the relatively high altitude of over 300m. Indian aircrafts did not have time to scramble and resistance was mainly from anti-aircraft guns. In all 183 bombs were dropped over 12 runways and 120 hits were reported. The first strike hit Amritsar and Pathankot. Subsequent waves hit Agra, Ambala, Sirsa, Uttarlai, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jamnagar.
Map of targeted Indian airfields
Indira Gandhi was in Calcutta. A little after the first wave hit, as she descended the steps of Calcutta Raj Bhavan, someone rushed to her and handed her a paper. She left for Delhi escorted by IAF fighters.
At 6pm, All India Radio issued its first broadcast of the attack but the initial reports were scant. Radio Pakistan spoke of “Zaryahaana Karyawahee” and declared that all Indian forward air bases had been flattened and that everything was already over for India.
However, the PAF had neither the arms nor the training to achieve such an aim. In 1967, the Israelis had prepared extensively even flying over replicas of the Egyptian air fields. The Pakistanis had not prepared as thoroughly.
Also, the strike wasn’t quite unexpected. India had redeployed its aircraft accordingly. At Agra, the Taj Mahal was covered with green camouflage lest its white marble dome act as a beacon for Pakistani bombers.
The net result was that the attack was a strategic failure. Much of the damage done was patched up within hours. By 9pm on the same night, the Indian Air Force had launched retaliatory bombing attacks on 7 Pakistani airfields using Canberra bombers.
Shortly after midnight, Indira Gandhi addressed India. The state of war had begun.