The 1971 victory against Pakistan is primarily remembered for Indira Gandhi’s political will, but we often forget two other equally if not more significant aspects of the war – General Manekshaw’s brilliant leadership and Russia’s indispensable support to India.
The Americans, led by President Nixon, had chosen to completely overlook the genocide conducted by Pakistan’s Army because he considered West Pakistan crucial to America’s interests. In addition to this, he was hellbent on halting India’s aggression.
In order to save West Pakistan, Nixon made many moves. He ordered his navy fleets to move against India. 26 Jordanian planes were moving to the aid of Pakistan on American insistence. The Saudis and Turks were also giving Pakistan fighter jets. The UAE had sent in half a squadron of fighter aircrafts for Pakistan. Nixon even asked the Chinese to make movements on the border which the Chinese denied to do. The French too were selling planes to Pakistan because America had asked them too. Britain moved its naval fleet against India. Indonesia had dispatched at least one naval vessel to fight alongside the Pakistani Navy.
Pakistan got military and moral support from Jordan, Iran, Turkey, France, the US, China, the UK, UAE and Indonesia. On the other side was India backed by Russia.
The US sent its Seventh Fleet against India that was led by the 75,000-ton nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. It was then the world’s largest warship and carried more than 70 fighters and bombers. The fleet also included the guided missile cruiser USS King, guided missile destroyers USS Decatur, Parsons and Tartar Sam, and a large amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli.
In direct opposition to this massive fleet of the America Navy was India’s Eastern Fleet which was led by the 20,000-ton aircraft carrier, Vikrant, with barely 20 light fighter aircraft. Despite all the courage and sense of duty of our sea-warriors, the odds were heavily against India.
The British too had made their move. Its naval group led by the aircraft carrier Eagle had moved closer to India’s territorial waters. The coordinated plan of America and Britain was to intimidate India with a typical pincer move – the British ships in the Arabian Sea would target India’s western coast while the Americans would dash into the Bay of Bengal in the east.
In counter to this strategy, Russia dispatched a nuclear-armed flotilla – Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet) – on December 13. The fleet had a good number of nuclear-armed ships and atomic submarines, but their missiles were of limited range (less than 300 km). This meant that for the Russians to effectively counter the US-UK coalition, the Russian commanders had to encircle them to bring them within their target range. They did this with military precision.
Admiral Kruglyakov, who had commanded the Pacific Fleet from 1970 to 1975, recalled that Moscow had ordered the Russian ships to prevent the Americans and the British from getting close to ‘Indian military objects’. The orders for them were to surface their submarines when the Americans appear. This would demonstrate to the Americans that Russia had nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean, and they’d understand that the Russian Navy stood in between them and the Indians.
This is when the Russians intercepted a communication from the commander of the British carrier battle group, Admiral Dimon Gordon, to America’s Seventh Fleet commander: “Sir, we are too late. There are the Russian atomic submarines here, and a big collection of battleships.” This caused the British ships to flee towards Madagascar while the US task force also didn’t enter the Bay of Bengal.
This well manoeuvred move from the Russians prevented a direct attack from the American and British Navies on Indian ships and other military objects.