On December 14, 1971, Pakistani forces with the help of their Bangladeshi collaborators killed more than 200 intellectuals in East Pakistan, as the territory was then known. On December 16, Pakistani forces surrendered at Dhaka’s Ramna Racecourse.

While many know what had happened in those two days, they are barely aware of what had happened on December 15. It is particularly significant because that was the decisive day on which Pakistani forces had to make a decision about surrendering to the joint forces of the Indian Army and Bangladesh’s liberation force.

Late in December 1971, within a week of replacing General Yahya Khan as Pakistan’s president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto formed a commission to identify the reasons behind Pakistan’s defeat in the war. It was headed by the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Hamood-ur-Rahman.

As per the Hammodur Rahman Commission report, on December 15, the Pakistani military high command as well as the President Yahya Khan were very confused about what to do.

By December 15, the fate of the war was pretty much decided and it was evident that the Pakistani force had no option but to surrender to the Indian force backed by the Bangladeshi Muktijoddhas.

The commission said that there was no actual order to surrender. In view of the desperate picture painted by the Commander Eastern Command General AK Niazi, the higher authorities gave him permission to surrender if he, in his judgment, thought it necessary.

On December 15, the Chief of Army of Pakistan General AH Khan sent a message to Niazi. “I have seen your message sent to the President and I have also heard what you said to General Manekshaw [General Sam Manekshaw, India’s Army chief], which was broadcast in All India Radio,” it said. “You are free to take a decision of your own but my advice would be to accept the terms and conditions given by the Indian force.”

Bangladeshi refugees in a camp in Tripura in 1971. Credit: AFP

The commission said Niazi could have opted not to surrender if he thought that he had the capability of defending Dhaka. By his own estimate, he had 26,400 men and could hold out for another two weeks. The enemy would have taken a week to build up its forces and another week to subdue Dhaka.

But evidence showed that he had already lost the will to fight after December 7, 1971, when his major strongholds of Jessore and Brahmanbari had fallen. Detailed accounts of witnesses given to the commission indicate that Niazi had suffered a complete moral collapse during the closing phases of the war and was waiting for a clear guidance from Pakistan’s president and the army chief on December 15, which he failed to get.

Dhaka’s defence plan

India’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis said that as per Niazi’s original plan, Dhaka was to have a double line of defences: an outer line and an inner line. These defences were to be manned by formations falling back from various sectors.

When none of them managed to do so, all available men in uniform were mustered for the task. Only about 1,500 regular Pakistani soldiers could be got together. In addition, on December 15, about 3,500 police and paramilitary personnel were available.

Surplus staff officers and others pulled out from offices and depots were sent to command the groups and detachments into which these men were divided. To support this last-ditch stand were a few mortars and recoilless guns, a squadron of tanks, two six-pounder anti-tank guns and some light machine guns.

However patriotic and brave they might be, this motley collection of men and arms could not have kept the Indian divisions out of Dhaka for long, said the IDSA report. But by December 15, Niazi’s senior staff officers and East Pakistan Governor Abdul Motaleb Malik’s chief advisers had lost the will to fight.

Earlier, on December 12, an urgent message had gone from Niazi to Pakistani President Yahya Khan urging him to save innocent lives. There was no reply from him till December 14. That day, a high-level meeting was scheduled at the Government House in Dhaka, at which Governor Malik was to preside.

A radio intercept alerted the Indian authorities and while the meeting was underway, the Government House was raided by Indian aircraft. The roof of its main hall collapsed. Malik rushed to the air-raid shelter and wrote out his resignation.

Soon after, the Governor, his cabinet and senior civil servants, including West Pakistanis, moved to the neutral zone that had been created by the International Red Cross at the Hotel Intercontinental.

Indian soldiers fire on Pakistani positions on December 15, 1971. Credit: Punjab Press / AFP

Manekshaw was himself keen to end the hostilities. He had been making repeated calls in broadcasts to Pakistani forces in East Pakistan to surrender. Leaflets in Urdu, Pushtu and Bengali were also dropped. His reply to Niazi was, however, quite firm. It stated that cease-fire would be acceptable provided the Pakistani Armed Forces in Bangladesh surrendered to the advancing Indian troops by 0900 hours on December 16.

He also gave the radio frequencies on which the Pakistani command could contact General Jagjit Singh Aurora’s headquarters to co-ordinate the surrender. As a token of good faith, he made it known that all action over Dhaka would cease from 1700 hours on December 15.

At Niazi’s request, the deadline for the surrender was later extended to 1500 hours on December 16. His headquarters sent out a signal around midnight (15/16 December) to lower formations to contact their Indian counterparts and arrange the cease-fire on December 15.

On the battlefront

Meanwhile, considering Niazi’s ceasefire proposal, the allied force declared to stop air attacks on Dhaka from 5 am. Besides, the allied force also told the Pakistan army that no truce would take place before the military surrendered. “If the Pakistan army does not surrender within 9:00 am on December 16, then the air attack will resume,” they said.

In the afternoon, the allied forces entered the Savar area without resistance. Pakistan troops retreated and ambushed them on Mirpur Bridge, at the entrance of Dhaka .

The allied force advanced towards Dhaka from Savar in the night. The Kaderia Bahini – a famed militia of the 1971 war – joined them on the way. They confront the Pakistan troops at the Mirpur Bridge. The allied force conduct a commando-style attack in the first phase. Pakistan troops keep firing from the other side of the bridge. Another group of the allied force attacked them from the west bank. A ferocious fight took place all day long.

In the battlefield of Chittagong, on this day, the Mukti Bahini militia freed few more regions south to Kumira. In the evening, the freedom fighters attacked Vatiari, the first protective defense region of Chittagong city. The skirmish spread out till Fauzdarhat.

Poster of freedom fighter from 1971 Liberation War. Credit: Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

The allied force advanced towards Rangpur. They cordoned off the town. They schedule to attack the Rangpur cantonment the next day. But that was not necessary as the Pakistan troops already surrendered.

The allied force attacked Kamarkhali Pakistan army base in Faridpur region. The military started to retreat towards Faridpur town. The allied force chased and cornered them. The military, led by a Pakistani major general, eventually surrender.

Manekshaw told the Pakistan commanders, “This is the last time; any more attempt of resistance will be meaningless. Dhaka garrison is absolutely under our artillery range.”

Pakistani troops start surrendering their weapons in the battlefields. The Pakistani division and brigade headquarters in Bogra fell within the afternoon and 1,700 Pakistani personnel surrendered. The allied force recover huge amount of arms and ammunition.

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka.