Lt-Gen J. S. Aurora

'Liberator of Bangladesh' who led India's Eastern Army to victory over Pakistan
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The Independent Online

Jagjit Singh Aurora, soldier: born Kalle Gujjran, India 13 February 1916; commander, Eastern Army 1971-73; MP 1986-96; married 1941 Bhagwant Kaur (died 1997; one son, one daughter); died New Delhi 2 May 2005.

So innovative was his operational planning and so meticulous its execution that Lt-Gen J.S. Aurora did not forsake his daily round of golf even once during the 12-day battle to "liberate" East Pakistan, which emerged as Bangladesh in 1971. As India's Eastern Army commander tasked with evicting the tyrannical Pakistani military from East Pakistan, the Sikh soldier even played a relaxed 18-hole round inside his Fort William headquarters at Calcutta, before leaving for Dacca to accept the surrender of Lt-Gen A.A.K. Niazi and 93,000 soldiers.

The dramatic moment of the ceremony on 16 December 1971 was captured in a black-and-white photograph in which a seated Aurora, flanked by Indian military officers, is looking at his defeated foe signing the surrender document with a borrowed pen. There is no victorious smile on Aurora's face - just the matter-of-fact look of a soldier who has accomplished his mission.

After independence in 1947, the British colonial administration had divided the Islamic state of Pakistan into West and East Pakistan, separated by thousands of miles of hostile India. Pakistan's two halves, however, were culturally, linguistically and attitudinally at variance with one another, a fault-line that India was keen to exploit. It had already fought two wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, divided between them but claimed by both, and was locked in a perpetual state of antagonism with its rival.

The general elections in Pakistan in 1970 that led to East Pakistan's charismatic Bengali leader Sheikh Mujib Rehman's winning the majority mandate provided India with the trigger. Indian leaders reasoned that helping to "free" East Pakistan, and replacing it with an indebted Bangladesh, would eliminate a grave security threat. The electoral outcome did not, however, suit Pakistan's predominantly Punjabi and Pathan army junta, which feared it would be swamped by Bengalis. As insurance against this happening, they imposed a vicious crackdown across East Pakistan, carrying out pogroms of leading Bengali intellectuals and others who dared oppose their authority.

Millions of terrified refugees poured across the border into India and the Mukti Bahini insurgent movement against Pakistani occupation came into being. Backed by the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, India's undercover Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) began arming these rebels and, more importantly, supplementing their cadres with commandos in mufti.

War was inevitable and it erupted on 4 December 1971. Aurora's strategy was simple, intended to avoid a protracted war with high casualties. He argued that extended fighting would lead to intervention by the United Nations, the United States or both, which in turn would almost certainly result in a cease-fire without India's having achieved its political and military objective.

Assisted by Lt-Gen J.F.R. Jacob, his highly capable chief of staff, Aurora followed the novel strategy of "leaving the highways for the byways", thereby obviating traditional battle engagements. He formed small, highly mobile units that surrounded the Pakistanis, cutting them off from one another and from their extended supply lines. Aurora also utilised air power imaginatively and effectively in support of ground forces, and introduced an element of surprise by employing the newly raised mechanised infantry battalions. Twelve days later Aurora and India emerged victorious and Bangladesh came into being.

Jagjit Singh Aurora was born in 1916 in the village of Kalle Gujjran, in Jhelum district, now in Pakistan, into a middle-class Sikh family. He attended the Mission School in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, before joining the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun in the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi. In 1939, he was commissioned into the 1st battalion of the 2nd Punjab Regiment and commanded it eight years later in the northern border town of Rajouri during the first of the three wars with neighbouring Pakistan in northern Jammu and Kashmir state. A series of staff and field postings followed until in 1971 Aurora was promoted to lieutenant-general and took over Eastern Command at Calcutta when hostilities in East Pakistan were imminent.

After retiring in 1973 in a blaze of glory as the "Liberator of Bangladesh", Aurora moved to Delhi and became an Upper House MP in 1986 for six years. During this period he excoriated Indira Gandhi for sanctioning the army assault on Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in 1984, to flush out Sikh militants waging civil war for an independent homeland. The anti-Sikh pogrom that followed Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards a few months later led to Aurora's struggling first to save fellow Sikhs from murderous Hindu mobs and later to rehabilitate riot victims.

Apart from his golf, Aurora was an avid reader, particularly of military and regimental histories, and a skilled dancer. He was at a club in the border city of Lahore when India's partition was announced in 1947, leading, understandably, to pandemonium. Aurora, however, continued to jive, returning to the cantonment in the early hours.

Kuldip Singh