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Between August and November 1971, amid the Bangladesh Liberation War, frogmen of the Bengali Mukti Bahini “Freedom Fighters” sank more than 100,000 tons of merchant shipping and damaged another 50,000 tons in their struggle for independence against the military regime of West Pakistan. These attacks left international shipping in what was then East Pakistan vulnerable and practically uninsurable. They knocked out power plants, destroyed bridges, severed the military’s sea lines of communication, and brought production and export of its major crops (tea and jute) to a near standstill. In a remarkable feat, a little more than 500 men, trained and equipped in a covert action program by Indian Naval Intelligence, had an outsized impact on the conflict. With a growing emphasis on asymmetric maritime options in modern resistance campaigns against conventionally superior adversaries such as Russia and China, the frogmen of the Mukti Bahini provide a relevant, yet underexplored, model at the intersection of modern maritime irregular operations and proxy warfare. The actions of the “Water Rats” demonstrate the impact that a small, but sufficiently resourced covert action campaign can have in support of an enthusiastic and motivated resistance movement.
With parallels to recent maritime raids, attacks, and reconnaissance activity conducted by Ukrainian regular, irregular, paramilitary, and special operations forces (including the Ukrainian Maritime Special Operators of the 73rd Spetsnaz), the Mukti Bahini frogmen demonstrated the outsized operational impact that a campaign of tactical maritime attacks could have in a theater. As an irregular guerrilla force, the frogmen planned and carried out independent operations while also being the beneficiaries of equipment and training provided clandestinely by Indian naval intelligence. The success of the Mukti Bahini frogmen was not a result of superior equipment, but instead based on their daring, their knowledge of the local environment, and the ability to leverage these skills to maximize their impact against enemy maritime targets (similar to Ukraine’s successful strikes against the Moskva, Kerch Bridge, a landing ship in the Russian port of Novorossiysk; and the recent cruise missile strikes in Crimea that critically damaged another landing ship and a Kilo-class submarine). The impact of the frogmen on Pakistan’s ability to support its forces in Bangladesh and the larger Pakistani economy is a bright chapter in the slim volume of successful irregular maritime campaigns, demonstrating how effective India’s Directorate of Naval Intelligence’s covert action program was (an operation that only in recent years has India begun to acknowledge).
The Mukti Bahini have largely been overlooked in Western professional literature, and in particular their naval element – generally referred to as Mukti Bahini frogmen – has received scant attention. This oversight is especially noteworthy in contrast to the attention devoted to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and their “Sea Tigers” who are regularly discussed as an exemplar for a maritime irregular force, despite being ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining a Tamil homeland. That Mukti Bahini frogmen conducted combat operations for less than a year (and were eclipsed even in Bangladeshi memory by the actions of the guerrilla forces on land, many of whom later led the government), in what was for the West largely an unfamiliar area of the world, may have contributed to their relative obscurity. But sufficient material is now available to allow for a deeper investigation of this maritime campaign. Sources include English-language memoirs from Bengali and Indian participants, contemporaneous articles from foreign correspondents, declassified records from the British Foreign Office (which include the later Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) records), and documents made available in the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room.
To better understand the role played by the maritime element of the Bengali guerrillas this article will first provide historical context for the broader liberation struggle. Thereafter, it will consider the Mukti Bahini’s naval campaign against the forces of West Pakistan. Finally, the piece will evaluate any continued salience from this historical example from half-a-century ago in this new high-tech era of drones, global communications, AI, and great power competition.
1971: Crisis engulfs the Indian subcontinent
Now as then, a debate continues on how to frame the conflict that led to an independent Bangladesh. For Bengalis it was their foundational struggle. For Pakistan’s military and political elite an apparent betrayal by their strategic allies: the United States, and China. To India, the war in East Pakistan was perhaps a mere secondary theater in India’s ongoing and protracted conflict with Pakistan. Even minor parties, had roles in the margins of the conflict, such as the Mizo rebels from India’s restive Northeast who were sheltered by Pakistan, or the “Phantoms of Chittagong” the Tibetan Special Frontier Force who rather than helping liberate their homeland from China’s People’s Liberation Army conducted commando raids against Pakistani troops in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The fighting in Bangladesh also provided a Cold War sideshow, with India signing the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971 as a counter-weight to the US, the United Kingdom, and China – which India saw aligning against it. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was a founder of the “non-aligned movement” and reticent to be too closely tied to the United States; this treaty with the Soviet Union helped further deepen India’s ties to Russia and reliance on Russian military equipment, which continued for generations. (The US had also equipped Pakistan with substantial armaments, furthering India’s concerns.)
Following the partition of India in 1947, the nation of Pakistan was created with two wings: West Pakistan (now the nation of Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), separated by the near entirety of the Indian subcontinent. The two enclaves shared only Islam in common, and were divided by language, ethnicity, with different histories and a lack of shared culture. The Punjabi elite who ran West Pakistan generally looked down upon the Bengalis in the East as peasants and rice farmers lacking martial valor. In 1948, Islamabad declared Urdu the only official language of Pakistan. On February 21, 1952, the military opened fire on Bengali students demonstrating in favor of using Bangla at Dacca university, killing several and wounding hundreds. (Bangladesh commemorates this date as foundational in their struggle, and the United Nations has recognized February 21st as “International Mother Language Day.” In December 1970, after years of lack of investment and economic serfdom by West Pakistan (which East Pakistan’s population outnumbered), and in an effort to demonstrate their political power, the Bengalis voted as a unified voting bloc supporting the Awami League (led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – father of Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed). The population of East Pakistan captured 167 of 311 seats in the Pakistani parliament. Largely influenced by then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, later to be Prime Minister and also father of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the military junta decided in March 1971 to arrest Rahman and Awami League leadership, and instituted a violent crackdown: Operation Searchlight, which sought to break resistance and involved wanton execution, torture, and mass rape. While most Bengalis are Muslim, religion was not the defining focus, instead the Bangla language became an organizing principle of the independence movement.
With millions of refugees flooding into India, as early as April 1971, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi requested military options to invade East Pakistan to depose the Pakistani government there. Chief of the Indian Army, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw asked for a delay until December to both allow for his forces to be properly trained and staged, and to avoid invading the Bengali floodplains during monsoon season. Supporting the Bengali insurgency in the interim served to degrade Pakistan’s forces and bought time for well-planned Indian assault during more favorable conditions.
While India has historically sought to portray its involvement in the 1971 war as a selfless undertaking, conducted on humanitarian grounds, India had its own strategic objectives as well. An obvious concern was the influx of 10 million refugees destabilizing its borders, the largest number to flee war in recorded history. Academic literature suggests that refugees themselves may serve as a catalyst for interstate conflict, and this conflict was no exception. The Indian military sought a more dramatic victory than the inconclusive result of the war with Pakistan in 1965, to demonstrate its arrival as a modern military that could execute combined arms operations (both the Indian Air Force and Navy felt shortchanged in the 1965 war). India also sought to stamp out Pakistani (and Chinese) covert support to guerrillas fighting in India’s Northeastern provinces.
A significant development from India’s loss to China in their 1962 war was the development of India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW or RAW).
In 1965, the head of Indian military intelligence proposed the creation of an agency to gather foreign and military intelligence. In September 1968, RAW was established, drawing much of its staff from the internal service – the Intelligence Bureau. Its first chief, Rameshwar Nath Kao, laid out two priority tasks: (1) collect intelligence on Pakistan and China, and (2) prepare to conduct covert action in East Pakistan. A key goal was to disrupt Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s support to separatist groups fighting in India’s northeastern “Seven Sisters” provinces. ISI allowed training camps in East Pakistan, and by 1968 Chinese intelligence was also providing aid as well.
Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, had largely eliminated India’s covert action capability, focusing instead on internal security. With the establishment of RAW, the Indian government reversed this decision, and granted RAW a covert action mandate. Nehru’s daughter – Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – saw a larger opportunity to truncate Pakistan through covert action by training and equipping Bengali guerrillas to break East Pakistan off from West Pakistan. This campaign would also buy India six-months to posture its forces to invade while it bled the Pakistani defenders and drained their supplies. Notably, in his memoirs, one of the founders of RAW, B. Rahman, wrote that one of the purposes of India’s support for the Bengali rebels was “to put an end to the activities of the ISI in India’s North-East from East Pakistan.”
Supporting the Mukti Bahini
In early 1971, the Indian Army began to undertake Operation Jackpot, a plan to train and equip up to 100,000 Mukti Bahini in India, providing four-to-six weeks of training in small arms, light automatic weapons, mortars and explosives. The Mukti Bahini were divided into conventional forces, and a guerrilla element. The RAW primarily focused on training 10,000 of the Mujib Bahini – a cadre arising from the Awami League’s student organization.
The Indian Navy, sensitive to the minor roles it had played in past conflicts, sought to take the fight to Pakistan across two fronts: via conventional naval ships, and secondly through development of an irregular maritime capability made up by Bengali insurgents. Chief of the Indian Naval Staff Admiral Sardarilal M. Nanda and the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) then-Captain Mihir K. Roy recognized the importance of the sea lines of communication for West Pakistan’s ability to reinforce its military in the East, the sole means of transporting jet fuel, gasoline for its tanks, ammunition, and food staples. Thus, they established “Naval Operations X” to train, equip, and mentor a Bengali frogman program. The DNI sketched out an initial concept to train Water Rats, his concept of “small, aggressive predators” who would strike from the rivers and littorals. Ultimately, “Operation X” or Naval Commando Operation X (NCO(X)) trained some 400 Bengali frogmen in combat swimming and diving, demolition, and sabotage – primarily using limpet mines. The majority of these frogmen were chosen from a base of educated student refugees who were young and fit. They were selected to return to regions where they had geographic knowledge.
Foundations of the Mukti Bahini
The Mukti Bahini began as a conventional force of volunteers from the East Bengal Regiment, an infantry regiment, and East Pakistan Rifles, a border constabulary – now known as Border Guard Bangladesh, who revolted against Islamabad’s Army. Officers who defected included Colonel M.A.G. Osmani who commanded Mukti Bahini forces in Bangladesh, and Major Zia-ur-Rahman who later served as President of Bangladesh (his widow,Khaleda, has subsequently twice served as Prime Minister). On March 26, 1971 Islamabad banned the Awami League, declared the independence leader Sheikh Rahman a traitor and imposed martial law in East Pakistan. In response, the second-in-command of the East Bengal Rifles, Zia Ur-Rahman declared Bengali independence in a radio broadcast.
The Mukti Bahini frogmen had a more unusual genesis than their land-based counterparts. Word of the crackdown and independence movement reached the French naval base in Toulon, where a Bengali naval telegraph operator named Abdul Wahed Chowdhury learned of it. Chowdhury served on PNS Mangro, Pakistan’s third and newly acquired French Daphné-class submarine, and was part of the crew being trained by the French navy on how to operate it. Not wanting to attack other Bengalis, Chowdhury mobilized other Bengali crewmen who fled France, aided by Indian diplomats, to a secret jungle training site in India’s West Bengal state where they made up the founding core of the Mukti Bahini frogmen. Over a long career, Chowdhury went on to serve as Director of Naval Intelligence for Bangladesh.
As the last hours of 14 August 1971 ticked away, 176 frogmen attacked targets across modern day Bangladesh. NCO(X) chose Pakistan’s independence day to initiate the campaign, which they did through a series of songs broadcast on an Indian radio station. The combat swimmers were armed with limpet mines and equipped solely with dive fins, swim trunks, and dive knives to remove barnacles and allow their bombs to adhere to boat hulls six feet below the waterline. In an hour, 25 vessels had been struck, with 44,500 tons sunk and another 14,000 tons damaged. Vessels included: merchant ships, naval gunboats, and oil tankers. The attacks buoyed the morale of the Mukti Bahini ground forces, and resulted in an immediate reallocation of Pakistani troops. No longer focused on solely on a land-based counterinsurgency, Pakistani infantry was redeployed to port and river security missions. (Chowdhury and two other insurgents were nearly captured in the days before the raid, as they were visiting various frogmen in safe houses, and stopped. Luckily for them, the wife of one of conspirators had insisted on coming along, and this ruse helped eliminate suspicion and the guards let their vehicle pass.)
The frogmen became a tool for maritime trade warfare, cutting off valuable exports, and striking at the heart of Pakistani military logistics. Forty-five vessels were struck in the five-month campaign, sinking over 100,000 tons of shipping. Declassified British FCO records document internal government discussions, debates with shippers, and ultimately rates issued by Lloyds of London in consultation with the War Risks Club, that effectively made trade uninsurable. As their campaign gained steam Mukti Bahini naval attacks became more brazen, moving from mining ships to using speedboats to attack power plants and foreign vessels attempting to navigate narrow channels to reach the sea. Modern observers may note a similar evolution in Ukrainian tactics and operations as the war in Ukraine has evolved over 18 months.
By November 1971, the British Prime Minister was tracking the issue closely, after a British vessel the City of St. Albans carrying 5,000 tons of jute was attacked by boats firing Bofors-type recoilless rifles. That month CIA informed policymakers that jute exports had been reduced by more than 50 percent, tea production was under a quarter of the year prior, and even this “small amount will not reach the ports” unless the military could secure transportation routes. By December, analysts noted that the attacks on oil deliveries to Chittagong had limited East Pakistan to under 30 days’ supply at the outset of hostilities with India.
Backbreaking under the waterline
Much like a shaped charge, the Water Rats of the Mukti Bahini demonstrate the impact that a small, well-trained, and deadly force can have in maritime conflict. Operation X also illustrates the value of a properly scoped and focused covert action campaign using a foreign proxy force can have in support of larger strategic objectives (in this case to buy India’s Army greater time to prepare for combat, and degrade Pakistan’s forces in advance of India’s invasion of East Pakistan). While ultimately not decisive on its own, the maritime campaign nevertheless played a critical role in providing breathing space for the guerrilla ground troops. It also damaged Pakistani morale and reduced the number of Pakistani forces that could conduct operations against the land-based Mukti Bahini forces, as soldiers were diverted to harbor patrols and river security. Furthermore, their actions sapped the Pakistani economy and softened up Pakistani forces in the East prior to the Indian invasion. Indian training and equipping of a mere 400 to 500 insurgents had an outsized influence in the conflict. The frogmen operated without even SCUBA gear; at most they used flippers and some reeds as snorkels. Teams operated with limited guidance, and frequently executed attacks on their own initiative as communication with the Indian navy was either one-way, via radio broadcasts or hand-carried messages. This avoidance of technology, reliance on area knowledge, and local support and foraging made them very difficult to detect by Pakistani forces. Limpet mines were cheap, yet effective, not only sinking ships but holding others at risk: International shippers and insurance companies were unwilling to hazard their risk against multi-million-dollar ships and cargoes. Western militaries should consider the value of identifying motivated and educated volunteers without military backgrounds (a factor Russian forces have looked for at checkpoints and when seizing Ukrainian towns). One-way broadcasts, such as the songs played on Indian radio, have downsides, but can also provide an unbreakable code for sending messages to guerrillas. For these and many other reasons, the Bengali frogmen and their successful maritime campaign are worthy of additional study.
Christopher D. Booth served on active duty as an Army armor and cavalry officer and was a fellow in the General Robert H. Barrow Fellowship for Strategic Competition and the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Creativity.
Image credit: Christopher D. Booth