Bottomline | Folklore, Not Fact

Instead of a great victory, 1965 war should be remembered for lessons not learnt

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The 1965 war between India and Pakistan was a political and military stalemate. Political because the Tashkent declaration after the war sought to settle the immediate war issues rather than the reason behind the war: Kashmir. Military because the ceasefire line formed after the 1947-49 war remained intact without change; proof that neither side had won the war.

According to the western army commander responsible for the entire war front, Lt Gen. Harbakhsh Singh (in his book, War Despatches), ‘With the exception of the Hajipir offensive, none of the remaining thrusts were pushed to a successful conclusion… Most of our offensive actions fizzled out into a series of stalemates without achieving decisive results.’

One such offensive that spoke of India’s senior leadership’s incompetence and junior leadership’s initiative happened on 7 September 1965 when leading Infantry column (3 Jat) of the Indian Army reached the outskirts of Lahore and asked for reinforcements to press ahead. While tasked to occupy the east bank of Ichhogil canal (Pakistan Army’s obstacle system for defence of Lahore), they managed to cross the canal and reached the gates of Lahore.

Both the Pakistan and the Indian Army were shell-shocked. The Pakistan Army because it could not conceive this scenario; heavy strafing by the Pakistan Air Force was ordered to save face. The Indian Army senior leadership was equally dumbstruck by the initiative of the junior leadership, as it had not catered for such a run-away success. Reaching Lahore was unimaginable and outside the script. What followed was dithering, piecemeal reinforcements, tardy cooperation with the Indian Air Force (IAF) and finally orders by the brigade commander for the Indian column to withdraw.

Yet another example of India’s weak leadership was in the Chhamb sector where the Pakistan Army made a major irregular forces’ thrust supported by heavy artillery fire on August 14. The bombardment cost the life of the 191 infantry brigade commander, Brigadier B.F. Master. While the terrorists’ ingress was contained, the Indian leadership failed to appreciate the terrain advantages vis-à-vis India in this sector, and the fact that Pakistan’s armoured formation was close at hand in Sialkot and Kharian. Despite this, Indian leadership did not assess Chhamb to be a major war arena, only to be surprised when the Pakistani armour thrust came here during Operation Grand Slam on 1 September. The newly raised and inducted India’s 10 division lost Chhamb and just about managed to save the Akhnoor bridge, the sole communication link to Jammu.

Thus, India’s overall war effort showed numerous shortcomings: poor strategic and operational intelligence, indecisive higher defence organisation, reactive thinking, inability to exploit operational opportunities, lack of directive style of command (where junior leadership are allowed to take initiatives), and little agreement between the army and the air force. All these weaknesses exist even today with each defence service having its own doctrine and ideas about how to defend territory.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s 1965 proactive war aim was to complete the unfinished agenda of the 1947-49 war: Annex Kashmir. This was to be done in three phases, one in Gujarat and two in Kashmir. The Gujarat phase was conceived by the Pakistan supremo, President General Ayub Khan to both bring territorial disputes between India and Pakistan into international limelight and to test the new weapon systems acquired from the US after Pakistan joined the US-led South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO).

Taking advantage of its territorial claims in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, the Pakistan army took advantage of India’s laxity of not guarding the disputed area (a similar mistake by India led to the 1999 Kargil conflict). While India’s timely reaction minimised the damage, the Pakistan Army could test its new weapons. Under the aegis of the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, the two sides, both members of the Commonwealth, amidst fanfare and bonhomie signed the Kutch agreement in July 1965 and agreed to restore the status quo ante as on 1 January 1965. This set the stage for the war in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s 1965 Kashmir war-plan followed the 1947-49 script: irregulars followed by regulars. Originally, the war was meant to be limited to Jammu and Kashmir. The Pakistan Army raised a guerrilla force which was led by regular officers under the overall command of Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik. Numbering about 30,000, and called the Gibraltar Force, it was divided into columns which were to infiltrate into Kashmir through various ingress routes. For example, Salauddin column with Srinagar as its objective was meant to capture the Srinagar airfield and the radio station. They were then to invite Pakistan publicly to liberate Kashmir. Heeding the call, the Pakistan Army would attack with tanks and artillery across the southern end of the LC (called working boundary by Pakistan), which was semi-mountainous and plain and cut-off Jammu from the mainland. The plan was based on two simple principles of war: surprise and initiative.

The infiltrations started on August 8, the day Kashmir was celebrating the festival of Sufi Pir Dastgir. The same week, crowds were to assemble in Srinagar to mark the anniversary of the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. Pakistan’s guerrilla force was to mingle with the crowds and incite them to raise anti-India slogans. Instead, the people, finding foreigners amongst them handed them to the police. Other infiltrating columns met with similar fate. Undeterred by the failure of his initial plan, Ayub Khan went ahead with the second act and launched Operation Grand Slam on 1 September 1965 in Chhamb-Akhnoor sector. India, its intelligence agencies and the military were caught napping.

What saved embarrassment for India was the support of the people of Kashmir, and Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s go ahead to the army to broaden the war beyond the Jammu and Kashmir theatre to relieve pressure from Pakistan’s point of choosing. Ayub Khan had not bargained for this. While losing Chhamb, the Indian Army opened the Punjab front which broadened the war.

The 22-day war between India and Pakistan in 1965 went wrong for the Pakistani ruler, Ayub Khan, who started it all, because his critical assumptions did not stay course. Fought over Kashmir, to grab what Pakistan could not in 1947-49, Ayub Khan presumed that the people of Kashmir would welcome the Pakistani intruders. They did not. Instead, they helped Indian security forces nab the outsiders. Then, China did not go the whole hog in opening the second front against India; it simply made a few noises. Little known to Pakistan, China had been warned of dire consequences by the United States if it took advantage of the war. Moreover, in spite of the 1962 war debacle, the Indian Army at tactical levels rose like a phoenix to meet the Pakistani challenge. And last, but not the least, Ayub Khan calculated that in the absence of the towering presence of Jawaharlal Nehru, his little known successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri would surrender on Kashmir.

The opposite happened; Shastri stood ground on Kashmir and let the military run the operations. In an exceptional saga of grit and determination, Haji Pir was captured by 68 Infantry brigade under Brigadier Zorawar Bakshi. Unfortunately, after the ceasefire, Shastri, in a goodwill gesture towards Pakistan, returned it at the post-war Tashkent summit with Ayub Khan.

How did the 1965 war fare? The honours were equally shared by the two sides. Pakistan lost territory in Jammu and Kashmir, while India lost land in Khem-Karan and Chhamb. Prime Minister Shastri, by supporting the military effort, helped the army recover some honour lost in the 1962 war. However, his giving away of Haji Pir to the wily Ayub Khan showed that India continued to decide its border policy without any say from the military, which is meant to defend it.

Learning the right lessons from the war, the Pakistan Army has today turned the tables on the Indian military. With an insurgency raging in Kashmir since 1990, with its usual ups and downs, the Indian Army is more worried about the safety of its internal lines of communication (which according to the present Director General Military Operations, Lt General Subrata Saha is the theatre’s centre of gravity) in case of a war with Pakistan. The unrelenting proxy war by Pakistan has left the Indian Army enervated and fatigued with little time, energy, resources, and even inclination for training for conventional war. This explains Indian Army’s precariously depleted war wastage reserves since years, lack of systemic acquisitions and modernisation.

Moreover, China as a transformed nation with credible military power in all domains of war can no longer be dictated to by the US or any other power. With the signing of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs along three axis — eastern, central and western — from the Karakoram Pass to Gwadar and Karachi, Pakistan’s military power has been enhanced substantially in four ways. One, the Pakistan military’s operational sustenance is, at present, more than India’s, implying the Pakistan military would be able to fight a long duration conventional war.

Two, growing interoperability between the Pakistan military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would help Pakistan share China’s assets in space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains as well its ballistic and cruise missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Three, the fibre optic communications link between the PLA and the Pakistan Army would ensure timely interaction between the two obviating the need for Pakistani generals to travel to Beijing (as General Pervez Musharraf did during the Kargil conflict) in case of a crisis with India. And four, the acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons has put paid to any possibility of the Indian military taking the war inside Pakistan across the international border like in 1965.

Given this, instead of merely celebrating the heroism and brilliant tactical battles fought by young officers and men, India should introspect to understand Pakistan’s intentions on Kashmir, especially when the Pakistan Army still celebrates the 1965 war as Pakistan Defence Day.


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