1965 Reclaiming the War

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To many Indians, it is the forgotten war, the war that paled from memory as the nation and government focused on the 1971 war, and later of course Kargil. Why is not clear. The Congress party which was in power for much of the post 1965 period, says nothing. On the 50th anniversary of that war, the BJP has chosen to own and celebrate it.BY SURYA GANGADHARAN

Strange but true: The war India and China fought 53 years ago in the high Himalayas and which we lost, is known to the younger generation of Indians (courtesy the media). But a war that India fought with Pakistan 50 years ago remains largely forgotten, even though it was a stalemate where India, according to most independent foreign observers, “had the upper hand”.

The 1965 war also suffers in comparison to the decisive verdict of the 1971 Bangladesh war. Many would argue that 1965 was actually preparation for action on the eastern front six years later. “Not that anyone knew the Bangladesh war would happen,” says Srinath Raghavan, former infantry officer now a scholar researching military strategic issues at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “But there’s no doubt that 1965 was a great confidence builder and although mistakes were made, on the whole it was professionally done.”

Bridging that “knowledge gap” is ostensibly the reason for the government kicking off a month long nationwide programme beginning Aug 28, that being the day the Indian Army’s 1 Para captured the Haji Pir Pass from Pakistan in 1965. It fits in well with the BJP’s “muscular” self-image. But at the time of writing, it’s not clear whether the event is a commemoration or a celebration (perhaps both).

One could also give it a political dimension and ask the question why the Congress party, having been in power for so many years, ignored it? Was it because credit (in some form) would accrue to then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, which was not acceptable to the Gandhi family? This does merit closer scrutiny.

From the military point of view, the war helped repair the trust deficit with the civil political leadership

There seems little doubt that Shastri was under pressure on two counts: At all costs he wanted to avoid a repeat of 1962 (the war that is widely acknowledged to have destroyed Nehru). On the other, there was the Pakistani operation in the Rann of Kutch in 1965, which resulted in India accepting international arbitration and the award of a little over 800 sq. km of territory to Pakistan. The award weakened Shastri’s position. In the political environment post-Nehru, nobody was supreme and certainly not Shastri.

Cut to Tashkent later that year after the end of 22 days of war (which saw India open hostilities all along the international border in Punjab and Rajasthan to relieve the Pakistani thrust into J&K). The peace agreement restored the situation prevailing before the outbreak of hostilities but India had to return the Haji Pir Pass (likewise Pakistan Chhamb Jauriyan), a concession which the Congress party opposed in its inner circles. Shastri insisted on that, claiming it was in the interests of a stable post war deal. He had his way but paid the price, dying hours after the terms were agreed upon.

For its part, the army has always remembered its war dead (no matter which war) in the quiet of its cantonments. There’s a sense that 1965 has not been given its due place. The Pakistanis celebrate it as Defence Day on Sept 6 every year when in India it’s largely ignored. The “silent treatment” is curious when one adds up the gains and losses. Records show that India captured 1,920 sq. km. of Pakistani territory against the latter’s 550 sq. km. of Indian territory. Indian casualties amounted to 11,500 and there were reverses in places like ChhambJaurian. But Pakistan also lost besides Haji Pir, Dograi, Bakri and areas opposite Rajasthan. The Indian army crossed the Ichhogil Canal and was on the outskirts of Lahore.

1965 was a great confidence builder and although mistakes were made, on the whole it was professionally done

There were acts of heroism, perhaps the most celebrated was Havildar Abdul Hamid destroying five enemy Patton tanks over two days with his jeep mounted recoilless rifle, before succumbing to return fire. A grateful nation awarded him the ParamVir Chakra. Then there was Lt. Col. Ardeshir Tarapore of the Poona Horse, also awarded the PVC posthumously, and the Keelor brothers in their Gnats. From the military point of view, the war helped repair the trust deficit with the civil political leadership (result of the 1962 war). Shastri kept out of operational decision making, giving the army the freedom to plan and execute based on the ground situation. Morale was restored, confidence revived, rearming picked up pace, all of which were crucial to the 1971 verdict.

Some other points emerge. It’s interesting to note that when Pakistan attacked in Kashmir in 1965, Shastri retaliated by opening hostilities across the international border. This didn’t happen during the Kargil war. Clearly, the nuclearization of Pakistan was a factor; another was India’s determination to respect the Line of Control, implicit in this was the hope that at some time in the future, it could become the international border between the two countries.

Summary

  • India will commemorate and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war against Pakistan over August and September
  • The war has been largely forgotten in political circles, chiefly Congress, for reasons which are not entirely clear
  • The war is celebrated in Pakistan as Defence Day, yet it is accepted by foreign observers that India prevailed or had the upper hand
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