This September marks the 50th anniversary of the three-week war fought by India and Pakistan in 1965. In India, the dates of the war have passed by fairly mutely until now when the NDA government has decided to commemorate its golden jubilee with a mini-parade at Rajpath and hold a "commemorative carnival". In Pakistan, while no grand celebrations are planned this year, the 6th of September (the date the Indian Army opened a front towards Lahore) is celebrated the Defence of Pakistan Day with the date being a national holiday. Over the years, the narrative of victory in Pakistan has toned down a bit with many raising questions on the army's tall claims.
It is fairly appropriate for the two nations to honour and remember their soldiers who fought valiantly and laid down their lives during the campaign. Truth be told, in the sub-continent we give short shrift to the sacrifice of the men in our forces and conveniently forget them once the war bugles are laid down (case in point, see the indifference towards the One Rank One Pension agitation and its opportunistic use by politicians across the board).
"If you source your knowledge of history from amateur You Tube videos and the comments posted below them, you can find enough evidence to declare victory for either side."
Yet any "victory celebration" of the 1965 war, on either side, must be examined against hard facts and not become simply a propaganda vehicle for the state. A military campaign must satisfy two criteria to be declared a victory -
- Clear achievement of strategic military objectives laid down before the war.
- Extraction of strategic concessions from the enemy during post-conflict negotiations.
On both these criteria, it is difficult to imagine how either India or Pakistan can claim 1965 to be a victory. The war, as historians and military generals have correctly argued, was a battle of attrition and ultimately a stalemate. It is useful here to look at military objectives and achievements of both sides to form an assessment.
The Pakistan Army staged the war over a six-month period in three separate waves:
- Launching an operation in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat in April 1965.
- Infiltrating Kashmir through use of raiders and irregulars in August 1965 (known as Operation Gibraltar) to stoke an insurrection.
- Launching an attack on the Chambb-Jurian sector in Kashmir to cut off the road link between Jammu and Srinagar and capture Akhnoor.
Once an Indian response had been initiated, Pakistan had to re-allocate forces and eventually move them to defend Lahore and launch a counter thrust towards Khem Karan to relieve Indian pressure on Lahore and Sialkot.
On each of these objectives, the Pakistanis fell short -
- While the Indians did not put up much of a fight in Gujarat, the Pakistanis only managed to win 350sq km of territory
- Operation Gibraltar fizzled out due to lack of support on the ground.
- Operation Grand Slam met initial success but the Pakistani armour was eventually stopped short of Akhnoor. The attack lost steam as resources were diverted to counter the Indians in the plains of Punjab.
On the Indian side, there was a series of responsive moves to defend against Pakistani army actions. The Haji Pir Pass would first be occupied in August to deny infiltrators from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir a channel to enter the valley. General J N Chaudhuri, the then Chief of Army Staff, would request for air support for his beleaguered troops in the Chambb sector where Pakistan had an upper hand. Eventually when the situation became desperate, Gen. Chaudhuri would request Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to launch Operation Riddle -- the invasion of Pakistan along the Lahore and Sialkot axis. The last measure was done to open a new front, fight on a terrain that was favourable to Indian armour and force Pakistan to cease advancing in Jammu.
The Indian actions, as most military observers and ex-Indian Army generals affirm, were defensive in nature, meant to relieve pressure and force Pakistan on the backfoot. The aim was never to capture Lahore and the Indian advance fell short on the Icchogil Canal just before Lahore where the armies stayed with neither side taking risky actions to break the stalemate.
"The Modi government announced [that it would make] the war histories of India's battles available in a more layman friendly manner. This measure of transparency contradicts the plans to celebrate 1965 with a carnival."
If you source your knowledge of history from amateur You Tube videos and the comments posted below them, you can find enough evidence to declare victory for either side. You can throw data in the form of area of land held by either army or you can cite the border towns and outposts captured by either side. Yet the truth is that the war was fought by two under-prepared armies whose deficiencies were clearly exposed during that period. No doubt there was bravery and gallant fighting at the tactical level but on the strategic front, both India and Pakistan came up short. The Pakistan Army, better equipped with American aid during the 1950s and 1960s, over-estimated its strength and was about to run out of ammunition at the time of ceasefire. The Indian Army on the other hand, already smarting from the blunders of 1962 against China, was shown up for its outdated equipment and patchy middle and senior level leadership. It would in fact mistakenly assume that it was running short of ammunition and tanks itself and agree to the ceasefire.
Lastly, the Tashkent Agreement itself, left both sides clutching at little else but status quo ante. All positions occupied before 5 August, 1965 were to be returned, which meant India pulled out of Haji Pir Pass and areas around Lahore while Pakistan withdrew from the Akhnoor sector. The Tashkent pact offered platitudes of peace but had little to address core issues on either side.
In this light, it is difficult to digest how 1965 is a win for either side. At best it was a bruising draw with the referee (the UN) calling time. The Modi government has recently announced the positive step of making the war histories of India's battles available in a more layman friendly manner. This measure of transparency contradicts the plans to celebrate 1965 with a carnival. If anything, it is 1971 which we should be celebrated where military planning, political actions and tactical execution all came together to achieve larger strategic objectives. But then, who knows which government will be around in 2021 when the 50th anniversary of that event comes rolling in.