1965: resilience in war, deftness in diplomacy

An Artillery gun in action during 1965 India Pakistan war. TO CONFIRM DATE

An Artillery gun in action during 1965 India Pakistan war. TO CONFIRM DATE

‘Stalemate’, ‘futile’, ‘forgotten’ — the descriptions of the 1965 War between India and Pakistan often do injustice to its profound impact on the history of the Indian subcontinent. The war of 1965 altered the fates of both the countries and began the new ‘Great Game’ in Asia. One of its biggest outcomes was the sealing of the China-Pakistan entente and New Delhi’s realisation of a two-front strategic threat, with a heightened risk of collusion between its two neighbours.

The war of 1965 was a test for the political leadership of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was still finding his feet post his predecessor Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. He was under intense scrutiny from the international community as India was still recovering from the scars of 1962, while also battling an acute food crisis. The National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah’s mission to find a solution to the Kashmir crisis was aborted after Nehru’s death and historians believe Pakistan felt emboldened to strike for the ‘cause’ of Kashmir, sensing India was at its most vulnerable.

Four-phase plan

The blueprint was in the form of a four-phase plan: a probing encounter to check the Indian response in the Rann of Kutch; an engineered uprising in Kashmir via infiltrators (Operation Gibraltar); followed by a sophisticated Patton tank assault in Punjab aimed at cutting of Jammu and Kashmir; and finally, the, capture of Amritsar and many parts of the Indian territory, to be exchanged for Kashmir.

General Mohammed Musa, the then Pakistani Army Chief, has recorded in his book My Version, “the Kashmir Cell, a highly secretive group put together by the Pakistani Army in early 1964, directly reporting to the President, had by now concluded that ‘it was time for Pakistan to take some overt action’ for reviving the Kashmir issue and “defreezing”, what from Pakistan’s point of view was a dishearteningly quiet and stable situation in Kashmir.”

Altaf Gauhar, the then Pakistan Minister of Information and Broadcasting and author of the biography Ayub Khan: Pakistan’s First Military Ruler , tells that “Ayub’s judgement” was over-ridden with the “prejudice” that “the Hindu has no stomach for a fight” and this “turned to belief, if not a military doctrine, which had the decisive effect on the course of events.”

While surprised at first, India fought back. In this war, fought between August and September 1965, India captured 1,920 sq. km of Pakistani territory while Pakistan captured 550 sq. km of Indian territory, as per the government records. Officially declared inconclusive, the war results ultimately did favour India.

Fifty years on, there is still a lot left to be understood on the intense diplomatic manoeuvring that New Delhi undertook to emerge on the right side of history. Most prominent among this is how India managed Chinese moves, aimed at pushing Pakistan’s case both during the war and negotiations in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), patterns which ironically are followed till date.

Since 1962, Pakistan referring to its special friendship with China while dealing with India. First, Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the National Assembly in 1963, and later, President Ayub, alluded to this: “If we are attacked by India, then that means, India is on the move and wants to expand. We assume that other Asiatic [sic] powers, especially China would take notice.” (as noted by J.W. Garver in his book Protracted Contest: Sino Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century .)

Pakistan’s strengthened relationship with China had caught the attention of the world powers at the height of the Cold War. After concluding a border agreement with China in March 1963, through which it handed over disputed territories in Jammu and Kashmir to China, Islamabad had openly began to court Beijing.

Gauhar’s memoirs of Ayub recount a series of hectic diplomatic consultations between Pakistan and China in the lead up to 1965. First, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had made a state visit to Pakistan in February 1964. He then laid out the red carpet for Ayub in March 1965. Zhou Enlai later returned to Pakistan in June 1965 and there was speculation, writes Gauhar, that it was the Chinese tactics of guerrilla warfare that were deployed by Pakistan in the attack on Kashmir.

Both the U.S. and Russia were concerned of Pakistan falling into China's lap, which Pakistan used to its advantage.

Interestingly, after being stumped by India’s attack on Lahore on September 1 and worried following reports of dwindling supplies of ammunition on the battlefield post the American embargo on arms supply to both India and Pakistan; an exasperated Ayub, recalls Gauhar, reportedly said at an emergency cabinet meet: “The Americans have let us down, but they are afraid of Chinese involvement [...]. Our best card is the China card. We have to decide at what stage the Chinese aid needs to be obtained. Our dealings with China should be frank and above board”

The Chinese were only too happy to come to Pakistan’s rescue if one looks at the details that emerge from the records of Gauhar as also from the war diaries of the then Indian Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan ( 1965 War: The Inside Story , by R.D. Pradhan). They outline that Chinese Foreign Minister, Marshal Chen Yi, had already met with Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Karachi on September 4, 1965 and assured Pakistan support against “India’s armed provocation in Kashmir”. China followed this up with a statement on September 7 which said, “The Indian government probably believes that since it has the backing of the U.S. imperialists and modern revisionists, it can bully its neighbours, defy public opinion and do whatever it likes,” records Gauhar.

According to Chavan’s war diaries, China had previously, on August 27, accused the Indian Army of committing acts of aggression on the border of Sikkim and Tibet in July and August, accusations that were rejected by India.

By September 8, it renewed these accusations claiming, “India must bear responsibility of all consequences arriving therefrom,” which India again rejected and called for a neutral and independent observer to visit the China border and look at these complaints.

On September 17, notes Chavan, the Chinese again upped the ante, dismissing India’s offer as “pretentious” and sending a fresh note accusing India of “maintaining 56 military installations on the Tibetan side of the Sikkim-Tibet border and demanding their dismantling within two days or face grave consequences.”

C.P. Srivastava, author of the biography Lal Bahadur Shastri: A Life of Truth in Politics , notes that by now Prime Minister Shastri had calculated that “China was unlikely to launch an attack like 1962 because they had no immediate objective of their own to achieve” and “would not risk a war with the U.S.” or “draw USSR into the South Asia”. India had already sought the offices of the U.S. and USSR to help tackle an impending attack from China. So, Srivastava argues that, with these calculations in mind Shastri reiterated India’s offer of joint inspection to assuage Chinese complaints. He conveyed on the floor of the Parliament that he hoped “China would not take advantage of the present situation and attack India.” He, however, stood his ground in while assuring the country his countrymen that in case of an attack from China, India was prepared to fight back.

Sino-Pak. joint manoeuvring

While the Chinese ultimatum was set to expire at midnight on September 19, Chavan’s notes indicate that the Chinese had already begun moving their troops towards the Sikkim border on September 18 , with reports of firing in Nathu La reaching New Delhi.

In a new move, they extended their deadline of dismantling of military structures by 72 hours, knowing that a UNSC resolution demanding a ceasefire would be tabled by September 20 and that continuing the pressure on India would bolster Pakistan’s case, says Chavan.

It was later revealed that China was pushing Ayub Khan to continue the Indo-Pak. war. Gauhar says Ayub, who flew to Beijing for a secret meeting on September 19-20, was assured by Zhou Enlai of continued support “for as long as necessary” and told “but you must keep fighting even if you have to withdraw to the hills.” Gauhar records that it was now that However, it had become “clear to Ayub and Bhutto that if Pakistan wanted full Chinese support it had to be prepared for a long war and the loss of important cities like Lahore,” which they were not prepared for. It was this realisation that led to Pakistan accepting the ceasefire proposed by the UNSC on September 22 1965 ending hostilities and making way for the Tashkent Agreement.

In retrospect, 1965 was a watershed event for the subcontinent. For India, it banished the ghosts of 1962, and proved to be a litmus test for its capabilities both on the battlefront and the diplomatic chessboard. The war also established that the China-Pakistan entente was now a reality India will have to live with and battle, both militarily and politically, for years to come.

( Shruti Pandalai is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. This piece is an excerpt from an essay published in the Journal of Defence Studies , IDSA .)

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Printable version | May 23, 2022 8:20:42 am |