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The Little Man Of Steel

Obscured for long by the glamorous Nehru dynasty, scant attention has been paid to the mild, peace-loving Gandhian who first displayed Indian political backbone in the face of Pakistani aggression. Finally, a biography which puts Lal Bahadur Shastri

The Little Man Of Steel
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
Portrait Of Lal Bahadur Shatri: A Quintessential Gandhian
By L.P.Singh
Ravi Dayal Rs. 125
AS it happened, the Kachchh dispute, accompanied by some fighting, erupted early in 1965. There were a number of circumstances related to the Kachchh episode which may well have led to misjudgements both in India and Pakistan. The authorities in India failed to respond seriously to Pakistan's encroachment in Kachchh. India's first response was to post a CRPF battalion to deal with what were expected to be minor intrusions into Indian territory. Doubts about this judgement were created soon after when Pakistani troops mounted a strong attack on the CRPF post. But some misjudgement about Pakistan's intentions continued. As reports reached the Central authorities about the appearance of Pakistan's tanks on the Kachchh border, the initial reaction at Army Headquarters in India was that the intelligence officer concerned had probably mistaken a mirage for tanks! When the reality of Pakistan using armour was recog-nised there was an unwillingness to engage in a battle across the difficult, waterless Kachchh desert. Asked if only easily defensible Indian territory was to be defended, the military reply was that the defence of India did not require defending every inch of territory, and that the correct course would be a riposte elsewhere. Shastri agreed to such a course, provided it did not involve crossing a settled boundary. This was the real inhibition, but Pakistan interpreted the Indian withdrawal as weakness, and the local Pakistani commander boasted that if permitted by his government, he could drive on to Bombay.

Soon after, there were reliable reports that Pakistani forces had moved forward all along the frontier to take battle positions. Shastri was on a visit to Kathmandu during those last days of April 1965 and, because of an interruption in telecommunications, he could not be contacted. So the home, defence and fin-ance ministers had to take the decision, in consultation with the chief of army staff, to move Indian forces to forward positions. Shastri showed some unhappiness about the action taken in his absence, but the sit-uation had so developed that the action had become unavoidable.

Then British prime minister Harold Wilson took the initiative to bring about a ceasefire by instructing the British high commissioners in the two countries to approach the Governments of India and Pakistan and suggest a ceasefire; Wilson followed that up with messages to Ayub and Shastri. A ceasefire was agreed to after a series of exchanges. Reference to arbitration was agreed to at a meeting between representatives of the two governments, which John Freeman, then British high commissioner in India, also attended. The inadequate armed response to the attack in Kachchh may have been interpreted in Pakistan as India's lack of military capability; and our agreeing to refer the dispute to international arbitration may have strengthened this belief. There was also perhaps the feeling that Shastri was too peace-loving and mild to go to war. In fact, as Shastri himself explained in a public speech in Nagpur in July, he had not compromised India's sovereignty in agreeing to arbitration, and that as demanded by India, the status quo had been restored. He added, "India could ill-afford to discard her declared policy of resolving all problems through peaceful means." Shastri was always ensured there was no divergence between his actions and declared principles and policies.

A point about the agreement to refer the Kachchh dispute to arbitration is worth mentioning to bring out the extraordinary complex nature of relations between the two countries. As C.S. Jha, then foreign secretary, was in London with Shastri, I was asked to sign on behalf of India. But I saw no reason why another secretary-level officer in the Ministry of External Affairs should not sign. That happened to be Azim Hussain; the signatory on behalf of Pakistan was their high commissioner in Delhi, Arshad Hussain. They were cousins and brothers-in-law!

BEFORE dealing with the fateful events of August-September 1965, the differing perceptions of the Kachchh episode in India and Pakistan should be noted. I have already referred to the basic considerations which influenced Shastri's agreement to refer the dispute to arbitration. He was sincerely keen to avoid an armed conflict with Pakistan; but reports of ominous moves in Pakistan were being received even after the Kachchh affair and India could not be complacent or lower its guard or slow down the planned development of its armed forces. However strongly Shastri desired peace, he was acutely conscious of his responsibility for the defence of the country which he carried as Prime Minister, and the trust which the people of India had placed in him.

There were definite indications at the time that Pakistan was going ahead with its aggressive plans; to those in power in that country the months after the Kachchh attack were just a brief interlude before undertaking another adventure. So, when towards the end of May 1965 reports were received of Pakistani troops concentrating in aggressive postures all along the border, India complained to the Security Council that this posed a 'persistent and serious threat to peace'. The letter to the Security Council gave details of Pakistani troop concentrations and said that 'the whole of the Pakistan army was deployed in battle positions on the Indian border with both East and West Pakistan'. The complaint also stated that there were violations of Indian air space and a series of violent incidents across various parts of the border.

The Shastri government had no aggressive intentions towards Pakistan; all its efforts were directed towards the maintenance of peace, with vigilance and precaution, however, for the defence of the country should circumstances require. In fact, Pakistan itself did not expect any aggressive action by India; as already noted, the belief was that India had agreed to arbitration of the Kachchh dispute in recognition of its weakness. Pakistan, on the other hand, was planning aggressive action. Even during the Kachchh operation Pakistan had been making preparations for what was code-named Operation Gibraltar: armed commandos, who were part of Pakistan's and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir's military establishment, were to be infi l-trated into Jammu and Kashmir across the ceasefire line, and undertake offensive action against selected targets. Coinciding with this, an uprising of the Muslim population in Jammu and Kashmir was to be fomented and developed; and once the infiltrators had made progress with the task assigned to them, and an uprising started, Pakistan's regular troops would mount an attack to seize the Kashmir Valley.

Behind all their planning there were certain wrong assumptions, the most important being that of India's enfeebled political and economic condition.Coming after Nehru, Shastri was grossly underestimated: he was considered incapable of holding the country together or providing decisive leadership.G. Par-thasarathy, who had been our high commissioner in Pakistan, on returning to India reported Bhutto's thesis about the impending disintegration of India, which he had considered fit to mention to Par-thasarathy during the latter's farewell call on him. I well remember Shastri's cool reaction to the report: it is Pakistan, he remarked, not India, that was heading towards disintegration. At the time I thought it was one of his rare expressions of spontaneous though rather muted indignation; as it happened, it turned out to be a prophetic judgement based on Shastri's understanding of the flimsy foundation of Pakistani nationalism, which had ignored most factors that contribute to a consciousness of national identity.

Those in power in Pakistan had made a number of other wrong assumptions also. One was about a popular uprising in the Valley when, in fact, Muslims in the Valley actually provided valuable information and assistance to the Indian forces and civil authorities. Another was that a Pakistani attack across the ceasefire line would not lead to an Indian response across the Indo-Pak border in Punjab. It had also been expected that India might mount an attack against East Pakistan, thus antagonising the Bengali population and probably bringing China into the war. Anticipating later events, mention may be made of a provocative air attack from East Pakistan, and the readiness of the chief of air staff to strike back. But Shastri prevented the proposed air strike, and took care to mollify the greatly respected air chief, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh, explaining the reasons for restraint.

Yet another wrong assumption, more in the nature of a myth, was about the poor fighting abilities of the 'Hindu' soldier and the short staying power of the 'Hindu Army'. Even some western powers had been persuaded to believe in the 1950s and early '60s that one 'Islamic' soldier was equal to 10 'Hindu' soldiers. The fact that all religious and ethnic sections of the Indian population were represented in the Indian armed forces was ignored, and also that there had been composite regiments in the British Indian Army in which Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had all shown similar fighting qualities. However, not everyone in responsible positions in Pakistan suffered from these delusions. The cold calculation of those not subject to these delusions, as I learnt from a highly credible Pakistani source during my visit to Pakistan in 1990, was that after the conflict with China in 1962 India had been expanding and re-equipping its armed forces, and that with the passage of time India would become too strong to be dislodged from Kashmir by force. So it was thought that 1965 provided the last opportunity for Pakistan to undertake operations to seize Kashmir.

Shastri's views about the strength of India differed sharply from fashionable opinion in Pakistan. During his visit to Assam at the time of the Chinese attack in 1962 he had expressed confidence in the Indian forces being able to halt the Chinese advance at the foot-hills. Again, in 1965 when Pakistani infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir had started, he asked me to consult the agencies concerned and to communicate to him their assessment of the various factors necessary to deal with the developing situation. When Ireported to him a moderately optimistic assessment, he expressed his own final judgement on the following lines: he was convinced that with its size, manpower, natural resources and industrial capacity, India could not possibly be defeated by Pakistan, or for that matter conquered by any power. He was far from being a believer in military glory, and he was not thinking only in terms of the strength of the Indian armed forces. His confidence was based on his faith in the basic strength of the resurgent Indian people, their patriotism and their determination to preserve their hard-won freedom.

Shastri was well aware that in several periods of Indian history invaders had come through the passes on the north-west, and that those who had entered the country by sea had established themselves as rulers of the country. But one sensed that Shastri looked at the post-Independence Indian nation in a basically different way. The Indian people as a whole had never faced an invader. The cultural consciousness of Indianness had not been converted into a feeling of a common political nationality before the struggle which led to the country's independence in 1947. The Indian people had in the past fought and been defeated, and the country conquered in bits and pieces. But as was demonstrated during the Chinese attack in 1962, there was an upsurge of national feeling throughout the country, including in Tamil Nadu, where there had been a separatist movement, and in north-eastern and north-western India which were more or less directly threatened. The experience of 1962 had left a deep impression on Shastri's mind, and more than once during 1965, as reports came in of Pakistan developing its aggressive plans with some possibility of China supporting it in one way or another, Shastri told me during discussions on the security situation that the Indian people had the strength and capability to defend the country. The events justified Shastri's con-fidence. It is noteworthy that it was not India, but Pakistan, especially after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's emergence on the political scene, that made all the miscalculations, ending in the break-up of that country in 1971.

Those in power in Pakistan had not thought that a general war would take place in 1965. This has been confirmed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's public statements, to which reference has been made in Wolpert's biography of Bhutto. According to Bhutto, President Ayub thought that the Indian forces would not cross the international border.

IN 1965 Shastri kept himself informed of all the evidence of Pakistan's intentions and all of us concerned with India's security were required to remain in touch with the civil authorities and military commanders in Jammu and Kashmir. Under the authority of the prime minister and home minister, I briefed the civil authorities in Jammu and Kashmir of the likely Pakistan action in that state, and events proved our judgement to be fairly correct. I returned to Delhi after a visit to Srinagar, and within a few hours received a message from the state chief secretary that Pakistani infiltrators had already been sighted in the Gulmarg area, and that the divisional commander concerned was taking action. The only help we could offer immediately was to airlift a few hundred men of the CRPF, which we did.

As reports of further infiltration came in, we concluded that on August 9, which the Plebiscite Front in Kashmir had been observing through a hartal as the anniversary of Sheikh Abdullah's 1953 arrest, Pakistan was likely to announce that there was an uprising in the Valley and that the people of Kashmir had declared their independence of India. To forestall such a fictitious and misleading declaration by Pakistan it was crucial for India to give international publicity to the true state of affairs through a public announcement before the midnight of August 8. Shastri approved of this and a meeting of the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet was called at his residence in the evening; the chief of army staff was asked to be present; and the leading representatives of the Press advised to be available.

A meeting of a delegation of Sikhs, led by Sant Fateh Singh, had been scheduled some days earlier to meet the Prime Minister later that evening, and I was asked to be present to make a note of what they had to say. The Sant spoke exceedingly slowly, and in a voice which was barely audible. I have a vivid recollection of agonising hours as the talks dragged on dreadfully slowly towards midnight. I was fretting, wondering whether we would be able to make the essential announcement in time; but Shastri was cool and collected as usual, and incapable of terminating the discussion in which nothing new was being mentioned and only the same complaints and suggestions repeated time and again. However, the interview did end a little before midnight, and with the approval of the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet an official statement was released to the Press. Its text was as follows: "Commencing on August 5, there has been extensive infiltration by armed men from Pakistan at several points all along the cease-fire line in Jammu and Kashmir and also at some points across the international frontier between Jammu and West Pakistan. The infiltrators, who have come in small groups and whose number is now considerable, have already clashed with our forces at several places. Casualties have been inflicted on them and some have been rounded up. From information gathered from the prisoners and from the nature and quantity of arms recovered, it is clear that the operation has been planned and organised in Pakistan. Most of the infiltrators belong to the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir forces through they are in civilian clothes, and have been obviously sent out with arms and explosives to conduct acts of sabotage and foment disturbances. At the same time, Pakistani troops have been firing continuously across the ceasefire line.

The Government takes a grave view of the situation. It has taken steps to strengthen the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir and will take all the necessary measures to meet the situation."

In a broadcast on August 12, Shastri expressed his determination to deal firmly with Pakistan's venture, which had gathered momentum during the preceding week. He described the infiltra-tion by armed Pakistanis as 'a thinly disguised armed attack on our country organised by Pakistan' and characterised Pakistani propaganda about the so-called revolt by some people as 'blatantly and completely untrue'. He referred to a similar situation in 1947 when initially Pakistan had pleaded innocence and later admitted that its regular forces were involved in the fighting.(One may, in passing, note that in Pakistan's profession of innocence in regard to events in the 1990s, Kashmir history is being repeated.) Proceeding further, Shastri said: "When freedom is threatened and territorial integrity is endangered there is only one duty—the duty to meet the challenge with all our might." These are not the sort of words that came naturally to a quintessential Gandhian, which Shastri was. But dur -ing the next few weeks he showed by all his statements, private or public, and all his decisions, that this man of peace and goodwill could also prove to be a man of steel. As Prime Minister, Shastri had to uphold the integrity of India, however dedicated to the cause of peace he might be. There is no doubt that he was keen to have friendly and peaceful relations with Pakistan; if there was a war with that country during the brief period when he was Prime Minister, it was in circumstances beyond his control.

The rest of August 1965 continued to be packed with incidents; attempts at sabotage by the infiltrators, operations to round them up, and skirmishes and escalation continued, with open attacks by Pakistani troops in Chhamb on September 1.In one incident about the middle of August, the raiders had reached the Bemina bridge, only a few miles out of Srinagar, and killed 14 policemen posted to guard the bridge.

Sushital Banerji (who was then commissioner or additional chief secretary, J&K,and stationed at Srinagar) spoke to me and expressed serious anxiety about the imminent threat to the security of Srinagar itself. It had some troops of an air-defence regiment guarding the airfield, and a few companies of the CRPF which had been airlifted from Delhi. In the absence of the home minister, away from Delhi on tour, I rang up the Prime Minister's office and sought an immediate appointment with Shastri. I was told that the French ambassador was with him at the time, and that L.K. Jha, then secretary to the prime minister, was also with them. I then asked for Jha and briefly explained the urgency of my meeting the prime minister; Jha wanted the chiefs of the Army and Air-Staff to be available by the time I reached the prime minister's room.

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