The war of 1965 against Pakistan occupies a penumbral position in Indian history as well as memory. Sandwiched between the wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1971, the 1965 conflict evokes neither the humiliation of defeat nor the frisson of decisive victory. From scholars and historians it has elicited little more than a collective professional yawn. Indeed, there is hardly any new writing on the war that is comparable to what is now available for the other two conflicts that bookended the decade. Yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the war, it is important to recall its magnitude for India. In the full-scale conventional war lasting 22 days, India captured some 1,920 sq km of Pakistani territory—at the cost of nearly 11,500 casualties and the loss of almost 550 sq km of its own territory. These are not trivial numbers. The neglect of posterity is not a good measure of the significance of this war.
To understand the import of the 1965 war, it is essential to see it as a conflict waged in the shadow of the 1962 war. This was not just a matter of temporal adjacency. Rather, the defeat against China had deeply impacted on Indian politics, diplomacy and strategy. It was the unspoken background to practically every major move by India in 1965. It is the key to understanding popular reaction to the conflict and its outcome.
The 1962 war had shaken the grip of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru both on his party and on the country. He had managed to keep discontent from bubbling over by letting go of his much-reviled defence minister, Krishna Menon, and by imposing the so-called Kamaraj Plan, which rid him of key opponents within his government as well as in the states. Although Lal Bahadur Shastri had been among those who resigned under the plan, he was soon brought back to assist the prime minister. To the extent that anyone was Nehru’s chosen heir, it was Shastri. As prime minister, Shastri was aware both of the increasing fractiousness in the Congress and of his own uncertain hold on the party. He also realised that mishandling foreign policy could prove rather costly in domestic politics.
Hostility started in April 1965 with incursions in the Rann of Kutch. But war did not break out until August that year.
The Pakistani incursion into the Rann of Kutch in April-May 1965 underscored this point. The army chief, General J.N. Chaudhuri, advised against escalating the fighting in that area as the terrain favoured Pakistan. If Pakistan continued to pour in troops, he suggested, India could consider opening another, more suitable front. Shastri accordingly refrained from widening India’s military involvement in the conflict. Eventually, on July 1, 1965, he agreed to a ceasefire brokered by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. More importantly, Shastri assented to the border in this sector being delineated by a three-member international tribunal. This seemed to fly in the face of India’s past opposition to submitting its disputes with Pakistan for arbitration. It took all of Shastri’s calm and persuasive style to convince the Congress party that this move was not a sell-out. Shastri insisted that it would set no precedent for any other dispute: “Each dispute has a history of its own and is a separate matter.” Aware of pockets of discontent in his own party, the prime minister also made an unusually detailed public speech on this issue. Yet during the second half of 1965, the government faced a no-confidence motion in Parliament. The opposition demanded scrapping the Rann of Kutch agreement and a tougher stance towards Pakistan.
Even as the House debated these matters, Pakistan had launched a covert military operation in Kashmir. In early August 1965 Pakistani irregulars began to infiltrate across the Ceasefire Line (CFL) in Kashmir. Once Indian forces in Kashmir began responding to these moves, Shastri took the full cabinet into confidence on August 12 and sought an endorsement of the broad outlines of his policy: India would not approach the UN; Pakistan would be sternly warned against infringing on Indian sovereignty; plans would be prepared for various contingencies. Such careful political handling of the unfolding situation was characteristic of Shastri’s approach throughout the war. And it stemmed from the experience of 1962.
The prime minister’s diplomatic handling of the conflict was equally deliberate yet also sure-footed. No sooner had the war escalated in Kashmir than Shastri was faced with pressure from the great powers: the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union, all weighed in to the stop the subcontinental conflict. Even Egypt and Yugoslavia, India’s partners in the Non-Aligned Movement, joined the chorus for ceasefire—a clear indication of India’s diminished standing in the Third World after 1962. Shastri politely but firmly responded that Pakistan was the aggressor and that India could not make any unilateral moves towards peace. The UN secretary general, U Thant, not only sent several messages but eventually landed up in Delhi.
When U Thant suggested an unconditional ceasefire by both India and Pakistan, Shastri was quick to discern the diplomatic advantages of accepting such a proposal. At the very least, it would ensure that the international community would not place India and Pakistan on the same footing. It might even create a favourable situation for India as it negotiated a post-war agreement with Pakistan. By September 13, Shastri was open to U Thant’s proposal. But convincing the Congress party was not a foregone conclusion.
The defence minister, Y.B. Chavan, noted that the Congress parliamentary party executive was “very critical of peace proposals”. This forced the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet (ECC) to reconsider the idea. Eventually, it was agreed that India should accept a ceasefire, but territory captured in Kashmir—especially Haji Pir pass—should not be given up. Even the drafting of the proposals encountered stiff challenges. When Shastri tabled a new draft on September 14, Chavan noted in his diary: “I did not like his sleight of hand.” In the event, Pakistan’s refusal to accept a ceasefire without international mediation on Kashmir ensured that the war continued until September 22.
While Shastri did navigate the shoals of domestic politics and diplomacy with some deftness, his handling of strategic matters was hamstrung by the ghost of 1962. In the wake of that conflict, there was widespread agreement that political interference in military matters had directly led to the debacle. So there was a tacit understanding among both civilian and military leaders that the former would not intrude into operational matters. This division of labour had deleterious consequences during the 1965 war.
In early August 1965, as infiltration increased in Kashmir, Gen Chaudhuri sought Shastri’s permission to take offensive action across the CFL against the infiltrators’ bases. He also requested that if this action escalated and drew in the Pakistani army, the Indian forces should be free to retaliate at any place of their choosing. The prime minister acceded to this request, knowing full well that it might lead to war with Pakistan. Yet, he took no interest in the military’s plans for waging such a war. As the then defence secretary, P.V.R. Rao, recalled, “After giving the broad directive on August 13, the prime minister did not concern himself with the details of the operations.” The defence minister, too, “never interfered in operational matters”. Throughout the war, the ECC “never discussed operational matters but only political issues.”
On September 3, when Pakistan responded to Indian moves across the ceasefire line by launching a full-scale assault on Akhnoor, aimed at sealing off Kashmir, Shastri authorised an attack across the international boundary in Punjab. But at no point did he or Chavan engage their military advisors in any discussion of strategy—of how military means were to translate into the desired political ends.
The prime minister identified the objectives as: defeating the Pakistani attempt to capture Kashmir; destroying the offensive power of Pakistan’s armed forces; and occupying only minimum necessary Pakistani territory, which would subsequently be vacated. The second of these was obviously the most ambitious. Yet, how exactly it would be achieved was never discussed. Left to himself, Chaudhuri decided to make a number of shallow advances on a wide front and then dig in, hoping to wear down the enemy.
The Indian official history of the war is severe in its assessment of this plan: “Instead of delivering a large number of inconsequential jabs, the Indian army could perhaps have gone for a few selected, powerful thrusts.... Faulty strategy lead to stalemate on all fronts.” Worse, Chaudhuri made no attempt to convey his overall operational concept to his subordinates. As the official historians note, “Field Commanders were not clear about their objectives.”
Gen Chaudhuri said we’re short of ammo and tanks. In fact only 14% of ammo had been used; we had twice Pakistan’s tanks.
Despite a string of operational setbacks and stalemates, the political leadership chose not to exercise close oversight of military operations. The defence minister was mostly content being briefed by the chiefs on the operations. Apart from a couple of occasions where he exhorted the military to press on with the attacks, there is no evidence to suggest that he probed deeply on the conduct of the operations. The military, too, kept the civilians at arm’s length. As Chavan noted with chagrin when the Indian offensives began to stall, “Morning meeting—As usual ‘nothing special’ report was given by the COAS.... I must find out why things are not moving.” The civilians’ reluctance to intervene in military matters could be carried to absurd lengths. On September 5, President Radhakrishnan called the defence minister to enquire if the Indian army was planning a counter-attack across the international border in Punjab. The commander-in-chief had been briefed only the previous day by the prime minister. Chavan too had spoken to him that morning to greet him on his birthday. It turned out Radhakrishnan had been told of the assaul plan by Aruna Asaf Ali, who in turn had heard it from a senior journalist who claimed to have been briefed by a senior officer at army HQ. Alarmed at the leak, Chavan asked Rao to immediately probe the matter. On enquiring, it was found the source was none other than Gen Chaudhuri. Although the defence minister was apprised of the matter, the army chief was not even asked for an explanation, let alone being reproved.
As the then defence secretary explained later, “In the view of the public outcry since the 1962 debacle about the relative role of politicians and the services and their chiefs”, the military leadership had been given “somewhat of a long rope.” This attitude proved detrimental in the closing stages. On September 20, as pressure for accepting a ceasefire mounted, Chavan sought Chaudhuri’s assessment. Chaudhuri asserted that the objectives of the war were achieved. “We are on top of the situation (and) if we agree to a ceasefire now, the army would support it. The respite we will get will be good to put things right as far as supplies were concerned.” At another meeting that evening, the prime minister enquired whether they could expect significant military advantage if the war continued for a few more days; if so, he would keep the UN Security Council at bay. Chaudhuri counselled for a ceasefire, claiming that most of the army’s ammunition had been used and that there had been considerable tank losses. The Indian government accordingly decided to accept the UN proposal for ceasefire. Chaudhuri should have known better. At this point the army had expended only 14 per cent of its frontline ammunition; and it had twice as many tanks as the Pakistanis. If anything, the logistical situation of the Pakistani forces was parlous. But the earlier reverses had made Chaudhuri rather circumspect, and hence he plumped for a ceasefire. And so the war ended in stalemate.
Following in the wake of the fiasco against China, this outcome was hailed as a victory by the Indian public. Shastri’s political stock soared. And it enabled him to come into his own in the post-war negotiations at Tashkent. Despite the opposition from some quarters in the Congress as well as other parties to giving up Haji Pir, Shastri managed to build consensus in favour of peace. On the afternoon of January 4, 1966, Shastri and Ayub Khan inked the agreement restoring status quo ante. It was Shastri’s finest moment. Later that night, he succumbed to a massive heart attack, leaving behind a truncated legacy of leadership in war and peace.