In the summers of 1965, two nations formed out of the ruins of one met each other on the battlefields of northwestern India in the very famous Indo-Pak War. The Indian economy was not in good shape at that time due to the rising food prices. The man who shaped the nation as we know it today, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, had left a power vacuum to be filled after his death. India was still licking its wounds from the Sino-Indo war of 1962. Pessimism was in the air when Lal Bahadur Shastri took over Nehru’s seat. At that time, India was spending 28% of its GDP on defense and was facing political pressure to spend heavily on nuclear tests.
Shastri Ji came from a very poor family and knew the importance of “Grains over Guns”. He was considered a meek prime minister when compared to his charismatic predecessor. But criticism had emboldened him to take steps that even Nehru Ji refrained from, especially at the time when Congress was called to be the house of indecisive leaders. The story of Lal Bahadur Shastri is inseparable from the Indo-Pak war of 1965 because his 18 months tenure ended with a peace treaty being signed in Tashkent and he dying on foreign land. While we all have read about India’s war of Independence in our history books, it is time to know the story of one of the first wars of Independent India.
Pakistan’s Military chief turned President Ayub Khan along with the then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in search of an appropriate opportunity to get control of the whole of the Kashmir. Unfortunately, Pakistan, a close ally of the US in the cold war was well equipped with modern ammunitions while India was busy developing a basic framework of economics on the lines of Soviet’s socialism. Sensing political indecisiveness, the Pakistan army started patrolling in India and controlled regions of Rann of Kutch around January 1965 which got border polices on both sides involved in skirmishes.
To end the dispute, the British Prime minister made both the nations agree on a ceasefire with Pakistan giving 910 square km of Kutch while it claimed 9100 square km. Shastri Ji accepted this compromise because he was in no mood to get an economically unstable country involved in a war. Ayub Khan read this as India’s inability to fight in case an attack is launched on Kashmir. In August, he came up with Operation Gibraltar which involved sending around 26000-30000 militants to Kashmir disguised as local Muslims to incite Kashmiri Muslims to revolt, but the operation failed because localities themselves reported against the infiltrators.
While defending Kashmir, the Indian military also launched another front and captured the Haji Pir pass in Pakistan occupied Kashmir while militants too progressed to regions like Uri and Tithwal. Seeing that this group might not be able to achieve its objective, the Pakistan military launched an attack on Akhnoor with heavy artilleries and took the Indian army bases by surprise. Akhnoor was a strategically important location because losing its control would have meant losing Kashmir.
The Indian Air Force came to the rescue with half of the forces still stationed on the Indo-China border, technologically being no match to Pakistan’s US-made aircraft. But the Indian army relied on its wit as much as they believed in their valor. To lower the burden on Kashmir, Indian forces, with the permission of Shastri Ji, crossed the international border to launch an attack on Pakistani Punjab front so that Pakistan is forced to relocate some of its troop to Punjab in Pakistan. An unaccepted blow coming from someone who Ayub Khan considered to be having “no stomach for a fight” led to the failure of another operation. Now the new battleground was Punjab front. India marched further into Pakistan’s territory to reach close to Lahore. At this point, Shastri Ji said, “Ayub Khan wanted to take a stroll up to Delhi, but I thought why an esteemed person like him, be given the pain, so we reached Lahore”.
Meanwhile, India’s food crisis was at its peak. The prime minister himself requested every Indian to fast once in a week after making his family members do the same. He started kitchen gardening in his own residence to send the message that we must cultivate on whatever little land we have available. His rallies would often echo with the cries of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”.
The Indian forces were yet to fight the battles of Sialkot and Asal Uttar, one of the bravest battles ever fought in the history of wars. Around 250 Pakistani tanks and more than 10,000 soldiers entered Khem Karan to reach GT road and capture Amritsar which could be used to negotiate for Kashmir. Indian troops with artillery and tanks were sent to Khem Karan to defend the attack while they know that lightweight Indian Sherman tanks and centurion tanks were no match to the most advanced US-made Patton tanks.
Simultaneously a battalion of foot-soldiers was sent to Asal Uttar on 8th September. This strategy by Indian forces proved that some battles are fought in war rooms too. The attack on the Pakistani army from Asal Uttar (meaning befitting reply) was a trap. While the Indian soldiers hid behind sugarcane fields to fire on Patton tanks that were causing heavy casualties, the field of Asal Uttar was marshy and slowed down the speed of tanks which allowed easy targeting by Indian artillery and tanks. On the third day of the battle, 4 Indian grenadiers were to fight 14 tanks and an infantry battalion. An Indian constable, Abdul Hamid, mounted on a moving vehicle, destroyed 7 Patton tanks with just his machine gun. India owes its victory in the Indo-Pak War of 1965 to many others like him who showed undaunted bravery.
Indian forces were not giving an inch to move for Pakistani troops in Indian territory near Kashmir. Cavalry, artillery, and infantry united to fight the war in Pakistani territory of Phillora, Chawinda, and Sialkot. The Indian army was preventing Pak from achieving its target on most of the fronts while being forced to walk back in some areas due to miscommunication. But both sides were suffering heavy casualties. 3000 Indian soldiers and 3800 Pakistani soldiers had died.
The Indo-Pak War of 1965 was the first battle fought with tanks since World War 2. As per independent sources, Indian had gained control over 1804 square km. of Pakistan’s territory (most of this being fertile regions of Punjab) while Pakistan held 540 sq. km of Indian territory which was barren and marshy at places. While most of the neutral assessments confirm that losses on Pakistani side were heavy, most Pakistanis refuse to accept their defeat at the hands of a Hindu nation, blaming immature strategies of Ayub Khan for the losses.
Pakistan even celebrates 6th September, the day the war started as its Defence day. The war came to an end with a ceasefire being announced by Ayub Khan on 22nd September followed by Shastri Ji, due to international pressure from UNSC. While Russia wanted to play a bigger role and accepted that events of Kashmir were escalated by Pakistan, the US took a neutral stand by imposing an arms embargo on India as well as its close ally Pakistan.
The prime ministers of the warring nations later met at Tashkent in Uzbekistan (earlier in USSR) from 4th– 10th January 1966. While Shastri Ji wanted to dismantle all infiltrators from the Kashmiri land, Ayub was stuck to his demand of conducting a plebiscite in Kashmir in order to decide control over it. After a week’s negotiations, a peace treaty was signed which mandated both the nations to return to their earlier positions, and the line of control was restored. Nothing was mentioned about Kashmir and the parties promised to resolve the issue peacefully.
Here, India could have leveraged its strategic position, but diplomacy remained complacent. The Indo-Pak war of 1965 is often said to be inconclusive because neither of the sides achieved its goal. However, it changed the way the world looked at India after defeat in the Sino-India war 1962. It improved our relations with the Soviet Union which benefitted us in the 1971 war again with the same enemy who had clearly not learned the lesson of not misreading Indians.