Fifty years ago, India and Pakistan fought a short but bloody war. The author finds out how Sainik Samachar, the defence ministry's journal, reported it
“Pak troops on the run.” “Fleeing raiders exterminated.” “Pakistani soldiers utterly demoralised.” The headlines in Sainik Samachar left nothing to the imagination. As India waged a furious battle on its western front, the official publication of the defence ministry worked hard to ensure that morale stayed high and India’s image remained one of glory.
A fascinating narrative of the war unfolds in the yellowing pages of the 1965 editions of Sainik Samachar, a journal of the Indian armed forces that was born in 1909 and is today published in 13 languages every fortnight.
While the war was on, Sainik Samachar was brought out every week. Words such as “loyal”, “united”, “glorious” and “brave” leaped out of its pages as the publication scripted a narrative that exalted the achievements of India at war.
It captured every significant speech of (then) President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Defence Minister Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan, and Information & Broadcasting Minister Indira Gandhi.
Niceties were discarded and it openly called Pakistan the cunning aggressor. Every little report that even remotely hinted that a certain assault might have found India on the backfoot was aggressively countered. And every tiny slip by Pakistan was celebrated.
It drew attention to how the nation stood as one in this testing time, with film stars such as Balraj Sahni, Sunil Dutt and Mala Sinha going all out to keep the soldiers pepped up.
It tapped into news agency and newspaper reports, reprinting dispatches from the front, splashing on its pages pictures of captured infiltrators, tanks and ammunition, and published letters and documents to show that the infiltration was orchestrated not by civilians but by the Pakistan government under Operation Gibraltar.
It was the first draft of the history of the 1965 war. Carefully bound old editions of Sainik Samachar are kept in high-security North Block. Old issues of the magazine, dated and bound in the same shade of red, line the shelves of a grey steel and glass cupboard.
Rummaging through the shelf, the heart skips a beat on realising that while the January-June editions are available, the critical July-December collection is missing -- it was during this period, from August 5 to September 22, that the war was fought.
A helpful employee finally finds the collection tucked away in one corner. Some of the pages have come loose and there are notings on others. The cover pages of some war editions have “record copy” scribbled on them. “These are treasures,” says Hasibur Rahman, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. “We don’t allow these copies to go out of this office.”
In its edition of May 9, Sainik Samachar carried the first report of hostilities between the two neighbours. It was called “Pak Aggression on Kutch-Sind Border: Jawan Shows His Mettle”.
Staking claim to large parts of the Rann of Kutch, Pakistani forces intruded in massive strength in April 1965.
“The police pickets this time had something much more formidable on their hands than smugglers, innocent stragglers or unwary patrolmen,” Sainik Samachar said. Pakistan’s plan was to take India by surprise and get it to concede the disputed 3,500 square miles of the region.
The forces came with Patton tanks and 106 mm recoilless guns.
Drawing from a report by a special correspondent of The Hindu, the journal soon proclaimed: “The Pakistani gamble in Kutch has failed.”
It quoted this dispatch of the correspondent from the Rann of Kutch: “A visit to the operational area dispels from one’s mind any wrong notion or apprehension that Pakistan has taken complete possession of any area of particular length or breadth.”
Lauding the armed police force manning the pickets, the report said: “The heroic defence of the Central Reserve Police Force, inflicting heavy casualties on them in the very first attack was a bad blow to Pakistan.”
That event, which took place on the night of April 9 when the CRPF’s Sardar Post in Kutch came under heavy shelling, is today celebrated as Valour Day by the paramilitary force.
There were, however, reports that India suffered an initial setback and fell back in the Biar Bet and Point 84 sectors of Kutch. Sainik Samachar countered this vehemently in an article titled “Jawan foils Pakistan’s plans”.
“At the border, the Rann of Kutch is overlooked by a rim-like formation 100 feet to 150 feet high. Attacking forces at the height are in an immeasurable superior position,” it said.
“Pakistan,” it added, “whipped up worldwide political propaganda that the Indian army had been disgraced in battle. This is not true… With the odds so heavy against them, the forces could only employ attrition tactics… This has been accomplished and the enemy has suffered heavy casualties.”
Speaking about the aggression in Kutch, Defence Minister Chavan informed Lok Sabha on April 26 that the morale of “our people and the forces is high and they are determined to resist any affront to our sovereignty and territorial integrity at any cost”.
To buttress the point, Sainik Samachar carried a small agency report on the same page as Chavan’s Lok Sabha statement. “Servicemen throughout the country have made requests to Army Headquarters here that they be posted along the Kutch-Sind border… There is said to be unprecedented enthusiasm to go to the ‘front’ to ‘roll back’ the Pakistani aggressors.”
This spirit was reiterated in an interview done by the Press Trust of India with the commanding officer of a battalion stationed in Kutch -- of course, he wasn’t named. “We swatted them like flies, nearly 150 of them were down, killed or wounded,” he said.
The Pakistanis, added the report, were taken aback by Indian firepower and threw in more tanks, six of which went up in flames. Another report talked about “a brave lieutenant colonel and his equally courageous second-lieutenant son” who fought shoulder-to-shoulder in Kutch.
And then there were reports, almost hilarious, of inaccurate shelling by Pakistan artillery: “Pakistani shells, more often than not, pounded the sand of the Rann of Kutch and incidentally helped to dig up the earth which our Jawans subsequently used for bunkers.”
In Kutch, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson finally succeeded in persuading the warring countries to end hostilities and resolve the dispute. Pakistan would eventually get 910 square km of the Rann of Kutch against its claim of 9,100 square km.
Soon, the attention shifted to Kashmir. On reading Sainik Samachar, it becomes clear that Pakistan’s strategy changed little between 1947, when it first fought India, 1965 and 1999 when the last war happened in the Kargil-Drass sector. On each occasion, India claimed that the attackers were Pakistani soldiers masquerading as tribesmen on a mission to “liberate” Kashmir.
In its August 29 issue, the journal reproduced the fiery speech delivered by Prime Minister Shastri from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, five decades ago. “Pakistan has invaded Kashmir,” thundered the diminutive, mild-mannered Shastri.
“I use the word ‘invasion’ deliberately. It is absurd to say that civilian raiders have infiltrated into Kashmir from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.”
A few pages down came proof of this “invasion” in the form of a picture of two captured Pakistani officers -- Captain Mohammad Sajjad and Captain Ghulum Hussain -- blindfolded, handcuffed and held by a soldier in fatigues.
In an account that bears a striking similarity to the way in which the Kargil conflict of 1999 started, Sainik Samachar reported: “Early this month (August), Pakistan unleashed a new campaign of sabotage and terror in Jammu & Kashmir. It took the form of armed infiltration, fanning across the cease-fire line (now called the Line of Control) into areas in India for saboteur operations. The first crossing was reported to have occurred on the evening of August 5 in the Mendhar sector of Jammu.”
Between 26,000 and 33,000 Pakistani soldiers had crossed the LoC dressed as Kashmiri locals. The Indian troops, it wrote, recovered badges that indicated the ranks of the raiders who had in their possession arms that were available only to regular troops.
“The infiltrators had come with large sums of money,” it reported. “One of the captured officers had with him Rs 4,700 in Indian currency.
If that wasn’t enough, a set of “‘top secret’ instructions issued by Major-General Akhtar Hussain Malik of the Pakistan army to Brigadier (Amir Abdullah Khan) Niazi for infiltration operations in Kashmir” was reproduced by Sainik Samachar.
The document gave information on funds, method of operation, ration and ammunition. “You will be self-sufficient to operate for at least two weeks,” stated the note.
In another reproduced report, the magazine said that in its “campaign to let loose terror in Kashmir, the Pakistan authorities, the captured documents reveal, also took recourse to enlisting criminals,” among them history-sheeters and those accused of abduction.
The claim was backed with copies of letters by senior officers of the Pakistan army to senior police officers in Sialkot and to the city magistrate of Lyallpur.
Sainik Samachar noted that Pakistan’s confidence came from two factors: one, faced with a military onslaught, India, which had then suffered heavy losses in its 1962 war with China, would not be able to defend Kashmir; and two, it would be possible to trigger a resistance movement in the people of Kashmir who were dissatisfied with Indian rule.
As the war peaked, the journal went all out to debunk these theories.
“The people of Kashmir have not only given no quarter to the Pakistani raiders but have throughout helped the Indian army in smashing them and preventing them from their nefarious acts,” it declared in bold with a photo feature of the “large quantities of arms and ammunition” left behind by “fleeing Pakistanis”.
The writing was melodramatic, with the Indian soldier shown as the invincible hero and the Pakistani infiltrator as the meek, bumbling, demoralised villain. Inevitably, as the two countries were at war, jingoism crept into the narrative.
An army observer who was an eyewitness to a “regular western movie style battle about 30 miles west of Srinagar” narrated how a group of over 20 Pakistani raiders who were trying to flee across to their side of the cease-fire line were engaged and exterminated by our security forces.
“The raiders were demoralised,” he wrote. And among the material captured from them were some women’s clothes that “the raiders had obviously been using to disguise themselves.”
Several pages were devoted to how poorly the Pakistani soldiers were treated by their government. One report spoke of how surprised the Pakistani soldiers, captured in Kashmir, were on finding that “stories of Indian Army atrocities on the civil population, on which they had been systematically fed, were a tissue of lies.”
These soldiers then said that going back to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was out of the question because they knew they would be shot by the Pakistan authorities for having failed in their mission.
The treachery of the “masters” of the captured soldiers was played out in detail. Here’s an account:
“What will you make of three weeping sobbing Pakistani soldiers, each having 13 years army service to his credit but each more demoralised than the other? A large party of Pressmen met these Pakistani soldiers recently and almost all were moved to pity."
"The soldiers talked in tears of their children, their young wives left behind and their aged children uncared for by anyone. But they also talked of other things, and more bitterly the treachery of their masters and the disgusting game of deceit and fraud played on them by their officers. The three Naiks said they had been told that they were being taken for ‘army exercises’, and it was only after they had crossed the cease-fire line and received Indian currency notes that they had some idea of their mission.”
Ever country that has been in war has its own war history, its own version of the conflict. India and Pakistan are no exception. By the end of August, Pakistan did make some progress in the Tithwal, Uri and Poonch sectors of Kashmir, and Indian troops captured the crucial Haji Pir Pass pushing their forces 8 km into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Sainik Samachar also reported extensively from the Khem Karan sector in Punjab, which came to be called the “graveyard of tanks”.
It was at Khem Karan that Abdul Hamid of The Grenadiers engaged and destroyed several Patton tanks, fighting till his dying breath -- a feat for which he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. Hamid found repeated mention in Sainik Samachar for several months.
To lend authenticity to the reports of victory, the journal carried reports from other publications.
One such report, “Story of the great tank battle in Kasur”, by journalist Inder Malhotra reproduced from The Statesman, said: “It was about 24 hours after the decisive victory in the Kasur sector on September 11 that we visited the area. It was in this battle that our men smashed a massive enemy attack, captured 15 Patton tanks, destroyed many more and sent the famous First Armoured Division of Pakistan reeling back in defeat and disarray.”
The high point for the Indian troops in this war was the capture of Burki, a village less than 10 km southeast of Lahore. “Burki village falls to our troops,” said one headline. It was captured on the night of September 10.
The article that accompanied pictures of India’s conquest of Burki recounted: “The road to Burki is littered with burnt and charred shells of Pakistani military vehicles.... The village is deserted except for one blind 80-year-old Nabi Baksh... Indian jawans looked after him and fed him and he is full of praise for them. ‘They are my true sons now,’ he said.”
The war of 1965 also saw some old friendships waning and new relations being forged. Sainik Samachar took note of this, sparing no opportunity to point out Pakistan’s growing and disturbing proximity to China after its old ally, the United States, refused to come to its aid and issued a statement declaring its neutrality.
A report by the United News of India, carried in bold, spoke of Pakistan President Ayub Khan’s secret deal with the Chinese premier, Chou En-lai.
"President Khan has promised her (China) to allow the use of East Bengal (current day Bangladesh) as a base for war against India,” reported the agency.
In a broadcast to the country on September 19, published in the journal, Defence Minister Chavan made this point: “Pakistan, particularly encouraged by her Chinese ally, may try a desperate effort to attack us in the position we have gained and these attacks will have to be beaten back in the same way as the previous attacks that were made by Pakistan.”
War is a time when a nation comes together. India did too. And Sainik Samachar captured every act that showed solidarity with the soldiers. Here are some examples: Defence Minister Chavan received 7,000 telegrams and letters from industrial concerns, business houses and social and cultural organisations. Among them were letters from college students who wanted to go to the front.
A religious centre in Varanasi offered to educate children of martyred jawans free of cost.
A student body gave Rs 1,001 to the National Defence Fund. Maharaja Tej Singh of Alwar donated rifles and pistols to the state government. And Delhi Milk Scheme, or DMS, gave ghee worth Rs 1,000 for jawans in hospitals.
Marketing also took on a war vocabulary as is evident from the advertisements in the pages of Sainik Samachar. JK Synthetics, which marketed synthetic yarn under the Jaykaylon brand, advertised that paratroopers could come “sailing down to unexplored ground without fear” because they had safe parachutes with best nylon chords.
India and Pakistan were not isolated in the war of 1965. And China wasn’t the only external player. The world was watching closely. Foreign journalists flew in to report on the conflict.
In one interview to All India Radio, George de Carvalho, the Pulitzer-winning war correspondent of Life, said American military aid to Pakistan “was intended to contain communism and was used against India and was a violation of Pakistan’s undertaking to the United States… Obviously one is very upset to see American weapons used against a great and peaceful nation and one only hopes that this warfare will come to an end as soon as possible.”
It finally did following diplomatic intervention by the Soviet Union and the United States.
On September 22, Prime Minister Shastri announced in the Lok Sabha “that orders were being issued to field commanders for a complete ceasefire at 3.30 am on Thursday, September 23, following Pakistan’s acceptance of the terms of the United Security Council.” That said, Shastri added that India had to be watchful and vigilant.
Peace returned. The two countries went back to their original positions. The boundaries remained unchanged.
Some days later, on October 3, addressing a mammoth gathering at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Shastri offered these words of sanity: “It is obvious that in the present world, a war cannot continue for long. There is always intense international diplomatic activity. There was a time when a war could be fought to the finish and an issue could be decided by victory or defeat. Now the world is drawn much closer.”
The editors of Sainik Samachar could finally breathe easy.