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The war that helped India regain its military confidence

By Nitin A Gokhale
August 26, 2015 12:42 IST
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'India was in no position to wage another war in 1965, having suffered a morale-shattering defeat in 1962. The three services were in the middle of a modernisation and expansion phase and therefore not fully trained or battle-ready.'

'This was one of the reasons why Ayub and his ambitious foreign minister Bhutto were keen to press home the advantage that Pakistan seemed to enjoy in that particular period by launching an action that would free Kashmir from India's 'clutches,' Nitin A Gokhale notes in his upcoming book 1965: Turning The Tide: How India Won The War.

The 1965 war

IMAGE: The India-Pakistan war of 1965 lasted 22 days. Photograph: Kind courtesy, The Madras Regiment

The Context: The Indian sub-continent in 1965

In popular imagination, Operation Cactus Lily in 1971 is seen -- rightly so -- as India's greatest military victory. And 16 December is celebrated as Vijay Diwas. The campaign broke up Pakistan, helped create Bangladesh, and erased the painful memories of the politico-diplomatic-military debacle India had suffered against China in 1962.

Yet, before 1971, there was 1965 and the 22-day war that allowed the Indian military to regain its confidence and revise some of its doctrines, upgrade the equipment profile, and revamp the intelligence set-up.

Looking back at that confrontation 50 years on, it is clear that Pakistan saw that period as its best chance to wrest Kashmir from India. Ever since its attempts in 1947-1948 to take the Kashmir Valley failed, Pakistan had decided to cast its lot with the United States and joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). It also allowed establishment of American bases in Pakistan and in return received American military aid, as detailed by Alistair Lamb in his book Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy 1846-1990.

In fact, previously classified papers of the US State Department acknowledge the fact in some detail. US-Pakistan relations had been more consistently positive.

'The US government looked to Pakistan as an example of a moderate Muslim State and appreciated Pakistani assistance in holding the line against Communist expansion by joining SEATO in 1954 and the Baghdad Pact (later renamed CENTO) in 1955. Pakistan's interest in these pacts stemmed from its desire to develop its military and defensive capabilities, which were substantially weaker than those of India. Both the United States and the United Kingdom supplied arms to Pakistan in these years,' the Office of the Historian of the US State Department notes in its section entitled Milestones 1961-1968.

The same document adds: 'The United States had a history of ambivalent relations with India. During the 1950s, US officials regarded Indian leadership with some caution due to India's involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement, particularly its prominent role at the Bandung Conference of 1955. The United States hoped to maintain a regional balance of power, which meant not allowing India to influence the political development of other States. However, a 1962 border conflict between India and China ended with a decisive Chinese victory, which motivated the United States and the United Kingdom to provide military supplies to the Indian Army. After the clash with China, India also turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, which placed some strains on US-India relations.'

In 1954, America agreed to arm up to five divisions of the Pakistani army with latest weapons, and supply modern fighter jets. A Pakistani author has cited that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) received a massive boost from America.

According to one estimate, Pakistan was supplied with 100 F-86 Sabre jets, one squadron of F-104 Star Fighters, 30 B-57 bombers, and four C-130 transport aircraft between 1956 and 1964, allowing it to narrow the gap with India.

In 1965, the Pakistani army's armour strength was superior to that of the Indian Army. The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) handbook The Military Balance recorded that Pakistan had 765 tanks against India's 720 in 1965.

Pakistan had nine regiments of the latest Patton tanks supplied by the United States, nine regiments of Shermans, and three regiments of Chaffees. India, on the other hand, was saddled with eight regiments of Shermans, four of Centurians, and two of AMX-XIIIs.

Pakistan's artillery was also far superior in quality compared to India's. Besides superiority in field artillery, Pakistan had one heavy regiment of 155 mm guns and 8-inch Howitzers, India was mostly working with 120 mm mortars and one heavy regiment of 7.2-inch guns.

American military assistance to Pakistan in the mid-1950s may have begun as a hedge against Communist expansion, but had since continued unabated for different reasons over the past several decades, such as helping the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation and later in the 'Global War on Terrorism' at the turn of the century. It continues to this date, completely changing the equation in the sub-continent.

Simultaneously, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's belief that China would never attack India led him to neglect the northern frontier and mostly concentrate India's limited military strength on the western front.

The 1960s, however, witnessed a sea change in the geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent.

As relations between India and China first cooled over the disputed border, and then deteriorated to an extent that it led to an armed conflict in the high Himalayas in October-November 1962, Nehru was desperate enough to seek urgent military help from the United States and the United Kingdom for arms, abandoning his principles of non-alignment.

To their credit, both Washington and London appreciated the grave threat to India posed by China and ordered emergency shipment of infantry weapons to meet immediate needs.

Nehru, in fact, requested that the United States send 12 squadrons of supersonic aircraft to be based in India in order to fight the Chinese on a long-term basis.

John K Galbraith, then US ambassador to India, wrote in his book Ambassador's Journal: '(This meant) that the Indians were effectively pleading for military association.' The proposal remained stillborn though, mainly because the Chinese quickly called a halt to its advance into Indian territory.

Galbraith reveals in his book that the United States and the United Kingdom were willing to extend emergency military assistance worth $120 million to India during its national crisis. This was to include transport aircraft, spare parts, light infantry weapons, ammunition, and communications, engineering and medical equipment.

Despite the generous pledge, American assistance to India between October 1962 and September 1965 was to the tune of only $47 million, much less than initially promised.

The very fact that Washington was willing to help India militarily alarmed Pakistan, but sensing India's vulnerability, it put pressure on both the United States and the United Kingdom to make concessions in Jammu and Kashmir in return for an assurance that it would not attack India during its conflict with China.

Defeated and humiliated in the border conflict, Nehru and India were at their weakest point in November 1962. Author Farooq Bajwa writes in From Kutch to Tashkent: The Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 that 'Pakistan was now forced to confront the bitter reality that the Americans were prepared to arm India without any precondition or pressure on India to make concessions on Kashmir. It must have been a bitter moment for Ayub and the Pakistan establishment that a decade of pro-US alliance was being ignored by the US in favour of its most bitter enemy.'

Despite what Bajwa writes, both British and American foreign policy establishments did put tremendous pressure on India to resume talks with Pakistan on Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of India's 1962 border conflict with China.

S N Prasad and U P Thapliyal note in their book, The India-Pakistan War of 1965: A History, that six meetings took place between 17 December 1962 and 16 May 1963, 'but Pakistan's rigid stand on Jammu and Kashmir issue and its surrender of some 5,200 sq km of occupied territory (of J&K) to China as a result of a provisional Sino-Pak border agreement rendered further negotiations futile.'

The book cover

Looking back more than half a century later, it is clear that the shift in American policy towards India sent Pakistan firmly in Chinese arms. Many in the Pakistani establishment saw the American 'betrayal' as a chance to reach out to China, which had just taught India a lesson and appeared to be an implacable enemy of India -- as Pakistan was.

So Pakistan started courting China for support, particularly over the Kashmir issue. Even as it continued to have a military alliance with the United States, Pakistan started supporting China's entry into the United Nations.

China too sensed the shift in the Pakistani attitude. The first sign of a thaw was the agreement that they could discuss the hitherto undemarcated border between the two. By October 1962, negotiations began and, in less than six months, the two agreed on the final settlement.

On 2 March 1963, Pakistan agreed to cede to China the 5,200 sq km of area under Kashmir in Hunza, south of MintakaPass. In later years, we would know this area as the Shaksgam Valley.

A strong and lasting relationship primarily driven by the anti-India stance of the two countries was about to begin. China saw this development as a chance to wean away a country that had been an important element in the anti-Communist bloc that the United States was assiduously building up in Asia.

For Pakistan, China's friendship offered wider strategic choices and freed it partly from the vice-like grip of America. It was win-win for both. No wonder the friendship was later described by then Chinese president Hu Jintao as 'deeper than the Indian Ocean and higher than the Himalayas.'

The friendship strengthened progressively. In February 1964, then Chinese premier Zhou en-Lai during a visit to Pakistan assured his country's full support to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, thereby also declaring the change in Beijing's hitherto neutral stand.

He hoped that the Kashmir dispute would be resolved in accordance with the wishes of the people of Kashmir. This was the exact position Pakistan had taken with regard to Kashmir, insisting on honouring the UN resolutions of 13 August 1948 and 5 January 1949.

Till then, Beijing had stayed out of the Kashmir dispute.

At the same time, Pakistan also kept up its diplomatic war of nerves against India. Galbraith notes that Pakistan 'generally maintained this offensive, seeking to exert pressure on India by every means.' Anti-India statements and rhetoric on Kashmir from leaders and political entities in Pakistan were stepped up.

Prasad and Thapliyal cite several reports in this regard. On 11 January 1965, Pakistan's then communications minister Khan A Sabur declared that the government would soon 'find out all possible avenues to liberate the Muslims of occupied Kashmir.'

On the same day, a tribal leader, Malik Espain Gul, boasted he would lead 2,500,000 tribesmen trained in guerrilla warfare to Kashmir to 'liberate the state from Indian occupation.'

On 7 March 1965, Abdul Hamid Khan, then president of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, threatened to liberate the Indian-held territory of Kashmir. As the Kutch crisis escalated, 64 violations were reported all along the Cease-Fire Line (CFL) in just six days, between 25 and 31 March 1965.

Meanwhile, even as China-Pakistan ties were growing stronger, the American military aid continued unabated. Alarmed at the developments, India under Lal Bahadur Shastri and his defence minister Y B Chavan (appointed by Jawaharlal Nehru in November 1962) took counter-measures to re-arm, expand, and modernise the Indian military.

Arms assistance from the Soviet Union was gratefully accepted. However, India was in no position to wage another war in 1965, having suffered a morale-shattering defeat in 1962. The three services were in the middle of a modernisation and expansion phase and therefore not fully trained or battle-ready.

Indeed, the Indian armed forces expansion that had commenced in 1963 was incomplete when the 1965 war began. The troops were semi-trained by the time the war came; the majority of the officers only had between one and three years of service.

Then there were the young soldiers recruited post-1962 to fill the new raisings. The new raisings milked the older units and this resulted in sudden promotions without requisite field or battle experience.

This was one of the reasons why Ayub and his ambitious foreign minister Bhutto were keen to press home the advantage that Pakistan seemed to enjoy in that particular period by launching an action that would free Kashmir from India's 'clutches.'

The Pakistani leadership was not overly impressed by Nehru's successor, Shastri, and assessed that he was a pushover.

Economically too, Pakistan in that period was doing better than India. Politically, Sheikh Abdullah's falling out with India was seen as an opportune moment by Pakistan, which felt that the Kashmiri population would support an instigated rebellion against India.

But more than anything else, Ayub wanted to recover lost political ground domestically by achieving a military victory against India. Some explanation concerning Pakistan's domestic politics of the time is necessary here.

General Ayub Khan had come to power in Pakistan in 1958 on the back of a 'bloodless coup' following the declaration of martial law that year. By 1962 he had introduced a new constitution. Under the new constitution, future assembly and presidential elections would have an indirect franchise of 80,000 'basic democrats.' These were people handpicked by the local civil and military officers for their loyalty unnecessary, and could thus be trusted to vote in the manner chosen by the regime.

The only election remaining under the terms of the new 1962 constitution was the presidential election, which was set for 2 January 1965. Against such a background, when in September 1964 the opposition announced that its presidential candidate to challenge Ayub was going to be Miss Fatima Jinnah, the elderly sister of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Ayub camp panicked.

The Jinnah name still carried enormous clout. Fatima Jinnah drew huge crowds during the campaign in both West and East Pakistan, causing deep unease among Ayub's cabinet. Even the staunchly conservative Islamic parties threw their weight behind her.

The government took no chances. The army was out in full force. But despite large-scale vote rigging, Miss Jinnah lost by a mere 10,000 odd votes. As a commentator in Pakistan noted, 'a respectable result given the degree of intimidation and rigging carried out by the military regime. Even Ayub was painfully aware that without the rigging and manipulation, he had in reality lost the presidential election...'

All these factors -- Ayub's political desperation and quest for political legitimacy, India's military vulnerability, and Pakistan's new-found friendship with China -- meant that Ayub did not think through the consequences of launching yet another military attempt to wrest Kashmir from India.

He allowed himself to be goaded by the hawks in his cabinet, notably Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, into forcing a military solution to the Kashmir issue. Subsequent events would show how poor foresight led Ayub into a war he could have easily avoided.

Excerpted with the author's permission from 1965: Turning The Tide: How India Won The War by Nitin A Gokhale. CLAWS and Bloomsbury Publication.

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Nitin A Gokhale