'The '65' deconstructed

Topics BOOK REVIEW | Literature | India-Pak

1965: A Western Sunrise: India’s war with Pakistan Author: Shiv Kunal Verma Publisher: Aleph Pages: 509 Price: Rs 999 This account of the Indo-Pak War of 1965 may seem somewhat confusing at first read. That isn’t the author’s fault. “The ’65” was the most confusing of all Indo-Pak conflicts in terms of underlying geopolitics, battles, and outcomes. The first Indo-Pak War in 1947-48 centred on control of the erstwhile Kingdom of Kashmir; 1971 was about Bangladesh. Why’65 happened at all is less than obvious. Shiv Kunal Verma .....
1965: A Western Sunrise: India’s war with Pakistan
Author: Shiv Kunal Verma
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 509
Price: Rs 999

This account of the Indo-Pak War of 1965 may seem somewhat confusing at first read. That isn’t the author’s fault. “The ’65” was the most confusing of all Indo-Pak conflicts in terms of underlying geopolitics, battles, and outcomes. The first Indo-Pak War in 1947-48 centred on control of the erstwhile Kingdom of Kashmir; 1971 was about Bangladesh. Why’65 happened at all is less than obvious.

Shiv Kunal Verma speculates, perhaps correctly, that it may boil down in part to personality. Pakistan’s leadership, especially its charismatic foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, wanted to grab some territory and deal a crushing blow to India, relying on international mediation in its favour if it won a quick war.  Pakistan’s president, General Ayub Khan also had much contempt for dhotiwallahs. 

In ‘65, Pakistan was muscled up with new arms donated by the Americans, courtesy the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation alliance. India’s equivalent armaments were mostly a generation behind Pakistan’s Patton tanks, F-86 sabres, F-104 Starfighters, tank-busters and artillery. Pakistan wasn’t supposed to use any of this gear against India but that was a treaty clause it would ignore.

India was also still reeling from the 1962 debacle, with its army demoralised and in blame-game mode. Moreover, the death of Nehru in 1964 had put the unassuming, soft-spoken Lal Bahadur Shastri in charge and Ayub seriously underestimated his resolve. 

The ’65 was also a strange war in military terms. Months of simmering tensions and small skirmishes exploded into really large battles, with massive artillery barrages and large-scale armoured assaults. Both air forces conducted ground attacks, bombing raids, and fought aerial duels.

Nine months of conflict saw action across the entire Western border, from Kargil to the Rann of Kutch. In addition, the Pakistanis shelled Dwarka from the sea, and bombed airfields in Bengal as well as civilian centres in Amritsar, Ambala, Jodhpur, etc. India bombed the Peshawar airbase, at the other end of Pakistan, and captured over 2500 square km of Pakistani territory. Both sides at different times, came within an ace of forcing possibly decisive victories. Pakistan almost managed to cut the “Chicken’s Neck” connecting Punjab to J&K with an armoured assault. There was a point when the Indian army chief, General J N Chaudhuri considered abandoning Amritsar. India, too, missed out on chances to cross the Ichhogil Canal and threaten Lahore, and passed up on an attempt to penetrate deep into Sindh from Rajasthan.

The trouble started with skirmishes in the Rann of Kutch. After several months of this, Pakistan launched “Operation Gibraltar”. That involved arming a bunch of tribals commanded by regular troops operating in mufti, and infiltrating them into Kashmir. While India was still struggling to control this incursion, Pakistan launched Operation Grand Slam, the aforementioned assault of the Chicken’s Neck.  Outnumbered and outgunned, Indian forces struggled to hold their ground in front of Akhnoor, and the Pakistanis inexplicably failed to follow through on initial successes, giving the defenders time to regroup.

In order to take pressure off this sector, India counter-attacked in Punjab, targeting Lahore and Sialkot with armoured assaults. The counter-attack pushed the Pakistanis back all the way to the West Bank of the Ichhogil Canal and the suburbs of Lahore. But India failed to cross the Ichhogil in force. While this was happening, the Pakistanis punched another armoured assault into the southern part of Indian Punjab, capturing Khem Karan. That thrust was also halted by the skin of the teeth, with India winning a defensive armoured battle.

In the fog of war, both sides suffered from woeful lack of intelligence. Neither knew the size and disposition of the other’s forces; India was unaware Pakistan even possessed a second armoured division! Both made absurd plans due to operating on guesswork. This may explain to some extent, why neither side seized its opportunities.

Mr Verma is unsparing in his criticism of India’s higher command. Personality clashes between Chaudhuri and frontline commanders like Harbaksh Singh and Jogi Dhillon also caused roadblocks. Mr Verma also says Chaudhuri simply didn’t care to integrate the IAF into operations, and did not share aerial reconnaissance data of the Ichhogil with troops on the ground.

In the aftermath, the Soviets hammered out an agreement at Tashkent. India returned captured territory; the Pakistanis agreed not to mention Kashmir. Shastri died within a few hours of signing this. 

Given the passage of 56 years, many of the other principals are also dead. This makes it even harder to understand what went wrong, and why. Given that ambiguity, you may or may not agree with Mr Verma’s trenchant criticisms. Regardless, he’s done an excellent job of providing detailed accounts of each theatre and of the air war, buttressed by the views of many who fought in that long-ago conflict. The book is going to become a standard reference work due to the sheer weight of detail.



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