The strange march to the 1965 war
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Inexplicably, New Delhi delayed the announcement of this grave development until the late evening of August 8. The next morning I took the first available plane to Srinagar. There was fear in the air but life in the city seemed to be going on normally. At 6 pm, when the whole Valley went under curfew, the mood changed. Suddenly, there appeared in my hotel room Sushital Banerji, a dear friend and an outstanding civil servant. In numerous capacities, he had handled many of Kashmir's myriad crises. He insisted that I pick up a change of clothes and my shaving kit to accompany him to his home.
Only on reaching there did I discern the cause of his anxiety. The situation was fragile and chaotic. Infiltrators were getting dangerously close to Kashmir's capital, and nobody senior to Banerji was around to direct the beleaguered administration. The dynamic state Home Minister D.P. Dhar and the equally effective chief secretary, Mangat Rai, had gone off in opposite directions to inspect how the rather paltry paramilitary forces and the police were coping with the Pakistani challenge.
Banerji's phone never stopped ringing. At one stage, I heard him virtually shout: "What, only one
company left at the police headquarters? Please make sure that it is not sent away for any reason whatsoever." He then rang up the army's divisional commander at Baramulla, Major General Sarup Singh Kalan, and informed him that three tanks were urgently needed to protect Srinagar's airport, radio station and telegraph office. But the general would hear none of this. The job of taking on the infiltrators, he said, was that of the paramilitary. His instructions were to act only if the Pakistan army moved in. Luckily, at that precise moment Dhar walked in, took the phone from Banerji and charmingly persuaded the reluctant Kalan to do the needful.
Dhar and Banerji then pondered their next big problem. Kashmir was very short on paramilitary forces. Large-scale reinforcements were desperately needed. But how to convey this to Delhi when Pakistani agents had access to the contents of every phone call? Ultimately, they decided that Banerji should ring up M.G. Kaul, a joint secretary in the PMO who, though a Kashmiri, spoke fluent Bengali because he was a West Bengal civilian.
The next morning, only one battalion of the Punjab Armed Constabulary, headed by super cop Ashwini Kumar and accompanied by the state's home minister, Darbara Singh, flew in. There was no sign of other promised formations. Months later in New Delhi, I learnt from the Union home secretary, L.P. Singh, why several states had initially dragged their feet until warned of dire consequences: the Centre had failed to pay for the previous occasions that they had sent their forces to Kashmir or elsewhere. UP's chief secretary had pleaded helplessness. His chief minister, in response to an "audit objection", had issued strict orders that no request from Delhi for state forces should be entertained until outstanding bills were cleared. The CM was away. It took a lot of time to trace him at a remote village and persuade him to reverse his order. In another state, the chief secretary lamented that he had enough law-and-order problems on his hands and couldn't spare any armed personnel. He had to be told that he was making himself liable for action under the Defence of India Rules!
However, regardless of the above, it has to be said for this country's administrative system that after its usual bumbling, confusion, buck-passing and blamegame, it eventually rises to the occasion during a national crisis or calamity. And so I witnessed in Kashmir during those deeply troubled days.
Planeloads of reinforcements had started coming in, there were adequate arrangements for their prompt and planned deployment, and a seemingly hopeless situation was gradually being brought under control. Partly because of Parliament's anger, the army had joined the task of killing, arresting and chasing out infiltrators. The biggest factor behind the fiasco of Pakistan's Operation Gibraltar was that there was no revolt among the Kashmiri people.
By the end of August, Kashmir was not only cleared of armed Pakistani intruders, but the Indian forces had also occupied several Pakistani posts and positions across the ceasefire line. The most important of these was the Haji Pir Pass that was Pakistan's easiest route to send infiltrators through. Its conquest, at a rather heavy price in blood, had given this country an enormous strategic advantage. Probably for this reason, as also because the army had made great sacrifices to capture the pass,
Shastri went on declaring that
India would never vacate Haji Pir. At one stage, he even proclaimed that if Haji Pir had to be returned to Pakistan, "some other prime minister" would do it. This was unnecessary and, as we shall see as the story unfolds, was to cause him and the country much difficulty and embarrassment.
There were some Indians, even within the government and the press, who thought that the India-Pakistan equation would slowly return to the usual no-war-no-peace situation. They had their rude awakening on September 1, when the Pakistan army mounted an armoured attack on the Chammab-Jaurian sector of Jammu and Kashmir, and India had to use air power to interdict it. For how this happened and what followed, watch this space.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator