Underestimating India

The origins of many a war in history remain disputed to this day. The 1965 War between India and Pakistan, however, has the unique distinction of there being utter confusion over the date on which it began. For Pakistan this happened only on September 6 of that year, when the Indian army started its march on Lahore. Remarkably, this date is still observed as the "Defence of Pakistan Day" every year. For many Indians the war started on September 1 and lasted 22 days. For, at the beginning of September a taskforce of Pakistani tanks had attacked the Chhamb-Jaurian sector in a bid to make a dash for Akhnoor, the fulcrum of the supply line from the rest of India to Jammu and Kashmir. The assault was thwarted by this country's use of air power.

It is a different matter that all the resolutions of the UN Security Council demanded of both countries to withdraw their troops to the "positions they had occupied on August 5". Most significantly, exactly this was the basis of the Tashkent Declaration that Lal Bahadur Sashtri and Field-Marshal Ayub Khan signed in the Central Asian city under the Soviet auspices on January 10, 1966. The prime significance of August 5 is that on that day were detected massive infiltrations of Pakistani troops in Mufti and other irregulars into Kashmir. As in 1947, so 18 years later this was Pakistan's first step towards wresting Kashmir from this country.

The infiltrations, code-named Operation Gibraltar, were the brainchild of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, then foreign minister, assisted by the veteran and hawkish foreign secretary, Aziz Ahmed, Defence Secretary Nazir Ahmed and Major-General Ahktar Hussain Malik, General Officer Commanding of Pakistan's 12 Division. The general drew up the operational plan. Ayub Khan, a cautious man, was most reluctant to risk a war with India. But Bhutto and his cohorts talked him into it. If Pakistan wanted to wrest Kashmir by armed force, Bhutto argued, 1965 was the "last chance". The opportunity would vanish once the expansion and reorganisation of the Indian Army was complete in a few years' time. At the opportune time, said Bhutto, India was badly shaken by its "humiliating" defeat in the 1962 War with China, Nehru's death, his successor Shastri's "ineffectualness", acute food shortage and a virulent anti-Hindi agitation in the South. "It was now or never". Bhutto's logic did appear persuasive. But both he and Ayub failed to realize that its two fundamental assumptions that the arrival of "raiders" would start a revolt in the "discontented" Kashmir valley, and that because of "fear of China", India "would not dare" extend the fighting in Jammu and Kashmir into a "general war" could be dangerously wrong.

Ironically, after the Bhutto cabal had succeeded in convincing him, Ayub suddenly put his finger on Akhnoor on the sand model during a briefing, and said: "Why don't you go for the jugular and cut Kashmir off from India"? He sanctioned more men and money for this assault that was code-named Operation Grand Slam. He also declared: "Hindu morale would not stand more than a couple of hard blows at the right time and place. Such opportunities should, therefore, be sought and exploited". The crowning irony is that in the words of his information secretary, confidant, biographer and indeed alter ego, Altaf Gauhar while Ayub uttered these words he "did not know that Gibraltar had failed". By then Indian troops and paramilitary forces had not only driven the infiltrators out but also seized Pakistani strategic heights, most famously the Haji Pir Pass.

In order to cover up this stark failure, those who had kept the Field-Marshal in the dark immediately launched Grand Slam though it was meant to begin only after the infiltrators had succeeded in "setting the Kashmir valley on fire". By this time, Major-General Akhtar Malik had become thoroughly discredited among his peers. The Army Chief, General Musa, relieved him of the command of Grand Slam and appointed swash-buckling Major-General (later general and army chief and later still president) Yahya Khan in his place.

Grand Slam was still stuck when at first light on September 6,Shastri did what he had publicly told Pakistan he would do. He sent the Indian Army into Pakistan's heartland in Punjab in the direction of the prized city of Lahore. In a memorable phrase, Altaf Gauhar says in his biography of Ayub Khan that when "India attacked Pakistan the most surprised person was Ayub Khan". He adds: "Ayub's surprise was shared by the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army (Gen. Musa) Ayub was now facing the moment of truth".

In the fog of war, as fortunes changed, both sides made mistakes. Pakistan had occupied the Indian village of Khem Karan just across the border on September 8. From there it launched its counter-offensive with its second armoured division in the vanguard. Strangely, the Indian side was unaware of the existence of this formation. Probably in a moment of panic the chief of the army staff, General J. N. Chaudhury, ordered the Western Army Commander, Lt.-General Harbaksh Singh, to withdraw to the east of the Beas river. To his credit, Harbaksh refused. Meanwhile Pakistanis were overconfident of cutting through Indian defences because they felt that their state-of-the-art Patton tanks would get the better of India's outdated Shermans and Centurians. Precisely the opposite happened. After an epic battle, Asal Uttar, not far from Khem Karan, became the "graveyard of US-supplied Pakistani Pattons".

Let Gauhar tell the rest of the story of "September 11, a fateful day". Ayub had taken his acolyte into his office and showed him "on a map how the counter-offensive personally ordered by him was progressing and was extremely optimistic about its outcome". At that precise moment, Ayub's Military Secretary, General Rafi, "walked into the room in a state of great agitation and almost shouted that the Indians had breached the Madhupur canal The Khem Karan counter-offensive had run aground, and with that had collapsed Pakistan's entire strategy. For Pakistan the war was over".

Yet it took 12 more days before the UN-sponsored cease-fire came into effect. Why and how will have to be narrated later.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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