The government’s plans to hold a “commemorative carnival” to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 India-Pakistan war are being viewed across the border as a “muscular” assertion by the Narendra Modi government that could vitiate further the atmosphere between the two countries and reduce space for dialogue.
India has never celebrated any of its wars on such a grand scale, not even the 1971 war that ended in the surrender of 80,000 Pakistani troops in the erstwhile East Pakistan. After the Nawaz Sharif government took office in 2013, Pakistan’s commemoration of what it calls Youm-e-Difa or Defence of Pakistan Day on September 6 has been scaled down, and the national holiday that day called off.
India’s commemorative events of the 1965 war will run from August 28 to September 26 in Delhi. While the Pakistan government hasn’t reacted officially, a senior Pakistani official told The Indian Express that his country, which sees the war as a victorious defence of its territory by its armed forces, has no plans for similar celebrations.
The official said India’s commemoration plans, like his statements in Bangladesh, were not in keeping with the signals of reconciliation that Prime Minister Modi had sent out right after his election. “Going by the statements he made in Dhaka on the 1971 tragedy, and statements by the defence minister, such an event can only have a negative impact. We sitting in Pakistan don’t get the feeling that PM Modi is as yet ready to move from confrontation to cooperation despite the initial overtures,” he said.
“Muscular articulations such as these will do very little in the way of resuming dialogue, which the BJP leader has stated his government’s interest in,” Pakistan People’s Party vice-president Sherry Rehman said in a statement earlier this month. Rehman said any agenda for peace “requires an appetite for it, not an investment in valourising memories of conflict”.
There is also civil society concern that the commemoration would create more anti-India feelings in Pakistan, and give a fillip to pro-military lobbies. Also, historians are divided about India’s “victory” in the war.
Former Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations Lt Gen (retd) Athar Abbas said such a commemoration could only reduce the space for dialogue. India and Pakistan see the 1965 war differently, Abbas said. “We see the 1965 war as a substantial victory. A big country, a big army was stopped and failed to achieve its objective. It was a formidable defence we put up, stopped the juggernaut,” said Abbas, now an active participant in the Track-2 peace processes. Abbas feels the BJP government has become a victim of its own rhetoric against Pakistan. “In an atmosphere where there is no space for dialogue and reconciliation, it is difficult to say how Pakistan will react, but the whole situation is not improving,” he said.
India and Pakistan fought the 1965 war from September 6 to 22, after the conflict had started with the skirmishes in the Rann of Kutch in April that year. Emboldened by its relative success in the Rann, and buoyed by India’s defeat to the Chinese in 1962, Pakistan attempted to create an uprising in Kashmir Valley and followed it with a military attack in August. India, under Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, responded with opening the front in Punjab on September 6.
The 17-day war ended with a ceasefire and the subsequent Tashkent Declaration between the two countries.
Both India and Pakistan claim victory in 1965 although India captured 1920 sq km of Pakistani territory while Pakistan had 550 sq km Indian territory in its possession at the time of the ceasefire. Official Indian history of the war says that India’s “faulty strategy led to stalemate on all fronts”. Most scholars, however, credit India with having had the upper hand. Stanley Wolpert notes India “was in a position to inflict grave damage to, if not capture, Pakistan’s capital of the Punjab when the ceasefire was called, and controlled Kashmir’s strategic Uri-Poonch bulge, much to Ayub’s [Khan] chagrin”.
India had then captured the strategically important Hajipir pass, which links Uri and Poonch. Prime Minister Shastri had announced in Delhi that he would not return the Hajipir pass at any cost. India however agreed to return Hajipir in one of the last actions by Shastri as prime minister before he suffered a fatal heart attack in Tashkent on January 4, 1966.
The day India captured Hajipir, August 28, will see the start of the commemorative events with the laying of a wreath by President Pranab Mukherjee at Amar Jawan Jyoti, followed by a month-long celebration of which the highlight will be a “carnival” on Rajpath with mock displays of the operations during the war.
“I hope remembering the 1965 war spurs us as a nation to urgently initiate the process of dialogue with Pakistan to bring peace and stability to our region. Anything other than that could be counterproductive,” said Sushobha Barve of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, which organises a regular India-Pakistan Track Two dialogue. All armies of the world like to remember important events of the wars they have fought but, Barve said, she was unable to understand the phrase “carnival and celebrations”.
Lt General (retired) B S Nagal, director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in Delhi, which is bringing out a book on the heroes of the 1965 war during the commemoration, had a different view. “It will be wrong to say these are celebrations of the 1965 war. It is more like a commemoration which will remind the younger generation of what happened 50 year ago,” he said.
Historian Srinath Raghavan contends that if the government is really interested in promoting awareness and knowledge about the 1965 war, “it should declassify and make all the records of the 1965 war publicly available”.
India has so far marked Vijay Diwas on December 16, the day Pakistani forces surrendered to India in East Pakistan, when the three service chiefs and the defence minister pay homage at Amar Jawan Jyoti. During the previous NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, July 26 was celebrated as Kargil Vijay Diwas. A three-day military exhibition was organised at the India Gate lawns on Kargil Vijay Diwas in 2000 but the celebrations went low-key thereafter.
August 28: wreath-laying by President at Amar Jawan Jyoti
September 1-2: Seminar on the war at Manekshaw Centre, Delhi Cantt. President Mukherjee will preside over a function where Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh will be honoured. A first day cover and stamp, and a book on the war will be released.
Sept 15-19: Exhibition on lawns between Vigyan Bhawan and Rajpath, to be inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi.
Sept 20: A “commemorative carnival” on Rajpath. Likely to include reenactments of major battles. It will end with a musical evening by bands of the three services on the lawns of India Gate, where Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar will be chief guest.
Sept 22: The day the war officially ended will see a wreath laid at Amar Jawan Jyoti by PM Modi. It will be Veterans Felicitation Day, with the President to honour them at Rashtrapati Bhawan, but many veteran groups have refused to participate due to delay in One Rank One Pension.
Sept 26: Grand finale with a massed band concert at Vijay Chowk with the President as the chief guest.
* Various army commands are organising seminars on the war. Chandimandir-based Western Command is holding seminars in Jalandhar on July 7, Jammu on July 10, and Chandimandir on July 15.