The 1965 India-Pakistan war carries lessons about what to expect from Pakistan, and how to manage our interests generally. Here, we consider the former. The 1965 war was born of 1962, which left us looking like bumblers. We foiled Pakistan’s resulting adventure, doubtless an achievement, albeit limited, but it turned Pakistan to other means: Fomenting dissidence in our Punjab, feeding subversion elsewhere, developing terror as an instrument of policy, apart from making life difficult in J&K, while scheming its way to nuclear power. All comprehensively demonstrating an undying obsession — doing India down, wresting J&K.
The 1962 Anglo-American arm-twisting to “settle” J&K produced the six-round charade of Z.A. Bhutto-Swaran Singh meetings, which resulted in nothing. While firm as ever on the issue, Jawaharlal Nehru, nearing his end, seemed to sense some need for finality in his time. The resulting Sheikh Abdullah mission persuaded Ayub Khan to visit New Delhi, but Nehru’s death became Pakistan’s excuse to cancel. Our mandarins persuaded Lal Bahadur Shastri to visit Ayub instead, but that summit’s superficial cordiality could not conceal Pakistan’s increasing disdain. Convinced that negotiations were futile, they thought force would work.
Sharpening our vulnerable image were our rising economic problems, a new untried leadership, political squabbling, and a still-clumsy defence capability. Pakistani hawks felt convinced about the opportunity by occupying the Rann of Kutch areas that we claimed but patrolled with habitual slackness. Pakistan had rejected our claims when the Sheikh-Swaran Singh agreement settled our western frontier; our then foreign secretary wrote that our case was so irrefutable, we could leave the boundary undefined.
The result: Fighting, an international tribunal, valuable parts of our “irrefutable” claims awarded to Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s economy prospered. Ayub was seen to be non-communist Asia’s leading man. Hubris misled them, but our image invited trouble. Lessons: Never succumb to self-satisfaction, neglect routine duties or forget that others deal with you as you show yourself.
Shastriji quickly authorised the army to retrieve Pakistan’s Kutch seizures, but limited success and international pressures produced a stalemate. For months, Bhutto was known to be contemplating “an Algeria-type situation”, but Operation Gibraltar presupposed army seizure of territory. Usually the most anti-Indian, in this case, Pakistan’s army had misgivings. Reckoning Pakistan would lose its US-equipment advantage as we built up, the hawks won Ayub over when Washington’s fitful disenchantments with Pakistan started strangling vital American aid, culminating in the June 1965 cancelling of air force replenishments.
Our decision to fight unconfined to J&K startled Pakistan, with Ayub stumbling over words in broadcasting “war” when we crossed the Punjab frontier. But our actions were again inconclusive, and the pressure to stop fighting was enormous. China only postured, but worried us, as did logistics — oil-producing countries were mostly Pakistan sympathisers, we (supposedly) had limited ammunition and spare parts. Pakistan messed up their Akhnur drive and their Pattons, but were no pushovers. They too had logistical problems, sharper than ours, despite help from Muslim friends. Neither side could fight a long war, but a briefly longer war was feasible. Several senior army officers felt we could have achieved more, for once blaming not the civilian leadership but their own. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw openly regretted that we missed our chance. Islamabad crowed successes, but what “success” was demonstrated by the thousands of refugees from heavily populated pockets that we occupied in their Punjab? We could not have altered much the basic military outcome, but a state accustomed to handling power might at least have considered the intriguing political consequences of delaying the ceasefire.
The Tashkent Declaration turns 50 in four months. But it fits here, having been forever questioned for returning heroically captured J&K areas. We went determined not to return them, unless Pakistan agreed to renounce force and accept the ceasefire line as a frontier. How we could interpret what we signed as achieving those objectives is anyone’s guess. We did face unexpected difficulties: Russia’s skilful diplomacy turned from pro-Indian to even-handed, seeing possibilities of weaning Pakistan away from its then bugbear China. Originally urging the Tashkent meet not for a final settlement but to start a process, Moscow pressed for an agreement there and then, with messages sent through our ambassador warning of a return to the UN Security Council, and without the benefit of a Soviet veto.
Many states have defied UN resolutions, but that was not our way. Shastriji had his foreign and defence ministers, principal secretary, foreign, home and defence secretaries, as well as the incoming army chief with him. The decision was not one man’s, but of our usual type. But in all fairness, one must remember that diplomacy can only reflect the ground situation, not least the totality of state capability. Some of us dearly preferred other outcomes, but one could do no more at Tashkent than we could on the ground.
All too often, there are no solutions. Problems can only be managed until circumstances change. Pakistan’s 1965 gamble failed, but we only “scotched the snake, not killed it”. This is not Pakistan-bashing, simply facing facts. Of course, mutually beneficial cooperation is the right goal, but even those somehow finding good sense in overcoming animosity must surely recognise one compelling reality: This snake cannot be killed, or even defanged now. We have to immunise ourselves. That means making ourselves so capable as to live with the likely worst, while warily preparing for worse still. Howsoever right an objective, it is feasibility that counts. Surely, to see signs of Pakistan now abandoning its hitherto manifest obsession with doing us down is wishful. It demands a powerful, efficient state. In 1965, we were economically floundering, militarily weak, politically bickering, and still diplomatically inexperienced. The lessons of 1965 — not to be any of those things — are obvious. So too is our refusal to learn.
The writer, a former ambassador to Pakistan, China, the US and secretary, MEA, was political officer in the Indian High Commission in Karachi, 1962-65, and secretary to the Indian delegation to Tashkent, 1966.