Home >opinion >The lessons we still haven’t learnt from 1965

Who won the 1965 war? While both India and Pakistan celebrate the golden jubilee of their glorious “victories", newspaper columns and TV shows in the two countries have belatedly tried to adjudicate the winner. From India’s point of view, this debate is futile. First of all, this debate presupposes that war outcomes are binary in nature. While some commentators have pointed out that 1965 ended in a stalemate, a large body of public opinion thinks of war outcomes as a zero sum game where Pakistan’s loss implies India’s win. This is not necessarily true. Victory—perceived or otherwise—depends on each side’s political objectives, which may not always amount to Clausewitzian destruction of the enemy.

What is important for India is not the war outcome but the lessons we should have learnt from 1965, but sadly we haven’t yet. First, 1965 was a huge intelligence failure. Despite the foreboding Rann of Kutch skirmish in April 1965, India failed in anticipating the nefarious Operation Gibraltar being schemed in Pakistan. Fast forward to Kargil in 1999 or Parliament attacks in 2001 or the 26/11 Mumbai episode in 2008, the implications of persistent intelligence lapses are too massive to be ignored. We have repeatedly allowed Pakistan to take us by surprise despite knowing the nature of the Pakistani state rather too well.

Second, Indian forces have had to suffer from poor equipment and ammunition support whether it was 1965 or the Kargil war. During the former, our 1945 vintage Centurion tanks were up against the latest American origin M-47 and M-48 Patton tanks. Three and a half decades later, the Kargil Review Committee catalogued the deficiency of weapons and equipment support for Indian Army jawans. A CAG report tabled in Parliament earlier this year raised questions on India’s ability to fight a 20-day war. The story is worse with paramilitary and police forces which have to deal with insurgents and infiltrators too often. Poor training and equipment of Punjab police was on full public display during the recent Gurdaspur attacks.

Third, the quality of decision-making during times of crisis leaves a lot to be desired. Since the debacle of 1962 was blamed on excessive political interference, 1965 was characterized by inadequate civilian oversight which—according to military historian Srinath Raghavan—was the reason India did not achieve a better outcome. Army chief general J.N. Chaudhuri miscalculated the amount of ammunition left and the number of tanks destroyed, an assessment which prodded Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to accept the ceasefire under international pressure.

The lessons from 1965 will remain incomplete till the events in Tashkent are understood in entirety. India had captured four times the territory Pakistan did during the war. Under Soviet pressure, India ceded all its gains which could have served as leverage with Pakistan in future negotiations. It seemed as if lessons from the adverse fallout of international mediation in Kashmir sought by Jawaharlal Nehru were not yet internalized. K. Shankar Bajpai, who served as secretary to the Indian delegation in Tashkent, recalls, “We went determined not to return them (the captured areas), unless Pakistan agreed to renounce force and accept the ceasefire line as a frontier." Apparently, the threat of referral to UN Security Council without the cover of Soviet veto did the trick. Ambassador Bajpai adds, “One could do no more at Tashkent than we could on the ground."

The ground was further queered by the death, in mysterious circumstances, of Shastri the night following the signing of the Tashkent declaration. The documents related to the death of Shastri have not yet been declassified on the pretext of preserving our foreign relations. In the information vacuum, a number of conspiracy theories continue to float including one linking Shastri’s death to another mystery prevailing over Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

In the real spirit of commemorating the golden jubilee of the forgotten 1965 war, the government should declassify all the documents pertaining to the war and the 1966 Tashkent declaration including those on the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri.

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