How the stage was set for the 1965 war

The events that led to the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan on September 6, 1965 are well known — the Kutch incursion of April 24, Operation Gibraltar of August 5, followed by Grand Slam on September 1. Each of them took New Delhi by surprise and were the reason that the government decided to constitute the Research & Analysis Wing subsequently.

Fifty years ago: A 1965 picture of jawans cleaning their weapons during the Indo-Pak war. File pic/Getty Images
Fifty years ago: A 1965 picture of jawans cleaning their weapons during the Indo-Pak war. File pic/Getty Images

This was a period of great change across the world, some were visible, others subterranean. The Cold War had peaked in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the first signs of the Sino-Soviet rift were appearing. By 1964, the US was set on its fateful course in Vietnam following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964. In South Asia, India was licking its wounds after the humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and America’s most allied ally, Pakistan, was establishing close ties with China, and working out a détente with the USSR.

India’s situation was none too good. Its economy was stagnant and it had staved off famine by importing 17 million tonnes of food from the US between 1960-64 and the 1965 monsoon had failed. It sought to maintain an even keel in its relations with the US and USSR, even while the US struggled to manage its alliance ties with Pakistan and its newer proximity to India after the 1962 war.

The most important development for Indians, undoubtedly, was the passing of Pandit Nehru on May 27, 1964. He was the leader of our freedom struggle, prime minister for the first 17 years of our nation’s life and the man who shaped the India we know.

After his stroke on 7 January 1964 in Bhubaneshwar, Nehru got Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had been ‘Kamarajed’ out of the government, back into the Cabinet as a minister without a portfolio. Panditji’s death on May 27th was not unexpected, but it was sudden. Four days later, on 31 May, Morarji Desai was persuaded to withdraw his candidature, and Shastri was chosen PM by the Congress Working Committee.

The powerful men of the CWC hoped that the diminutive Shastri would be their puppet, but he turned out to be a man of firm views, and decisive to boot.

This was evident from his handling of the crisis over the theft of the Hazratbal holy relic that had occurred on 27 December 1963. Though it had reappeared after a week, it had given rise to a popular movement led by an action committee of people we would today call separatists. Besides the release of Sheikh Abdullah, they demanded a special deedar or viewing ceremony by experts to certify its authenticity. New Delhi was not inclined to agree, but on February 3, Shastri overruled the Home Secretary and ordered the deedar and this committee certified that it was indeed the genuine article. This helped calm things somewhat.

One fallout of the Hazratbal crisis was Nehru’s decision to release Sheikh Abdullah, who had been in jail since 1953, but for a brief period in 1958. The Sheikh travelled to Srinagar to an ecstatic reception. Later, after holding intensive talks with Nehru as his house guest in New Delhi, he travelled to Pakistan to discuss a possible resolution of the Kashmir issue with Ayub Khan. He had with him a formula that had been worked out after intensive consultations between Nehru and a committee of advisers. This probably involved the creation of some kind of a confederation or condominium between India, Pakistan with regard to J&K. However it was during this visit that Nehru passed away on May 27, 1964.

Not much attention has been paid by scholars to the far-reaching possibilities that could have emerged. Nehru’s initiatives were not welcomed by either the Left or the Right, or even members of his own party. Yet, his stature was such that if anyone could have sold a settlement in India of the nature that was being contemplated, it was Nehru.

The Kashmir initiative died with Nehru. Stung by the Hazratbal agitation, the Union government took the steps to integrate J&K closer into the Union by extending Article 356 and 357 of the Constitution allowing for the extension of President’s rule to J&K on December 31, 1964. The nomenclature of the head of the J&K government was changed from Prime Minister to “chief minister”. Another, equally significant development was the merger, in June 1965, of the J&K National Conference with the Congress.

Viewed from Pakistan, it appeared that the window of opportunity in Jammu & Kashmir was closing. In 1964, the UN had also more or less shelved discussion on the issue and earlier, in 1963, six rounds of bilateral negotiations with India had failed to come up with a solution on Kashmir. The Indian rearmament, which was proceeding apace, would soon blunt the edge the Pakistan Army had over India in terms of its US-supplied arsenal.

In March 1965, Sheikh went on a pilgrimage to Mecca via the UK and returned via Algiers, where he met Zhou Enlai. What they discussed was not revealed but on his return he was arrested. A senior CIA contact of the Sheikh has revealed in a memoir published in the 1990s that Abdullah was aware of the planning for Op Gibraltar, the covert invasion of Jammu & Kashmir by 30,000 armed Pakistani irregulars that began on August 5. When this invasion failed to trigger an uprising in the state, Pakistan sent in its 6th armoured division to cut off the Jammu-Poonch road.

Till then, the international community seemed to be unconcerned; the Pakistanis thought that like 1947, India will confine the conflict to Jammu & Kashmir. But the unassuming man who succeeded Nehru surprised them and the world. He ordered the Indian army to invade Pakistan and threaten Lahore and Sialkot and that touched off the second Indo-Pakistan war.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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