On the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 War, it is necessary to analyse its implications, as it is widely perceived to have been a strategic stalemate. There is no doubt that the war did not result in decisive military victory, yet in the long term it had a profound impact and permanently changed the course of events in South Asia. The war was a defining moment for the two nations, as it not only heralded a change in leadership, but also created situations that led to the redrawing of maps. It is, however, ironical that the evolution of the two nations from this point onwards moved in diametrically opposite directions. As India grew in strength, Pakistan went downhill.
It was a war both the countries could ill afford to lose. The Indian armed forces, smarting from the Chinese debacle just three years ago, had to redeem their honour and could ill afford to give any latitude to the enemy. On the other hand, the Pakistani armed forces were riding a high horse, having taken over the administration of the country. They felt that they had better arms, courtesy their dalliance with the pro-US defence pacts and believed that the Indian Army was demoralised after its humiliation in 1962. This led them to initiate the war. For long, the Pakistani media had propagated (sometimes correctly) that Pakistan had forged ahead of India in terms of economic as well as military power. The success in the Rann of Kutch had not only bolstered the morale of the troops, it had also raised the countrymen’s expectations from the armed forces. Consequently, when the Indian Army decided to cross the IBL the Pakistan Army retreated into a defensive mindset.
On account of this defensive mindset, despite having grand offensive plans, none of the two sides could achieve any strategic military success and small tactical victories were projected as major gains. There is no doubt the war saw large scale armour movement and witnessed largest tank battles since World War II, but there were no great victories on ground. Yet, most Pakistanis consider it as their finest hour and 6 September is celebrated each year as Defence Day. The Pakistani armed forces projected victory to depict themselves as an effective force and as the only institution that could save Pakistan. Till their emphatic victory in 1971, the Indian armed forces also prided themselves in their performance in the 1965 War. The so called victory in the 1965 War not only bolstered the morale of the armed forces but provided succour to the public, which had been in despair since the Chinese debacle. Success in the war was essential to establish the credibility of the armed forces and the faith of the countrymen in them. This media hype before and during the war led both the countries to claim victory in the war.
As a result, after having proclaimed victory, when the two countries negotiated and came to a settlement at Tashkent, there were adverse reactions in both the countries, as it was perceived that whatever was gained on the battlefield was lost on the negotiating table. The adverse reaction in India was probably the reason for the sad demise of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, but his death defused the reaction to the accord to a large extent in India. He was succeeded by Indira Gandhi, who after some initial tentative steps, consolidated her position and went on to strengthen India militarily.
In Pakistan, the army was shaken up by the result of the war, but not as much as the general population, which had been led to believe by the government controlled media that India’s defeat was imminent. Disillusionment created internal problems, which, fed by adverse economic conditions, led to the emergence of Z.A. Bhutto as a national figure and the eclipse of President Ayub Khan. Though Bhutto, as the foreign minister, was not only the man who had been actually responsible for the war, he had also negotiated the accord and was with Ayub throughout. Yet, ironically, it was he who led the protests against the accord. The blame for the unsatisfactory accord from Pakistani population’s point of view was laid firmly at Ayub’s door. There were student riots, leading to wider violence, and Bhutto used these for his own political purposes. The protests ultimately led to Ayub’s resignation and brought in another military dictator and thus the war heralded new leadership in both the countries.
In 1965, India appeared tottering. Western scholars wondered if India post Nehru would survive as a monolith, for militarily it had been trounced, diplomatically it had fallen down from the high pedestal it occupied during the 1950s and President Johnson’s cancellation of Indian PM’s trip to US was perceived as the nadir. In the economic field, India was facing a famine and internal dissonance was at its peak, but the war changed it all. It revived the patriotic fervour and reinforced internal cohesion. Pakistan had hoped that there would be an uprising in Kashmir followin g the infiltration. Unfortunately for them, the Kashmiris not only reported the infiltration but also failed Pakistan’s plans to organise an armed revolt. Some of the prevailing fissures in India, like the DMK demand for autonomy, the Akali movement for Punjabi Suba and the Maharashtra-Mysore border dispute were mistaken by Bhutto as evidence of Indian disintegration and were factored in when he advocated war. However, the war led to the dilution of demands and suspension of agitations and resulted in closing in of ranks by Indians.
On the other hand, Pakistan in 1965 was a thriving economy. The Koreans and Chinese were coming to Pakistan to study its economic growth. It had seemingly a stronger and well entrenched leader in Ayub Khan. Pakistan was not only part of SEATO and CENTO, but had also established close links with China and the Islamic states, and was opening up to the USSR. Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some other Islamic countries came out openly in support of Pakistan, besides China, which kept threatening India during the war. However, the war had a major impact on the internal cohesion of the state. Not only a low level insurgency continued in Balochistan during the war, it also led to the serious alienation of the population in East Pakistan and sowed the seeds for the creation of Bangladesh. During the war, there were only minor skirmishes in the East, but despite the absence of any major fighting in the region, the war clearly made the populace in the East realise that they had been abandoned by their West Pakistani rulers in their times of distress. There was just one division in East Pakistan to defend it in case of an Indian offensive. It was propagated that the Chinese would ensure the defence of East Pakistan, but the propaganda failed to cut much ice with the Bengali population of East Pakistan, who realised that their defence and security did not concern their West Pakistani rulers. This is one of the reasons why Awami League subsequently demanded larger enrolment of Bengalis in the armed forces and shifting of at least one service headquarters to the East. Post 1965, the Pakistani army was used increasingly for maintenance of internal security. This led to professional degradation and culminated in the disintegration of Pakistan.
The war saw the largest tank battles since World War II, but there were no great victories on the the ground.
However, the media hype before and during the war resulted in both countries claiming victory. The 1965 war transformed a seemingly weak and crisis ridden India into a stronger nation and an economically vibrant Pakistan on the path of disrepair and conflict.
Thus, the 1965 War transformed a seemingly weak and crisis ridden India into a stronger and powerful nation, whereas Pakistan, which was perceived to be strong and economically vibrant, could never recover from the aftermath of this self-inflicted war and disintegrated. It could never regain the euphoric days of the early 1960s. The 1965 War, therefore, will always be remembered as a watershed in South Asia.
Prof Alok Bansal is Director, India Foundation. The views expressed are his own.