Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has proclaimed the 1965 India-Pakistan war as a decisive victory for India. At a seminar on the occasion of the golden jubilee celebrations of the war, he said: "Many sceptics call the outcome a draw, but I disagree. My impression is it was a decisive victory to India." Since Parrikar was barely ten years' old when the war was fought, the 'impression' must be obviously based on the brief given to him either by some chest-thumpers or by the Army Chief who himself was not much older at that time.
This 'declaration' is distinctly different from what war-veterans and an Indian diplomat, who had a ringside view from inside Pakistan, have to say. Major Chandrakant Singh, a decorated veteran, sums up thus: "The Pakistanis were definitely defeated in their aim of cutting off Kashmir but it is not a victory for India. However, credit must be given to our Generals and jawans for taking on the modern equipment that Pakistan had."
Former Ambassador KS Bajpai, who was India's Political Counsellor in Pakistan at that point of time, was candid - "Militarily, the war was a draw. Let us not forget that Pakistan is also celebrating the 1965 war [as Pakistan Defence Day] because they thought they won it too. So what is the point?"
I fall in the category of Manohar Parikkar's 'sceptics' because I fully endorse what veteran Chandrakant Singh and diplomat Bajpai have to say. It is a historical fact that the 1965 war was provoked almost entirely by the war-mongering Pakistan, driven by the dream of crushing 'enemy India' still smarting under the traumatic experience of the 1962 aggression by its northern dragon, China. Pakistani Armed Forces had been training and equipping themselves for this conflict. On the other hand, India was still taking stock of the 'Shock of 62' and its armed forces were hardly prepared for a full-scale war.
Besides, as Bajpai recounts, the main failure in 1965 was one of intelligence when Pakistani troops first overran Indian posts in the Rann of Kutch in March 1965. "Delhi has a perpetual gift for being taken by surprise," Bajpai goes on to say, "We were taken by surprise in 1962 by the Chinese and again by the Pakistanis in the Rann of Kutch in March 1965. These were areas we claimed with great bravado but didn't actively patrol, and the Pakistanis moved in quite easily."
This is the truth that I can vouchsafe because I am one of the veterans who participated in the war and experienced the fallout of Rann of Kutch in the Thar deserts of Pakistan. Though there were skirmishes earlier, the actual war commenced on 6 September with the Indian Army opening up several fronts. The Punjab-based XI Corps began its assault across the border with the aim of threatening Lahore. Two days later, the hastily put-together I Corps began its thrust into Pakistan in the Sialkot-Chawinda area.
The Rajasthan (Barmer) sector exposed India's lack of preparation for a war of any kind. It was reflected in the bizarre track-record of 11 Infantry Division that prosecuted the war in this sector. This formation had been freshly raised in April 1965 in Himachal hills as a Mountain Division. In July it was converted to an Infantry Division and relocated in Ahmadabad with the operational responsibility of Rann of Kutch. Within weeks this totally ill-equipped formation was sent to war in Pakistan's Thar Desert. Officers and men in the Division had no desert warfare training, no desert gear, no combat vehicles, no artillery, no armour and no air support. Worse still, most troops did not even have battle-worthy arms and ammunition. 17 Madras Regiment, in which I was a Second Lieutenant, was part of this Division.
At the start of the war 17 Madras, stationed in Madhukarai (Tamil Nadu) was rushed to Ahmadabad from where it moved to Barmer. As the train carrying the troops started moving, brand new weapons - 7.62 Semi-Automatic Self Loading Rifles (SLR), Light & Medium Machine Guns and 81mm Mortars - were thrust inside the train with their packing and grease still intact. Having been in the peace station, the soldiers were not accustomed to any of these weapons and they had no training in handling them.
As the troops were alighting from the train at the Uttarlai station near Barmer, Pakistan Air Force planes returning from a bombing mission to Jodhpur spotted them out in the open. Without any challenge from the Indian side these aircraft merrily strafed the soldiers with their battery of machine-guns. Casualties were high. The battalion was shattered even before they commenced operation.
The Divisional Commander, behaving more like a mercenary, ordered the battalion to be cannibalized. One Rifle Company and Mortar Platoon were detached from 17 Madras and attached to a different Regiment. Another Company was deployed to defend the small border town of Gadra which was captured earlier. The Brigade comprising disparate troops advanced with unaccustomed weapons in unfamiliar terrain without a battle plan. Yet they did well and secured the strategic Dali village on the Barmer-Gadra-Hyderabad (Sindh) Axis about 40 km from the border.
As they were digging in to form a firm base for further advance, came the ruthless counter-attack from Pakistani forces with artillery and air support. The battle was fierce with several fatalities, including a company commander and many jawans with large numbers wounded. The Brigade had to retreat and our battalion camped at Jesse-Ka-Par about 15 km from Dali. Some of our jawans had also reached Gadra. We quickly regrouped and were about to launch an offensive to recapture Dali when news of the ceasefire reached us. Since the momentum could not be contained we attacked and captured strategic points of Kinra and Point-413 and then halted. After sitting out the 'ceasefire' in the desert sand-dunes we moved to Jamnagar with the operational responsibility of Rann of Kutch.
The experience of Col. (Retd) HN Handa in J&K was also somewhat similar. He was a Major with 2/9 Gorkhas (second battalion of the ninth regiment of Gorkhas). During the war the Colonel was disabled due to a mine-blast and he now heads the Disabled War Veterans (India) Association.
They had the heavy and clumsy World War I vintage .303 rifles which just wouldn't fire. Frustrated with this he had told the Commanding Officer that jawans would abandon this junk and instead fight with kukri (machete) for which Gorkhas are known. Immediately these were replaced with 7.62 SLR and the battalion carried on the operations with brand new weapons in which they had no training. This case of unpreparedness is more bizarre because it happened in the main theatre of war.
The fact that India was not prepared for a war in 1965 is crystal clear. Despite this Pakistan received a bloody nose and were stopped in their tracks as is evident from the many battles documented. This is a gallant achievement by our soldiers who should be proudly remembered. But celebrating it as 'victory' after fifty years is plain jingoism that does not behove an aspiring regional super-power with the world's third largest military strike force.
M G Devasahayam is a former army officer and IAS officer. The article first appeared in The Statesman