Who won the 1965 Indo-Pak war? Although international observers believe that there was no winner, undoubtedly Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri emerged stronger while it proved to be a disaster for Pakistan President Ayub Khan who was emerging as a big leader in the region after the death of Nehru.
The Modi government plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war from August 28 for a month. That was the day when Indian soldiers captured the Haji Pir Pass, which is now in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Some believe that Shastri’s decision to return the Pass at Tashkent was mysterious.
The celebrations include a parade on Rajpath on September 20, an aerial display and a spectacular show of India&’s growing military might. Sadly, the war veterans who are agitating for one rank-one pension have boycotted the celebrations.
Declassified American documents give a peep into history and what happened during the 17-day war. They show how the U.N, the USA, the United Kingdom and USSR got involved in bringing down temperatures. The sequence of events and how Shastri reacted is fascinating. Although he was thought to be a weak leader, when Pakistan made incursions in the Rann of Kutch in April 1965, Shastri handled it with boldness and mobilized support not only within the country but also from the US and the U.K.
When the Indian Ambassador to the US, B.K. Nehru met Shastri in Canada during his first foreign tour in July 1965, the Prime Minister told him (as Nehru wrote in his book Nice Guys finish second) to go and “tell your American friends that if they are interested in avoiding a war, they should let the British get the Pakistanis out of Indian territory before the end of the month”.
The ambassador immediately reported to US Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Shastri&’s ploy worked as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson intervened and a ceasefire became effective from 1 July 1965. Shastri accepted the army chief &’s advice that the trial of strength should be elsewhere and not at Rann of Kutch while Ayub Khan was secretly preparing for a full-fledged war in September.
It was through a shepherd boy that New Delhi got to know about Pakistani incursions on the border on August 5. By August 13, Shastri had made up his mind to meet ‘force with force.’ He ordered the Indian Army to cross the international border in Punjab and launch a two-pronged attack on Pakistan. It was this master-stroke that broke the back of the attacking forces of Pakistan.
On August 30 Indian forces threw out the intruders in the Uri- Poonch sector and consolidated their position. When Pakistan launched a full- scale war on September 5, Shastri, though taken unawares, was confident of India&’s military preparedness.
When the UN chief U Thant visited Delhi in September 12, to broker peace, Shastri explained the genesis of the conflict and insisted that Pakistan should be identified as the aggressor. He also made it clear to the US and the UN that it was not the time to resolve the Kashmir problem, even as Ayub Khan insisted on plebiscite in Kashmir.
On September 12 U Thant sent identical messages to Shastri and Ayub Khan asking them to order ceasefire offering UN assistance in taking further steps. While Shastri sent his assent on September 14, Ayub Khan insisted on certain conditions.
In his crisp letter to President Lyndon Johnson on September 17 Shastri wrote, “Pakistan as you know has appealed to the western powers in the name of its alliances, to Middle east and Arab countries in the name of religion, as well as to Indonesia and China on the basis of philosophy, of which these two countries are the main exponent.” He ended his letter by pointing out “it would need at least a couple of years of real peace on the borders and willingness on the part of Pakistan not to align itself in any way with the main threat against India, namely China before any efforts to improve overall relations between the two countries became fruitful.” Sadly he did not live that long.
On September 22, both countries agreed to a ceasefire with effect from 6 PM that day. The culmination of all these was the Soviet efforts to broker peace. It is now history how Soviet leader Alexei Kosygin invited Ayub Khan and Shastri to Tashkent and brokered peace. The US Ambassador to India Chester Bowles, after his meeting with Shastri reported to Washington, “At least it is clear we are not dealing with a mad man who is about to fly off on an emotional tangent.” Shastri told Bowles the he was "cautiously hopeful" of the Tashkent summit.
Kosygin held several rounds of talks separately with the two leaders and on January10, the two signed an agreement for withdrawal of forces to the pre-August 1965 position. Sadly Shastri died in Tashkent hours later.
Shastri&’s secretary L.K. Jha told Dean Rusk when he came for the funeral that Shastri insisted on respect for the ceasefire line from both sides. Ayub Khan on return from Tashkent told his cabinet that Indians came to the summit with two primary objectives – to make a ceasefire line the permanent international border and to achieve an agreement on a no war pact. Ayub Khan claimed that both these were not achieved.
Shastri was one of the underrated and unsung prime ministers of India and history will judge him better. His role needs to be recognized by the country at least now and the commemoration of the 1965 war is indeed a fitting tribute.