Indo-Pak war: Snatching a draw from the jaws of victory in 1965

  • Karan Thapar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 13, 2015 22:00 IST
Captain Amarinder Singh during the 1965 war. HT Photo

It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war and the spate of newspaper articles and television discussions has, ironically, provoked an intriguing question and a potentially disturbing controversy. Today, I’d like to address both.

First the question: Was 1965 “a decisive victory” as defence minister Manohar Parrikar has claimed? Or is the official history, commissioned by the ministry of defence and presented with a foreword by then defence secretary NN Vohra — and now available on Bharat — correct in calling the war “a draw”?

The official history is categorical in its judgement: “In military terms the contest was a draw” (introduction page xxv). It also states that the war “showed up the Pakistani as well as the Indian armed forces in definitely poor light. There was lack of professional competence and good generalship on either side … the performance of the Indian armed forces was equally if not more unimpressive.”

Is the official history right? Captain Amarinder Singh, who in 1965 was ADC to the Western Army Commander and, therefore, had a ringside view of the war, believes it is. In his judgement, it was a draw with India holding the upper hand.

Gen. Malik, who was army chief during Kargil in 1999, disagrees. India, he argues, successfully prevented Pakistan’s designs on Kashmir. Both Operations Gibraltar and Grand Slam were checked and defeated. That could constitute a victory.

However, India also had a second goal, which was to degrade Pakistan’s fighting capacity so that it would never pose a threat again. Here, even Gen. Malik would accept India didn’t succeed. Indeed, you could actually argue even 1971 did not fully achieve this goal.

The official history makes a further telling point: “The Pakistanis have openly debated in the press and through professional journals the various aspects of their performance in the war. There has been no corresponding debate in India, in spite of India being an open society as against dictatorship in Pakistan.”

Now, let’s come to the controversy. The official history records that “towards the end of the war, the Indian Prime Minister enquired from Gen. JN Chaudhuri whether India could win a spectacular victory if the war was prolonged for some days. The General replied that most of India’s frontline ammunition had been used up and there had been considerable tank losses also” (Page 333-334). So, presumably, Mr Shastri agreed to a ceasefire.

However, the official history continues: “Later it was found that by 22nd September (the date of the ceasefire) only about 14% of India’s frontline ammunition had been fired and the number of tanks still held by India was twice the number Pakistan had.” Meanwhile, Pakistan had utilised 80% of its ammunition.

So did Gen. Chaudhuri’s apparent ‘ignorance’ of the actual state of affairs cost India a significant victory? The official history says: “India would have won a decisive victory if the war had continued much longer.” It calls Chaudhuri “a cautious General” and says “perhaps initially he was afraid of the much touted, ultra-modern Patton tanks.”

When I asked Captain Amarinder Singh whether he agreed with that description this is the conversation that followed:-
Captain Amarinder Singh: “I won’t say the word chicken but certainly he was over-cautious … had he taken a bold decision we would have achieved much more …”
Karan Thapar: “You began by saying I won’t call him chicken but the thought actually occurred to you even if you dismissed it?”
Captain Amarinder Singh: “Yes”.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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