Barely three years after facing a humbling if not humiliating defeat at the hands of Chinese PLA, the Indian army was to be put to test again in 1965, this time with confrontation brewing on the western borders. But there was one major difference. This time, instead of a supposed statesman of immense stature, we had an unassuming Prime Minister with political stature to match his diminutive size. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had taken over after Nehru’s death in 1964, was a political lightweight and a compromise candidate for premiership. Yet, as the outcome of this war clearly demonstrated, its the decisions taken by a leader, and not his stature or personalty which matter in times of such crises. In April 1965, when Pakistan launched its provocative though low level attacks in the Rann of Kutch, India did not rise to the bait immediately. Preferring localized punitive actions over escalating to a full blown war in a fit of machismo, as the recourse to ‘forward posture’ opposite China in the prelude to the previous war had been .
The difference was that this time the Prime Minister based his decisions purely on military advice. As a result the army got adequate time to prepare for a befitting reply to the next provocation, which came within four months in the form of Op Gibraltar. In August 1965, Pakistan launched a massive infiltration operation into Jammu and Kashmir with sinister designs. They hoped to coax the Kashmiri people to rise in rebellion and quickly declare independence. After the initial tide of infiltration had been checked, Shastri heeded to military advice yet again, and gave clearance to launch limited offensive operations across the Cease Fire Line (CFL, as the Line of Control was then referred to) to capture vital buses facilitating infiltration, including the Haji Pir Pass.
The success of these operations forced Pakistan to up the ante by launching Op Grandslam. This was a blitzkrieg armour and infantry thrust into the Chhamb sector, aimed at capturing the vital bridge at Akhnoor. Crossing the CFL on in multiple thrusts 1st September, after heavy artillery shelling, the Pakistani forces managed to temporarily overwhelm the Indian forward defences. Shastri took another bold yet well considered decision to allow the employment of Indian Air Force against the advancing Pakistani forces. In contrast, the air warriors had been left fuming, sitting out the 1962 war since the government never gave the go ahead for their employment.
While the combined action of the army and air force stabilized the situation, Shastri asked the army to immediately launch the preplanned Indian offensive across the International border in Punjab. Army Chief Gen Chaudhuri told Shastri that he needed a couple of days to prepare as the international boundary immediately as till then, troops had not been moved forward from their distant cantonments. Shastri told him, “Ab to sab Army ke hath de diya” (I have put everything in the Army’s hands.) Shastri later said that Chaudhuri and others were taken aback when he gave the orders to cross the international boundary and asked them to march into Pakistan. Possibly they never expected such a quick and firm response.
Indian Army launched two near simultaneous thrusts, towards Lahore and Sialkot. This forced the Pakistanis to pull back their armour & artillery from Chhamb, putting paid to their hopes of capturing Akhnoor. International intervention brokered a ceasefire before a decisive victory, and the result was a stalemate, with India having a definite edge in terms of captured territory and prisoners.
If 1971 was Indian Army’s finest hour, 1965 was when it came into their own. Throughout the operations the political leadership was decisive without interference. The business of war was left to the generals, unlike 1962 when Nehru and the defence minister Krishna Menon constantly micromanaging, even going to the extent of appointing and sacking commanders. The chain command was never bypassed like in the case of Nehru dealing directly with the Corps commander Gen Kaul over the head of the army chief.
One wonders if, had he been alive and at the helm, would Nehru have been able to act in a similar manner, with similar results? The answer, thankfully, remains in the realm of speculation.
Images credit – https://anshulg.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/1965-war.jpg, The Tribune