By Bharat Karnad
Beyond the plans and preparations, wars by their very nature are hit and miss affairs. The hits are mainly attributable to acts of incomparable bravery, of determined and resolute action by a few to turn events around. These are the singular events which when aggregated over time and over the expanse of the battlefield constitute victory; their absence—defeat.
With the GOI, for the first time, having celebrated the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict in 2015—albeit its “Golden Jubilee”—in a big way, it is time to tot up the distinctive attributes, people and events that stand out from a medley of incidents and extraordinarily brave individuals, whose reputation is burnished, many of whom won no recognition at the time or since.
The Victory of Assal Uttar
The two formations that the rival armies considered elite, their spearheads—the very best, curiously, the 1st Armoured Divisions of both the armies flopped. The 1st Armoured Division of India deployed in the Sialkot sector went up against the 6th Armoured Division of Pakistan—a unit without history and cobbled together literally on the run. The Indian Division was virtually decimated at Phillorah and Chawinda. Its Pakistan counterpart featuring the most modern tank then in existence—the M48 Patton, didn’t fare much better. Tasked ambitiously not just to lead the charge on Amritsar, but cross the Beas River, take Jallandhar on the way and make a run to Delhi. It, however, faltered at the very first step in the Khemkaran area, held off for the crucial first 3-4 days of the war by only four antiquated Sherman tanks of the Deccan Horse led by the indomitable Colonel Fahad Bhatti, who won no recognition, other than a measly VSM.
As Colonel AR Khan, then a junior officer with the four Grenadiers in that action recalls, Bhatti had no godfathers, no recommenders. But he was a ‘karm yogi’. The other tank unit that was supposed to assist Bhatti—the 2nd Independent Armoured Brigade was described by Khan as neither independent, nor armoured or even a brigade (whose description is along the lines of that of the Grand Trunk Express—not grand, trunk, or express). Bhatti afforded the rest of the units of the 4th Mountain Division under Major General Gurbaksh Singh, time to firm up; eventuating in the justly famous battle of Assal Uttar that broke the back of the Pakistan advance and its armoured strength in the Khemkaran area. The Patton was brought down mostly by the light field gun—the 105mm recoil-less outfitting a unit that just prior to September 1965 was honing its skills in mountain fighting. The small force of Deccan Horse stopped the 1st Armoured Division of Pakistan in its tracks, which was fortuitous, because there was nothing behind it. It highlights the inglorious fact of frontline units just melting away—units, which as Colonel Khan said, shall remain unnamed.
This episode suggests that the fame and reputation of fighting units matter very little in hostile engagements. It is the grit and the stomach for a fight that matters more.
Assal Uttar won also because the Pattons couldn’t move rapidly through the slush and the mud created by the deliberate breaching of the Roha Nala, and were often stuck—sitting ducks, their tracks running in place, and picked off by Indian gunners at will. (This tactic of flooding the battlefield, was used by the Iranian forces but ended up bogging down both Iranian and Iraqi tanks in the Susangerd sector in 1981 in the largest tank battle of that war, when the west bank of the Karun River was breached).
Success of Hayde’s Unit
Talking of grit—no finer illustration of it than the three Jats of the 15th Infantry Division under the luckless Major General Niranjan Prasad (who had previously made a hash of things in the 1962 war leading the 4th Division, and somehow survived that fiasco without being cashiered). Led by the iron-willed Lieutenant Colonel Desmond Hayde, the three Jats crossed the Ichhigoil Canal and took Dograi and secured a lodgement in Batapore on the outskirts of Lahore. They did not do this for once (the first time on 6th September) but twice—the second time on 21st September after the Pakistanis had strengthened that position with tanks and artillery. The three Jats were asked to withdraw the first time around owing to relentless aerial attacks by Pakistan F-86 Sabres, which is when the Pakistanis came back. Even then, Hayde’s unit succeeded again.
I remember two things about this set of actions: In 1982, the then retired Brigadier Hayde—a Britisher who “stayed on” (in a letter to me, memorably described his son “as first generation Indian” and who, like his MVC-decorated father, joined the latter’s team and went on also to command it) wondered why there was no countervailing response and protection offered by the IAF over Dograi. The absence of Indian counter-air was something the Western Army commanded during this war, the redoubtable Lieutenant General Harbhaksh Singh too was livid about it (when I met him in his Vasant Vihar home in the early 90s). He hinted at dark happenings in Delhi, besides of course, cursing Niranjan Prasad in the most violently abusive language.
The explanation for the absent IAF, as per my lights, and which I have dilated on elsewhere in my writings, is political. The unexpected breakthrough over a supposedly Pakistan-fortified Lahore front, confronted PM Lal Bahadur Shastri with a politically motivated option of allowing Harbhaksh, who immensely desired it, to take Lahore. I suspect though that Shastri and his advisers must have considered the ramifications of such capture, and thought better than to green signal such a move. I have speculated that this was because at that time Lahore was the socio-cultural centre of gravity of Pakistan. Had it been captured, rather than merely being invested—capturing that city would have required 4-5 Divisions—could have led to the unravelling of Pakistan, with what consequences for the subcontinent can only be imagined. This thesis of mine is also borne out by the express instructions from MOD to the Navy under Soman to keep out of any action, not even to react to the provocation of the Pakistani naval shelling of Dwarka.
Moreover, we are absolutely hideous at winning the peace, after finishing the hard work of winning wars. Indira Gandhi did not impose a victor’s peace that international laws of war permitted India after its resounding victory in 1971—when the minimum that could have been insisted upon was the formalisation of the ceasefire line—LOC—in Jammu and Kashmir as the international border, and thereby settling that dispute once and for all. Instead she succumbed to Bhutto’s oily theatrics and his pleadings asking for time to garner support for this with his people. However, the correct stance would have been to tell the slippery Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that how he managed to get support from his people was his problem, and that he’d have to sign an agreement to make LOC international border if he wanted the return of the 93,000 Pakistan POWs. Then again, there was precedent. Six years earlier, Shastri at Taskent, likewise, accepted a grovelling Ayub’s plea to let him return with some respect, whence the Haji Pir was restored to Pakistan.
It points to the lack of any real understanding of anything remotely military by the political class, leave alone appreciation of, and sensitivity to, strategic geography. That is to say our political leaders have always lacked, and still do, what Halford Mackinder called “the map reading habit of mind” and the country has paid a heavy price, and continues to do so.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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