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Fifty years after: War of mutual incompetence

What exactly are we in India celebrating, and actively rewriting, a half century later?

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Some lines are so smart and so durable that even their authorship becomes contested. One such is: in war, truth is the first casualty. When The Guardian asked this question, readers gave credit for this to many over the centuries, going backwards, from isolationist American Senator Hiram Warren Johnson (1918) to Rudyard Kipling to Sun Tzu and inevitably Ernest Hemingway thrown in as well. Many of us non-literary types were exposed to this brilliant truism by Phillip Knightley’s fine book (The First Casualty). But the copyright on this should belong to Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525-456 BC), well before even Alexander the Great.

Other rules follow. History, by and large, is written from the point of view of the victor. The loser, over time, invents excuses. But it gets greatly complicated when the war ends in a stalemate, as both can massacre the truth in years to follow. Most likely, both can claim victory, as Pakistan and now India do on their first, nearly full-fledged war (nearly because the navies were hardly involved) in 1965. Pakistan always claimed victory in the 22-day war and observed September 6 as Defence of Pakistan Day, apparently because that was when it “broke” the Indian Army and Air Force’s back.

India has been more grownup and circumspect, generally accepting the idea of a stalemate. Even India’s official history of that war is remarkably underhyped.

In the first flush of the war, India did give the main plaza on Raisina Hill the name Vijay (victory) Chowk, but has mostly forgotten this war since. But it’s now returning, in its 50th year, with a month-long celebration beginning August 28, when the army captured Haji Pir Pass in Kashmir’s Uri sector, a brilliant military achievement four days before the full war began. You can be sure new mythologies will now be built half a century after the event. In the process, we will end up massacring the truth as well, and unnecessarily so. Because, unlike Pakistan’s army which is desperate to cling on to the one war that it did not lose, India has the undisputed victory of 1971, followed by smaller successes in Siachen and Kargil. But India now has a new regime, there is a wave of rising, jingoistic nationalism-funny how militarism can rise in democracies in the midst of the longest periods of peace in their history. Therefore the need now for new victory parades, never mind the facts.

Interestingly, despite being older, this is a better recorded war by both sides than 1971. Probably because this war was still led on both sides by offi cers trained in the British tradition, which put a premium on military literature. Senior Pakistani commanders’ accounts, in fact, have been less mythical than the folklore in their country, which consists of three points. One, India started the war. Two, despite its vast superiority in numbers and fi repower, it lost so badly it sued for peace. Three, “Hindu” armies proved again that they couldn’t fight Muslims. On the Indian side, there is no doubt that Pakistan launched the war, that India had no real objective but to protect Kashmir and, as days passed, to infl ict as much damage on the Pakistani army as possible, and there is the usual exaggeration on how much superior Pakistan’s American-supplied equipment was. A stalemated end is widely accepted in India. It will be totally unnecessary now to reimagine this into a victory.

Also read: Pakistan Army emotionally blackmails its population with its own idea of India


Three and a half of the four Indian conclusions on that war are accurate. Half, because Pakistan had some superiority in equipment but there wasn’t a staggering mismatch. That Pakistan started the war has been very well documented by international scholars as well as Pakistani writers. The miscalculation was based on India’s rout in 1962, and its hesitant response to the Pakistani probe in Kutch in early 1965. Plus, Kashmiris were seen as ripe for revolt, particularly as the Valley simmered since the Hazratbal incident of late 1963. The war began with Operation Gibraltar, which shoved thousands of trained infi ltrators (regulars in mufti) into the Valley, with attempts to incite a rebellion at the same time. When this failed, particularly as Kashmiris didn’t revolt and the Indian Army responded with unexpected severity, fi nally taking the Haji Pir Pass in a classic mountain assault on a rainy night, part two of the plan, Operation Grand Slam, was launched. This was an all-out armour-and-infantry assault across Chhamb (in the Jammu sector) aimed to take Akhnoor and cut off the Kashmir Valley from the rest of India. It worked well for a couple of days as the lone Indian brigade crumbled, even the frantic induction of air power failed badly (all four old Vampires sent for fi rst strafi ng runs were lost) and Kashmir seemed in the bag.

It was at this moment that India opened up two new fronts in Punjab across the Lahore and Sialkot sectors.

There was no strategic objective except to force Pakistan to pull back its forces in defence of the mainland and ease the pressure on Kashmir. This was achieved overnight. But beyond that, the 15 Infantry Division that crossed Wagah and reached the outskirts of Lahore found itself short of ideas and nerve, stunned by the rapidity of their own advance and absence of central, strategic thought or local, tactical dash. In the other sector, Sialkot, where India committed its sword-arm, the 1 Armoured Division, fi ghting was intense but really a thoughtless “slogging match”. By far the fi nest account on the Indian side has been written by late Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh who, as GOC-in-C of the Western Command, led almost the entire war. It is also the most searingly honest. He says in the conclusion of his book War Despatches (page 214) that “we did a lot of mutual back-thumping an objective assessment would have been frowned upon as unpatriotic”. But “when dust settled…and stripped of the aura of sensation”, he said, particularly of his main assault forces, “exaltation gave way to disillusionment”.

Also read: It took Pakistan three defeats to understand the flaw in its war strategy against India


We haven’t seen much similar realism from the Pakistani side. They were very well-prepared and had clear, ambitious objectives, the massive tank assault in Khem Karan being the centrepiece of their strategy and tactical audacity that’s always been their hallmark. It was meant to outfl ank Indian forces in the Lahore sector, cross the Beas and, who knows, reach Delhi, and after initial breakthroughs Ayub Khan (Pakistan’s then president) boasted about this. But it was broken soon enough by a resolute 4 Division (rebuilt after annihilation in 1962) and the destruction of Pakistani 1 Armoured Division in the Battle of Asal Uttar became India’s main achievement in the war. Pakistani failure lay in offence. In the entire war, Pakistan made two truly bold moves, in Chhamb and Khem Karan. One was a limited success, the second a disaster. More important, however, was the thought behind Chhamb, that India wouldn’t escalate a war for Kashmir to the mainland. That the misconception persists became evident again in Kargil, 1999.

My favourite line on war was spoken to me by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and it is one I have quoted in the past too. When a war-like situation was developing in the winter of 2001-02 (after the Parliament attack), he had said, the problem with a war is, how you start it, when and where, is in your hands. But when it will end, how and where, you can never say. He had also asked his furious generals a question: we can go to war for sure, but when the history of this war is written, what will this war be called, what is our objective? Will it merely be called a war of anger?

We know how and why the 1965 war ended: when both sides got tired, bored, ran short of military ideas and, most importantly, ammunition. Both sides failed to achieve any objectives and began preparing for the next round. After 1971, India has no military objectives left vis-a-vis Pakistan except deterrence and has therefore been able to build its economy, calm its society to formidable coherence and rise as a status quo power. Unachieved military objectives are all on the Pakistani army’s side, these haven’t changed since 1965. So leave it to them to rue or celebrate what I have always called our War of Mutual Incompetence since, as Vajpayee had said, a war must have a name. We should just move on, or rather, keep moving on.

Also read: Pakistan fighting war in India’s hinterland without weapons. That’s sixth-generation warfare


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