September 09, 2000
did you do in the war, daddy?
The official history confirms another great failing of the 1965 war, the inability of the Indian Air Force to provide a decisive edge on the battlefield or even match up to the Pakistanis
In a society where even the writing of ancient history is so politically contentious, it is difficult to expect a realistic appreciation of fairly recent wars. Culturally, we also confuse military science with soldierly heroism. We can spend all our time extolling our troops for the courage they showed in Kargil but avoid talking about what got them in such a near-impossible war in the first place. Even with our bigger wars, propaganda myths created in the course of the engagements are then perpetuated for decades. In the 22-day war in 1965, for example, as schoolchildren we were taught that the Pakistani pilots were so scared of the tiny Gnat that they fled the moment they spotted one. That it was because the then army chief, General J.N. Chowdhary, was such a world-famous hot-shot in tank warfare that the Pakistani armour came unstuck at Khem Karan and other graveyards of the Patton. That Lahore and Sialkot were almost sure to be in our bag if the war had gone on a few more days.
That is why it is refreshing that Indias own official history of the countrys first full-fledged modern war has been written with a degree of detachment. It confirms several widely held beliefs in the strategic community and described in the many books on that war. In India, the official history has followed close after the release of In the Line of Duty: A Soldier Remembers, the autobiography of Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, one of our tallest generals ever, professionally and physically, at 6-ft-2. As the western army commander during the 1965 war (there was no northern command then), he also led the operations in Kashmir and therefore controlled the entire war.
His revelations, read with his earlier War Despatches and now authenticated by the official history, are devastating. It is, for example, now confirmed that not only did Gen Chowdhury play a very small role in the entire campaign, he was so nervous as to be on the verge of losing half of Punjab to Pakistan, including the city of Amritsar. Harbakhsh describes, in clinical detail, how our own offensive in the Lahore sector had come unhinged. The general commanding the division on Ichchogil canal fled in panic, leaving his jeep, its wireless running and the briefcase containing sensitive documents that were then routinely read on Radio Pakistan during the war. Singh wanted to court martial him, Chowdhury let him get away with resignation.
a bigger disaster struck a bit to the south where the other division
cracked up in assault, just as it encountered a bit of resistance. Several
infantry battalions, short on battle inoculation, deserted and Singh
gives a hair-raising account and confirmation of a long-debated
rumour that Chowdhury panicked so badly he ordered him to withdraw
to a new defensive line behind the Beas, thereby conceding half of Punjab
to Pakistan. Singh describes the conversation with Chowdhury at Ambala
where he refused to carry out the order, asking his chief to either
put it down in writing or visit the front and take charge of the battle.
Chowdhury waffled even on that panicky decision, Singhs artillery
and some rag-tag armour lured the Pattons into soggy ground on a moonlit
night and the result was the greatest escape to victory in our post-Independence
military history. What was to be a spectacular Pakistani breakthrough
The official history confirms not just this but also another great failing of that war, the inability of the Indian Air Force to not only provide a decisive edge on the battlefield but to even match up to the Pakistanis. It did not participate in any of the big battles. Many of its attacks were casual, half-hearted, even suicidal, as the decision of opening the campaign with four Vampires, one of historys first jets, made of plywood, to block the Pakistani advance in Chhamb. All four were shot, and IAF opened the campaign with a 0-4 deficit. Then followed a bizarre story of no communication between the army and the air force. The army apparently thought it could sort out the Pakistanis by itself. The air force thought it was fighting a war exclusively with the PAF.
There was evidently too little communication between the army, air force and the political leadership. The IAF, for example, was told to stay back in the hangars in the eastern sector even when the PAF launched withering attacks on Kalaikunda and Bagdogra. Even after the disastrous Chhamb engagement, the IAF was so casual as to leave a whole bunch of frontline aircraft exposed at Pathankot, within minutes of flying time from PAF bases, and the result was another disaster in a raid at dusk. The Pakistanis seemed to have such a free run they even shot down the Dakota carrying the then chief minister of Gujarat, Balwant Rai Mehta, deep inside our territory, at night.
Many of us have read with great resentment and scepticism claims of writers like former PAF chief Air Marshall Asghar Khan (India-Pakistan War: The First Round) and British writer John Fricker who give Pakistan a TKO victory in the 1965 air war. Fricker, in particular, gave these claims international currency with his controversial article, 30 Seconds over Sargodha, which described how a PAF pilot shot down four Indian Hunters in 30 seconds over the Sargodha airbase. These claims are highly inflated. But the fact remains that in 1965 the IAF failed to tilt the balance in any theatre of the war. Singh says the IAF was simply not prepared for war, physically or mentally. The IAF commanders from that period, including the then chief Arjan Singh, say the army never kept them in the loop. But the fact is that all of them, even the eastern and western command chiefs, were decorated after the war. There were no questions asked.
There werent any asked elsewhere either. Every single army general even remotely connected with the war effort was decorated, including the Strike Corps commander in the Sialkot sector who did not cover five miles in 15 days. Chowdhury himself was cast as some kind of a swadeshi Rommel, though he never got within shouting distance of the war. And even the then naval chief was decorated though his fleet remained firmly in harbour, failing to stir out even after the Pakistanis cockily pounded Dwarka.
The dangers in perpetuating mythologies built during a war into a kind of instant military history are obvious. It is impossible to first generously lionise and decorate people and to then hold them accountable for what they did wrong during a war. We obviously learnt some lessons from these in 1965 and the result was a decisive, premeditated campaign and victory in 1971. The key to that lightning campaign was total understanding between the army and the IAF. But if you look back on the way we once again rushed to hand out decorations post-Kargil and how closed we still are to the idea of finding out how on earth we let so many Pakistanis get so well entrenched on so much territory for so long, you wonder if the lessons of 1965 are so thoroughly forgotten that we are willing to make the same mistakes again.