We need to declassify our war records

As we mark the 50th anniversary of 1965 War with Pakistan, we need to reflect on the genesis of this conflict and on our successes and failures.

We need to declassify our war records

lessons learnt: There were serious disparities in the capabilities of the two armies


Lt-Gen Harwant Singh (retd)

As we mark the 50th anniversary of 1965 War with Pakistan, we need to reflect on the genesis of this conflict and on our successes and failures. The Indian Army had suffered a humiliating defeat in 1962 and Pakistan was under the impression that it would perform no better against it as well. 

To divert India’s attention away from Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan first made some moves in the Rann of Kutch.

Some months later, it undertook large-scale infiltration into the Valley. Pakistan’s assessment proved wrong as the locals did not cooperate with the infiltrators while the Indian Army reacted with alacrity to effectively deal with the infiltration by striking at some of their bases and capturing the Hajipir Pass.

Pakistan made another wrong assumption. It had calculated that its offensive in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector would limit the Indian Army’s response only to J & K. The terrain gave Pakistan an advantage while India had deployment limitations, especially the armour. Therefore, the Pakistan army made substantial gains in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector. It was well on its way to slicing off the Poonch-Rajouri sector at Akhnoor and threatening Jammu. This conflict could be termed as Phase 1 of the war.

India’s only option to relieve the pressure in Akhnoor was to launch a counter-offensive in the plains of J & K and Punjab. The Indian armoured division located in the Amritsar sector was sent to the Sambha-Jammu sector in complete secrecy, adding to the element of surprise. But truth be told, the Indian Army was in no state for a war with Pakistan. There were serious disparities in the capabilities of the two armies.

The Indian Army, in all, had 608 tanks of World War II vintage, 625 artillery pieces and 35 infantry brigades for the Western Front, including several mountain formations that were neither equipped nor trained for warfare on plains. Compared to this, Pakistan had 765 tanks, including 352 state-of-the-art Patton tanks, 552 artillery pieces, 26 infantry brigades and 9,000 irregulars.

Pakistan had two armoured divisions against one with the Indian Army. Its guns had better range and higher calibre. The Indian Army had slight advantage only in infantry.

The Indian war plan was simple. In Punjab, it was to advance and establish bridgeheads across the Ichhogal Canal and threaten Lahore. As India had no obstacle system of its own in this sector to anchor its defences, Pakistan was expected to launch an offensive to eliminate the threat to Lahore. However, the Indian Army held back reserves to deal with a Pakistani counter-offensive by leaving behind a tank regiment. Its Centurion tanks were the only ones that could stand up to the Patton tanks. Though this shedding of the tank regiment weakened the Indian armoured division’s offensive potential towards Lahore, it ensured the safety of Punjab. 

The Indian offensive, both in Punjab and Jammu sectors, achieved complete surprise. But on the Jammu-Sambha front, the Indian Army failed to exploit the element of surprise. The enemy mauled one entire armoured division. This was followed by a self-imposed and unforgiving freeze of 48 hours throwing away the element of surprise and giving Pakistan Army the time to recoup. On the Punjab front, there were some goof-ups as well. The Army was unaware of the existence of aqueducts under the Ichhogal Canal. It is through these that Pakistan launched its counter offensive, achieving surprise.

The battle on both these fronts could be termed as phase two. The third phase began with Pakistan’s counter-offensive being grounded in Punjab with destruction of the better part of its 1 Armoured Division. When the fighting ended, Pakistan’s offensive potential had been comprehensively destroyed and its troops forced to pull back in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector. That, in brief, is the story of 1965 War.

With both sides of the border densely populated, neither side was willing to concede territory. Therefore, pitched battles took place within a few kilometres on either side of the border. That was, and will, remain the dominant reality of offensive-defensive battles in the plains of J & K and the two Punjabs.

The destruction of Pakistan’s offensive potential by a weaker force was indeed a remarkable achievement. When the war ended, the Indian Army was decisively on top by completely crushing Pakistan’s offensive capability.

But the war had its anxious moments. The most controversial was the alleged order to fall back behind River Beas. K. Subramanyam wrote that the Army Chief sought and was refused permission by the Prime Minister to withdraw. Inder Malhotra wrote that once the Army Chief came to know about the presence of Pakistan’s second armoured division, he panicked and ordered a retreat. The sector Army Commander’s ADC referred to a midnight telephone call from the Army Chief ordering his boss to retreat. These are baseless claims, totally divorced from the reality of how operations are conducted.

The Indian security and intelligence establishment had failed to anticipate the threat from Pakistan. No effort was made to nail the MoD officials who had kept the Army starved of contemporary weapon systems and stalled the raising of more infantry formations, especially when Pakistan was heavily arming itself. We must declassify our war records with the MEA, RAW, MoD and Army Headquarters to get a clearer picture. It was indeed a miracle that given the disparities between the two opposing forces, the Indian Army got the better of the Pakistani army.

— The writer is a former Deputy Chief of  Army Staff and a defence commentator    

 Read more in '50 Years of 1965 War' special:

A war that tested Indian nationhood

A victory that wasn’t

Of false pride and misbelief

Terrifying tales of trying times

Air Force’s fiery foray into aerial combat

What stirred up a hornet’s nest

Winning against the odds

Patton tanks’ graveyard

A battle behind the scenes

Grand Old Man of the IAF remembers

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