This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Indo-Pak War that formally began on September 6 in 1965 and ended with a ceasefire 17 days later on September 22. The war's 50th anniversary is being celebrated both in India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, September 6 is celebrated as the Defence of Pakistan Day and September 7 as the Pakistan Air Force Day. Incidentally, people of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, played an important role in the war. The 1965 War became a catalyst for a series of events leading to the Liberation War of Bangladesh six years later.
Since the Indo-China border war in 1962, the Pakistani High Command realised that the military balance was shifting towards India. Since that war, Western powers, especially USA, UK and France, had been giving huge military assistance to bolster Indian defence posture. This was in addition to the weapons supplied by USSR, which was traditionally the main source of advanced weapons for India. The Pakistani leadership decided to apply military pressure on India to come to a negotiated solution to the long festering Kashmir problem. Pakistan's planning was based on the assumption that a limited incursion into Kashmir will not lead to an all-out war with India. The planning for the war was secretly hatched in the Pakistani Army Headquarters. Other than President Ayub and his young and flamboyant Foreign Minister Z. A. Bhutto, rarely anyone in civilian circles in Pakistan had much inkling about these plans. Even the Air and Naval Headquarters were brought on board much later.
In early August 1965, Pakistan launched a clandestine operation, code named Operation Gibraltar. The aim was to send infiltrators into Indian Kashmir to carry out insurgent activities there. Pakistan started a radio station called “Sada-e-Kashmir”, purported to be the voice of the mujahedin fighting for Kashmir's liberation. The Pakistani leadership expected that it would trigger a general uprising among the Kashmiris. Nothing of the sort ever happened, however. Most of the infiltrators were arrested or killed in encounters. By the end of August, Operation Gibraltar petered out; remnants of the so-called mujahedins tracked back to Pakistan. On September 1, 1965, Pakistan launched Operations Grand Slam when regular Pakistani troops crossed the cease fire line (CFL) and moved towards Jammu. The forces made quick advance in the next couple of days, and threatened to cut the Jammu-Srinagar road. On September 2, the air forces came in to play. PAF fighters shot down 2 IAF Vampire fighters in the first encounter. On the same day, the Indian PM issued a warning that unless Pakistan withdrew its forces across the CFL, India would respond “at a time and place of its own choosing”. The Indian response came on the nights of Sept 5-6 when it launched attacks across Sialkot and Lahore. The Indian forces, besides threatening two key cities, poised to cut the vital road and rail links between Lahore and Islamabad. At this time, the first Battalion of the East Bengal Regiment (EBR) was deployed in defence of Lahore along the Bambawali-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) canal. The regiment held their ground despite repeated Indian attacks and in the process, inflicted heavy casualty to the attacking Indian Army. At the end of the war, this regiment had the honour of being awarded the highest number of gallantry awards among all the regiments of the Pakistan Army. The Regiment won three Sitara-e-Jurrat (SJ, equivalent to Bir Bikram), eight Tamgha-e-Jurrat (TJ, equivalent to Bir Protik), and medals and citations. 1 EBR were hailed as the saviours of Lahore. An Indian Army tank that the regiment destroyed in the war is displayed as a war trophy in Chittagong Cantonment.
In the air war that followed, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had a qualitative edge over the IAF in terms of pilots and aircrafts, which, despite IAF's quantitative advantage, gave PAF a slight edge in the end. While there was no ground action in East Pakistan, the IAF Eastern Command on September 6 launched a series of attacks against unused airfields of Kurmitola, Lalmonirhat and civilian airfields at Chittagong, leaving the only military air base at Tejgaon untouched; it was a major intelligence and operational failure on the part of the IAF. In the PAF counter attack launched from Tejgaon over the IAF base in Kalaikunda, a number of Canberra bombers were destroyed on the ground. PAF pilots of Bangali origin displayed exceptional professional skill and valour. Wing Commander Tawab, Squander Leader (Sqn Ldr) Alauddin (posthumous), Flight Lieutenant Saiful Azam and Flying Officer Hassan won SJ while Leading Aircraftman Anwar Hussain (posthumous) won a TJ. Sqn Ldr M. K. Bashar, who was a sector commander during the Liberation War and later became Chief of Bangladesh Air Force, won Tamgha–e-Basalat (Tbt), a high military award for flying the largest number of bomber missions into India during the war.
By the second week of the war, Pakistani forces were running out of ammunition and spares. US had imposed an arms embargo on both the warring sides, which hurt Pakistan badly because almost all her weapons were of US origin. Pakistan had no option but to accept a UN resolution for a ceasefire to take effect from September 22, 1965. An initiative by the Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, resulted in a peace deal, known as The Tashkent Declaration, signed by the warring parties on January 4, 1966 in Tashkent. The declaration stated that both countries will pull back their forces to pre-war positions, will restore economic and diplomatic ties and will initiate orderly exchange of prisoners. The war had no clear victor or vanquished, but Pakistan suffered more on a strategic level. Pakistan's aim to force India to the negotiating table failed; India, on the other hand, succeeded in maintaining the status quo in Kashmir. President Ayub faced domestic and international criticism for his military adventure with no gain to show. On the economic front, Pakistan suffered badly due to war. The third Five Year Plan (1965-70) was virtually in tatters. In order to quell domestic discontent, President Ayub declared a state of emergency and gave himself sweeping administrative and judicial power. Many opposition politicians, including Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were put behind bars under Defence of Pakistan Ordinance 1965. Ayub also promulgated the Enemy Properties Act 1965 which forced many Hindus to migrate to India. Indian rail and river transit through East Pakistan, which had continued since partition, came to an abrupt halt. East Pakistan was cut off from its western wing during the War. With only one infantry division, a squadron of fighters and virtually no naval assets, East Pakistan was more or less defenceless. This resulted in a deep sense of frustration in East Pakistan. In June 1966, the Awami League in its Six-Point Programme demanded greater defence investment in East Pakistan and a greater Bangali representation in the defence forces. The demands included shifting the NHQ to Chittagong, establishment of an ordnance factory and a paramilitary force to augment the defence of the eastern wing. Pakistani establishment saw in these demands a conspiracy to dismember Pakistan and increased its repression on the Awami League leadership. What followed is now part of history – a mass upsurge that saw Ayub's downfall by 1969.
The sacrifices made by the Bangali soldiers, sailors and airmen in the 1965 War are now largely forgotten. Although many veterans of that war displayed the same valour in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, their pioneering role remains unknown to the new generation. On the 50th anniversary of 1965 War, let us pay homage to those who went on to disprove the concept of “non-martial race” propagated by the Pakistani political and military elites.
The writer is a retired Air Commodore and registrar of East West University.