Revisiting the 1965 war

Ironically, any alternate narrative is considered an attempt to undermine Pakistan’s ‘justified claim’ to victory

Tribune October 02, 2023

September 6 marks the 55th Defence Day of Pakistan – a day we commemorate our historic ‘victory’ against India in the 1965 war. Precursors to and the actual celebrations include military parades, fly-pasts, wartime songs dominating the airwaves, media being abuzz with stories of the heroic sacrifices rendered during the war. Every year, vows are renewed to rekindle the ‘spirit of 1965’, as the country faces old and new internal and external threats.

Back in 2018, I spent some time asking what the 1965 meant to the current generation of Pakistanis: whether they knew why the war was fought or what lessons they learnt from that conflict?

Since then, I revisited the “official narrative” of the war that I grew up: this account forms the crux of the euphoria and celebration behind all Defence Day celebrations. I believe all of us are familiar with this narrative: on the fateful night of September 6, 1965, whilst crossing the international border and launching an attack on the Lahore front, India unilaterally imposed a war on Pakistan without a formal declaration. Despite being taken by surprise, the Pakistani military put up a valiant defense – forcing the enemy to halt its advance by inflicting heavy losses. Pakistan’s victory in the face of heavy odds (numerical inferiority, absent forewarning of an attack) marks the exemplary courage and sacrifices made during the war: commemorated and remembered today.

This is the only narrative churned out in official documents, publications, speeches, broadcasts and memorised by students as part of their official curricula. Becoming ingrained in our national 'folklore’, it is difficult to imagine anything different transpiring between India and Pakistan in the fateful year of 1965. Ironically, any alternate narrative is considered an attempt to undermine Pakistan’s ‘justified claim’ to victory; or worse, an endorsement of India’s accounts – that talks about their victory.

So this year, I spent some time researching the “actual” precursors to the 1965 war and a lot of what I realised and learnt during this entire discourse was both surprising and sad.

A lot of people I spoke to hadn’t heard of the army’s failed ‘Operation Gibraltar’ – that was an attempt to ‘liberate’ Kashmir. Operation Grand Slam was next to follow and is often cited as being virtually synonymous with the 1965 War; it was launched in order to relieve pressure from the Line of Control (then called the Ceasefire Line) as the Indian army captured the strategic Kargil heights and the Haji Pir Pass. Unfortunately, many people haven’t heard of Operation Grand Slam, either. Any 1965 war story is incomplete and inconclusive without discussing Operations Gibraltar and Grand Slam – making this oblivion unsurprising, since there is little (if any) mention of or reference to these events in our “official” narrative – despite us living in the age of information.

And this is where the irony lies.

There is a significant amount of literature available which both presents the complete picture and debunks all distorted narratives – whilst simultaneously establishes that the war ended in a clear victory for neither side.

Yet, what proportion of our masses are aware of any of these accounts? Almost 90% of Pakistan’s population falls under the “less than 55 years old” slot, according to the Pakistan Demographics Profile 2019, issued by Index Mundi. This clearly means that most of today’s Pakistanis weren’t even born in 1965. Their knowledge of the war would, hence, be based on narratives that were taught as part of school curriculums or whatever is (annually) relayed on Defence Day. And interestingly, official narratives on either side of the border are skewed and one sided; both attempt to highlight their respective successes and omit their blunders and setbacks.

September 6th will always mark the ultimate sacrifice of our military – through whose sacrifices it was ensured that a superior invading force was decisively stopped from taking key cities like Lahore. That Pakistan could hold India to a standoff during the 22-day war was miraculous, brought about by the indomitable will of our forces, of the time.

Yet as Pakistanis, we owe it to our dead to revisit the entirety of the war: to fully understand both the causes and the repercussions.

The 22-day war had left Pakistan in bad shape – where a continued conflict would have surely resulted in total defeat.

Admittedly, the 1965 war is when Pakistan and India “officially” became enemies. Till before the war, there were relatively amicable relations between Pakistan and India. There were disagreements on history and partition, but Pakistanis and Indians had not seen themselves as eternal enemies till then. My taayi (paternal aunt) recalls the pre 1965 war era, with a story of a book she couldn’t find in Lahore’s Urdu Bazaar. To procure the book, she took a bus to Amritsar with her mother and bought it from there.

So evidently, camaraderie and neighborliness did exist between the two countries – at some point in time and the 1965 war poisoned the well. But was the war worth it? Is Pakistan a stronger country today or did it resolve the outstanding Kashmir issue?

I think we all know the answer to that.

Nearly 55 years after the 1965 war, all of us would agree that today’s Pakistan cannot afford wars. I am sure there are surviving family members and several war veterans, who would be able to give us first-hand accounts of the 1965 war – but these generations are fading away, and we cannot allow ourselves to sensationalise the era. While September 6th memorializes the heroics of our military during the 1965 war, realism dictates that we fully understand both the precursors and the aftereffects of the war.

And only then, will we able replicate the solidarity shown by our people in 1965 – to preserve our independence, as a nation.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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