1971 Bangladesh War

Surprise, Surprise

Never underestimate the magnetic power of a sideshow. While the crosscurrents of history sweep through the larger stage, and Hurriyat does what was unthinkable day before yesterday and unacceptable yesterday; while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf lift the spirit of their language far above the stodgy bureaucratic wrangling that must inevitably inform discussions on detail; while the leader of the Indian Opposition and an architect of the Ram Mandir movement, Lal Krishna Advani, apologises for the destruction of the Babri mosque during a visit to Pakistan; Gohar Ayub Khan, son of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, pinches some of the headlines with the titillating claim that an Indian Brigadier sold India's 1965 war plans.

Who is this top spy? Mr Khan refuses to reveal the identity but strews the path with teasing hints. The spy is still alive. His wife needed the money for a hobby, canning fruits. The payment was made in London, through the Pakistan Military Attaché there, Brigadier Said Ghaus. The plan was so comprehensive that for a while Ayub Khan even suspected it to be a plant and had it double-checked by other intelligence assets in Delhi. The plan envisaged the Indian Army falling back behind the Beas in case of reverses. In later interviews Gohar Khan, never without a Frontier twinkle in his eye, said that the Brigadier was Director of Military Operations between 1951 and 1958. I saw one Indian television news interview in which Mr Khan blithely claimed that everything relevant on the table of the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru eventually reached his father, Ayub Khan.

As an Indian I was terribly reassured by this last statement, since Nehru was not Prime Minister of India during the 1965 war: Lal Bahadur Shastri had been Prime Minister for some sixteen months when Ayub Khan launched Operation Gibraltar in the autumn of 1965, and sank this subcontinent into an era of economic stagnation and human despair from which we are at long last making a serious effort to recover. Alas, the television interviewer did not mention this to Mr Gohar Khan. It might have clouded at least some of those twinkles. It is possible, however, that the TV interviewer himself did not know this. Presumably the papers on Shastri's table were safe. My problem with the story is not that Gohar Khan made these claims, but the effortlessness with which journalists swallowed them. Even a cursory check with common sense induces cynicism. If the Great Indian Spy (henceforth to be codenamed Gus, a variation of GIS) was Brigadier in 1951 he must be in his nineties now, and twenty thousand rupees in the '50s must have bought a lot of cans for fruit. But these are negligible objections.

Field Marshal Ayub Khan was a Sandhurst graduate and saw action in the Second World War. People have called him many names, from hero to villain, but no one as yet has called him a fool. While every Army has standard operational plans against any neighbour deemed to be hostile, or even deemed to be friendly, to call something written in the '50s the war plan for 1965, is about as absurd as it gets. It is even more stupid to believe that there can be anything like a comprehensive plan, for the simple reason that no one knows where the enemy will concentrate its strike, unless of course some Gus has told you. The alleged plan on Ayub Khan's desk could not have been much use because India had no intention of starting a war in 1965. (This is in contrast to 1971, when India had every intention of starting a war, and a Gus in 1971 would have been extremely useful to President Yahya Khan. But like Shastri's desk, Indira Gandhi's desk was also clearly beyond the reach of any Gus).

I know it is currently unfashionable to be aware of history, particularly the history of your own country, but there was a pretty startling episode in the history of the Indian Army between the '50s and 1965. This was the war against China in 1962 in which the Indian Army was humiliated and India humbled. The catastrophe of 1962 came near to taking Nehru's job; his defence minister Krishna Menon did have to pay a heavy price. The Army Command inevitably was churned up. Once again, would any General in Pakistan with minimum IQ have believed that a document of the '50s would have survived the rethinking and revaluation that took place after 1962? General Ayub Khan was not such a dud as to base operational plans for 1965 on intelligence purchased in the '50s, if indeed there was any such Brigadier who sold any such plan. For starters, the Indian Army of 1965 was a very different force from the Army of the '50s and indeed of 1962.

Here is a key question for Gohar Khan. If the Brigadier had given Ayub Khan the full Indian plan for the 1965 war, how come Pakistan was surprised by the Indian thrust across the international border, and shocked by the fact that Indian troops reached the Ichogil Canal? A war plan that did not include what happened was not much of a plan, was it? There were three surprises in the 1965 War. Perhaps, in hindsight, neither side should have been surprised, but neither country had enough foresight. The first surprise was Operation Gibraltar, in which the 7000-strong Gibraltar Force began to slip across the Cease Fire Line in twos and threes from the morning of 07 August 1965, with the objective of sabotage, disruption, distribution of arms and the creation of conditions for a mass, armed uprising in the Kashmir valley.

The objective conditions seemed right for such a move. The Indian Army was still reeling from the shock of 1962. The valley was in turmoil, particularly after the disappearance of the Mo-e-Muqaddas (the Hair of the Prophet) from the Hazratbal shrine in the last week of December 1963. Its recovery, and, more important, acceptance that the recovery was genuine, calmed matters for a while but convinced Nehru that Sheikh Abdullah's long imprisonment was a costly mistake. The Sheikh was released in April, and in May — after consultations with Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Jaya Prakash Narayan and C. Rajagopalachari — introduced the novel idea of a confederation of India, Pakistan and Kashmir. On 23 May 1964 the Sheikh went to Pakistan to sell his three-nation theory, but Ayub Khan was in no mood to purchase uncertain goods. On 26 May 1964, however the Sheikh did announce that there would be a Nehru-Ayub summit.

On 27 May 1964 Nehru died, and the Congress began to backtrack, leaving the Sheikh furious. On 15 January 1965, the Sheikh said in a public speech that the peaceful agitation might not remain peaceful forever. He went on a Haj trip with political ramifications, meeting Chou en Lai (the visit was arranged by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto), and returned to India in May to find re-arrest awaiting him. By this time, Pakistan had tested Indian arms, with success, when fighting broke out in the Rann of Kutch on 09 April 1965, and there were hopes of greater success when Gibraltar was launched. Instead, the Kashmiris, for the most part, supported the Indian response, which included moving to block the passes through which the Gibraltar force had come. But if Gibraltar failed, the second Pakistani punch, Operation Grand Slam, commanded by Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik, launched on 01 September 1965, was a stunning success. The bridge across Chenab lay in front of 7 Division and Jammu was at its mercy, with the possibility that the Indian Army in the valley would be surrounded and cut off. At this point something totally inexplicable happened.

Major General Malik, the hero of the hour, was shifted to Kargil and Major General Yahya Khan was told to take command in mid-battle. While Pakistan soldiers were waiting for the code word to move forward, headquarters was playing favourites. (The memoirs of General Mohammad Musa are illuminating). The stalled Pakistani offensive reached Jaurian only on 05 September 1965, and despite orders to take Akhnur as quickly as possible, Yahya Khan dallied. He gave India the only thing she needed, time. On 06 September 1965, India opened a front from Sialkot to Kasur, and it became a different story. This was the second surprise. It was Pakistan's turn to be outflanked. It is true that India's Army Chief General Chaudhuri had contemplated, during those days in which the situation seemed hopeless, that India consolidate behind the Beas, but his colleagues would not consider what would have been an abject surrender of Punjab. The Punjab meant something to Sikhs like General Harbaksh Singh. Rather than retreating from Amritsar, they took the war into Lahore.

Gohar Khan exaggerates the role of one driver and his accident, which he says, prevented Pakistani armour from breaking through on the Punjab front. More sensible accounts talk of the lugubrious nature of tank movement. Suffice to say that Indian generals found a brilliant tactic: they stalled the heavy Patton tanks (heroes of the Second World War) by flooding the monsoon-moist fields of Punjab, and then poured withering fire on the trapped elephants in a decisive battle known in India as "Asal Uttar" (the Real Answer). This was the third surprise. No plan can ever contemplate such realities.

© M J Akbar's Blog, 05 June 2005