September 1965 – I: Why Now?

Two separate yet related incidents have brought about the need to revisit the 1965 war. The first was an announcement that the IAF would commemorate the 1965 war from 05 Sep 14 to 04 Sep 15. This would also involve a series of seminars at various Command HQs and perhaps other locations. The aim being to discuss experiences, introspect, and perhaps also see how far we have progressed since then. The second was a controversial article in the Business Standard (BS) of 02 Sep 14, “The day nothing happened” by Ajai Shukla. What caught my attention subsequently was a tweet by the author – “Why is the Indian Air Force announcing a year-long celebration of the 1965 war–which everyone accepts that it lost“. It was this rather sensational and outlandish heading, that cried out to be challenged.  Perhaps that was the very intention – that it draw attention. Thereafter followed a series of tweets spread over a few days between us. The author stuck to his stand and would not really answer questions which didn’t suit his argument and perhaps the same sentiment was reciprocated by him. We had reached an impasse and so called it off. I thanked him for a feisty discussion & hoped we could agree on something next time. That is now water under the bridge.

I get the impression, consciously or otherwise, the author pre-determined a premise, of a defeated IAF, and then went around weaving a narrative to fit that premise into the article.

I would have let it rest there. Yet, there was something that kept bothering, me for days afterwards, about this piece. Then it dawned – a rather loose and uncharitable  statement about the loss of the Vampires on 01 Sep was the trigger. I felt I couldn’t leave it there. It was owed to the memory of those who perished.

Let me clarify at the outset. The article in question does have some merit and could have led to a healthy debate. In fact the aim of the commemoration program is to do precisely that. By already writing off the whole exercise as myth-making, it gives the impression that the author has proclaimed himself judge, jury and executioner. With no wrong doing detected, nor necessary, the verdict is – guilty. Such a charge would have made sense if it was following the series of seminars and their outcome was known. Again, the author had already made up his mind even before the commemoration programme started.

There is the professional in all of us that would like to respect, discuss and introspect over criticism, no matter how harsh. I am no apologist for the IAF, something the author accused me of on Twitter. The IAF can more than defend itself and do a far better job of it. Neither is this an attempt to write or even rewrite history. I do not consider what I have to say as history, it is merely a reading of already recorded history. Historians are supposed to write dispassionately and in a detached manner. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Be that as it may, we owe it to the nation, the Services, the fallen and their families to hold post mortems and strive to improve.

Before going on to examine aspects of the BS article I would like to briefly point out what the OH and many others have discussed and debated over the years as being our primary drawbacks and failings.

  • The IAF started the war badly. It did then recover and did contribute to the total effort.
  • The sheer number of aircraft lost/damaged by enemy air attacks at various airfields is inexcusable.
  • The defense of ground installations was such that it left them vulnerable.
  • Lack of adequate  defences also forced the IAF to expend a lot of effort on Combat Air Patrols (CAP) over their bases.
  • As far as any inter-action between the Services was concerned, it was abysmal to start with.
  • No inter-service contingency plans were worked out.
  • As we progress, I think it will emerge that we did start doing somethings right and wrested the initiative.

With this as the background we move on to the article in question.

The author raises a question, – “Why is the Indian Air Force announcing a year-long celebration of the 1965 war–which everyone accepts that it lost“.

  • Everyone? Surely in almost 50 years I would have heard this before somewhere – other than some Pakistani sites, and there too certainly not all. And now the author.  Having checked with those who do know, this is not a celebration. It is a commemoration. There is a difference. It is amazing how many don’t know this.
  • The first in the planned seminars was held on 05 Sep at New Delhi and again, according to those who attended, there were presentations and discussions on the operations, the drawbacks and lessons learnt.

The author  in his article gives three reasons why the IAF should stop this “self congratulatory nonsense

  • His first reason is that it has not been done before anywhere else in the world. Well I guess there’s always a first time. His implication seems to be – How dare the IAF be different?
  • His next reason – that by every ‘independent‘ account the PAF got the better of the IAF. The text quotes two sources, one is John Fricker and the other is the Official History (OH) of the ’65 war. Much can be said about Fricker’s credibility – the author describes him as a noted historian. Suffice to say – the author’s second source, the Official History itself contradicts him “Even books sponsored by the PAF – such as ‘Battle for Pakistan’ by John Fricker….’ A book ‘sponsored’ by the PAF is an independent source?
  • The Official History, certainly more credible – discusses the faults, mistakes and also highlights the good work done. That the author prefers to blank out the good parts or be in denial, is his choice.
  • The third reason – “…importantly for military history aficionados, no fighting happened on September 5. Why is the IAF commemorating this day?” I don’t want to be seen as nit-picking. Yet, when a paper publishes a fact, it should indeed be one. It isn’t. The OH, the author’s oft quoted source, mentions that on 05 Sep, Mysteres attacked enemy positions at Jaurian and Garabi in the Chhamb sector while Gnats and Mig-21s flew fighter sweeps. PAF Sabres also attacked Amritsar in the evening (OH page 249). “No fighting happened”? Minor point, but worth noting.
  • As to commemorating 05 Sep, that is irrelevant and in error. That day is not being commemorated; it marks the beginning of a year long commemoration. Why this was selected as the start point I honestly don’t know. Maybe, being a Friday and the start of the week end, so presumable it would suit out station attendees. Does it really matter though? If the organisers don’t have a problem with it, I fail to understand why the Business Standard or the author are so upset over it. Similarly, whether it could have been compressed in time or spread over a year is perhaps for the organisers to decide. They know what they intend to achieve and how to go about doing it.  But is it really an issue? And for whom? Or is it just being made an issue?
  • The crucial point remains the bit about having the lost the war. Though this will be discussed in detail subsequently, the point to note is that there are some basic issues which the author uses to buttress his claim:

Old-timer pilots frankly confess that 1965 was a learning experience, not a victory….. – the underdog PAF got the better of the IAF in raid after raid, dogfight after dogfight. This comes not from the fevered imagination of Pakistani jingoists, but from the official Indian history of the 1965 war …. the IAF destroyed 43 PAF fighters, while losing 59 of their own.

  • The basis for the conclusion is that since it was a learning experience and not a victory, it was a defeat! QED.
  • Numbers alone seem to matter to the author, everything else is considered irrelevant and ignored.
  • As we will see later, and there are innumerable instances and various accounts, Indian and Pakistani, the ‘raid after raid, dogfight after dogfight‘ is pure and simple hyperbole.
  • Moreover, as happened often during our twitter discussion, the OH was quoted or ignored as considered convenient. There is much to be critical about and find fault with about IAF operations in 1965. As I pointed out to the author, not once did he quote any positives. Yet, there is so much in the OH that is also positive. All blanked out.
  • Nor would he even quote, in spite of repeated requests, what the OH said about the quantum of flying done, the damage that the IAF inflicted on the battle field as elsewhere, attrition rates, the Lahore operation and even on the reasons for the lack of close air support. All these facts exist and are dwelt upon in the OH.
  • They were all summarily dismissed as statistical jugglery, or advice was proffered to do some more reading or loftily rubbishing queries and statements as attempts by apologist IAF veterans, who retired decades back, to re-write history.  If something didn’t support the conclusion arrived at it, was not worth discussing. As a last resort, just shoot the messenger and be done with it.

The author will also most certainly be invited to give his opinion, if he so desires, on the issues raised here and in subsequent blogs. His comments will be considered with the attention they deserve. Hopefully we will benefit from other opinions also, from all sides, and thus enable readers to draw their own conclusions.

With this by way of an introduction we move on to the more operational aspects.

Note: Those who wish to, please feel free to comment. The first time a person comments, it will be held up for approval, which may take a few hours. Thereafter subsequent comments by that individual will get posted directly. Rules here are very simple on this blog – please don’t get personal and respect others in your comment. Disrespect to anyone will not be permitted.

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9 Responses to September 1965 – I: Why Now?

  1. Nanda Cariappa says:

    Thank you for that bit of enlightenment.

    I was unaware that this had been planned. However, for the Indian Army to be so proactive as to open a ‘front’ elsewhere does not sound quite right to me. The Kutch fiasco had fizzled out at the end of April. Would government have precipitated a full scale war after the initial provocation had been dealt with? And if Mr Shastri’s aim was to prevent something else happening, is it that which caused the Chhamb – Jaurian effort by the Pakistan Army, but much later? Did someone have a crystal ball to divine their intentions? All the more so if the intelligence that had been leaked from the Cabinet decision had not been conveyed to Ayub. Also, it would appear that Lahore was not considered an objective.

    • Bharat Kumar says:

      Surprising as it may seem the Army’s assessment during a number of exercises from 1956 onwards was that Pakistan was likely to attack from Chhamb onwards. The same assessment was made by the COAS on 31 August when he was in Srinagar. But the assessment of the timing of attack was wrong. IB had reduced the warning period from 10 to 4 days on 28 August 1965 but the Army’s own assessment on 1 September morning was that Pakistan would not launch attack for another two weeks or so.

  2. Bharat Kumar says:

    This is regarding Air Marshal Cariappa’s comments. Anticipating further adventure by Pakistan after Kutch episode, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in a statement to the Parlinament clearly warned that if Pakistani aggressions continued, the Indian Army would “decide its own strategy and employment of its manpower and equipment in a manner which it deems best.”? This set the ball rolling for Operation Ablaze. According to General Choudhry, Indian attack was expected to go in on 10 May. ” Three infantry divisions were moved to their operational locations and were given orders on 6th May to complete their preparations, including laying of mines. Pakistan also reacted in similar fashion and the two countries appeared to be headed for a full-scale war. The Operation did not go through as the overall situation changed very quickly. When Pakistan launched Operation Grand Slam, Shastri ordered the Indian Army to open another front across the international border with a view to firstly ease pressure in Chhamb-Akhnur sector and secondly to capture some territory to strengthen India’s bargaining position. This was the strategic aim which the Army Chief had been conveyed and is reflected in various publications.
    Interestingly, this decision of the Cabinet leaked out and the Turkish Ambassador in India conveyed the same to the Advisor to President Ayub. He also indicated the D-day as well as the likely area of Indian attack. But this advisor did not consider the information important enough and decided to keep it away from Ayub Khan.
    Bh

  3. Nanda Cariappa says:

    This is indeed a fine rejoinder to Shukla’s self-appointed authority on the 1965 war. I am happy that the fine point between ‘celebration’ and ‘commemoration’ has been made. I am unsure as to how the ball got rolling, but from the time I learned of the year-long events being planned I was given the impression that the AF was talking ‘celebration’.
    I learned too, from one who had attended the seminar in Delhi that there was a ‘strategic aim’ as enunciated by Mr Rasgotra. This is the first time anyone has said there was such an Aim. Surely, the ‘Aim’ is something that is spelled out at the start of a campaign, or battle or war. It is not something that is a fall-out from either a tactical setback or anything else.

  4. Parry Bindra says:

    Introductory analysis is logical and comprehensive . Of course , there would be differences of opinion with regard to force levels , chronological details of events and other related issues . In any case , I would prefer to go by official records or the personal version of stakeholders who were part of the operations , rather than accept a distorted / exaggerated Pakistani or Pakistan – sponsored cover – up .

    Subtle differences between CELEBRATION and COMMEMORATION seem to have been purposely , or perhaps mischievously , distorted to shift the focus away from the vital theme of the event

    As regards planning of the event and its spread in time and spatial dimensions , we must leave it to the wisdom of organizers .

    I was A young officer during 1965 Indo – Pak War . I may not have fully grasped the strategy or higher direction of war at that stage . However , I have come a long way . With 40 years of active service in the Indian Army and extensive knowledge and experience acquired during that period , aided by vivid memories of the war , I am sanguine that my word shall be taken at its face value !!

  5. rustom says:

    Mr Shukla has the habbit of even contradicting his articles as pointed out in hs blogs. It starts with a tantrum he throws when he cannot rebuff a point intellectually. But then here we have an author who painted the IAF and her chief as corrupt and wrong as they pushed on for the Pilatus instead of HALs imaginery trainer.

    • Rahul says:

      Excellent case in point. I remember that article for a number of reasons. He quoted documents “that Business Standard has seen” that were quite clearly minutes from the meeting. The content was clearly cherry picked to reflect a HAL/DRDO point of view and served as vehicle for him to make a rather personal attack on the Chief’s integrity and competence.

      If he was to have been a fair and unbiased reporter of the facts, he should have also reflected the IAF’s perspective from those meeting minutes. He chose not to.

      It seemed clear that he was pushing the agenda of his sources. And of further interest to me, personally: how is it that nobody questions the leaking of sensitive documents to Mr. Shukla?

  6. capris darashah says:

    You are right, in the garb of research, he spins the story to suit his preconceived notions. He does seem to have bones to pick with the IAF. .

  7. Rahul says:

    Dara Uncle,
    There are a couple of problems with the way you’ve framed the discussion:
    1. It is logical, and
    2. It is fact based

    Given those constraints, I suspect you’ve disqualified Mr. Shukla from participating in any meaningful manner.

    My experiences in terms of engaging with Mr. Shukla and attempting to inject some semblance of balance into the perspectives he expresses have left me convinced that he’s not entirely sure of the difference between journalism and opinion. In addition, he seems to have a bit of a casual relationship with facts and their manner of employment in the service of a thesis statement.

    So, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that he chose not to engage with you on a substantive basis. And that should tell you everything you need to know about the depth of his presumed expertise.

    That said, I am looking forward to reading the other posts.

    Best,
    Rahul

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