Grade Crossing

Remembering Lal Bahadur Shastri's role in 1965 war

As PM, he authorised the Indian armed forces to expand the scope of the war beyond J&K with Pakistan.

 |  Grade Crossing  |  4-minute read |   01-09-2015
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We have several friendly countries as neighbours, but one of them - a terrorist - is enough to cancel out those friendly benefits. We have been investing - both men and materials - so much in our defence plans because of this one terrorist. It all started with Partition, and despite nearly seven decades since then, the rivalry - albeit with patches of white flags in between - continues.

India is now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1965 war victory over Pakistan. Did we really win the war? It's not just us, but neutral analysts also say so. However, Pakistan has always claimed they too won it. They claim they defended the Indian forces with great pride and celebrate September 6 every year as their Defence Day! But it is a country that repeatedly says it does not sponsor cross border terrorism. Everybody laughs at that statement, maybe even the Pakistan leaders too, in private.

Kashmir has always been a jewel Pakistan wanted to possess. They devised Operation Gibraltar for it. It failed, and a war ensued. American author Stanley Wolpert wrote in his book India that "Ayub [Khan] was a giant of a man, as tall and sturdy as India's Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was small and physically frail. But India's army was four times larger than Pakistan's, and quickly dispelled the popular Pakistani myth that one Muslim soldier was "worth ten Hindus"." He concluded that India was in a position to inflict grave damage to, if not capture, Pakistan's capital of the Punjab when the ceasefire was called, and controlled Kashmir's strategic Uri-Poonch bulge, much to Ayub's chagrin.

As former national security adviser JN Dixit wrote, Shastri unexpectedly authorised the Indian armed forces to expand the scope of the war beyond Jammu and Kashmir across the international border with Pakistan and the army was ready to aim at Lahore and Sialkot. This surprised Pakistan and forced them to withdraw their forces from the Chhamb-Akhnoor sector and resist Lahore and Sialkot. This move effectively put Pakistan, which aimed Kashmir, to go on the defensive. Wolpert was also referring to this strategic upper hand India had in the war.

The United Nations suggested a ceasefire and both countries agreed to it. The formalities were later completed with the signing of the Tashkent Declaration. In hindsight, it was just one of the several agreements the two countries had signed. But as Wolpert wrote, Shastri never awoke to help implement that hopeful accord. He was found dead. No post-mortem. No official inquiry. Crisis man Gulzarilal Nanda was readied a second time to swear in as prime minister. End of story.

Current defence minister Manohar Parrikar has been critical of the Indian media that they did not give necessary coverage to the celebrations of the war victory anniversary. But what respect has the nation returned to Shastri? Even after 49 years of his death, Shastri's family has been asking for nothing more than justice to his memory. His family says his body sported blue patches by the time it reached India and that it also had several injury marks on it. As you would expect, our government still keeps classified files about Shastri's death, much like in the case of Subhas Chandra Bose.

The biggest asset of the small and frail Shastri was the power of his tactics. More than anything, he could direct an army which Pakistan thought was completely demoralised after losing the war to China. It also showed the decision makers under Shastri were quite apt for the job. Through his slogan "Jai Jawan Jai Kisan", Shastri could enthuse both the soldiers and the farmers alike. Soldiers were cheered to defend the country and farmers were cheered to increase food production and reduce import in war time.

Will we give Shastri his due? Indian government fears that the truth about Shastri's death will harm our foreign relations. Doesn't the government in a democratic country owe certain responsibilities to the public? Soviet Russia undoubtedly holds the keys to resolving the death/disappearance mysteries of two of India's foremost leaders. No celebration is good if the nation does not care for its leaders who brought freedom and who defended the enemy with great pride and passion.


Sreejith Panickar Sreejith Panickar @panickars

The writer is a columnist, researcher and social activist. He is the founder-member of Mission Netaji.

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