1965 and After

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(Unfinished Business)

The past can surely be unchained from prejudices.

THERE was a neatly dug-out rectangular hole in the ground, narrow enough for my playmates and me to leap across, arms spread out, pretending to be fighter aircraft, with appropriate vocal effects.

You could call it war games. The terrestrial cavity wasn’t a grave but a trench. I imagine the dirt that had been shovelled out was shovelled back in a couple of weeks later. There was never any excuse for cowering inside the cavity. The only purpose it served was as a novelty for kids naively excited by their first experience of conflict between nations.

It was September 1965, and I was on the verge of turning six when hostilities between India and Pakistan erupted on a grand scale, following weeks of skirmishes in Kashmir. The apparent calculation on the Pakistani side was that the fight it had instigated by infiltrating forces into India-held Kashmir would remain restricted to that sector.

At least that was the conviction conveyed by key advisers to Pakistan’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan, who was reputedly wary of picking a fight that he must have known Pakistan couldn’t possibly win should it spill over into all-out warfare. As it did when India decided, predictably, to go on the offensive along the western front, and its forces came within shouting distance of Lahore.

It wasn’t a one-sided affair, though; by the time a ceasefire took effect 17 days after the Sept 6 eruption, under pressure from both the US and the Soviet Union, there was sufficient ambiguity in terms of military gains and losses for both sides to claim victory.

Relatively unbiased observers have been inclined all along to see it as more or less a draw, although it could also be viewed as a loss for both sides, as wars generally are. It comes as no surprise, though, that the 50th anniversary of that unnecessary confrontation should be serving as an excuse for a spot of gung-ho jingoism on both sides of the border.

Pakistan has long marked its Defence Day on Sept 6, seeking to perpetuate the myth that the war was exclusively about resisting Indian aggression rather than the consequence of Operation Gibraltar, which was based in part on the misguided presumption that Kashmiris would rise up spontaneously in support of their ‘liberators’.

The year before the war, there had been some movement on the diplomatic front, with Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah, recently freed from an extensive stint in incarceration, visiting Pakistan, ostensibly as an emissary of the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose stance on Kashmir had apparently been ameliorated in the wake of 1962’s disastrous military confrontation with China over disputed territory.

We will never know whether the initiative might have led to any kind of breakthrough. Abdullah was compelled to cut short his visit when Nehru died. Pakistan was represented at the latter’s funeral by its foreign minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — who a year later stood out as a leading warmonger.

There were subsequently some indications that Bhutto’s enthusiasm for instigating the conflict was motivated in part by the idea that Pakistan’s only way out of military rule was a military defeat. Be that as it may, he certainly launched his political career as a newfangled democrat on the basis of his opposition to the Tashkent agreement between India and Pakistan.

Tantalising Pakistanis with the vow to reveal the so-called secrets of Tashkent (which he never did), Bhutto emerged as a key opponent of Ayub — although his propulsion into power took another war, and a decisive defeat for Pakistan. On the Indian side, meanwhile, the aftermath of 1965 paved the way for Indira Gandhi’s rise to power.

The war was also a watershed in terms of decisively distancing the neighbours, not least on account of a socio-cultural cut-off that endured for decades and remains entrenched in various respects. Confli¬ct¬¬ing narratives are understandable, as is the fact that each side has its heroes and martyrs. What’s deeply distressing is the sense of lessons doggedly unlearned.

The logic of good-neighbourly relations has been evident ever since the monumental bloodletting that accompanied the birth of freedom in 1947. No doubt the past cannot be changed. But it can surely be unchained from the prejudices that condemn both nations to a fruitless antagonism. Political leaders on both sides have consistently been aware that it’s all too easy to whip up a frenzy that translates into popular support. What too many of them have been reluctant to recognise is that it wouldn’t be that much harder to generate goodwill, which would entail far higher dividends, especially in the longer term.

The border skirmishes, threats and counter threats of recent days are a pathetic reminder that the curse of short-sightedness, which accounted in large part for the foolish and futile war of 1965, continues to blight the prospects for a brighter future. –Dawn

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