Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2015-09-03 10:17:33 Published on Sep 03, 2015
Political and diplomatic overview of the run up to the 1965 India-Pakistan war 

"The events that led to the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan on September 6, 1965 are well known — the Kutch incursion of April 24, Operation Gibraltar of August 5, followed by Grand Slam on September 1. Each of them took New Delhi by surprise, just as India surprised Pakistan by launching an attack across the international border towards Lahore.

1. Political overview

The 1962 war taught us a bitter lesson that there were no natural allies either in the Non Aligned Movement or in the Afro-Asian summit. Even friends like the US and UK that came to support us, did so on a conditional basis, and limited their assistance so as not to upset Pakistan.

Overall, this was a period of great change across the world, some were visible, others subterranean. The Cold War had peaked in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the first signs of the Sino-Soviet rift were appearing. In South Asia, India was licking its wounds after the humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and, America's most allied ally, Pakistan, was establishing close ties with China, and working out a détente with the USSR. In October 1964, China exploded its first nuclear bomb.

Even as Pakistan worked to change geopolitical equations, India was seeking to maintain an even keel in its relations with the US and USSR, just as the Soviets were trying to do in their relations with India and China. In a similar vein, the US sought to juggle its alliance ties with Pakistan with its newer proximity to India after the 1962 war.

The change taking place was manifested by the change of guard in many key countries. President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and he was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson who consolidated himself through a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential elections. In May 1964, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru passed away. Later, in October 1964, the Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khruschev was ousted.

Two leaders survived the challenges they confronted—Mao was able to overcome the setback arising from the Great Famine that had resulted in the deaths of 40 million people because of his policies, and Ayub Khan survived a surprising tough challenge from Fatima Jinnah during Pakistan's first presidential elections that took place on January 2, 1965.

Death of Nehru and the transition

Easily the most important development in India was the passing of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on May 27, 1964. He was the leader of our freedom struggle and prime minister for the first 17 years of our nation's life, the man who shaped the India we know today.

The idealism of the independence movement was fading, as were its leaders, the country's economy was stagnant, with agriculture showing alarming signs of decline, corruption and nepotism were rampant. India had staved off famine by importing 17 million tonnes of food from the US between 1960-64 and instituting rationing across the country.

Taken together with the defeat inflicted by China on India there was a sense of deep pessimism in the land.

However, the fundamentals of the country were sound, the country rested on strong foundations with a vociferous Opposition and an active press, and parliamentary democracy had passed the test of three general elections. Admittedly there were huge gaps between plans and implementation and the growing bureaucracy hindered, rather than helped things. But in retrospect, the problem was not that plans were not being implemented, it was that our basic strategy of growth which emphasized the ""socialistic pattern of society"" was all wrong.

The defeat of the 1962 war with China had weakened Nehru's position in India, as well as in the world. Equally it had weakened him within his own party. Decision making had shifted from his home to the Congress Parliamentary Party and its powerful Working Committee, and from New Delhi to the satraps in the states like S.K. Patil, Sanjiva Reddy, S. Nijalingappa, C.B. Gupta, S.N. Sinha and Atulya Ghosh.

Through moves like the Kamaraj Plan, Nehru sought to shape his succession in 1963, but in a negative way by sending off potential successors to the states. He suffered a stroke on 7 January 1964 in Bhubaneshwar and three weeks later he got Lal Bahadur Shastri back into the Cabinet as a minister without a portfolio. Shastri and Nehru shared a similar ethos—they were from Allahabad, they had participated in the same movements and the sometimes the same prisons.

Nehru's death may have not have been unexpected, but it was sudden. In fact, five days before he died, he was asked at a press conference whether he was grooming a successor, and his answer was that he was not going to die soon.

On 31 May, four days after Panditji's death, Morarji Desai was persuaded to withdraw his candidature, and Shastri was chosen PM by the Congress Working Committee. Shastri was a centrist in his economic and political thinking and was more prudent and conservative as compared to Nehru, as a personality, too, he was reserved where Nehru was naturally outgoing.

The powerful men of the CWC had hoped that Shastri would be their puppet, but the diminutive Shastri had other ideas. He turned out to be a firm man, and decisive to boot. He took them head on and when they blocked his initiatives in the Cabinet, he began to work through a new Prime Minister's secretariat, which eventually evolved into the PMO we know of today.

The smooth succession that the Congress party effected was a tribute to the strong foundations of nationhood that had been laid by Nehru. India had overcome numerous problems—linguistic tensions, separatism and insurgency and defeat in a war—yet by the time of Nehru's death, it was a functional democracy, a rarity in the Third World. It was in the midst of an economic crisis, but it had a vociferous Opposition, an active press, and had held three general elections. While separatist challenges in the periphery of the country remained, the more serious one relating to Tamil separatism had been overcome after the DMK deleted the demand for secessionism from its manifesto in 1963.

The Hazratbal incident and its fallout

Among the first tasks that Shastri had to handle was the crisis over the Hazratbal incident after the theft of, the holy relic on 27 December 1963. A week later, however it had reappeared, but by this time a popular movement had rocked Kashmir. An Action Committee of what we would today call separatists, took over the agitation and demanded among other things a plebiscite and the release of Sheikh Abdullah and the certification of the relic by a special committee of clerics. On February 3, a week after he had become a Minister without portfolio, Shastri overruled the Home Secretary and ordered the special deedar and thie committee certified that it was indeed the genuine article. The tempers in Srinagar cooled off somewhat.

One fallout of this was the replacement of the JK National Conference PM Shamsuddin by Congress leader GM Sadiq in February 1964. The other was Nehru's decision to release Sheikh Abdullah who had been in jail since 1953, but for a brief period in 1958.

The Sheikh was released on April 8th 1964, and travelled through the Valley to an ecstatic reception. Later after holding intensive talks with Nehru as his house guest in New Delhi, he traveled to Pakistan and discuss a possible resolution of the Kashmir issue with Ayub Khan. He had with him a formula that had been worked out after intensive consultations between Nehru and a committee of advisers. This probably involved a special status for J&K through the creation of some kind of a three-way confederation or condominium between India and Pakistan in relation to J-K. But Abdullah's visit would be more of an exploratory one. However it was during this visit that Nehru passed away on May 27.

Nehru's initiatives were not welcomed by either the Left or the Right, or even members of his own party. Yet, his stature was such that if anyone could have sold a settlement in India of the nature that was being contemplated, it was Nehru.

In October, four months after taking charge, Shastri had a luncheon meeting with Ayub in Karachi during a short stop over on his way back from the NAM summit in Cairo. Apparently Ayub was not too impressed by him.

The Kashmir initiative died. Indeed, stung by the Hazratbal incident, the Union government took the step to integrate J&K closer into the Union by extending Article 356 and 357 of the Indian Constitution on December 31, 1964, which provided for the extension of President's rule in the state. To this end it used the Constitution (Application to Jammu & Kashmir) Order of 1954 which has been amended over time to apply more provisions of the Constitution to Kashmir. An immediate impact of this was the change in the nomenclature of the PM of J&K, from henceforth, he became a ""chief minister"" as in other states of the Union. Another was the merger in June 1965 of the National Conference with the Congress.

These developments could not but have been viewed with alarm in Pakistan. It appeared that the window of opportunity in Jammu & Kashmir was closing. In 1964, the UN had also more or less shelved discussion on the issue and earlier, in 1963, six rounds of bilateral negotiations with India had failed to come up with a solution on Kashmir. The Indian rearmament which was proceeding apace would soon blunt the edge the Pakistan Army had over India in terms of its US-supplied arsenal.

In March 1965 Sheikh went on a pilgrimage to Mecca via UK and returned via Algiers where he met Zhou Enlai. What they discussed was not revealed but on his return he was arrested. A senior CIA contact of Sheikh also revealed in a memoir published in the 1990s that Abdullah was aware of the planning for Op Gibraltar. However, as the record has revealed, Pakistan had begun planning to ""defreeze"" the Kashmir situation in 1964 itself when under Bhutto's initiative it created a secret ""Kashmir cell"" to come up with plans.

The Chinese nuclear test

On October 16, 1964, China tested a nuclear device. The fact that the Chinese planned to test were apparent even earlier. Shortly after Shastri became PM and Atomic Energy Minister, India processed the first batch of spent fuel from the CIRUS reactor at the Tarapur reprocessing plant. But this was just one element in making a nuclear weapon. More important was that India had to take the decision to go nuclear.

Here Shastri put his foot down and resisted pressure from the atomic energy establishment. Eight days after the test, the head of India's nuclear programme Homi Bhaba claimed in a major speech in AIR that a stockpile of 50 bombs would cost just Rs 10 crore. However, Shastri termed the Chinese test a threat to world peace and politely told Bhabha to shut up.

As the new prime minister he was tested on this issue by rivals within the Cabinet and the Congress party, as well as the Opposition.

Shastri's real headache was both economic. The price situation was out of control and the country was already undertaking food rationing and dependent on the US for its grain. The defence budget which was some 28 per cent of total government spending was proving to be a burden, and now, he was facing calls to enhance it even further by undertaking a nuclear weapons programme.

In September 1964, the month before the Chinese test, the government faced down a no confidence motion on rising prices. According to US intelligence, in a six hour meeting on the issue in late October, the Cabinet was divided, with most ministers, notably SK Patil and Swaran Singh supporting the Bhabha line and only two, Defence Minister Y B Chavan and Food and Agriculture Minister C Subramaniam opposing.

The debate culminated in the AICC meeting of early November 1964 when more than 100 members urged a closed debate on the issue, however Shastri and his supporters were able to head off the move and get a unanimous resolution through the AICC calling for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Shastri was quoted as saying that instead of making bombs, India should seek the elimination of nuclear weapons. Shastri told his party men that each bomb would cost Rs 40- 50 crore, in other words, it was not a cheap option.

The debate spilled over to the foreign policy debate that took place on November 23-24 in the Lok Sabha. After listening to the heated debate Shastri responded, noting that the government's stand was not merely moral, but realistic factors dictated prudence. He said a nuclear weapons programme would have a disastrous effect on the already stumbling economy. However, he emphasized that the government was not inflexible and, if needed, could change its policy.

Essentially, politics were pulling Shastri towards the bomb, but the economic situation was creating a counter-push.

Clearly the Congress was split, with a majority tilting towards the bomb, a small minority along with Shastri opposed it, while a middle group wanted to continue the policy of technology demonstration without overt weaponisation. This was manifested in the views expressed at the CPP Executive Committee meet two days after the Lok Sabha debate.

On November 27, the Jana Sangh moved a motion in the Lok Sabha calling for the country to manufacture nuclear weapons, but this was defeated in a voice vote. In his speech on the occasion, Shastri most clearly articulated his moral opposition to nuclear weapons but also spelt out the future direction of Indian nuclear policy. He said that India would remain committed to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, but this could include devices which can be used for tunneling or leveling mountains for developmental purposes. It was this track that led to the so-called ""Peaceful Nuclear Explosion"" or PNE in 1974.

The second track of Indian policy was to seek nuclear guarantees from abroad. Building on President Johnson's somewhat vague pledge at the time of the Chinese test, Shastri raised the issue at a press conference in London in December 1964 as an idea that could be discussed. This idea was attacked as being suggestive of abandoning non-alignment. Shastri clarified that he wanted a guarantee from the US and USSR for all non-nuclear nations. But the idea was not fleshed out at the point.

The debate had not died down and the Congress party annual session saw voices being raised for a nuclear weapons programme, though the primary focus of discussion was economic policy. However the official line prevailed that ""for the present"" India's policy would remain unchanged.

With the benefit of hindsight we can argue that the debates in India, especially statements by people like Bhabha would have shaken the Pakistanis. There is some evidence to suggest that during their visit to Beijing, Bhutto and Ayub discussed the Indian nuclear threat with Zhou in early March 1965. There is enough on record to show that Bhutto tried to push the Pakistani system to match India' activities on the nuclear front at that time.

2. Diplomatic overview

There was no getting away from the fact that the 1962 war had diminished India's standing in Asia and Africa. Nehru sought to cultivate both China and Soviet Union in the 1950s. By 1960 the Chinese infatuation was over, but he had instinctively sensed the Sino-Soviet split and sought to cultivate the USSR. On the other hand, India had become the recipient of the American outreach that led to significant American commitment to provide economic and food aid to India.

The Cold War was in a period of transition. After peaking in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the old bipolar confrontation began giving way to a more complex multipolar competition. This was manifested by the emerging Sino-Soviet split and the increasing tempo of the Vietnam war, which was essentially a national liberation struggle, which was embedded in the old Cold War paradigm. It was manifested, too, by the changing allegiances of Pakistan, America's most allied ally—it was a member of CENTO and SEATO—moving towards China.

By 1965, the US military assistance had sharply upgraded Pakistani military capabilities. At today's prices, Pakistan had got some $ 3 billion worth of arms and support equipment. The plan for Anglo-American military assistance to India was finalized only in June 1964 and cancelled a year later when the Indo-Pak war broke out, after we had received some $ 120 million worth of non-lethal equipment.

One of the aspects of the US-UK approach was not to provide India supersonic aircraft or submarines. Both of which it subsequently obtained from the Soviet Union.

Power politics

In 1965, both India and Pakistan were seeking to improve their relations with the US and Soviet Union. But Pakistan also had the Chinese card up its sleeve. Beginning with the Sino-Pak border agreement of 1963, Pakistan had become an important element in Beijing's calculations. In February 1964, Zhou Enlai paid a state visit to Pakistan and a year later China came up with a $ 60 million soft loan to Pakistan. In March 1965, Ayub received a hero's welcome in his maiden visit to Beijing, this was followed by a visit to Moscow on April 3 1965. But his erstwhile allies were not amused and on April 15th, five days before he was scheduled to go to Washington DC, the Americans called off the visit.

In June 1965 Foreign Minister Chen Yi and Premier Zhou paid separate visits to Pakistan. In a July 1965 memo to the CIA, the I&R unit of the state department offered an analysis suggesting that ""there is some degree of military and/or security cooperation between China and Pakistan.... and perhaps some kind of understanding in case the other was involved in conflict with India.

On September 1, 1965 China announced the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region. This decision, which hived off important parts of Tibet, like Amdo and Kham, and linked them to Chinese provinces, marked the success of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and their increased self-confidence in dealing with Tibetan issues.

Shastri followed Ayub to Moscow in May, but to balance with Pakistan, the Americans cancelled his June visit as well. During Nehru's funeral, Kosygin raised the issue of more autonomy for Kashmir. In his meeting with Shastri in June 1964, Foreign Minister Anastas Mikoyan called on India to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Following President S. Radhakrishnan's visit to Moscow, the joint statement omitted any endorsement of the Indian position on Kashmir.

During Shastri's visit, Kosygin told him that the USSR wanted a peaceful settlement of the Kutch dispute and the joint communique did not mention either Kashmir or Kutch. In the UN debates in early 1964, the Soviets supported India, but did not attack Pakistan and acknowledged that there was a dispute between India and Pakistan. When the Pak army mounted a covert invasion of Kashmir in August 1965, the Soviets were silent.

The US

Under President Johnson, the phase of a US policy, that began in the second Eisenhower Administration and which involved military and economic assistance to India and Pakistan, and diplomatic efforts to resolve the Kashmir issue came to an end. Johnson had little patience for Indian or Pakistani leaders, and soon he was, in any case, embroiled in Vietnam.

Johnson led the US through a turbulent period which saw major internal developments in the US in the form of race riots which culminated in the passage of major civil rights legislation, this era also marked a major expansion of the anti-poverty and entitlement programmes in the US. This was an era of economic expansion for the US, in many ways the height of its power. But even as it reached that point, it began to enter into the quagmire in South-east Asia.

The war in Vietnam took a turn for the worse when the Gulf of Tonkin incident took place in August 1964. At this time the Vietnam war was still seen as a minor event in the US, but within the administration pressure was building up for enhancing US commitments there. In the spring of 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder, or the bombing of North Vietnam began. The US expected that air power would deliver victory, instead conflict escalated. To protect the bases from which their aircraft were deployed for the bombing campaign, US Marines were sent in July 1965, and the US Administration agreed on a plan for a major escalation in Vietnam.

The US distraction in South-east Asia had consequences in South Asia. US disinterest in the region was manifested by it getting the UK to take the lead to work out a ceasefire in the Kutch in May 1964.

Between 1960-64 India had got some 17 million tons of wheat under the PL 480 programme. But in June 1965, Johnson put India on the short-tether policy by approving just one million tons, enough for 2 months, at a time. Indians had not been very happy about being forced to import food from abroad. After taking over, Shastri appointed C Subramaniam as the new agricultural minister to fix things. But the 1965 monsoon also failed and as a result India faced the worst drought of the century and foodgrain production plummeted from 89 to 72 million tons.

Supplies from the US became critical in staving off a famine. Keen to push India to reform its agricultural policy, Johnson doled out food in measured shipments which were authorized by him personally. Under his pressure, the two sides hammered out the Treaty of Rome which detailed measures India would take to enhance its agricultural productivity, steps that eventually led to the Green Revolution.


For Pakistan, the biggest worry was the Indian rearmament following the disastrous war with China. Pakistan had gone through its own rearmament process following its alliance with the United States in the late 1950s. But the prospect of larger India rearming, albeit for reasons not really connected to Pakistan, was troubling.

After becoming foreign minister in 1963, Bhutto drove Pakistani policy in an anti-Indian, anti-American and pro-Chinese direction. This culminated in the planning for Operation Gibraltar in 1964.

At the same time Pakistan was playing its own game of trying to balance the US, China and the Soviet Union. In April 3, 1965, Ayub had paid a state visit to Moscow. The joint statement did not mention Kashmir, but did note ""resolute support for the peoples who are fighting for the right to determine their future in accordance with their own free will.""

In a letter to Johnson, in July 1964, Ayub said that the US aid to India posed a threat to Pakistan and said it would lead to a Pakistani reappraisal of its CENTO and SEATO ties. Johnson's reply was curt noting that the US may also be forced to reconsider its ties, if Pakistan continued to befriend China.

Pakistan began to play down their membership of the SEATO and CENTO and, in a council meeting of SEATO in May 1965, they expressed their dissent over America's Vietnam policy. This came after the US abruptly called off Ayub's visit.

Another angle that Pakistan began to develop was the Islamic one. Based on CENTO ties, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan began to develop their broader ties. To this end a summit in Istanbul in July 1964 led to the creation of the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD). Likewise Indonesia and Pakistan associated in a trade grouping as well. This was the period of massive Chinese influence in Indonesia and it led to the convening of an Afro-Asian summit in June 1965 Algiers but which was aborted when the Algerian prime minister was overthrown in a coup. The by-product of this was the Indonesia-Pakistan Economic and Cultural Cooperation (IPECC) in August 1965.

All these were to bear fruit when the war broke out. China's role is well known. But not many remember that President Sukarno of Indonesia despatched two submarines and four missile boats but they reached Karachi after the war. Iran and Turkey provided plane loads of arms and ammunition, despite restrictions of the US.

The UN

India had been burned by the UN when it had taken its case against Pakistani aggression in Kashmir in January 1948. So, in 1964, when Pakistani incursions took place in Kutch, or when Pakistan began bombarding the Srinagar-Leh road in Jammu and Kashmir, or later when Pakistan sent armed irregulars into the Valley, India did not look to the UN for a solution.

Indeed, its reponse was mixed. IN the fist case, it accepted UK mediation which eventually led to an arbitration award to fix the boundary in Kutch. In the case of bombardment in the Kargil area, India carried out a limited military operation to capture the Pakistani observation posts across the Ceasefire Line in May 1965. And when Pakistani forces entered J&K under Operation Gibraltar, India stabilized the situation and then mounted an operation to capture the key Haji Pir Pass.

The UNSC had been meeting through the first half of 1962 and a resolution urging bilateral dialogue on Kashmir was vetoed by the Soviet Union in June. Then came the war and the direct talks between India and Pakistan. Between December 1962 and May 1963, under Anglo-American pressure, India had agreed to six rounds of talks with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue. Various proposals were mooted, including a partitioning of the state. But in the end the talks collapsed. There were no significant developments for six months hereafter, but then the state was rocked by the Hazratbal incident.

In February 1964 the UN again took up the issue, and the release of Sheikh Abdullah on April 8 prompted the UNSC to adjourn the debate. The Pakistanis argued for an implementation of the UNCIP resolutions of 1948, while India said these had become obsolete.

In his statement summing up the debate, the President of the UNSC said on May 18 that while the issue remained on the agenda of the UN, as of now, the UN was urging the two sides to resume bilateral negotiations to resolve their differences. They also suggested that the Secretary General could provide assistance to the process. In other words, the UN would not take up the Kashmir issue.

(This is an extended version of a presentation made at a tri-Service seminar on the Golden Jubilee commemoration of Indo-Pak War of 1965 held at the Manekshaw Convention Centre on September 1. The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi) "

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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