In 1965, two countries who had only recently broken up after centuries spent together, went to war with each other. Pakistan and India battled in a conflict which was the culmination of smaller conflicts in the disputed territory of Kashmir earlier. The conflict was a turning point in the bilateral relations between the two countries and one which had a significant bearing on the region's geopolitical landscape. But the war was more than just a flash of light in the dark of the night; there were other events that too contributed towards the full-fledged war.
The war of 1965 must be seen in the context of the domestic, regional and international environment prevalent at the time. Key among those are the territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, Operation Gibraltar and the clash in the Rann of Kutch.
Thorn of Kashmir
The Kashmir issue sits at the heart of the 1965 war.
After the first Kashmir War in 1948, the United Nations set up a special Commission for India and Pakistan to investigate the matter and move towards a solution. The commission determined that a "free and impartial" plebiscite should take place to decide the fate of Kashmiris.
Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru stated that New Delhi was moving towards a "gradual erosion" of the special status of Kashmir
The plebiscite has yet to materialise as India and Pakistan are reluctant to withdraw troops. The resolution of the Kashmir issue has been at a standstill since the 1950s. Meanwhile, Pakistan joined the Western camp, and India leaned towards the Soviet bloc in an increasingly bipolar world.
At the border, however, sporadic skirmishes continued between Pakistani and Indian forces along the Line of Control.
After the Sino-Indian War, an incipient semblance of hope became evident with the general belief that India would seek to avoid war on two fronts and could move towards the settlement of the Kashmir dispute.
That did not happen as the US started helping India by giving military and economic assistance. Instead, India decided to end Kashmir's special status in 1963. Then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru stated that New Delhi was moving towards a "gradual erosion" of the special status of Kashmir. Matters became complicated after a relic was stolen from the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar in December, which led to "communal riots in East Pakistan". The relic was later recovered, but suspicion against the Indian government grew amongst residents of Kashmir.
Internationally, the world was divided into two camps: a Capitalist camp led by the US and a Communist camp led by the Soviet Union (USSR).
Pakistan joined the capitalist camp by signing a defence agreement with the US along with joining the multilateral alliance SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation). The alliances opened the door for Pakistan to secure economic and military assistance from the US, while Islamabad agreed to set up a secret base in Bandager. The US called the base a "communication facility".
Conversely, India decided not to join any camps and became part of a Non-Aligned Movement. India started propagating the idea of harmonious cohabitation.
Islamabad ramped up its defence spending to bring back the balance of power
Seeds of conflict
Regionally, China and India went to war over another set of disputed territories that disturbed the regional balance of power. After facing defeat, India started analysing its defence policies from the lens of two fronts. Consequently, the Indian army underwent restructuring and started acquiring modern and sophisticated weapons from the US and the USSR.
This created a security dilemma for Pakistan, with the latter firmly entering an arms race with New Delhi. Islamabad ramped up its defence spending to bring back the balance of power. The US diverted its military assistance from Pakistan to India to "suck India into the West's orbit".
Grips on power
Domestically, the temperature in Pakistan was simmering. From the political unrest to the economy, there were problems everywhere. Pakistan's economy was in shambles and was heavily dependent on aid. The early 1960s saw a slew of economic reforms implemented aimed at modernising and industrialising the economy. It was a period that saw the introduction of five-year plans, the modernisation of agricultural techniques, the improvement of infrastructure and the bolstering of industries. These reforms helped set up the subsequent "Decade of Development" - or so was the promise.
Internally, he came under pressure due to the clampdown on dissidents, harsh policies and unresolved issues in Kashmir
Politically, Ayub Khan had imposed the Martial Law in 1958 while the Constitution of 1956 was suspended.
A system of "basic democracies" was introduced whereby local bodies were used to connect people with the government. By 1962, a new Constitution had been introduced by Ayub Khan after he transitioned from the office of Martial Law Administrator to a President with overwhelming power. But his regime came under severe scrutiny and criticism due to its clampdown on political parties and dissidents.
Ayub Khan's supremacy and legitimacy were challenged by the "Movement for the Restoration of Democracy" (MRD) and the re-emergence of Fatima Jinnah. Internally, he came under pressure due to the clampdown on dissidents, harsh policies and unresolved issues in Kashmir.
Rann of Kutch incident
Rann of Kutch is a narrow strip of land between the eastern fringes of Sindh and Gujarat in India. It has been a source of disagreement between both nations, a bit like Kashmir.
In 1956, India sent its troops and captured the Chad Bet high ground. In early 1965, Pakistani and Indian forces engaged in skirmishes, which led to further hostility. As the situation worsened, British-led peace talks took place to stop the situation from escalating.
The talks were successful in securing an agreement between the two sides to stop the fighting.
It was followed by another round of talks wherein it was agreed that the issue would be resolved bilaterally within two months. Should the two countries fail to resolve the issue bilaterally, the issue would be referred to a tribunal to decide.
In the wake of this conflict, the US discontinued aid to Pakistan and imposed an embargo on the arms supply to Islamabad. Ayub Khan reacted to the sanctions by stating that Pakistan sought "new friends, not new masters".
The operation failed as the indigenous people did not offer the support Pakistan hoped for, and clashes erupted along the LoC
Lessons of Gibraltar
The clash in Rann of Kutch, the shifting balance of power in the region and growing domestic pressure on Ayub Khan eventually pushed him to take a decisive step. Being impressed by the struggle of the Vietnamese and Algerians, he ordered the army to devise a plan.
This plan was called Operation Gibraltar, which Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik planned. The plan would see Pakistani soldiers infiltrate across the Line of Control and, with the help of indigenous people, incite violence.
The strategy was "to defreeze the Kashmir issue" and "bring India to the negotiating table without provoking war".
The operation failed as the indigenous people did not offer the support Pakistan hoped for, and clashes erupted along the LoC. The situation worsened and ultimately led to a full-fledged war between India and Pakistan at the beginning of September in 1965.
To conclude, the unresolved issue of Kashmir, the camp politics in a bipolar world, the disturbance in the regional balance of power, the consequent arms race after the Sino-Indian war, political and economic instability, growing pressure on Ayub Khan for the settlement of Kashmir issue, the clash in Rann of Kutch and Operation Gibraltar, created a hostile environment that led to a full-fledged war between the two arch-rivals.
The consequences of this conflict continue to reverberate for both Pakistan and India to this date.