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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Forks in the Road: The 1965 war’s impact on East Pakistan

The 1965 war between India and Pakistan was the second conflict between the two countries over the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The clash did not resolve this dispute, but it did engage the United States and the Soviet Union in ways that would have important implications for subsequent superpower involvement in the region.

Almost 50 years have elapsed since the tragic vivisection of Pakistan. A fratricide civil war followed by an ignominious defeat against the arch-rival has made 1971 the greatest calamity ever to befall our nation. The 1971 debacle is a compound debacle and it struck at the roots of our ideology, economy, and military. Multitudes of Bengalis and non-Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani military and the Mukti Bahini rebels respectively, vital infrastructure and macro-economic assets of East Pakistan/Bangladesh were destroyed in the conflagration and a victory was handed to the enemy on the silver platter of civil war. The events of 1971 left lingering hostility between the erstwhile wings of Pakistan and greatly strengthened India’s hand in the strategic milieu of South Asia.

Such a huge catastrophe demands intensive introspection on our part. Probably the first question that arises in one’s mind is: How could it have been avoided?” This study is an attempt to answer this question. The device I have used in this endeavor is to identify some specific inflection points in our history. Specific and intelligent interventions at any of those points could have avoided the tragedy altogether, or at least significantly minimized the damage. Needless to say, as we moved from one crisis to the next, the situation became more complex and difficult to handle, and our options for successful intervention diminished in quantity and quality. This is the first article of this series. In this article, I will discuss the first inflection point i.e. the 1965 Indo-Pak war and its immediate aftermath.

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Looking at the background of this war

The 1965 war resulted from Indian intransigence over Kashmir and a resultant Pakistani attempt to pressurize India militarily over the Kashmir issue. Had the war ended in a Pakistani victory, which was possible, Pakistan would have accrued huge strategic benefits. Had it ended in a Pakistani defeat, which was also possible, it might even have resulted in the country’s practical destruction. As it happened the September war ended in a stalemate. This provided an opportunity for both patriots and anti-Pakistan/secessionist elements to use the war’s aftermath for their own ends.

An important fact, which relates the 1965 war to the East/West Pakistan discord issue is the fact that West Pakistanis heavily dominated the military of united Pakistan. In East Pakistan, many pro-Pakistan elements advocated that unity of both wings was essential for East Pakistan because the West Pakistani soldiers and officers were providing security to East Pakistan against India. Before the 1965 war, this argument was used to effectively counter the secessionists’ propaganda that East Pakistan was being economically exploited by West Pakistan.

The strategy for the defense of Pakistan (devised by General Ayub Khan in the 1950s) envisioned that “the defense of East Pakistan will be conducted from West Pakistan”. This meant that out of a total of 9 divisions and 140-odd combat aircraft of the Pakistan Army and Air Force, only 1 division and 13 aircraft were posted in East Pakistan. The planners envisaged that in the event of war if India concentrated her forces for an attack on East Pakistan, the bulk of Pakistani forces in West Pakistan would deal a crippling blow to the weakened Indian forces on the Western front.

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The events which transpired

There was almost zero active fighting on the Eastern front during the 1965 war. India concentrated 14 divisions (out of a total of 22) against West Pakistan. 2-3 divisions stayed passive on the East Pakistan border and the rest stayed on the Sino-Indian frontier in the north. During the war, throughout Pakistan (including East Pakistan) the spirit of national unity was phenomenal, but the ceasefire elicited different reactions in both wings. In West Pakistan, it was sharply criticized whereas in East Pakistan it was accepted in good humor. The reason was the perception in East Pakistan that it had been left alone and helpless during the war.

There were too few military units in East Pakistan, and almost all communications between the two wings had been severed during the war. Where West Pakistan experienced the excitement and elation related to an active war and the successful glorious battles at Lahore and Chawinda, East Pakistan experienced complete isolation and a sense of insignificance/irrelevance due to scant attention paid by the Pakistani leadership to that province during the war.

After the war, two prominent politicians of Pakistan deepened the lack of harmony between East and West Pakistan. First, Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the foreign Minister of Pakistan, declared that East Pakistan’s security was ensured during the war by a Chinese threat to India against attacking East Pakistan. He conveniently ignored the fact that India’s strike divisions were too busy in the offensive against West Pakistan because he was too interested to claim credit as foreign minister for the “security” of East Pakistan. Mr. Bhutto’s tendency of making far-reaching political maneuvres for short-term personal ambition was to prove deadly for Pakistan later. Second, Mr. Mujib-ur-Rahman of Awami League put forward his famous six-points demand for complete provincial autonomy (a cloak for eventual secession according to some) soon after the war.

Mr. Bhutto’s statement had far-reaching effects. It was also viewed negatively by Chinese officials who expressed consternation at the assertion that China was responsible for East Pakistan’s security. It also provided the Bengali secessionists in East Pakistan with a mighty stick to beat the West Pakistani leadership. G. W. Chaudhry writes, “Mr. Bhutto, Ayub’s Foreign Minister, proudly claimed in the National Assembly that East Pakistan had been protected by China. If that was so, the Bengalis began to argue, why do we not settle our own diplomatic and external relations? Why depend on West Pakistan, which could give no protection to East Pakistan?

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If I dare use a soccer metaphor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto played the through ball on which Sheikh Mujib scored a goal by launching his six points movement. There was nothing new in six-points, and the Awami League extremists had made similar demands as early as 1950 [9]. But after the “failure” of West Pakistan to defend East Pakistan during the 1965 war, they quickly gained credence in East Pakistan. This movement, ostensibly of mere provincial autonomy, was to prove the death knell for United Pakistan.

A detailed analysis

Now, it could be argued that the strategy of East Pakistan’s defense from West Pakistan proved successful during the 1965 war as India couldn’t muster enough forces to attack East Pakistan during the monsoon season, but it would be a spurious argument. Had India remained on the defensive in West Pakistan, it could have easily shifted 3-4 divisions from the Western front to the East. This would have given her a 7 to 1 numerical advantage on the Eastern front! India actually did resort to this strategy successfully in the 1971 war, and prescient Pakistani military officers were cognizant of this fact.

The 1965 war also exposed the men who were going to be instrumental in the bloody break-up of Pakistan. Yahya Khan, as a division commander, showed phenomenal incompetence through his power-hunger was yet to be unmasked. Sheikh Mujib revealed his true colors by suggesting to Abdul Monem Khan (Governor East Pakistan) that the war, and severed communications with West Pakistan, presented a golden opportunity to declare secession! Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto showed through his irresponsible statements that he didn’t care for Pakistan’s welfare rather his sole concern was the welfare of his political career.

What should have been done?

First of all, it must have been accepted (albeit behind closed doors) that the strategy of the defense of East Pakistan from the West had proven to be bankrupt. It also should have been recognized that after failing to win an offensive against West Pakistan, India might well try her luck against East Pakistan next time (a point clearly appreciated by General Akhtar Hussain). This strategy should have been promptly changed and a new defense policy formulated. Additional allocations of conventional military assets to East Pakistan should have been combined with the formation of an effective people’s paramilitary force in both wings (similar to Iran’s IRGC). To employ these forces effectively, a new defense doctrine with a focus on the Chinese People’s war theory must have been created.

The creation of local paramilitary forces in both wings is also synergistic with the second, and more important, step. Complete provincial autonomy should have been granted to East Pakistan. Ideally, it should have been done in the early 1950s, but after the 1965 war, it was painfully clear that in a high-stress situation like war, both wings couldn’t operate effectively under a unitary, centralized government. This would have taken away their most lethal weapon (of provincial grievances due to West Pakistani hegemony at the center) from secessionists like Sheikh Mujib, and placated the Bengali masses as well.

Lastly, these new paramilitary forces would have served as a platform for the political education of numerous youth of both wings. They would have provided the opportunity for lacs, if not millions, of youth to gain motivation through education about the common Islamic ideological roots of both East and West Pakistan. The youth trained thusly would have become the vanguard advocates for the fraternal union of East and West Pakistan. They would have also threatened India with the specter of Vietnam-style behind-the-lines guerilla warfare in case of invasion of West or East Pakistan by India and served as an effective deterrent.

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The aftermath of the 1965 war destroyed the last credible bond between East and West Pakistan which had hitherto been immune from the machinations of self-centered political leaders. Now, it was clear that Pakistan quickly needed to evolve new and strong bonds of unity in order to keep the country united. Truly, the 1965 war and its aftermath represent a missed opportunity and a watershed moment in the march towards the tragedy of 1971.


The writer is a doctor and an avid reader of history. His columns have been published in the Urdu daily “Nawa-e-Waqt”. He also runs a social media channel “Tarikh aur Tajziya” which is dedicated to the study of history and current affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.