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When India found a leader, but lost a statesman

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  • September 26, 2015

    Reading through the archives of The Hindu from September 23, 1965, you get a sense of the relief and euphoria of a nation, now united around a leader who braved immense criticism and led from the front in its time of crises. An excerpt reads: “Tributes to Shastri’s leadership: The Prime Minister’s announcement in Parliament today of a cease-fire in the fighting between India and Pakistan had an electrifying effect on the Members of Parliament and on the people.(…) (…) Members belonging to all political parties (…) praised the PM for the firm, determined and able manner in which he handled the worsening India-Pakistan relations, which finally erupted in an undeclared war.”

    It is interesting then that narratives often understate the tragically short-lived Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s significant contribution to the handling of the 1965 conflict. It is ironic that he’s often accused of “losing the war on the diplomatic table at Tashkent” or remembered for the intrigue surrounding his death. Apart from political appropriation, very little ink seems to have been spent on examining his diplomatic and political acumen which made India stronger domestically and helped regain its international stature post the 1965 crises.

    Quiet strength

    Shastri’s mandate was not an easy one. There was a fractured consensus within the Congress party around his ability to lead the nation after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s demise. India was demoralised after the 1962 defeat and battling an acute food crisis. Pakistan’s adventurism in 1965, historians argue, wanted to take advantage of this alleged “weakness in leadership”.

    In hindsight, Shastri’s handling of the war has many lessons for contemporary leaders. His biographer C.P. Srivastava, in “A Life of Truth in Politics”, recalls that Shastri’s slight build was often mistaken for a lack of ability, but really concealed a very sharp mind.

    This plays out from the first meeting between Prime Minister Shastri and Pakistani President Ayub Khan, says former ambassador M. K. Rasgotra, who was a war book officer at that time. The former diplomat recalled a conversation between Gen. Khan and his Foreign Minister Z.A. Bhutto soon after meeting Shastri in Karachi in October 1964. Gen. Khan had reportedly remarked, “This little man. What will I speak to him?” This was “a total miscalculation as time would prove,” Mr. Rasgotra says. Shastri’s observations, however, were quite astute. He assessed Khan as practical, but described Bhutto as “someone who could throw the spanner in the works for Indo-Pak relations,” records his biographer. A prophetic observation given how 1965 played out.

    Firm stand

    Contrary to expectations, Shastri had responded to Pakistani provocations on the border through speeches in Parliament from the very beginning, making India’s red lines clear, says Srivastava. He was determined to convince President Khan that ‘India had no desire whatsoever to acquire even one square inch of Pakistani territory [...] [but] would never allow any interference by Pakistan in Kashmir which was an integral part of India.’

    During the Rann of Kutch incident, a probing exercise by the Pakistani forces in early 1965, Shastri withstood immense pressure from the opposition to resolving the issue through an international tribunal. Having agreed to the ceasefire, his government survived a no-confidence motion to defend the decision of arbitration. Very few knew, reveals Srivastava, that Army Chief J.N. Chaudhuri and Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh were against escalating the conflict, as the terrain was unsuitable for large-scale operations by India.

    Politically, arbitration was seen as capitulation and many demanded its rollback. Shastri stood his ground, arguing India would not be a ‘irresponsible nation”, reneging on an “international commitment”, records Srivastava — a stance that would later bolster India’s position in the UNSC ceasefire dialogues.

    Shastri’s ability to lead and carry the nation in the face of surprise attacks was exemplified during the failed attempt by Pakistan to stir an uprising in Kashmir in August 1965. Shastri responded with a clear policy response: India would not approach the UNSC and defend its territorial integrity; no interference from Pakistan would be tolerated; contingency plans — especially vis a vis China — would be prepared; and the nation would be kept abreast of all government decisions. He articulated this in a public address on August 13, 1965, which assured the nation that ‘force will be met with force’. There was no room for speculation.

    Indian forces had to capture the Haji Pir Pass and the Kishen Ganga bulge, the two supply routes for infiltration into the valley to thwart the attacks. This operation required crossing the Cease Fire Line. In another bold first for India, the forces were assured of the firm backing of the Prime Minister and told the government would handle the consequences, records Srivastava.

    The boldest decision came in September 1965, when Pakistani Patton tanks rolled into Chambh in J&K, aiming to capture Amritsar and more. When advised that to defend Kashmir, a diversionary attack in West Pakistan was needed to push enemy forces on the defensive, Shastri’s iron will came into play.

    Srivastava, then joint secretary to the Prime Minister, recalls Shastri pacing up and down in his office on September 1, 1965. He says “All I heard him say was:ab toh kuch karna hi hoga (now something has to be done)”. He then convened an emergency cabinet meet “to carry his colleagues with him in his decision” and prepare for repercussions to India’s stand. On September 3, Shastri asked the Indian forces to march to Lahore, the first time that India would take the battle to the invader’s territory.

    Through all of this, Shastri had ensured India’s able representation in the UNSC and convinced the big powers of India’s response as proportionate to Pakistani aggression, was briefed constantly by military commanders, consulted the opposition, and even organised regular press briefings to inform the people and instil confidence in the leadership.

    Even his much-criticised decision to “return Haji Pir pass” during the Tashkent Conference, it is argued, was not done under pressure. His biography reveals that Shastri knew international opinion would shift if India refused, as it was a pre-requisite to the UNSC ceasefire resolution.

    He was also aware that giving up Haji Pir would invite scathing accusations of betrayal domestically. Before Tashkent, records Srivastava, the military chiefs had told Shastri that while they would not want to vacate, “it could not come at the cost of peace in the subcontinent”. Perhaps Prime Minister Shastri became the fall guy to circumstance.

    1965 clearly has lessons for conduct of government and diplomacy for the present day establishment. We both found a leader and lost a statesman, perhaps a little too soon.

    This article was originally published in the The Hindu

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