53 years ago, on September 6, 1965, the Indian military tried to execute a sneak attack against Pakistan by crossing the international borders between the two countries. It is said that the Indian Army Chief General JN Chaudhry was very confident of rapidly overwhelming the Pakistani forces. He declared that by the evening of September 6, he would be sitting at the bar of Lahore Gymkhana, enjoying a peg of whisky. But instead of getting his peg of the finest stuff available at the Gymkhana’s bar, what Chaudhry got was waves of counterattacks by the Pakistani military, aided by the fighter jets of the country’s air force.
Chaudhry’s forces were beaten back. What’s more, many common Lahorites after hearing about the attack had poured out of their homes, carrying whatever they could as ‘weapons’ to challenge Indian soldiers if they managed to enter Lahore. They could not.
Every year ever since 1966, September 6 is celebrated as Defence Day. Articles are penned and speeches delivered about rekindling ‘the spirit of September 6’. But after all these years this ‘spirit’ has shrunk to just mean retelling old stories about that proud day. Sometimes those who weren’t even born at the time can’t even recall exactly what the Defence Day is all about. It needs to be given a contemporary context.
Those who are old enough to remember that day often talk about the unprecedented show of unity exhibited by the country’s citizens, when the state, government and civilians belonging to different faiths, sects, sub-sects and political persuasions, joined together to push back the sudden Indian threat. Even though the war continued for another 17 days and ended in a ceasefire, the Indian army did not venture to attack Lahore again. The counterattack by Pakistan was decisive.
Unfortunately, never again would Pakistanis unite in such a spirited manner – even though we have often seen similar spirit emerging during crucial sporting events, formerly during hockey games and now during cricket matches.
In whatever the country has gone through ever since 1965, the real essence of September 6 has eroded. This essence being the kind of resolve and spirit the armed forces and people of Pakistan exhibited when they challenged a much larger army without the fear of being overwhelmed.
So what made the people behave in such a selfless and bold manner during that war? After going through dozens of quotes and eyewitness accounts printed in newspapers and books, I came to the conclusion that Pakistanis at the time saw the Indian attack as an attack on their way of life.
They had some very good reasons to do this. In the early and mid-1960s, Pakistan’s economic growth rate was steady; the GDP growth rate was 7% (one of the highest in the region at the time); and its manufacturing growth was 10% of GDP. Inflation was in check.
State, private and foreign investments were witnessing an impressive increase, triggering rapid industrliazation, creating white and blue-collar jobs, the initial formation of a Pakistani urban middle-class and a manifold upsurge in the demand for higher education. Compared to the late 1950s, the net foreign inflow trebled to about 7% of GDP.
Mechanization, introduction of more effective pesticides and high-yield grain in agriculture and some land reform had begun to benefit classes based in the country’s rural areas as well.
Socially it was a tolerant time. Religious and sectarian tensions were minimal and aggressively discouraged and subdued. And though ethnic tussles were more prominent, they were countered with equal zeal.
The tourism industry had begun to take shape and so had Pakistan’s film industry. Pakistanis with more liberal tastes in recreational activities conveniently co-existed with those with more conservative palates.
Indeed, Pakistan, which was just 18 years old in 1965, was no Utopia. It was a rapidly evolving nation-state and one of the most promising countries in the region. This is why so many Pakistanis came out to defend it in 1965 and why its armed forces displayed such valour.
There is a lesson for us all in the now elapsed spirit of Defence Day. Nations need some very solid reasons to exhibit the kind of spirit in discussion here. These reasons have to enhance their economic and social sense of wellbeing and then safeguard it. The state and the regime during that juncture provided these reasons.
I have never shied away from proclaiming that to me, Ayub Khan was one of the most focused visionaries to become head of state of this country. At least till 1965, Ayub was able to largely materialize what he envisioned. This is exactly why as commander-in-chief of Pakistan during the 1965 War, he enjoyed overwhelming support and outpouring of genuine patriotism. A patriotism that had nothing to do with hollow sloganeering; or the myopic idea of nationalism which has now become the unfortunate hallmark of our polity.
With the kind of polarization that we face today; the entirely convoluted and wild manner our post-1965 idea of nationalism has evolved; and the many economic, political and sectarian fissures that continue to haunt us, have made it very hard for one to regenerate the spirit of September 6 today.
This, despite the fact, that the armed forces of Pakistan only recently succeeded in conducting one of the most intense and large-scale wars against well-ingrained terror and extremist groups. It is sad, that in all the ideological confusion caused by the politics, and by the process of building the nationalist narrative after the 1960s, many of us have failed to understand and appreciate the significance of this war. The cowardly attack on APS students in December 2014 managed to unite the people, state and government of Pakistan on a single platform and resolve.
A contemporary context suited to today’s struggles faced by Pakistanis needs to be given to the Defence Day. Because now more than ever do we need to unite the way we once did in 1965 and then, albeit just briefly, after the APS attack in 2014. But as mentioned earlier, we also need to create the kind of economic, political and social conditions that makes a nation stand together and defend them.