Life under Sirens and Searchlights

By- Harnath  Sithamraju

Scenario : 1965 Indo-Pak War

Time : August-September 1965

Location : Delhi. Capital of India.

Narration : Eyewitness Account. Through the eyes of  a Schoolchild. Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Indo Pak war.

Childhood memories are hard to retain except for few. A few events that impact your life then get embossed in your mind till your grave time. The 1965 Indo Pak war is one of them. Firmly etched in my memory, fills me with kaleidoscopic images hard to get rid off. Events of those days filled me with fear, mystery, conspiracy, gossip, surprise, happiness and relief and a myriad others which can hardly be recounted here.

1965 Indo Pak war was my first war experience ‘first hand’. I was a school child. The other was 1971 Indo-Pak war.

Coming close on the heels of the Indo China war of 1962, and still reeling under humiliation, India in 1965 looked an easy target and Pakistan looked to drive the knife deeper. And to top it, Pakistan calculated that India had a weak leader as PM. Time was ripe to strike and make a killing.

At that time, my father was a Central Government employee. We were living in Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi. I was studying at a school in Defence Colony, close to Moolchand hospital, a kilometre and a half walk from my home. It was fun going to school those days. It was the golden sixties.

The rumblings of a conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir was reaching its peak. Nehru had died and Lal Bahadur Shastri had taken over as India’s Prime Minister. Ayub Khan was the Pakistan President and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a Minister (I don’t remember what portfolio) but he was hawkish on India. The perception that Nehru was a softie and India was underprepared for any war was widely prevalent, more so after the Indo-China conflict. And in Pakistan the impression was that Shastri, a 5 feet tall diminutive PM of India was no match to the tall General Ayub Khan and clever Bhutto. This comparison drove the confidence of Pakistan. In other words, India was easy meat now and an easy win at that would do wonders to Pakistan on the International arena. With this view Ayub Khan was inching towards a war. At least that was the perception.

India was preparing for the war too. During July and August some people came to our colony and were seen digging holes, turned out to be trenches, in the playground next to my house and also on the playground at the back of our house. Sometime in August some people, military personnel I think, visited each house and informed the residents why the trenches were dug. They said in case of an attack we were to follow certain instructions as a measure of abundant precaution, not that there will be any attack on Delhi:

  1. Blackout all windows no light should escape through the windows. Hence no gaps.
  2. All lights to be switched off upon the sound of Siren.
  3. Upon an imminent attack on Delhi a warning siren will blare out and all lights and radios have to be switched off. There was no television those days. All movements during nights, outside the house such as night walks etc are a no no.
  4. Upon the sound of the first siren all residents have to get out of the house and get into the nearby trenches dug for the purpose and no one to remain in the house. Everyone should stay in the trenches until an all clear siren, which is the second siren, was sounded.

And so on.

Soon enough the Indo-Pak war started. Faced with the Nehru legacy of peaceful co-existence, India was underprepared for any war. One night, sirens blared out in Delhi. Searchlights shone across the night sky creating a very eerie atmosphere. Delhi being the seat of Government of India extra care was being taken, not that there was any attack. First time everyone rushed into the trenches. Then next time, my father said he was not doing it and stayed put in the house. In those days rumour mills worked overtime. Some said some Pakistan spies had poisoned Delhi drinking water etc. Then there was a very interesting incident. Early morning one day, during the war, one of my neighbours drew attention to a huge object floating in the sky. Soon everyone congregated and several theories floated, a Pak spy was parachuting down etc., after several minutes vigil someone noticed it was a meteorological balloon! A lighter side to an otherwise serious war.

Then some days later in to the war, sirens fell silent and searchlights switched off. No need for panic.  India was doing well in the war. Life became normal.

During the closing stages of the month long war,one morning, while I was at school there was some commotion. Some of my friends ran up to me and asked me to come quickly to the school main gate. Entire school stood at the gates. Soon enough a wingless fighter aircraft was driving down the road like a car. We all waved at the person driving the jet. There was lot of shouting, jumping and excitement in the air. The rumour was that it was either a Gnat or a Sabre jet and was being driven to an unknown place.

During first few days of the war there was lot of activity. Lal Bahadur Shastri was giving inspirational speeches. But then it was not a time for speeches. Time for some action. India needed a person who could stand out and be counted. They say, when the going gets tough the tough gets going. Tough times bring out tough men. Then history stepped in and pushed a man hitherto unknown for any sort of valour or heroics. A weak built and perceived as India’s weakest link proved to be India’s strongest yet. Lal Bahadur Shastri.

The standout performer in the war was Lal Bahadur Shastri. His speeches were awe inspiring. I remember my father glued to the radio when he was speaking. He gave the ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ slogan during that time. It was during the same time that Ayub Khan felt the full force of this diminutive man. Shastri turned the war on its head and inspired the army to fight back. He even went to the frontline to be with the troops. There were many heroic tales of Army personnel and Airforce pilots.

The principal surprise hero of the war, as it turned out, was Lal Bahadur Shastri, Prime Minister of India. And everyone started loving him. But there were critics too. But then he was in a position to know best.

The war ended sometime in September and the rest is history as we all know.

In December 1965 we had moved to newly constructed Central Government multi storey flats in Ramakrishna Puram .And in January 1966 Shastri went to Tashkent, then in the USSR, to sign a Peace Agreement.

It was a cold wintry morning in January 1966. I had gone down to the milk booth to collect our daily milk bottles. Upon my return, and as I entered the lift, I noticed the liftman was in sorrow. Before I could ask reason for his sullen mood he opened up with tears in his eyes “Lal Bahadur Shastri is dead”. Shastri died of a heart attack in Tashkent overnight after signing the Ceasefire Agreement. I felt a lump in my throat. I ran to my house to give the news, but by then everyone heard it on the radio.

The legacy of Lal Bahadur Shastri lives on. India is in a much stronger position today. The fightback spirit permeates through the armed forces and every Indian.

However, Indira Gandhi, with Lal Bahadur Shastri’s legacy of fightback spirit, was in a better position during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. But that war was different to the 1965 war.

Watching wars in other parts of the world on television, I can understand the pain and fear of a child fleeing the bombs and gunfire. Those events will last a lifetime in the child’s memory.

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