Operation Gibraltar: The Pakistani troops who infiltrated Kashmir to start a rebellion

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File photo: A Pakistani soldier watches Indian soldiers at the Tattapani-Mendher crossing point on the Line of Control, some 35km from Kotli,in Pakistani administered Kashmir, 09 September 2006Image source, AFP
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The Kashmir boundary has been a flashpoint for several decades

In August 1965, what looked like an indigenous uprising spread like a jungle fire across the part of Kashmir under Indian control. A month later, India invaded Pakistan in what Pakistanis call an "unprovoked" move. Since the war ended in stalemate, Pakistan holds a victory pageant each year on 6 September to mark the day it fended off a much bigger enemy. But was the uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir really indigenous?

Qurban Ali, 71, is one of the "insurgents" who fought the Indian troops in August 1965.

But he is a native of the Pakistani-administered side of Kashmir, and he was not an insurgent, but a soldier of the Pakistani army's Azad Kashmir (AK) Regiment.

"I was a fresh recruit then, barely 20 years old. I had completed the regimental training, and then we volunteered for the Gibraltar Force," he says.

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Qurban Ali: "Our raids were sudden and fierce and terrified the local people"

Pakistan is yet to officially confirm it ever commissioned such a force, but a former Pakistan army major, security expert and author, Ikram Sehgal, describes it in a newspaper article as "a mixture of volunteers from the army, mainly those belonging to Azad Kashmir [Free Kashmir, as Pakistanis call the part of Kashmir they control], and fresh recruits" from the Pakistani-administered side of Kashmir who were "hurriedly trained and launched into the valley [Indian-administered Kashmir] in late July/early August".

The plan, called Operation Gibraltar, was hatched by the officer in command of the region, Maj-Gen Akhtar Hussain Malik, according to Pakistani and other military historians.

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A BBC correspondent reports on the 1965 conflict between India and Pakistan.

The idea was to use armed guerrilla bands to destroy India's communication system, and attack nodal points to tie up the Indian army.

Qurban Ali and his group took a long, circuitous route through Pakistani territory to infiltrate Indian-controlled Kashmir from the north.

They walked for several days, carrying dry food rations, arms and ammunition on their backs, "climbing and descending the hills, sometimes sliding down the snow-covered slopes".

They set up hideouts in jungles near Chowkibal, a town in Kupwara district on the Indian side.

They would spend their days and nights in the hollows of tree trunks, or under the cliffs or overhanging rocks.

During the month they spent there, they blew up a bridge and hit a number of supply points of the Indian army.

He says there were 180 men in his group, most of them civilian recruits. "There were six civilians for every 10 men in our group."

Image source, Hulton Archive
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A Kashmiri village destroyed during the war

Unbeknown to Mr Ali and his fellow foot soldiers, groups with similar formations had infiltrated other areas of Kashmir as well.

Estimates of the Gibraltar Force numbers range from 7,000 to well over 20,000.

One of them was Mohammad Nazeer, now 64.

He was a school boy of about 14 when he was recruited. He was part of a team that hit more than a dozen Indian posts in the Poonch region.

"When they moved us from the training camp, we didn't know where we were going," he recalls.

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Mohammed Nazeer: "We caught the Indian soldiers sleeping"

"We thought it was part of our training."

They crossed over from the side of Forward Kahuta, and operated mostly around the town of Mandi in Poonch district.

He says most of the men in his group were "just kids, like me".

At this tender age, they saw much bloodshed - but their morale was high.

"When there was shooting and action, we would be in high spirits. But when it was quiet, we would get bored. We hardly ever thought about life and death back then."

Operation Gibraltar was based on the assumption that guerrilla attacks would trigger an uprising by the Muslim majority population of Indian-controlled Kashmir, most of whom had wanted to join Pakistan at the time of the partition of British India in 1947.

A rebel radio station purported to have been set up somewhere inside Kashmir, but actually operating out of the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, aggressively reported on the exploits of the "mujahideen", hoping to instigate such an uprising.

But the civilians of Indian-administered Kashmir were not only not prepared for mass rebellion, they actually suffered at the hands of the intruders. Military historians cite numerous examples where civilians were killed or harmed, and others where they turned the infiltrators in.

India also reinforced its troops in Kashmir, choked infiltration points, and captured heights from where they threatened Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Image source, AFP
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India deployed 100,000 soldiers during the war

To relieve Indian pressure, Pakistani troops made a thrust into Jammu in the first week of September in an attempt to cut off the Indian supply line. This triggered Indian's attack on Lahore and Sialkot.

Towards the end of August, most infiltrators had been found, captured or killed. Those that survived were asked to pull back when India attacked Lahore.

"We were told that they couldn't continue to resupply us, and that we were on our own," says Qurban Ali.

"It was the most difficult time of our mission; the heights behind us that were under Pakistani control previously had been captured by Indians. We were vulnerable."

1947 - British rule ends, sub-continent is partitioned into mainly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan

1947-48: First war between India and Pakistan over the region, ends with a ceasefire and Kashmir being partitioned

1965: Second Kashmir war ends with both sides returning to pre-war positions

1971: Third Indo-Pakistani war leads to the 1972 Simla Agreement, turning the Kashmir ceasefire line into the Line of Control

1999: Another war after militants cross from Pakistani-administered Kashmir into the Indian-administered Kargil district

2001: An attack on the Indian parliament is blamed on two militant groups considered close to Pakistan. The two nuclear-armed neighbours mobilise millions of troops in a confrontation that lasts 18 months.

2003: Two sides agree a ceasefire along the Line of Control

Mohammad Nazeer walked back to the Pakistani post dragging the dead body of a fellow fighter from his village, Mohammad Yusuf.

"The sentry at the post said there was no transport to ship the body to the village. Then some civilian contractors came along and helped me carry Yusuf to his family home."

Yusuf, a tall man of about 23, had been married for only a year when he joined the Gibraltar Force. A mortar shell hit him when he was providing cover fire to his team in a shootout during the withdrawal.

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Nisha Begum lost her husband to Operation Gibraltar

His wife, Nisha Begum, was seven months pregnant with her first - and only - child.

"When he was away, I used to pray for his safe return. But then one day they brought his dead body," she says, her eyes betraying no emotion.

But she says God has compensated her adequately.

"He gave me a son, and the strength to educate him, and a chance to see him get married and have children of his own."

The war, it seems, failed to break Nisha Begum, but many say it broke Ayub Khan, Pakistan's first military ruler who authorised Operation Gibraltar.

Image source, Hulton Archive
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Ayub Khan was overthrown three years after the war

He rapidly lost power after the war, and was overthrown in a popular uprising three years later. He died in 1974 "a sad and broken man", writes Dr Ahmad Faruqui, a US-based defence analyst.

And he left behind a legacy of military adventurism.

Air Marshal (retired) Nur Khan, who headed the Pakistan Air Force in 1965, said in an interview with Dawn newspaper that the army "misled the nation with a big lie" - that India rather than Pakistan provoked the war - and that Pakistan won a "great victory".

And since the "lie" was never rectified, the Pakistani "army came to believe its own fiction, (and) has continued to fight unwanted wars," he said.