It was a routine September morning for Pakistanis. In Lahore, people went about their business with no inkling of events taking place at the border with India. There was however some speculation in the public as residents living along roads leading towards Wagah and Burki, reported hearing, what sounded like rolling thunder since dawn and late night eastward movement of military convoys. An armed conflict with Indian troops had already begun in Chamb amidst reports that the Pakistan Army had thrust across the Tawi River deep into Occupied Jammu and Kashmir liberating Jaurian. There was talk in some circles that an all-out war between the two neighbours was imminent at any time, but this was soon overtaken by euphoria at enemy reverses in the Chamb – Jaurian Sector. Therefore, when reports of ‘rolling thunder’ and ‘moving convoys’ began surfacing on the morning of 6 September 1965, they were ignored. Then somewhere around 10 AM, Lahoris were jolted by two deafening explosions over the city, as two fighter jets of the Pakistan Airforce shattered the sound barrier – war had come to Lahore.

A large crowd gathered in front of Lahore’s iconic pan shop on Lawrence Road owned by Maula Bukhsh, to hear President Ayub Khan address the nation. It was a speech that fired up anyone, who was listening and groups of volunteers began moving towards Batapur to ‘fight the invader’. They were stopped by the military police and turned back amidst great cheering. Glued to their radio sets, people finally began to understand, what was happening. India had launched multiple offensives in Wagah and Burki sectors, while the enemy high command had boasted that they would be having an evening drink in Lahore Gymkhana. A captured bus was also being paraded on Indian media, as proof that troops had indeed entered Lahore.

How the Indian juggernaut was brought to a halt and thrown back by the men in Khaki defies description, but is most aptly summarized by a commemorative pillar erected by a Baloch Battalion at one of the bridges on the Bambanwali-Ravi-Bedian-Link Canal or BRB. The plaque on this simple structure says it all in these unforgettable words addressed to the Nation, “When you return home, remember that we sacrificed our today for your tomorrow”.

The seventeen day’s war divided Lahoris in two distinct categories. There were those that packed their valuables, locked up their homes and fled the city of their birth. They mud plastered their cars and some even tried their hand at camouflaging them with tree branches and bushes. Then there were those, who refused to leave. They dug air raid trenches in their homes and prepared to defend every inch of their beloved city, with utter contempt for those, who had deserted it.

Blood donors thronged to hospitals, women volunteers of all ages went through crash nursing and first aid courses, while men – young and old converged on Civil Defense centers to be trained and enrolled in Air Defense procedures, street patrolling, bomb disposal, first aid, rescue and firefighting. Food packages, cigarettes and woolies began piling up at the Red Cross office on Queen’s Road and other collection centers. One air raid siren on the roof of Fatima Jinnah Medical College opposite Ganga Ram Hospital was diligently manned by boys yet to grow whiskers. Any army vehicle passing through the city was piled with gifts and their occupants hugged passionately.

For the Indians, the war was a major embarrassment, as their claims of having a ‘peg’ in Gymkhana turned sour and the captured bus turned out to be the one that plied on the route to Wagah border post and was therefore ‘captured’ parked by its driver near the Wagah Custom Check Point. The war ended in a stalemate, which for Pakistan was nothing short of victory since we had effectively humbled a much larger enemy.

For those, who did not flee the city, the seventeen days of September will forever remain etched in memory. A silent city lit only by moonlight and the pulsating fiery glow on the eastern horizon. It’s silence broken by a distant rumble of artillery; an odd military vehicle with only its blackout lights, on speeding to some unknown destination; the baying of an odd dog and the shrill sound of a whistle followed by angry shouting as a civil defense patrol found someone ‘breaking’ blackout restrictions or the curfew. Most vivid of all sounds however, was the roar of the lions in the zoo – a roar that could be heard across the city as a symbol of courage and defiance, perhaps even a warning to the enemy that the sons and daughters of Lahore would tear anyone attempting to desecrate their homes into pieces, no matter what the cost.

 

The writer is a historian.