In 1965, the talk of war, the public announcements and, most of all, the possibility of air raids presented exciting possibilities to a group of eight 15-year-old boys. Residents of the WEA in Karol Bagh and students of Ramjas School, they were told by their elders to take charge of securing their locality. The boys immediately went door to door raising funds. They cycled to Teliwara near Sadar Bazar and bought a dozen batons—long lathis. The next halt was to pick up two torches to beam the light 20 to 30 yards, and a couple of whistles. The last item on their list was thick black paper with silver coating on one side, the kind in which photographic papers came wrapped.
“We took turns, two at a time, in this tekri pehra or night patrolling. One walking from each end of the lane, carrying a torch, tapping the lathi loudly and shouting jaagte raho, hoshiyar and saavdhaan at the top of our voice,” recalls one of the boys. Whenever they saw light gleaming out of a window, they would tap many times and ask the family to cover the window with the black and silver paper.
Every citizen of India then shared experiences of civilian participation in a war that an underdeveloped country could ill afford. “Civil defence organisations trained ordinary people in rescue operations and fire fighting. People were asked, through newspaper advertisements and the medium wave channel of All India Radio, to volunteer for these,” says Gautam Kaul, former director general, Indo Tibetan Border Police. “And volunteers went about directly contacting people, sometimes even advising them to paste windows with brown paper so that the city as a location was not visible from an aerial point. There was general panic that if the Pakistanis saw a city, they would bomb it.”
Talk of the 50-year-old war reminds Kalyani Dutta, a retired English professor, of a Connaught Place with a lot many trenches. “They were dug on the sides of the roads. I think they must have been dictated by the memories of World War II in London, though I think Delhi was securely protected by the Air Force,” she says. But the most memorable war moment for her was the sight of a captured Patton tank, displayed in the Central Park of Connaught Place.
Prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had given the nation the Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan slogan to cheer the soldiers as well as the farmers, who had to step up production of food grains. Food was scarce, with much of the wheat coming from the United States under a programme called PL 480. He had also asked people to skip a meal; some skipped dinner on Monday, others on Tuesday. Many families in north India continue to observe a Tuesday evening fast. Many restaurants, too, shut shop at night, though it probably did not make sense to keep them open when the city was indoors by then. The highways in Punjab were lined with shamianas, as villagers brought home-cooked meals for jawans. “The feeling that the soldiers were headed to defend the civilian population, their lives and livelihood was most pervasive and visible during that war,” says Kamla Saxena, now a US resident. She saw her mother give away the little jewellery she had for the war.
A few days after the 1962 India-China war, Lata Mangeshkar had Jawaharlal Nehru in tears with her rendition of Ae mere watan ke logon. That along with older patriotic songs could be heard as truckloads of soldiers moved on the highways. “Songs from the 1964 films, Haqeeqat and Lalkar, used to be heard aplenty. Every war brings its own tribute from the Hindi film industry. But strangely the 1965 war did not,” says Kaul, also a film critic.
When actor-politician Sunil Dutt presented a cheque to the prime minister after the 1962 war, Nehru had suggested that he should do something for the jawans. The 1965 war gave Dutt that opportunity. He visited the borders and his Ajanta Arts troupe entertained the jawans. Needless to add, cries of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan rent the air.