The Indian political class is not known for engaging in serious writing, even reading. The number of independent India’s politicians who have written on serious national issues, including Gandhi, Nehru, and more recently Shashi Tharoor and Arun Shourie, do not reach double digits. Amongst these, Jaswant Singh stands out for being extremely forthright, a prolific reader and writer, multilingual, and only one who stood firmly by his book on Jinnah even when it cost him his political life in 2009. His works invariably have immaculate detail, a strong sense of history and geography, and his story-telling style is extremely engaging. But that also explains the higher expectations that readers have from him. His recent book, India At Risk, which examines India’s major wars and other security challenges of the last 66 years, surely meets some of these high expectations, but partially.
At the very outset, he elucidates how India’s security challenges remain rooted largely in the “artificial and rather irrational vivisection” of India in 1947. The very premises and experience of partition made India and Pakistan forever sworn enemies. Their sense of security stood undermined as following World War II, over 400,000 troops were discharged in less than two years and then, a hurriedly set up Partition Council divided the rest between India and Pakistan in a matter of 45 days, leaving persisting handicaps and controversies. For him, the “disarming of India” by the British goes back to India’s first war of independence in 1857 and had already resulted in a “decline in India’s martial ethos”, which was worsened by “a militarily illiterate and untrusting civilian control of the armed forces” after 1947. Strong words these!
Even in case of India’s first war with Pakistan in 1948, it was again the British (Mountbatten and Bucher) who ensured India did not attempt a decisive victory but took matters to the U.N. The author, however, sees “prevarication by the premier” as equally responsible for this. Indeed, he shows how, the U.N. resolution that asked for a ceasefire in Kashmir, withdrawal of Pakistani forces and then, ascertaining the will of the people was fully exploited by the U.K.-U.S.-led Pakistani leadership. Pakistan did not vacate from areas occupied by its forces simply because in addition to losing that territory, ascertaining the will of the people would have called the bluff of its two-nation theory. Instead, it has now continued with its campaign against India for not holding a plebiscite.
As regards India’s other neighbour China, in the wake of China’s occupation of Tibet, Nehru chose to simply announce in Parliament on November 20, 1951 that “the McMahon Line is our boundary”, and that “the frontier from Ladakh to Nepal is defined chiefly by long usage and custom” which were again British lines and “not a sustainable assertion,” according to Singh.
Another “unforgivable lapse” of Nehru was his decision of November 2, 1961 to order setting up of posts in “forward posture” based on a major appraisal by Intelligence Bureau about two month earlier. The result? India became a laughing stock with Nehru having to send back-to-back two long telegrams to Kennedy on November 19, seeking help by describing the situation as “really desperate”. His nonalignment stood demolished.
Singh dates the China-Pakistan nuclear nexus to 1965 compared to popular folklore that describes it as a post-1971 initiative rooted in the bifurcation of Pakistan. Alluding to Bhutto’s death cell testimony recording his 11-year negotiations culminating in 1976 as his foremost contribution in ensuring Pakistani security, the author asserts that the China-Pakistan nuclear nexus began soon after the war in 1965. He also reveals how with the Awami League obtaining a majority in the 1971 elections, Yahya Khan had alluded to Mujib being the next prime minister of Pakistan and how in the wake of China facing the Lin Biao affair in September 1971, Zhou En-lai had told Bhutto that China will not intervene directly if Pakistan were to have a war with India. But when Bhutto returned to Pakistan and bluffed to the press of China’s support, Beijing could not confute it.
The destructive decades of 1980s and 1990s open with the sudden death of Mrs. Gandhi’s son and her heir-apparent Sanjay Gandhi. But its far reaching implications must be read in the backdrop of popular agitations since early 1970s having culminated into JP’s total revolution pushing Mrs. Gandhi’s into the “serious political blunder” of responding by imposing national emergency, when the “entire opposition was arrested, leading to the fall of the Congress, and the Janata Party coming to power. The rot, however, was deeper and saw major violence in Assam, Punjab and Kashmir.
Another major blunder was the explanation provided by young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for massacre of Sikhs following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 when he said: Jab bara per girta hai to dharti hilti hai (when a big tree falls, the earth shakes). This is given an interesting rebut by the author who says: “The earth does not shake when large trees fall; trees are uprooted only when ‘dharti’ [earth] shakes, and our country was in turmoil.”
Rajiv Gandhi’s ordering of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) into Sri Lanka during 1987-1990 is presented as another most catastrophic result of his political naiveté. But the IPKF fiasco was the result of first providing “covert assistance” and then confronting the LTTE with perennial poor intelligence to support it. Indian troops had landed in Sri Lanka’s northern regions without knowing Tamil, without having interpreters, even road maps. This was to cost the IPKF heavily, with 1,230 dead and about 8,000 injured, lowering India’s prestige.
The author confesses that the recent past becomes “a personalised narration” as he was holding “a much more direct responsibility in the government.” But what stands out here is that in contrast to his incisive disregard for vacillating leaders during earlier wars, his admiration for Vajpayee’s edges on the indiscreet. The only other object of his admiration is the leadership of the mid-ranking armed forces; and of course Vivek Katju’s name appears several times who he credits for Vajpayee’s ‘bus’ diplomacy. Singh believes that the Kargil war happened because Indian intelligence did not pick up signals of intrusions and Pakistan maintained appropriate secrecy. When Vajpayee decided not to expand the war to other sectors and allow only a limited use of air force, the vacation of near vertical heights of well-entrenched enemies involved “the most outstanding demonstration of infantry assaults in mountain warfare, anywhere, by any army, at any time.” In the end, unlike India’s previous engagement of 1948, 1962, 1965 and 1971, not an inch of Indian territories was “negotiated away” to the enemy.
Readers would have liked Singh to hold his horses of subtle praise for Vajpayee and detail more on his having led India in 14-rounds of talks with Strobe Talbot which effected a complete turnaround not just in Indo-US relations but in the overall tenor of India’s foreign and security policies. This was especially expected of him as Strobe Talbot has already published his version in his Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb (2006). Similarly, his narrative on his leading India in resolving the hijack crisis of IC-814 in December 1999 remains sketchy on how decisions were made. Views on this remain contested.
Singh’s narrative on the failure of the Agra Summit of 2001, blaming it on General Musharraf’s lack of political sagacity and his media-savvy behaviour leading to high-expectations is simplistic. He provides a less than convincing explanation to India’s response to the 13 December 2001 attack on Parliament. Operation Parakram involving deployment of half a million troops for over 20 months (with nearly 2,000 casualties) is seen as a success as it mitigated the problem of infiltration without war, contained the national ‘teach-Pakistan-a-lesson’ mood, and greatly degraded Pakistan’s war fighting machine. All these questions surely call for a sequel.
India at Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions and Misadventures of Security Policy: Jaswant Singh; Rainlight/Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 7/16 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 595