General V. K. Singh's letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh revealing the critical condition of the military apparatus has created a scare about the nation's security. Its leakage is unacceptable. But satellite technology has made secrecy outmoded. Should not people know about the naivety of politicians in dealing with defence? The Army Chief, as is known now, alerted the Defence Minister about the obsolete military hardware. The Minister perhaps already knew about it but could not appreciate the significance of the message and ignored it. The focus, at least initially, was on tracing the culprit who leaked the letter rather than taking action on its contents. Some demanded the General's removal.
This mindset of ignoring the advice of patriotic generals is not new. The first Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa's biography by his son Air Marshal K. C. Cariappa gives such instances of the past.
Gen. Cariappa led the Indian Army in Kashmir during the first war with Pakistan in 1947. The author recalls his father often being asked why the army did not evict the frontier tribesmen who, supported by the Pakistan Army, attacked India. The General used to reiterate that the government dictated policy. The Army was quite confident of clearing Kashmir. But the orders were to “cease fire midnight 31st December/1st January 1948-49.”
Later, Gen. Cariappa asked Nehru the reasons for the ceasefire. “You see, U.N. Security Council felt that if we go any further it may precipitate a war. So, in response to their request we agreed to a ceasefire,” Nehru said. But he sportily added, “Quite frankly, looking back, we should have given you ten-fifteen days more. Things would have been different then.”
In 1951, Chinese troops were caught with maps showing parts of the North-East Frontier Agency as part of China. Gen. Cariappa cautioned Nehru of the likely attack by China. Nehru ridiculed him: “It is not for the Army to decide who the nation's enemies would be.” Later in 1959, Gen. K.S. Thimmayya also warned of the threat from China. How sad that Nehru, under the spell of his friend and then Defence Minister Krishna Menon, ignored the warnings and faced a humiliating defeat by China in 1962.
There can be no doubt about the patriotism of the two Generals. It must be mentioned that Gen. Cariappa's only son was shot down while carrying out air attacks during the 1965 war with Pakistan and was taken prisoner. President Ayub Khan, former colleague of Gen. Cariappa, offered to release his son. The General's terse reply was: “They [POWs] are all my sons, look after them well.”
In 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government struck a deal with A.B. Bofors of Sweden. Gen. K. Sunderji had recommended the gun as he honestly considered it better than the French Sofma. Later in 1996 when the Bofors payoffs scandal surfaced, the CBI asked Gen Sunderji to testify on his role in the deal.
This is what he said in an interview at that point:
•Question: Didn't you tell the Rajiv Gandhi government to scrap the deal when the scandal broke out?
•Gen. Sundarji: Soon after the corruption charges began pouring in the foreign and Indian media, I immediately rushed to the office of the then Defence Minister Arun Singh and told him: “Let us scrap the deal.”... I insisted that the government should terminate the deal with the Swedish firm as by then only six Bofors gun had arrived in India.
•Q: What did Singh tell you?
•S: He told me to write my request on a piece of paper and submit it to the Defence Secretary, S. K. Bhatnagar, so that he can take up the matter with the Prime Minister's Office. I did that and waited for days to get an answer from Singh. But one day Bhatnagar came to my office and told me to redraft the note and change my stand.
•Q: What did you do then?
•S: I told Bhatnagar that I could not agree to the suggestion. I then called on Arun Singh and asked why the government was insisting that the deal should go through. He told me that the PMO feels that the cancellation of the Bofors contract would jeopardise India's security. By 1987 April, only six Bofors guns had arrived in India. I tried to convince Singh that the Bofors gun would not affect the country's security and defence preparedness.
•Q: Did Arun Singh agree with you?
•S: It seemed to me that Singh agreed with my views. But he told me that “the order from above and obedience from below theory” is the order of the government. Singh soon left the Rajiv Gandhi government in disgust.
There is one instance, however, of an astute political leader listening to a military General. In 1969, thousands of Hindu refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan started crossing over to India as a result of East Pakistan's conflict with West Pakistan. India decided to go to war as the large-scale movement of refugees imposed a great economic burden and necessitated intervention on grounds of human rights.
At the end of April 1971, Indira Gandhi asked Gen. Sam Manekshaw if he was ready to go to war with East Pakistan. Manekshaw refused, citing the dispersal of his formations, the state of armour, the pending harvest which would vie for rail carriage, the open Himalayan passes and the coming monsoon. She asked the Cabinet to leave the room and the Chief to stay back. Gen. Manekshaw offered to resign on the grounds she chose. When she declined but asked for his advice, he sought permission to prepare for the conflict and set the date and said he would guarantee victory. She agreed and permitted the General to prepare in his own way. The rest is history.
Some veterans recall Field Marshal Manekshaw saying shortly after he turned 90 that flush with the victory of the war, Indira Gandhi asked him: “So when are you going to take over the country, Sam? He replied: “You run the country, I run the army.”
The recent reported movement of some units of the Army towards New Delhi and the immediate hysterical denial from the powers that be have raised serious apprehensions in the minds of the people. Truth may never be known. Mistrust of the army is not new. Even during the times of Nehru, it was rumoured that Nehru did not like the popularity of Field Marshal Cariappa and, fearing a “coup,” sent him to Australia as High Commissioner in 1953, claims his son in the biography.
Vital military decisions get entangled in outmoded bureaucratic procedures. Over time, a wide gap is created between the political and army leadership, so much so that in the present crisis the Prime Minister refused to meet the Army Chief. The credibility of the political class is at its all-time low. Such dichotomy did not exist earlier and the differences were amicably resolved at the highest echelons of government and the army. Should our masters not mend their fences before it is too late?
(The writer is a former Pro Vice-Chancellor, M.S. University of Baroda, Vadodara. firstname.lastname@example.org)