Fifty years and none the wiser

"India is perpetually caught unawares, from the Chinese road in Aksai Chin to their Sumdorong Chu incursion, and let down by its whole mental framework and way of functioning." File photo shows soldiers during the 1965 war.  

Next week will mark 50 years since the formal end to fighting in the 1965 War. Anniversary ruminations can expose deficiencies in India’s handling of affairs then that still plague the country. The precise sins of omission or commission might differ, but they all arise from a common root: the inability to approach India’s interest with the minimum levels of thinking, objectivity or discipline, appropriate to the issues involved. With great-power potential and First World capabilities, the country languishes in Third World bad habits.

Failures in 1965 ranged from lower levels of routine duty to the highest levels of decision-making. Pakistan seized bits of Kutch because India neglected patrolling, lacked intelligence, had not prepared its military — all faults proving more costly five months later in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Two citations from the Indian Army’s admirably candid Official History of 1965 are particularly stupefying: “The Air Force,... not having been alerted to the possibility of another war over Kashmir, no inter-services contingency were drawn up, nor was any course of action agreed upon in the event of its being called out to support the Army.” (emphasis added). Alerting? To the most obvious contingency?

Second, asked if fighting on briefly could earn India a “spectacular” victory, the Army Chief reportedly told the Prime Minister that India was too run down logistically; so it accepted the ceasefire. Actually, history says, 86 per cent of stocks was unused — Pakistan had exhausted 80 per cent. Anything “spectacular”, like Haji Pir, was unrealistic after India’s initial successes towards Lahore and Sialkot lost steam, but it certainly could have delayed ceasing fire to advantage, with intriguing political consequences for Pakistan’s regime. That is not the Indian way of thinking, nor did the country have the will power to withstand pressure from the United Nations, but what about the country’s actual functioning? An Army Chief having/giving such wrong figures? One chat with him and the Prime Minister heads for a ceasefire? Didn’t Defence Minister Y. B. Chavan and his officials know India’s logistics? [Lal Bahadur] Shastri ji was a decisive Prime Minister, Chavan perhaps the country’s best ever Defence Minister, Gen. Chaudhuri a highly experienced and respected, if controversial, Army Chief. Forget personalities, India was let down by its whole mental framework and ways of functioning.

Today’s India is far stronger, almost that major player in world affairs which, with its size and civilisation, not least the talents of its people, should long since have made it. But greater capabilities have not lessened the country’s incomprehension of using them. Immensely sophisticated weapons, new and more intractable instruments like terrorism, changes in India’s strategic environment — all call for a state far more organised than it was in 1965. But “India resists organisation.” Shaw should more correctly have said India rejects it. Considering the forces, habits and levels of thinking at work, the changes needed to look beyond hope; all the more reason to reflect.

That war is not on the horizon does not mean India can keep indulging in its sloppy ways. Much that is necessary in wartime should be available for decent, everyday life. Imagine the carnage from air attacks on our chaotic cities, given the existing inadequate facilities. If you (wrongly) think these are secondary considerations, India is hardly better placed regarding direct requirements. Staying-power, so vital in war, requires reserves of ammunition, spare parts, fuel etc; India is still hugely dependent on imports with large gaps in vital weaponry.


India is perpetually caught unawares, from the Chinese road in Aksai Chin to their Sumdorong Chu incursion, not counting 1962 itself, Kargil, Mumbai — you name it. This is not unique: the best-organised have been worse surprised. But stay geared for a suitable response. Many fine individuals notwithstanding, India’s intelligence is unworthy of its needs. In 1965 the country didn’t know of Pakistan’s whole second Armoured Division.

Instruments, infrastructure and efficiency are essential, but what matters most is your thinking: statecraft, the arts and aptitudes of serving the state. That obviously presupposes knowing what the state means, and your duty to it. India seems congenitally unable to understand how to use state power for state purposes (as distinct from personal ones). Ditto with strategic thinking: working out optimum means to chosen attainable ends, sensible assessments about what to watch out for, what to aim for. Sounds simple, but demands realism, shrewd appraisals of others’ intentions and capabilities, canny management of your own, not least, reliable efficiency of performance by all relevant instruments of state. Just mentioning such desiderata shows India’s problem.

Juvenile approach

Many worrying tendencies are intensifying; what kind of India they will allow is unpredictable. In that larger context, what 1965 reveals about the country’s handling of national interests is directly relevant. The considerations and purposes that shape decisions and performances are not those of serious grown-ups. This infects all walks of life, particularly the politico-administrative complex that most affects our lives. Both components blame but abet each other, sacrificing professional duty to small-minded interests.

To classifications of polities in political science as democratic, authoritarian, parliamentary, etc. needs to be added grown up, adolescent, or juvenile. Third World backwardness is particularly marked by immaturity, the downright frivolousness of governance. After decades as an exemplar of democratic success, where does India stand? How do political parties approach their responsibilities in governance encapsulates and caps it all. Citizens suffer while legislatures fiddle. Umpteen bills addressing daily wants pile-up.

Democracies must seek compromises; different groups have to reach out to each other. Successive governments here complain that they try but others reject all overtures. Such fish-market relations make it necessary to exercise special skills, especially in anticipation, in judging what is possible and how to make it work. How could the One Rank, One Pension issue been allowed to get so out of hand? One of India’s most remarkable achievements — and blessings — has been that its military has remained wholly apolitical. Doubtless it has its faults, but in a country that owes it so much, with a civil power so extensively dependent on it because of its own inadequacies, any novice must know the vital importance of civil-military relations. The neglect, insensitivity, gross mismanagement to which it has been subjected to are the most alarming aspects of that root ignorance of statecraft that made the country’s 1965 performance so unsatisfactory. But ’65 pales into insignificance compared to what might be if India does not reform itself fast.

(K. Shankar Bajpai was former Ambassador to Pakistan, China and the U.S., Secretary MEA and Political Officer in the Indian High Commission, Karachi, 1962-65, and Secretary to Indian Delegation to Tashkent, 1966.)

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2021 6:23:39 PM |

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