Defence Minister India should not have had
The Himalayan blunders of Krishna Menon are many. He humiliated competent Armed Forces’ officers and backed his cronies, though they were less capable. One of the results was India’s humiliation in the 1962 war
It is impossible to rewind history.
What happened has happened.
It is however always possible to learn from past successes, victories, as well as defeats. In fact there is certainly more to learn from blunders.
One, called by one of the main actors, ‘The Himalayan Blunder’ relates to the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.
It is difficult to imagine that 54 years after Lt Gen Henderson Brooks submitted his report of the 1962 War, the document is still ‘classified’. Prepared for the government in 1963 the report went into the reasons for India’s defeat in the 1962 border war with China.
One could also learn from the report written by Lt Gen SPP Thorat, then Army Commander, Eastern Command, about the ‘Chinese Threat’ on India’s borders.
On 8 October 1959, Thorat sent his paper on the defence of NEFA to the Army Chief who forwarded it to Krishna Menon. Thorat’s findings were rejected: Thorat was accused of being an “alarmist and a warmonger”.
The report began thus: “Previously, the only real threat against India which merited consideration was from Pakistan. To this now has been added the threat from China. …This is primarily due to the claim made by China upon large territories which are clearly ours. … (China) has also refused to recognise the McMahon Line as the international boundary and has made deliberate incursions into our territory in Ladakh, Uttar Pradesh and NEFA (North- East Frontier Agency)”.
In May 1957, General Thimayya took over as Chief of Army Staff and around the same time, VK Krishna Menon became the Defence Minister. But differences soon cropped up between Menon and Thimayya, forcing the latter to send in his resignation, (which he unfortunately withdrew later). Thorat too fell out Menon’s favours; in particular, the Defence Minister did not agree on Thorat’s suggestions on the way to reorganize the defence of the Sino-Indian border.
Maj Gen VK Singh, who wrote Thorat’s biography noted that the Army Commander: “clearly brought out that with the troops, weapons and equipment available at that time, a Chinese attack could not be contained or defeated, and the ‘forward policy’, being advocated by Menon was not practicable.”
Thorat also provided a time table showing “how the defences would fall day by day in case the Chinese attacked.”
VK Singh writes: “When Thimayya retired in May 1961, it was expected that Thorat would succeed him as the Army Chief. He was highly decorated, had combat experience, and was held in high regard in the Service. Most important, he was GOC-in-C Eastern Command, and was familiar with the situation on the borders with China.” Unfortunately (for India) Gen PN Thapar got the top job; though senior, he had little field experience. We know what happened next.
An exchange between Gen Thapar and Lt Gen Thorat which has recently come to light, shows the pettiness of the then leaders; it occurred as Thorat was in the process of retiring.
At 8 am on June 24, 1961, Lt Gen Thorat received a letter from the Army Chief and by the evening he had replied to all the points.
Thapar had been ‘asked’ by the Prime Minister “to request you [Thorat] for your comments on the following allegations against you which have come to his notice.”
The first allegation was about a speech given by Thorat in Ranikhet where the Army Commander would have said that “Indian Officers were seeking promotions through political influence which was disrupting our army — or words to that effect.”
Thorat replied that he had only said that “officers must give their loyalty to their superior Commanders and through them, to the COAS whoever he may be. Any tendency to look in other directions for early advancement was likely to ruin the discipline of the Army.”
But the habit of finding other ways of ‘advancement’ had already sneaked into the Army, mainly due to the Defence Minister’s ways of working.
The second allegation was that Thorat would have told a senior IAF Officer that he was “allergic to the Defence Minister whom [he] could not stand and who was disrupting the army.” There is no doubt that many in the Army thought that way. Had Thorat said it openly? And if he did, who denounced him to Menon and Nehru?
Thorat answered to Chief: “I recollect that some IAF officer possibly at Jorhrat or Tezpur asked why I had not been appointed COAS. To the best of my memory, I remember having replied that you were senior to me and also that the Hon’ble Defence Minister and I were not very fond of each other. I realise now that it was not proper for me to make a statement of this nature and am sorry for it.”
This exchange however shows the small-mindedness of those who asked these questions, a few days before Thorat’s retirement,.
The next query was worse: “your Headquarters spent large sums of money on the farewell parties, functions and parades for General KS Thimayya in Lucknow during his visit earlier this month. How much money was spent, and how many vehicles were employed under the items mentioned above?”
The Army Commander listed ‘his’ expenses during the farewell functions:
- At Home – 26 Apr Nil
- Guest Night – 29 Apr Nil (About Rs.450 may be spent from the Mess Entertainment Fund)
- Parade – 1 May Rs.450
He went on to provide the details for the Rs 450.
He was then accused to have said in Korea in 1954 that “India would not have survived after independence but for the many sided assistance she received from the Americans.”
Thorat just said he denied the allegation “which I am supposed to have made seven years ago.” In a professional manner, he went through the press clippings of that time which proved that he never made any such statement.
Thorta’s conclusions were: “Should [the PM] not be satisfied with my explanation, I request that I may be given an opportunity to clear myself in person, in the presence of those who have made these allegations.”
Thapar had nastily told him: “these are serious allegations and cannot be ignored.”
After the 1962 War, the Prime Minister realized that Thorat had written a detailed report of the Chinese threat. “Why was it not shown to me?” Nehru asked.
According to Maj Gen VK Singh: When Thorat suggested to the Prime Minister that the Defence Minister could perhaps answer the question, Nehru exploded, “Menon, Menon! Why have you got your knife into him? You people do not realise what an intellectual giant he is.”
It was too late for India.
One can only hope that the VK Krishna Menon Papers will one day be available to the Indian public; then we may be realize all the blunders committed by the arrogant Minister.
Here is the correspondance:
From P.N. Thapar to S.P.P. Thorat: Allegations
PERSONAL AND TOP SECRET
Lt Gen PN Thapar
DO No PNT/1
CHIEF OF THE ARMY STAFF, ARMY HEADQUARTERS
23 APR 61
Lt Gen SPP THORAT, DSO
GOC-in-C Eastern Command
I am directed by the Prime Minister to request you for your comments on the following allegations against you which have come to his notice.
2. In a speech in the Kumaon Regimental Centre Mess at RANIKHET, in the presence of several foreigners, including Major General JILANI of the Pakistan Army, Colonel M Iqbal, Pakistan’s Military Attache, Brigadier Newton Dunn, UK Military Adviser, and Mr BOWES of the British Chamber of Commerce, you stated that Indian Officers were seeking promotions through political influence which was disrupting our army — or words to that effect. You may like to say why you thought it necessary to make such a statement in the presence of foreigners.
3. Some months ago, somewhere in ASSAM, you stated in the presence of a senior IAF Officer that you were allergic to the Defence Minister whom you could not stand and who was disrupting the army.
4. It is stated that your Headquarters spent large sums of money on the farewell parties, functions and parades of General KS THIMAYYA in LUCKNOW during his visit earlier this month. How much money and POL was spent, and how many vehicles were employed under the items mentioned above?
5. In KOREA in 1954, in the presence of many Americans and South Koreans, whilst addressing them, after a lunch engagement, you said, within the hearing of many Indians, that INDIA would not have survived after independence but for the many sided assistance she received from the Americans (or words to that effect). What was the need of such a statement in the presence of so many foreigners, including South Koreans, who were so hostile to us at the time.
6. You will appreciate that these are serious allegations and cannot be ignored. The Prime Minister is, however, anxious that every opportunity should be given to you to clear up your position in the matter before Government decided what further action should be taken.
7. This letter is being sent to you through the safe hands of Major PK SIBAL, who has instructions to bring back your reply as soon as possible.
Sd/- P.N. Thapar
OFFG CHIEF OF THE ARMY STAFF
From S.P.P. Thorat to P.N. Thapar: Reply to Allegations
PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL
Headquarters Eastern Command, Lucknow
24 Apr 61
Lt Gen P N Thapar
Offg: Chief of the Army Staff
DHQ PO New Delhi – 11
Reference your DO No. PNT/1, dated 23 Apr 1961.
1. I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving me an opportunity to clear my position in regard to the matters reported to him.
2. My explanation is as under:
Your para 2 I have been incorrectly quoted.
3. In the speech at RANIKHET, what I said was that officers must give their loyalty to their superior Commanders and through them, to the COAS whoever he may be. Any tendency to look in other directions for early advancement was likely to ruin the discipline of the Army. (As this speech was not reported in the press I am unable to quote the precise words). However, I have repeated similar statements elsewhere also. I have been able to get some of the PRO’s press releases and quote the relevant extracts below. The originals are available for inspection if desired –
MOKOKCHUNG dated 11 Feb 1961
“… Lt Gen THORAT said that the entire structure of every army was based on discipline—the two ingredients of which were implicit loyalty and unquestioning obedience of legal orders. He deprecated the tendency of questioning and arguing about decisions, about orders and urged officers to trust in their superiors, have confidence in their fairness and above all, to give unswerving loyalty to the Chief of the Army Staff. … ”
TEZPUR dated 14 Feb 1961
“… He urged officers and men alike to maintain the glorious traditions of the Indian Army by remaining disciplined soldiers, by having complete faith in their superior officers and giving them loyal obedience….”
Your para 3
4. I do not know where in ASSAM I am supposed to have made this statement. However, I recollect that some IAF officer possibly at JORHAT or TEZPUR asked why I had not been appointed COAS. To the best of my memory, I remember having replied that you were senior to me and also that the Hon’ble Defence Minister and I were not very fond of each other. I realise now that it was not proper for me to make a statement of this nature and am sorry for it. However, I most emphatically deny having said that I was “allergic to the Defence Minister whom I cannot stand and who was disrupting the Army”. In this context, before your appointment was made public, whenever anyone asked me about the future Chief, my invariable reply was that you were senior and should, therefore, be appointed to that post. You will recollect that a statement of this nature made by me at WELLINGTON was reported to you.
Your para 4
5. Please see Appendix ‘A’ attached.
6. HQ Eastern Command have arranged the following farewell functions for me.-
(a) At Home – 26 Apr Nil
(b) Guest Night – 29 Apr Nil
(About Rs.450/- may be spent from the Mess Entertainment Fund)
(c) Parade – 1 May Rs.450/- (excluding transport for tps)
I shall be grateful if you could indicate whether these functions should be held or not.
Your para 5
7. I emphatically deny this allegation concerning a statement which I am supposed to have made seven years ago. I cannot now remember which party it was, but looking through my file of press cuttings, I see that at one of the parties given just before the Custodian Force left for INDIA, I paid a tribute to the British. The relevant para as reported by Hindustan Times dated 7 Feb 1954 states –
“In reply General Thorat said that the Indian Army owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the British Army. We were taught by you to be soldiers, to fight and to behave. If you are giving us ‘a pat on the back’ today, then we believe that you equally deserve a ‘pat on the back’ “.
8. At this or on some other occasion, I also remember having paid a tribute to the Americans for the administrative help which they had given us and for having stood by us whenever the then President of South Korea threatened the Custodian Force.
9. It is evident from your Para 1 that certain allegations have been made against me to the Prime Minister by some persons. Should he not be satisfied with my explanation, I request that I may be given an opportunity to clear myself in person, in the presence of those who have made these allegations.
10. I have already written to MS requesting your permission to be allowed finally to leave LUCKNOW on the 1st of May. I would, therefore, be very grateful if I may know the Prime Minister’s verdict before then so that I can proceed on pension with an easy mind after 35 years’ service.
GENERAL OFFICER COMMANDING-IN-CHIEF
Appendix “A” to HQ Eastern Command
letter No 750113/AC dated Apr 61
Reference your Para 4
The money spent on farewell functions for the retiring COAS by this Headquarters is as under:
Reception by Citizens of LUCKNOW Cantt Paid for by the citizens and members of the Cantonment Board. … NilAt Home
Every one except the guests paid for his/her own Tea. The amount spent by this Headquarters (Army Commanders Fund) is Rs.158.96. Guest Night
Every one except the guests paid for his/her own dinner and drinks. The guests’ expenses were met from the Mess Entertainment Fund which is maintained for this purpose. In addition, Rs.448.18 are being shared by 183 officers on a sliding scale. Thus Headquarters, therefore, has incurred no expenditure on the Guest Night. NilToken presentation
A token present (HQ Eastern Command Crest mounted on a wooden base) was presented to retiring COAS. Rs. 50.00 (approx)
Note – It was intended to present a small silver On advice from Army HQ, this was not presented to the COAS and has been retained in the Mess as Mess property. … Expenses for the stay of the Chief’s party at the MES Inspection Bungalow (Army Commanders Fund). Rs. 146.82Parade
This amount includes hire of furniture, printing of invitation cards etc. and is being paid out of army Commander’s Fund. The total expenditure incurred by HQ Eastern Command on the farewell visit of the COAS amounts to Rs. 503.08
Total Rs. 858.86
I hope you will agree that this is not an unduly large expenditure to be spent on the farewell visit of the retiring Chief, from the Army Commander’s Fund which is not a Public Fund.
The details of transport are as under:
(a) Vehicles used for conveyance of the COAS from the AMAUSI Air Field to LUCKNOW, in LUCKNOW and for the Parade etc. is as under:-
- Staff Cars 2-mileage for both =185 mls
- 3 Tonners for the carriage of Troops and equipment for the Parade 42 mileage = 886 mls
- 15 cwt 7 = 363 mls
- Jeeps 2 = 84 mls
Owing to the urgency of replying your letter today, I have not had the time to check the accuracy of the figures given to me. It is possible therefore that there may be some minor inaccuracies in these figures.
Note:- The transport used by the Chief of the Naval Staff, Chief of the Air Staff and other guests who had come to attend the AMC Corps Day is not included in the above.