“Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from defeat” – Jean-Paul Sartre
After many years, the nation’s retrieval of some lost territory astride the Kargil heights found endorsement as an event to be solemnly observed; previously, this national level military undertaking seemed to have been propagated or ignored according to political considerations!
By the year 1993, defence budget had been curtailed to such an extent that routine upkeep of weapons, equipment, ammunition stocks, even buildings, roads and parks – the hallmark of cantonment order – had to be severely curtailed.
The Kargil Conflict is a saga of supreme valour and grit displayed by young Indian soldiery, and its wholehearted appreciation by the people of India, thanks to the live media. But there rests in the conscience of many observers, a sense of loss, another story.
Every country goes through occasional economic stagnations when it becomes impossible to keep their armed forces in best trim – equipped and modern. Matured governments negotiate through such problematic times with due forethought and wisdom. The military hierarchy is taken on board who, with equal measure of wisdom, respond by keeping the institutional ethos and core competences alive while finding ingenious ways to manage depleted combat power. In 1991, that however was not the case with the Indian Government, ruled as it was by politicians and bureaucrats who, if competent in most affairs, were evidently innocent of the nuances – and imperatives – of nurturing the nation’s military institution.
Neglect of the armed forces and their role in the overall security of the nation was in stark evidence from the year 1990. That was when drastic cuts in defence budget was negotiated between officials of the Finance and Defence Ministries; needless to state, the military hierarchy was not taken on board. By the year 1993, defence budget had been curtailed to such an extent that routine upkeep of weapons, equipment, ammunition stocks, even buildings, roads and parks – the hallmark of cantonment order – had to be severely curtailed1. More crucially, by tacit understandings within the governing machinery over curtailment of defence expenditure, an atmosphere of avoidance of services related matters had been allowed to prevail – Ministries of Defence and Finance mainly, but even others like the Home, the Railways and Surface Transport Ministries no less. This deliration manifested in the dismissive manner by which the political hierarchy and the bureaucracy responded to matters concerning the armed forces.
The DRDO had meanwhile appropriated an arbitrary authority to decide as to what weapons and equipment the soldier would have to fight with – and when. That was how the authority, but not accountability, to vet professional opinions of Generals was vested!
Admittedly, in those days when bullion from the exchequer had to be bartered to keep the economy afloat, prudence did demand a curtailment of defence budget. But that compulsion could have been better managed through conjoined civil-military initiatives, as indeed it is done in matured governments. Instead, the sanctified practice of close and routine interactions between the Service Headquarters, the Defence Ministry and the political leadership became rarer if not non-existent. Thus under an acquiescent political leadership, the attitude of the bureaucracy towards national defence had fallen into frivolity. “Military preparedness was not a priority; there would be no war in the foreseeable feature”, “the ever-demanding military hot-heads are incorrigible; their clamour for exotic ‘toys of war’ need not be taken seriously”, and such notions had become the common refrain among power-wielders of the early 1990’s, and duly ‘justified’ by clichés and citations which were neither appropriate nor relevant.
With Ministry officials questioning nearly every requirement of the armed forces, even routine cases of replenishments and replacements found rest in the bureaucratic ‘pending tray’. Further, it became a norm to shove even the most desirable cases of improvements in military systems into an orbit of ‘questions’, ‘further justifications’, ‘more clarifications’, ‘other opinions’ etc., till the issue was either dead or diverted for good. Notably, besides a few apparently better disposed IAS officers, the Ministry was mostly manned by officials on deputation from the Railways, Revenue, Audit and such cadres who in their zeal to save defence expenditure, went about blocking even the subsistence scales of the forces. The DRDO had meanwhile appropriated an arbitrary authority to decide as to what weapons and equipment the soldier would have to fight with – and when. That was how the authority, but not accountability, to vet professional opinions of Generals was vested!
Truly, there was fostered in the Defence Ministry, a policy of keeping the military matters at bay, and draw much satisfaction, even laudatory appreciations, from it. Consequently, when confronted with matters military, the barely-tolerated exasperations of the South Block Mandarins had to be experienced to be believed. By the year 1995, the inventory of war wherewithal had been allowed to deplete to a level that made it impossible for the armed forces to fulfill, even by the half, their politically sanctified mandate. During the next couple of years, while military concerns had been raised repeatedly at the highest level, these were deftly diverted every time by some bizarre, some distorted examples of bureaucratic red-tape. There were none to rationalise the deliration; having, in the post-independence era, divested itself of the benefits of statutory military counsel, the Government had left for itself no scope for balancing measures.
In a dynamic institution like the armed forces, this situation was gnawing at the soldiery’s core values and motivation.
By 1998 or so, as the stocks of war materials had depleted below critical limits and realistic training turned farcical on account of various restrictions, many service officers grew indifferent, even skeptical, to the ideology of military security. Even the Service Headquarters had turned disillusioned with what they saw as an institutional apathy. Thus much of the military hierarchy, having found fruitless their exertions to maintain field formations in fighting trim, had started to give up; what little activity did continue, it was the due to the force of disciplined habit rather than any conviction. As disillusionment percolated down the chain of command, traditional discipline and values, the bedrock of the ‘call’ of soldiering, were afflicted with severe dilutions. In a dynamic institution like the armed forces, this situation was gnawing at the soldiery’s core values and motivation2. The only saving grace was the astute leadership shown by most of the Captains, Majors, Colonels and some remnants of the diehard order of the military brass who stuck regardless to their noble pledge and military ethos.
That was the situation which had prompted the Army Chief to tell the Prime Minister that the Army’s “heart was willing but the body was weak”, while the Navy Chief rued that policy makers were “innocent of the knowledge that it takes decades and centuries to build up a Navy”. Indeed, notwithstanding their mask of outwardly concern, successive Governments of the 1990’s had been complicit in this downslide – despite their pronounced intent, they did nothing to improve the matters. They all misled the nation when they parroted the cliché that, “armed forces are ready to face any challenge”, as they put it.
‘Hollowness’ in Military Force
Political and bureaucratic indifference had by now thrown up a peculiar situation – not unlike the 1962. The million strong, fourth largest army of the world had been reduced to a capability for less than just a few weeks of warfare. And as it is wont to happen, while the Army groaned under the weight of increasing shortages of war wherewithal and mounting losses of men and material in counter-insurgency operations – necessitated by the failings of the same governing system – the other two Services fared no better, engaging themselves in imaginary doctrinal castles and internal politicking.
The Army was being made to pay for the scam perpetuated by the politicians and bureaucrats.
It would be in order here to cite some examples which were widely debated before and after the Kargil Conflict:-
- The only modern gun – Bofors – was severely afflicted by non-supply of spares. The Army was being made to pay for the scam perpetuated by the politicians and bureaucrats.
- In the past one decade there had been no modernisation of any of the branches of the Army.
- Ammunition stock levels had been depleted to such levels that a war of more than one or two week’s duration would not be possible to sustain.
- Ordnance factories were starved of orders, and afflicted with dearth of skilled workers, were working at bottom capacity.
- Military transport fleet had grown so old that its reliability to move under operational conditions had become suspect.
- While gallant Jawans subsisted on coarse rations of sub-standard specifications, many of the entitled clothing and equipment, even physical training shoes and drawers, were denied to them due to paucity of funds.
- Realistic and innovative training, collective training particularly, the very basis of military organisation, had been severely scaled down due to restrictions, if not ban, on transportation, weapon usage and various types of ammunition.
- Procurement of even basic war-like stores had become tardy. Acquisition of bullet-proof jackets were delayed for years, need for snow-mobiles in the Siachen Glacier was questioned, over-due upgrade of tanks was stalled and only a few explosive handling equipment could be inducted after a delay of one decade while blast casualties kept mounting.