If a student of military history were to focus on the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962, he would be hard pressed to avoid concluding that the result of the confrontation was actually decided in less than four hours, just about the time one innings of a fifty over cricket match takes.
At approximately 0500 hours on 20th October the People’s Liberation Army commenced its artillery barrage in support of its attack against 7 Infantry Brigade positions along the Southern banks of the Namka Chu River. By 0900 hours the Brigade ceased to exist as a fighting force, within just another ninety six hours, Tawang, a strategic border town approximately 100 Kms in depth, was attacked and captured without a fight and the rest, as they say, is history.
That the Brigade was strung out along the river bank, against the very fundamentals of basic military tactics can be directly attributed to the orders of Lt Gen BM Kaul, the Prime Minister’s devoted and loyal henchman. The fact that none of the other commanders in the chain voiced their objections to such an imprudent order speaks volumes as to the state of the Army itself.
We are still paying the price for Mr. Nehru’s shortsightedness and ignorance of matters military, as also for the utter lack of professional integrity of the generals he put at the helm of the Army. Even more than six decades later Governments of all ideologies are still haunted by the likelihood of public condemnation and ire they may face if the, yet to be declassified, Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report were made public.
In his introduction to the unpublished (yet available online) Official History of the 1962 Conflict with China, its Chief Editor, Dr S N Prasad has made one critical observation that has, unfortunately, never received the attention it deserves. He has suggested that our defeat could be primarily attributed to the inability of the political establishment to avoid a war while it was in the process of transforming the military establishment. He believes Pandit Nehru and Mr. Krishna Menon saw the military as a “close- knit professional body, deliberately isolated from the citizen. Its predominant motive force remained espirit de corps and not identification with the people. Someday it may even act like the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire.
The Indian Army trained and fought like the British Army, unimaginative, elephantine, rule-bound and road bound…. He tried to change the operational doctrine- indeed the very ethos of the Indian Army….Perhaps he wanted to model it after the People’s Liberation Army of China, more egalitarian, flexible, closer to the people………”
Dr Prasad further goes on to suggest that “such basic changes required a committed, or at least a pliant, band of army officers in key positions. So mediocre Thapar was selected instead of the doughty Thorat as Army Chief, and Bijji Kaul was made CGS……. To carry out this transformation of the national defence set up, a decade of peace was absolutely essential. For establishing indigenous weapons manufacture, money had to be found by cutting arms imports. The armed forces would be short of equipment and stores for several years till the new arms factories started producing. The officer cadre was a house divided within itself, till the new breed fully took over. A period of transition was inevitable, during which the fighting machine would not be fully efficient and would be vulnerable………Therein seems to lie the basic cause of the debacle of 1962. India failed to avoid a war during the transition period. Lulled by faulty political assessment and wrong intelligence forecasts, the country got caught in a war when it was least prepared.”
What Dr Prasad clearly spells out is that Prime Minister Nehru, aided by the Raksha Mantri, Krishna Menon, was involved in a blatant, though ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to interfere with the customs and traditions of the Army, in essence politicize it, and mould its top leadership into becoming ideologically subservient and loyal to him personally, and to the Congress Party, instead of the constitution which they had sworn to defend.
It is no secret that Nehru was deeply suspicious of the military, believing that its leadership posed an existential threat to politicians. His actions were obviously aimed at negating just such a threat. Unfortunately, it is quite clear that even today this perception continues to haunt our political establishment. This is despite the sterling record of the military in remaining completely apolitical and committed to our democratic ideals whatever the provocation, unlike some militaries in our neighbourhood. Nothing else explains the manner in which the military has been ridden roughshod over the years, be it with regard to deliberate lowering of its inter-se standing vis-à-vis other central government cadres, unwillingness to reorganize its outdated command and control structures or appoint a Chief of Defence Staff, apart from a myriad other pinpricks.
While the public may have yet to learn the whole truth of what went wrong in 1962, there were a couple of lessons from the debacle that the political leadership was quick to imbibe and implement. It was to further insulate the political establishment from the military by additional strengthening of the bureaucratic firewall, the Ministry of Defence, thus ensuring that accountability for security lapses would become diffused and difficult to ascertain or pinpoint and certainly could never again be laid at the door of the political leadership.
It further complicated matters by ensuring that the military was kept out of the decision making loop with regard to formulation of national security policies, with its advice being sought only in times of crisis, if the Cabinet so desired. That did not stop it from being held accountable if the crisis panned out adversely. This implied that whatever be the circumstances the military would pay the price while those responsible for policy making that got us into that adverse situation in the first place would avoid all scrutiny, let alone be blamed.
Thus, while the political masters continued to exert all authority and control through the civilian bureaucracy, it was the Military hierarchy, which had little real power or influence, especially in policy matters, that found itself under the spotlight when things went wrong. Unfortunately, instead of taking a principled stand against such a skewed system, the senior military hierarchy, by and large, behaved like any good civilian bureaucrat would, and passed the buck down.
In essence, our political leadership, the civilian bureaucracy and the Service Chiefs were able to turn President Harry S Truman’s famous dictum, “The Buck Stops Here”, the sign that he kept on his desk, on its head. The Kargil Conflict was a prime example of this state of affairs. While a few middle ranking and an odd senior commander were held responsible for not detecting the Pakistani intrusions, it was the senior military and political leadership that was quick to claim the subsequent successes for themselves, even if it was achieved at great cost.
The subsequent Commission of Enquiry and the Group of Ministers also avoided apportioning specific blame, going on to identify the lessons that emerged and recommending the manner in which they could be implemented.
Furthermore, having burnt their fingers once, the political leadership became extremely wary of interference in the internal affairs of the military, especially with regard to senior appointments, tending, with a couple of exceptions, to scrupulously follow the seniority principle in order to avoid any criticism. This ‘hands off’ policy appears to have undergone a change with Mr. Modi’s appointment of General Bipin Rawat as Army Chief, superseding two of his seniors. Though not unprecedented, it was still a break from tradition, ostensibly aimed, as per the Government, at ensuring that an officer with adequate experience in low intensity conflict, which afflicts Jammu and Kashmir, was put at the helm. Though to be clear his tenures in insurgency affected areas were at the level of a Brigade Commander and upwards and not at the nuts and bolts level of the company and battalion commander.
Similarly, seniority was again recently given a go by while appointing the new Naval Chief. Murmurs within the Air Force hierarchy over this issue, as the time nears for Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa’s successor to be named, are now doing the rounds in print and social media. The appointment of the next Army Chief, to be nominated in the next three to four months will be watched with interest in this regard.
One can well make the argument that Prime Minister Modi’s actions are aimed at introducing meritocracy at the highest ranks of the military, which till recently was on the basis of seniority and residual service after an individual had been cleared by the Selection Board for the rank of Lieutenant General or equivalent. This is also undoubtedly the way forward, and was in fact one of the recommendations of the Group of Ministers after the Kargil Conflict. However, it goes without saying that the selection criteria must be transparent, standardized and fair to all those under consideration and not be dependent on the whims and fancies of the political hierarchy.
Arbitrariness and opacity in the selection policy can have grave repercussions and lead to unintended consequences as we have seen before. Politically connected officers will be seen to be at an advantage and there is thus, every likelihood of a scramble amongst those hopeful of reaching such ranks to garner influence amongst politicians by doing their bidding, much as we see amongst our Civil Services. This will not only impact the apolitical nature of our military, but also hurt its credibility and effectiveness. It will result in factionalism within the officer corps, which can hardly be considered good for either organizational cohesion or morale.
On the other hand, there is also the very real possibility that Prime Minister Modi, and more so his ideological mentors, may well have decided to go down the same road as Prime Minister Nehru in an attempt to further his unfinished agenda. After all much of what Dr. Prasad had written, especially with regard to the officer corps, remains relevant even today. The military remains isolated, short of funds, outdated and outgunned and treated with contempt by the politico-bureaucrat establishment.
There is turbulence within the command hierarchy and an ensuing loss of credibility, especially given the ham handed manner in which actions have been initiated with no forethought or understanding of their impact. The leadership in place is seemingly no different from that of 1962, unable or unwilling to stand up for the rights of the serving rank and file or the veterans. In fact, it has shown excessive zeal in implementing orders from the MOD that adversely impacted the security, prestige and standing of the organization, using combat soldiers for clearing garbage in high altitude tourist towns, opening up of cantonments to civilians and the recent controversy over disability pensions being taxed, for example.
In addition, the Army Chief has been particularly vociferous in expressing his views on matters that are clearly political in nature, much against the manner in which earlier Service Chiefs acted, without being trapped on the knuckles by the government. Clearly his closeness to the ruling dispensation is not in doubt. What is still not clear are the reasons for his excessive zeal, as to whether it is motivated by personal desire for a post retirement sinecure or a deliberate attempt to further the ideological indoctrination of the Army?
Finally, one cannot help but point out that while it is one thing for military veterans to be politically aligned, as is the fundamental right of every citizen, it is quite another for serving personnel. A politicized military will do neither us nor itself any favours. The political establishment would do well to remember that old Chinese idiom “it is one thing to ride a tiger, quite another to get off without killing it”! Given the precarious geo- political environment we inhabit, let’s hope the political establishment is not intent on killing it.