Oddly enough it requires just two phrases to cogently describe our attempts to keep our military strong and defend our territorial integrity over the past seventy-four years. The first, by French writer and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, who wrote “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” which translates into “the more things change the more they remain the same.” The second, more pertinent to our current situation, lines made famous by the English Poet Alexander Pope, suggesting that invariably “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”.
In his latest address at the Combined Commanders Conference Prime Minister Modi stressed the importance of enhancing indigenisation in the national security system, not just in sourcing weapons and equipment but also in the doctrines, procedures and customs practiced in the Armed Forces. We had already been given a preview of his outlandishideas with classical music being played at the Republic Day Parade and the incorporation of Police Bands into the Military Tattoo that Beating the Retreat symbolises.
The gloves are now off as he has forcefully reinforcedhis earlier message by upending the once sacrosanct military chain of command and directing that a sprinkling of junior officers and men also participate in deliberations that purportedly take a macro-level look at issues pertaining to national security. Something that is akin to inviting the average citizen to sit in and participate in deliberations of the Union Cabinet. While at this time these moves may have been merely symbolic, his intentions are crystal clear as to the kind of military he wishes to see.
We know this because this is a road that we have gone down before, a path his bête noire, Pandit Nehru, trod in the late 1950’s, one might add with rather distressing results. In the Official History of the 1962 Conflict with China, the Chief Editor, Dr S N Prasad, concludes that the chief reason for our defeat was that the political establishment was unable to avoid a war while it was in the process of transforming the military establishment. In his view Mr. Nehru and Mr. Krishna Menon perceived 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…. Perhaps he wanted to model it after the People’s Liberation Army of China, more egalitarian, flexible, closer to the people.”
He then goes on to suggest “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.”
Not only are his views in the context of Eastern Ladakh and the situation we find ourselves in today remarkablyprescient, but it also once again reminds us that history has a rather awkward way of repeating itself, especially for those who refuse to learn from the past. We not only have a military that is battered, bruised and underfunded, thanks to prolonged neglect by the political class, which now faces the added burden of being tampered with to ensure that it is led by pliant and politically committed officers. If Mr. Modi succeeds, he would have delivered the coup de grace to the apolitical and secular foundations that have been the hallmark of our military since Independence. The very reason for which it has been held in such high esteem over all these years as other institutions crumpled.
Fortunately, all has not been lost yet thanks to President Xi’s use of Chairman Mao’s playbook to show us up in poor light and bring us down a peg or two. The fact that China continues to occupy a 1000 sq. kms of our territory and now seems reluctant to back down leads one to conclude that this territory is as good as lost, much in the same manner that Nehru lost us territory earlier. The difference being that once his prevarications were seen through Nehru attempted to take the battle to the Chinese, unfortunately with disastrous consequences mentioned earlier.
Mr. Modi, on the other hand, refuses to admit that we have conceded territory, despite evidence in public domain to the contrary from a host of intelligence sources, both human and technical. In fact, there has been a concerted effort bymedia channels, eminent analysts as well as those within this government and in the military to convince the public into believing that we have given back in equal measure and stalled Chinese adventurism, at least for the time being. There is no denying that we dented the PLA’s reputation and image following the Galwan Clash and by our pre-emptive occupation of the Kailash Ranges.
However, the manner in which we meekly surrendered our advantage of holding the dominating heights and withdrew from the Kailash Heights in the hopes of achieving a return to the status quo ante of last April made plain that we lacked the stomach for a fight. Clearly the need for a quiet border so that Mr. Modi could concentrate on winning the forthcoming State Elections mattered more than the loss of a 1000 sq. kms of barren land.
There are already indications that the Chinese have no intention of vacating occupied areas and are only going to get more assertive in the coming months, not just in Eastern Ladakh but opposite Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh as well. Once this becomes clear then attempts will be made to corner Mr. Modi over this debacle. However, it will be the Army leadership that will pay the price for its sycophancy. It will be blamed for having been gullible enough to take the Chinese at their word and ending up hoodwinked instead. The sad truth that this Government deluded itself and walked into a trapwith eyes wide shut will be conveniently forgotten. One can only hope that present efforts to indigenise the military too will meet the same fate.