The Buddha story attracted me even in early boyhood,’ wrote Nehru in The Discovery of India. Another Indian whose life made an impact on Nehru was the man known to history as Ashoka. Nehru was no admirer of kings and emperors but then Ashoka was no ordinary emperor. Among the countless monarchs that the world has seen, he alone gave up warfare as an instrument of state policy after a great military victory. The first ten years of Independence have sometimes been compared to the reign of Ashoka.1
Like Ashoka, Nehru was a giant of his age. He was a world figure and towered over everybody else in India. We have seen earlier that India’s foreign policy was entirely in Nehru’s hands. In the shaping of the country’s domestic policy too he played a dominant role. The Ashokan touch was there in both. Even the state emblem – the Lion Capital – was taken from the Sarnath pillar of Ashoka and the Wheel of Dharma was blazoned on the national flag. For his foreign policy, Nehru chose the Buddha’s ‘middle path’: non-alignment and peaceful co-existence. At home too, Nehru’s concern was to repair the backwardness created by centuries of foreign rule.
However, while provision was made for most of the needs of the nation, its security did not receive adequate attention. The Indian sub-continent occupies a strategic position in South Asia. Those who took over from the British in 1947 forgot that this imposed a responsibility which the British had carried till then. The Indian Army of the British period was mainly for internal security; in case of external attack, its strength was just enough to withstand the first shock. Thereafter, as a global power, London could switch over forces at its disposal in other parts of the world. The new Indian Government had no such reserves and therefore, had a duty to make its own armed forces strong enough.
…while provision was made for most of the needs of the nation, its security did not receive adequate attention.
Modern science has made defence a highly competitive field. Weapons and equipment get outdated very soon and a nation can disregard the advances made by others only at the risk of its own security. A farmer using outdated implements may not do as well as his better-equipped counterparts in other lands but he does not risk the security of the state. However, a soldier with an outdated weapon is a risk to his country. A poorly equipped Army, howsoever patriotic, cannot be expected to defend its country against a better-equipped adversary.
Prime Minister Nehru chose to downgrade the armed forces in the matter of priorities for national development. And, as we shall see later, he chose to disregard professional advice when it was offered. History repeated itself. In the case of Ashoka, the foreign invasions came after his death. But Nehru’s India suffered military defeat while he was still the country’s prime minister. Fortunately, the disaster was not as great as the post-Ashokan collapse of the Mauryas. The lesson was quickly learnt and the damage repaired.
There were many reasons for the downgrading of the armed forces. Just as Ashoka had come under the influence of Buddhist teachings and become a pacifist, the thinking of Nehru and his colleagues was conditioned by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa). In 1947, there were indeed some Indian leaders – though Nehru was not one of them – who thought there was no need for an Army. If non-violence could succeed against the mighty British, why can the same weapon not be used against anyone who should choose to attack peace-loving India, they argued. It was the invasion of Jammu & Kashmir that opened their eyes.
Another reason was the manner in which the struggle against British rule was waged. In his book Defence Without Drift, P.V.R. Rao2 says:
Weapons and equipment get outdated very soon and a nation can disregard the advances made by others only at the risk of its own security.
“In the circumstances in which the Indian leaders came to power, there was an essential antagonism between them and the organs of the Government – the Civil Administration, the Police and the Defence Forces – which had often been utilized by the British Government to suppress the national movement”.
The differences were more pronounced in the case of defence forces as they rarely came into contact with political parties.
The reason that was advanced for economizing on defence was that development must have first priority and that an industrial base was necessary for self-sufficiency in defence equipment. No doubt, this was sound reasoning. After all, the defence of an independent country is rooted in various factors. Among them the most important areas are, sound economy, a good industrial base, institutions for technological advancement and a healthy, united nation. There is, however, no substitute for adequate armed forces, well-trained and well-equipped. Unfortunately, the Government of the day disregarded this basic truth.
The policy-makers forgot that the strength of a country’s armed forces plays a vital role in international politics. After all, they are the ultimate instrument of its national policy. Theodore Roosevelt said in 1901, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”.3 Vegetius was more specific: “Let him who desires peace prepare for war”, was his dictum. In his scholarly work, “The Theory of Force and Organization of Defence in Indian Constitutional History, Dr. Nagendra Singh has put the issue tersely: “The ability to defend relates to the very existence of the State and is, therefore, a sine qua non of its independence”.
A basic deficiency was the absence of a unified authority that could advise the government on matters of defence and at the same time, co-ordinate and guide the functioning of the three Services. Before Independence, this was the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. That arrangement was workable in a colonial set-up while the Indian Navy and the Air Force were not adequately developed. The appointment of separate chiefs of the three Services was a natural consequence of Independence. However, the position held till then by the Commander-in-Chief of India, as the man solely responsible for the country’s security, was left unfilled. The lacuna was allowed to remain, though India was, perhaps, the only important country not to have such a post.
Just as Ashoka had come under the influence of Buddhist teachings and become a pacifist, the thinking of Nehru and his colleagues was conditioned by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa).
The Chiefs of Staff Committee was formed. Its purpose was to advise the Defence Minister on matters that affected the three Services. The senior of the three Chiefs was designated as Chairman of the Committee. This meant rotation of the post, as each incumbent retired on completion of his tenure as chief of his Service. It must be stated here that despite the fact that the Army remained by far the largest among the Services, good relations prevailed among the members of the Committee. However, by its very nature, the Committee remained a paper organization. That this was so can be substantiated from the events of the Indo–Pak conflict of 1965, when the Indian Navy was caught unprepared. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Vikrant was in dry dock undergoing repairs and many of the other warships were reservicing. Evidently, the Chiefs of Staff Committee was ineffective. In any case, a committee cannot be expected to fight campaigns.
We have observed that after Independence, the status of the Army Chief vis-a-vis the bureaucrats came down considerably. The downgrading was not confined to the Chief. The Army Commanders under him and others down the line, suffered a similar fate. Before Independence, the Chief Secretary of a State ranked with brigadiers. In 1948, he was placed at par with major generals. The downgrading of the status of the Services continued during the ‘Ashokan decade’ and afterwards. In 1951, the Army Chief became junior to Chief Ministers outside their states, to the Cabinet Secretary and to the Secretary-General. The Army Commanders were later made to rank below the Chief Secretaries of the states. This downgrading was not in the matter of protocol and perks only – the complete structure in its role and function underwent a similar change.
These changes were in no way related to the duties performed by the officers concerned, or to the size of their command. The Army Chief, the Army Commanders, and the lower commanders under them performed the same duties as their predecessors before 1948. In fact, the size of their respective commands had increased, as there was an increase in the strength of the Army from time to time. In 1955, the designation ‘Commander-in-Chief’ was dropped but the Chief of the Army Staff remained the de facto Commander-in-Chief of the Army.
Evidently, the progressive downgrading was a result of the lack of appreciation on the part of those who authorized it as to the adverse effect it would have on the rank and file in the armed forces and on the public in general. Seeing their commanders at public functions, like the parades on the occasion of Republic Day, placed below those over whom they previously ranked, naturally hurt the men’s pride. They and the public could not but conclude that the armed forces had been downgraded. This was naturally bad for the Services, where the honour (izzat) that goes with rank means a great deal.Even in terms of badges of rank, there was a progressive upgrading of Police badges, which are of the same design as Army badges. This, in effect, devalued Army ranks. In the case of Sepoys, it may be mentioned that Police constables in missions abroad were given class 3 status, as against Army Sepoys who were given class 4 status.An organizational change that marginalized the role of the armed forces in the decision-making processes of the Government was the assumption of control over the Services by the Defence Ministry. All matters requiring executive sanction or approval had to be referred to the Ministry. The latter made itself responsible ‘to ensure that a uniform policy to the greatest extent possible was evolved and that the decisions taken in respect of one service did not produce repercussions on the other two services’. Gradually, the hold of the Defence Ministry over the Services tightened. A stage was reached where, by usage and convention, all matters, except for routine day-to-day running of the armed forces, were required to be sent for the approval of the Defence Minister.4
There was another cog in the wheel: the Finance Ministry. Even before Independence, the functioning of the armed forces was subject to financial scrutiny. Now any proposal involving expenditure had first to be accepted by officials of the Defence Ministry. Thereafter it would be sent for financial scrutiny and accord. These were, however, only the initial hurdles. Each new scheme had thereafter to get detailed approval of both the ministries before it could be implemented. And, as already stated, every plan and proposal had to be scrutinized for its overall effect on the other Services. No doubt, many a well-intentioned proposal met its death along this tortuous road. After the 1962 debacle, there were attempts to analyse the reasons for it. Among others, the Finance Ministry came in for a good deal of criticism.
The policy-makers forgot that the strength of a country’s armed forces plays a vital role in international politics.
Why did the Service Chiefs not oppose all this? There were many reasons. General Cariappa did stand up, marginally, on some occasions. After him, till Thimayya became Chief, there is no known evidence of protest. It may have been their patriotic spirit that compelled Cariappa’s successors to conform. It was also their inexperience vis-a-vis the officers of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), who manned the Ministry of Defence and other ministries. Though no Indian ICS officer had experience of Defence, the ICS had begun the Indianization process much earlier than the Army5 and its members were well-aqauainted with the corridors of power. They took full advantage of this to gain the upper hand over the Services.
With all these handicaps, how did the Indian Army acquit itself during this period? We have seen how it met the initial challenges to the country’s integrity – first in Jammu & Kashmir and then in Hyderabad. The performance of its peace-keeping contingents brought credit to the country. We have also observed how the Army adjusted itself to the changes that Independence brought about and how General Cariappa infused a new spirit into its officers and jawans; and also how, under his stewardship, the Army gave a lead to the country in certain matters, like national integration, discipline, family planning and the improvement of ecological balance by planting more trees. But what about its professional role?
The answer is that the Indian Army kept playing its part as the ultimate instrument of national policy. Though the Indian Government’s policy of non-alignment and co-existence was a great success in the international field, the disputes with Pakistan could not be resolved. These had their origin in the partition of India and were related to such matters as the division of assets, disposal of evacuee property, sharing of river waters, treatment of minorities and a host of other issues. These problems had no ready solutions. A way had to be found for resolving each by negotiation.
The Jammu & Kashmir dispute, however, was the biggest obstacle in the way of normalizing relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, Pakistan did not comply fully with the terms of the Cease-Fire Agreement. After the delineation of the CFL, she was required to withdraw all troops from the area under her occupation. This Pakistan refused to do. The result was that the CFL became a de facto international boundary, while troops of the two nations continued to face each other all along its 700-kilometre length. Violations of the cease-fire were frequent and UN military observers had a busy time investigating them.
A basic deficiency was the absence of a unified authority that could advise the government on matters of defence and at the same time, co-ordinate and guide the functioning of the three Services.
The communal strife, bloodshed and the mass exodus of minorities that accompanied the birth of Pakistan overshadowed the relations between the two Governments. The hatred and distrust generated at the time would not wash off. As late as 1969, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was to govern Pakistan for many years, said: “India and Pakistan have been permanently in a state of either enmity or acute confrontation; only the degree of tension has varied”.6
The first Indo–Pak crisis after the cease-fire in Jammu & Kashmir occurred in 1949–50; it ‘was precipitated by a trade-war when Pakistan refused to follow other Commonwealth countries in devaluing its currency’. Some troop movements in Pakistan were reported and, as a precautionary measure, Indian troops in Jammu & Kashmir were alerted. After this crisis had passed over, a more serious situation arose as a result of the influx of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan. There were reprisals in Assam against the Muslims who had crossed the border in search of employment.7 There were communal riots and tension mounted. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, linked the trouble in East Pakistan with the Kashmir question and went about making anti-India speeches. Then, towards the middle of 1951, came reports of the move of Pakistani troops to the Indian border.
The Indian Government was forced to take precautions and troops were moved during July 1951 to concentration areas in Punjab and West Bengal. This had the desired effect. Negotiations on the question of refugees began and an agreement, which came to be called the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, was signed between the two countries. The crisis was resolved, atleast for the time being and, early in 1952, the troops returned to their cantonments.
Thus, during the first three years of Independence, the only external threat that India faced was from Pakistan and the Indian Army was well prepared to meet it. However, by 1950, a shadow had appeared in the North – a shadow that was to darken ominously.
Before Independence, the Chief Secretary of a State ranked with brigadiers. In 1948, he was placed at par with major generals.
The rise of Communist China was one of the major events of the twentieth century. After a long struggle, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung, Chinese communists overthrew the Kuomintang Government and the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in Peking8 on 1 October 1949. During the civil war, the communists had developed a people’s army superior to all other armies in Chinese history. With this Army as its instrument, the new Government of China began a programme of conquest of outlying territories that had once been a part of the Chinese empire, or were considered by it to belong rightfully to China. Chinese maps of their country gave a fairly clear indication of these ambitions. Among other regions they showed Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and large parts of India’s border areas in Arunachal (hereafter referred to as North-East Frontier Agency [NEFA] as it was called then) and Ladakh, as Chinese tenitory.
Tibet, a country that had enjoyed independent status for 40 years, was the first to get the attention of the Chinese Army. It was invaded on 7 October 1950, at several points along its Eastern border. Within a few weeks the Chinese were able to open the main highway to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, after liquidating key elements of Tibet’s armed forces and capturing the major passes on this route. However, the Chinese made their deepest penetration from the North-West. In a surprise move, they overran the Tibetan garrisons at Rudok and Gartok, in Western Tibet. Threatened from the West as also from the East, the Tibetan Government had no hope of continuing the struggle. Accordingly, it signed an agreement which gave China suzerainty over Tibet but guaranteed her regional autonomy. Chinese troops entered Lhasa on 19 November 1951.