History is most unforgiving. As historical mistakes cannot be undone, they have complex cascading effect on a nation’s future. Here is a saga of seven historical blunders that have changed the course of independent India’s history and cast a dark shadow over its future. These costly mistakes will continue to haunt India for generations. They have been recounted here in a chronological order with a view to highlight inadequacies of India’s decision making apparatus and leadership’s incompetence to act with vision.
1. The Kashmir Mess
There can be no better example of shooting in one’s own foot than India’s clumsy handling of the Kashmir issue. It is a saga of naivety, blinkered vision and inept leadership. Hari Singh was the reigning monarch of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. He was vacillating when tribal marauders invaded Kashmir in October 1947, duly backed by the Pakistan army. Unable to counter them, Hari Singh appealed to India for assistance and agreed to accede to India. Indian forces blunted the invasion and re-conquered vast areas.
First, India erred by not insisting on unequivocal accession of the state to the Dominion of India and granted special status to it through Article 370 of the Constitution. Secondly, when on the verge of evicting all invaders and recapturing the complete state, India halted operations on 1 January 1949 and appealed to the Security Council. It is the only case in known history wherein a country, when on the threshold of complete victory, has voluntarily forsaken it in the misplaced hope of winning admiration of the world community. Thirdly and most shockingly, the Indian leadership made a highly unconstitutional offer of plebiscite in the UN.
Forty percent area of the state continues to be under Pakistan’s control, providing it a strategic land route to China through the Karakoram ranges. As a fall out of the unresolved dispute, India and Pakistan have fought numerous wars and skirmishes with no solution in sight. Worse, the local politicians are holding India to ransom by playing the Pak card. Kashmir issue is a self created cancerous furuncle that defies all medications and continues to bleed the country.
2. Ignoring Chinese Threats and Neglect of the Military
Memories of the year 1962 will always trouble the Indian psyche. A nation of India’s size had lulled itself into believing that its protestations and platitudes of peaceful co-existence would be reciprocated by the world. It was often stated that a peace loving nation like India did not need military at all. The armed forces were neglected. Political leadership took pride in denigrating the military leadership and meddled in internal affairs of the services to promote sycophancy. Foreign policy was in shambles. Intelligence apparatus was rusted.
…China’s aggressive intentions were clearly discernible for years in advance, Indian leadership decided to keep its eyes shut in the fond hope that the problem would resolve itself.
Even though signs of China’s aggressive intentions were clearly discernible for years in advance, Indian leadership decided to keep its eyes shut in the fond hope that the problem would resolve itself. When China struck, the country was caught totally unprepared. Troops were rushed to snowbound areas with summer clothing and outdated rifles. Despite numerous sagas of gallantry, the country suffered terrible embarrassment. India was on its knees. With national morale and pride in tatters, India was forced to appeal to all nations for military aid. Inept and incompetent leadership had forced a proud nation to find solace in Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo’.
3. The Tashkent Agreement and Return of Haji Pir Pass
Following the cease-fire after the Indo-Pak War of 1965, a Russian sponsored agreement was signed between India and Pakistan in Tashkent on 10 January 1966. Under the agreement, India agreed to return the strategic Haji Pir pass to Pakistan which it had captured in August 1965 against heavy odds and at a huge human cost. The pass connects Poonch and Uri sectors in Jammu and Kashmir and reduces the distance between the two sectors to 15 km whereas the alternate route entails a travel of over 200 km. India got nothing in return except an undertaking by Pakistan to abjure war, an undertaking which meant little as Pakistan never had any intention of honouring it.
Return of the vital Haji Pir pass was a mistake of monumental proportions for which India is suffering to date. In addition to denying a direct link between Poonch and Uri sectors, the pass is being effectively used by Pakistan to sponsor infiltration of terrorists into India. Inability to resist Russian pressure was a manifestation of the boneless Indian foreign policy and shortsighted leadership.
4. The Simla Agreement
With the fall of Dhaka on 16 December 1971, India had scored a decisive victory over Pakistan. Over 96,000 Pak soldiers were taken Prisoners of War (PoWs). Later, an agreement was signed between the two countries on 2 July 1972 at Shimla. Both countries agreed to exchange all PoWs, respect the line of control (LOC) in Jammu and Kashmir and refrain from the use of threat or force. Additionally, Bhutto gave a solemn verbal undertaking to accept LOC as the de facto border.
India released all Pak PoWs in good faith. Pakistan, on the other hand, released only 617 Indian PoWs while holding back 54 PoWs who are still languishing in Pakistani jails. The Indian Government has admitted this fact a number of times but has failed to secure their release. India failed to use the leverage of 96,000 Pak PoWs to discipline Pakistan. A rare opportunity was thus wasted. What to talk of establishing permanent peace in the sub-continent, India failed to ensure release of all Indian PoWs – a criminal omission by all accounts.
The Apex Court was of the view that the influx of Bangladeshi nationals into Assam posed a threat to the integrity and security of northeastern region.
Naivety of the Indian delegation can be seen from the fact that it allowed Pakistan to bluff its way through at Shimla. The Indian leadership was fooled into believing Pakistan’s sincerity. Unquestionably, Pakistan never intended to abide by its promises, both written and verbal. Fruits of a hard fought victory in the battlefield were frittered away on a negotiating table by bungling leadership.
5. The Nuclear Muddle
Subsequent to the Chinese Nuclear Test at Lop Nor in 1964, India showed rare courage in carrying out its first nuclear test on 18 May 1974 at Pokharan. Outside the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, India was the only nation to prove its nuclear capability. The whole country was ecstatic and every Indian felt proud of its scientific prowess. But Indians had not contended with their Government’s penchant for converting opportunity into adversity and squandering hard earned gains.
Instead of asserting India’s newly acquired status of a nuclear power and demanding recognition, India turned apologetic and tried to convince the world that it had no nuclear ambitions. Strangely, it termed the Pokharan test as a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ – a term unheard of till then. The Defence Minister went to the extent of claiming that the Indian nuclear experiment was “only for mining, oil and gas prospecting, for finding underground sources of water, for diverting rivers, for scientific and technological knowledge.” It was a self-deprecating stance. Displaying acute inferiority complex, India did not want to be counted as a member of the exclusive nuclear club.
Criticism and sanctions were expected and must have been factored in before opting for the nuclear test. Whereas a few more assertive follow-on tests would have forced the world to accept India as a member of the nuclear club, India went into an overdrive to placate the world through a self imposed moratorium on further testing. It lost out on all the advantages provided to it by its scientists. It suffered sanctions and yet failed to gain recognition as a nuclear power. The country missed golden opportunities due to the timidity and spinelessness of its leaders.
6. Kandahar Hijack
Hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar by Pakistani terrorists in December 1999 will continue to rile India’s self-respect for long. According to the Hindustan Times, India lost face and got reduced to begging for co-operation from the very regimes that were actively undermining its internal security. The hijacking revealed how ill-prepared India was to face up to the challenges of international terrorism.
The eight day long ordeal was over when India’s National Security Adviser brazenly announced that an agreement had been reached for the release of all the hostages in exchange for three Kashmiri militants including Maulana Masood Azhar. Sadly, the Prime Minister claimed credit for forcing the hijackers to climb down on their demands. The worst was yet to follow. India’s Foreign Minister decided to accompany the released militants to Kandahar, as if seeing off honoured guests.
Government’s poor crisis-management skills and extreme complacency in security matters allowed the hijackers to take off from Amritsar airport after 39 minutes halt for refueling, thereby letting the problem get out of control. India’s much vaunted decision making apparatus collapsed and was completely paralysed by the audacity of a bunch of motivated fanatics. It was a comprehensive failure of monumental proportions. India’s slack and amateurish functioning made the country earn the tag of a soft nation which it will find very difficult to shed.
7. Illegal Immigration and Passage of IMDT Act
It is a standard practice all over the world that the burden of proving one’s status as a bonafide citizen of a country falls on the accused. It is so for India as well under Foreigners Act, 1946. Political expediency forced the Government to make an exception for Assam. In one of the most short-sighted and anti-national moves, India passed Illegal Migrants – Determination by Tribunals (IMDT) Act of 1984 for Assam. It shifted the onus of proving illegal status of a suspected immigrant to the accuser, which was a tall and virtually impossible order. Detection and deportation of illegal immigrants became impossible.
Whenever demands were raised for repealing the Act, Congress, Left Front and United Minorities Front resisted strongly. Illegal immigrants had become the most loyal vote bank of the Congress. Worse, every protest against the Act was dubbed as ‘anti-minority’, thereby imparting communal colour to an issue of national security. Government’s ‘pardon’ of all Bangladeshis who had come in before 1985 was another unconstitutional act that aggravated the problem.
The Act was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on July 13, 2005, more than 20 years after its enactment. The Apex Court was of the view that the influx of Bangladeshi nationals into Assam posed a threat to the integrity and security of northeastern region. Unfortunately immense damage had already been done to the demography of Assam and the local people of Assam had been reduced to minority status in certain districts. Illegal immigrants have come to have a stranglehold over electioneering to the extent that no party can hope to come to power without their support. Nearly 30 Islamic groups are thriving in the area to further their Islamist and Pan Bangla Desh agenda. It is incomprehensible that a nation’s leadership can stoop so low and endanger even national security for garnering votes.
Finally, is India Wiser Today?
Two features are common to all the above mentioned blunders. First, all decisions were taken by the political leadership and the bureaucracy. The military leadership was neither taken into confidence nor consulted. As a matter of fact it was deliberately kept out of the decision making loop. Although military is the primary stake holder in India’s nuclear prowess, it was not considered necessary to take it in confidence while taking decisions of strategic proportions.
Future generations will rue the fact that the Indian leadership failed the nation at critical junctures due to incompetence, ineptitude and selfish interests.
Both Tashkant and Shimla Agreements were preceded by bitterly fought wars. They entailed negotiating the extent, scope and modalities of withdrawal from occupied areas. Even then, no need was felt to seek military’s advice and no service officer was included in the Indian delegations. Political leaders and the bureaucracy abrogated the right to negotiate military matters, in the egoistic belief that they were more qualified for the task. The results were disastrous, as mentioned above.
The second common feature is that no political leader or bureaucrat was ever held accountable for monumental blunders made by them. On the contrary, every single bureaucrat made it to the higher grades and was even given lucrative post-retirement appointments. It is an obnoxious sight to see the guilty men of the above blunders masquerading as foreign policy experts on TV shows and unabashedly offering their pearls of wisdom.
The above mentioned seven indefensible blunders have had enormous impact on the security, standing and history of India. Future generations will rue the fact that the Indian leadership failed the nation at critical junctures due to incompetence, ineptitude and selfish interests. Proclivity for perpetuating personal power made the leadership shortsighted and egocentric. But for the historical blunders, the current Indian geo-political scenario would have been totally different.
Has India learnt any lesson? Unfortunately, none whatsoever. Even now, military leadership is consciously and willfully kept out of all decision making apparatus. Even issues that affect security of the nation are decided by the bureaucrats who do not possess even elementary knowledge of military matters. It is only in India that well connected retired bureaucrats are offered membership of the National Security Council (NSC) as a rehabilitation measure. Merit and expertise are of little consequence. Further, India is perhaps the only country in the world wherein NSC does not have a single military member. Bureaucrats and ex-police officers have made NSC their exclusive domain, thereby depriving the nation of expert military advice. Resultantly, recurring blunders will continue to cost the country dear.
First Published in January 2010