India’s controversial Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon was recently in the news, courtesy a well-researched book, which did not elaborate enough on the implications for the country on account of having a wrong person at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Menon was one of the strangest characters, who appeared on the political scene after independence. PK Banerjee, the Indian chargé d’affaires in Beijing in 1962, who often encountered the haughty politician, wrote in his memoir: “Krishna Menon’s appearance in the Indian political arena was as sudden as it was unexpected… he had his education and was enrolled as a Barrister. He hardly had any legal practice …[but] became a protégé of Palme Dutt, a lawyer and founder member of the British Communist Party.”
How, after independence, he was suddenly nominated as the Indian High Commissioner in the UK is still not clear. A few years later, he came back to India and was made the Defence Minister: “In addition, for all practical purposes, he functioned as Foreign Minister de facto,” noted Banerjee. Menon was certainly brilliant in some ways. He joined the Union Cabinet as a Minister without a portfolio in 1956. It was former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who appointed him as the Defence Minister in April 1957.
Sixty-three years later, India still suffers because of Nehru’s choice. One of the many blunders that he committed was to stop using the seniority system in the Army, replacing it with the so-called merit-based method of promotion; in fact, posting his favorites in positions where they should have never been. This eventually led to the resignation of the then Chief of Army Staff, General KS Thimayya.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of the wrongs committed by Defence Minster Menon at the time when the Chinese troops attacked India in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and in Ladakh. It was only after meeting Wing Commander Jag Mohan (Jaggi) Nath, the first of the six officers who have been twice decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), India’s second highest war-time military award, that I realised that the outcome of the 1962 war could have been completely different had India used its Air Force.
Nath received his first MVC for his role in reconnaissance missions between 1960 and 1962 over the Aksai Chin and Tibet. His missions proved immensely useful to learn everything about the Chinese military build-up on the Tibetan plateau. Unfortunately, the political leadership (first and foremost the Defence Minister) refused to believe the hard evidence gathered during of his sorties. After one of his missions over the Aksai Chin and Tibet, a message came that Nehru, Menon and their favorite General, Biji Kaul, wanted to be briefed about Nath’s reconnaissance sorties.
Along with former Air Vice Marshal DAM Nanda, the then Deputy Chief of the Air Force, Nath went to South Block to meet Menon. They were waiting outside the Minister’s room when Kaul came and he started talking non-stop: “I know, I know, these fellows [the Chinese] are there. They asked me to throw them back. I can throw them back, not a problem! But they will be back the next day. It has to be planned out properly.”
Nath was surprised that Gen Kaul would speak this way in front of a junior officer: “I was a low-level officer” but [Kaul] continued shouting: “You saw the Chinese soldiers.” I said, “Yes, sir, I saw them.” “OK, go to the Defence Minister”, he finally said.
Nanda and Nath finally landed up in Menon’s office. Nath recalled: “He did not ask anything”, he just said, “Did you see the Chinese soldiers?” I answered: “Yes sir, I saw them.” “That’s alright, you can go.” That was it. Nath concluded: “There was a total breakdown.”
In a secret report written as he was forced to resign in November 1962, the flamboyant Defence Minister wrote: “China is reported to have the third largest Air Force in the world. This may well be true.” Though Menon was aware of the fuel issue: “[China] had inadequate fuel capacity in terms of war requirements,” he ignored the findings of the brave airman, who explained: “If we had sent a few airplanes [into Ladakh or NEFA], we could have wiped the Chinese out and everything could have been different in the 1962 war. The political leadership did not believe me that China had no Air Force…” Unfortunately, the then Chief of Air Staff did not have the courage to put his foot down. This led to one of the greatest tragedies in India’s modern history. Mao had bluffed Nehru and it worked.
Another sad story about the 1962 episode was recounted by Lt Col (later Maj Gen) KK Tewari, the Commander of the Signal Regiment of the Corps based in Tezpur (Assam), responsible in the early 1960s for the Tawang sector of the NEFA. Tewari wrote: “On the 19th [October], Brig Dalvi [Commander of the 7th Infantry Brigade] talked to the General Officer Commanding [GOC] at Zimithang [near the Tibet border] on the telephone. He was pleading with the latter to let him move up to a tactically sound defensive position.” He described the existing position along the river where he had been ordered to stay by the Corps Commander [BM Kaul] before his departure for Delhi as a “death trap.” Brig Dalvi was told “not to flap but to obey orders and stay put. He was visibly upset and was very abrupt on the telephone to his boss. He passed the telephone to me.”
Tewari told the GOC that the Chinese were moving down the Thagla Ridge like ants. He could also see at least half a dozen mortars, which were not even camouflaged: “The Chinese could not be there for a picnic, their attack was imminent on a massive scale,” he added. But Dalvi and his men were told that they had been informed by the “higher authorities in Delhi” that the Chinese would not attack …at a time they had already attacked.
Today, though the trauma of the 1962 thrashing remains, many things have changed on the ground. The creation of a post of Chief of Defence Staff should go a long way in overcoming the complete lack of coordination between the three services experienced in 1962. This, however, will not absolve Nehru’s wrong choice of making Menon the Defence Minister, a post he occupied for five crucial years.
This article Wrong person at wrong time appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer