In the 2014 General Election, for the first time in independent India, a national party fielded a former Army chief as a parliamentary candidate. The unprecedented move gives an insight into the BJP’s thinking on politico-military relations. It is also to the credit of the BJP that they have formally recognised greater participation of the armed forces in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence, which augers well for politico-military relations under the new dispensation.
VK Singh’s commendable success at the hustings and his subsequent appointment as minister are matters of great pride for the armed forces and ex-servicemen. But his tweet against the the appointment of Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag as the next army chief by the defence minister was most inopportune. This incident has not only put a question mark on his political prudence but has also blemished the army’s image in front of the countrymen, who have a very high respect for the profession of arms. At this juncture, it would be appropriate to scan the historical spectrum of politico-military relations to draw some valid lessons.
In post-independent India, Pandit Nehru was most suspicious and wary of the armed forces. He was reluctant in accepting advice from the army headquarters (HQ) regarding deployment of troops in the Kashmir Valley, despite having secured the instrument of accession from Maharaja Hari Singh. It was only at the behest of Sardar Patel that the Indian troops were flown into the Valley. Subsequently, Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the UN, ignoring the advice of General Kulwant Singh who wanted a few more weeks to liberate Kashmir.
As early as 1951, some Chinese troops were apprehended with maps showing some parts of North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) as part of China. General KM Cariappa considered it his duty to caution the political leadership but the commander-in-chief was ridiculed by Nehru saying, “It is not for the Army to decide who the nation’s likely enemies would be!”
In 1950, the strength of the Indian army was about 5 lakh and in spite of vehement opposition from the army HQ, the then defence secretary and financial adviser succeeded in persuading the Cabinet to reduce it to 3 lakh. As soon as the process started, Pakistan started virulent propaganda of jihad against India to create a war-like situation. The army HQ wanted the First Armoured Division to be moved to Amritsar as a precautionary measure, but the prime minister did not agree. Finally, General Cariappa accompanied by the Chief of General Staff (CGS) Major General Thorat went to meet the President Dr Rajendra Prasad. He asked Nehru to re-examine the decision but he was in no mood to listen to the chief and said, “How can I take a war-like stance, when I am myself trying to maintain peace in the world?” It was only when General Thorat explained that if Pakistan decided to capture Amritsar, it would be impossible to send reinforcements, since there was only one bridge on the Beas, with limited capacity. Nehru grasped the situation and rescinded his earlier decision.
The country would not have faced such a humiliating disaster in 1962, had Nehru and his defence minister listened to the professional advice of Gen KS Thimayya and Lt General Thorat, and let the air chief use his force against the Chinese. Thimayya resigned in 1959 protesting against the arrogance of VK Menon. However, he was pacified by Nehru to withdraw his resignation, only to be ridiculed the next day in Parliament, calling the chief’s action as immature.
After this episode, Nehru called navy chief RD Katari and air chief Subroto Mukerjee to ascertain their views. Krishna Menon was very distressed at this and told Nehru that all the chiefs can resign and go home. “None of us is indispensable,” said Nehru, “but time is a vital factor. We need Thimayya but tame him along with the other service chiefs.” “Don’t let them take up a collective stand” was the final word of counselling.
Both Thimayya and Thorat opposed the ‘Forward Policy’, propounded by Krishna Menon, IB Director BM Mullick and General Brij Mohan Kaul, as being impracticable. In May 1961, when Thimayya retired, Thorat, who was a more professional and competent officer, was not promoted. Instead General Thaper was appointed as the chief and Kaul as the CGS. They were both more pliant and concurred with the concept of the ill-fated ‘Forward Policy’. It is ironic that only Mullick survived the aftermath of the humiliating 1962 defeat, whereas Menon, Thaper and Kaul had to resign in ignominy.
Merely three years later, in 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri competently led the country in the Indo-Pak War. He gave a free hand to Gen JN Chaudhuri, and allowed the troops to counter Pakistani infiltrators, by crossing the ceasefire line and capturing the strategic Haji Pir Pass. To checkmate Pakistan’s push towards Akhnoor, Shastri ordered the army to cross the International Border, and reached the outskirts of Lahore. Seeing this critical situation, the UN Security Council pressurised for a ceasefire. The prime minister asked Gen Chaudhuri whether India could possibly win the war if he were to hold off accepting the ceasefire for a while longer. The general advised him to accept the ceasefire as most of India’s frontline ammunition had been used up and the army had suffered considerable losses — an assertion that has not been authenticated by the official history. In this war, cooperation between the army and the air force was not up to the desired standard.
In 1971, India won a glorious victory against Pakistan under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. It was won singlehandedly, in the face of opposition and threats from a majority of the UN member states, including the US. It was the first, and only, occasion when the Indian political leadership exhibited a proper understanding of the use of military power for achieving a clear national aim. It is creditable to note that there was complete coordination between the armed forces, the ministers, the bureaucracy and the intelligence agency (RAW). The war effectively came to an end after the Eastern Command of the Pakistani armed forces signed the Instrument of Surrender on 16 December 1971, following which the independent state of Bangladesh was born. The history of this war has been a matter of study in many foreign countries and it is a must for all our political leaders to know the nuances of this war.
Operation Blue Star and Operation Pawan were miserable politico-military and intelligence failures. The complexion of Operation Blue Star would have been very different had Indira Gandhi heeded Lt General SK Sinha’s advice. The political leadership fell into the trap of the highly ambitious claims of the military leadership in finishing these operations in a matter of days.
Kargil operations were fought under totally different geostrategic circumstances. The political leadership laid an embargo that the troops were not to cross the LOC, despite other opinions to the contrary.
Political compulsions were given due consideration, and even then the war was successfully fought by the sheer grit and determination of young officers and soldiers, many of them making the supreme sacrifice of their lives.
What do we learn from this narrative? Political leaders must heed the professional advice of the military commanders and not promote pliant officers to the highest posts. The latter would be a sure recipe for disaster. On their part, the military leadership must be honest and forthright in giving the correct assessment of the situations to political masters in the best interests of the country, and the safety and security of the men they command.
Maj Gen (retd) Raj Kaushal is former Senior Specialist (Policy and Plans), National Disaster Management Authority