Achilles’ Heel of Modi Government

Worrisome Tinkering with Defense Portfolio – Part I

Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
– Bob Dylon Lyric

Our pride in our cultural greatness and civilizational longevity persuades us to overlook our lamentable indifference to national security and strategic thinking. The famous observation of Talleyrand – Napoleon’s chief diplomatic aide – that they learnt nothing from history nor unlearnt a thing – is more applicable to us than to the Bourbons about whom he made this oft-quoted observation. What else – let’s candidly ask ourselves – is the explanation of our facing one foreign invasion after another, and not once or twice, but repeatedly, and for centuries? We seem to be endowed with the supreme gift of refusing to learn anything from history.

Allow me to cite another example. After repeated reverses in wars we continued all through our history to use elephant rather than the horse as a weapon of war? What is the explanation of our purblind faith in the delusive strength of the elephant which let us down with repeated regularity?

Forgetting Past

You forget at grievous cost the epic aphorism of George Santayana in Reason in Common Sense (p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason) “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Aren’t we a unique people who bitten not once – but for umpteen numbers of times – are not – forget what the adage has it, twice – even the least shy. We take each bite in our stride and move on as if nothing happened. If you you’ve any doubt, consider the following:

The most humiliating and disgraceful fact of our history is our steadfast refusal to learn from our humiliating past.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hails from Gujarat. He should know how in the early eleventh century, Mahmud of Ghazni launched seventeen expeditions into South Asia and unfailingly plundered Somnath temple in every trip with immunity.

These days the inauguration of the Nalanda University is in the news. Do we remember how the Nalanda complex was completely destroyed in 1193 by Afghan Khilji Muslims under Bakhtiyar Khalji. Its world-renowned library, containing lakhs of books and manuscripts, was set ablaze because with the One Book around, was there any need for any other. The fire smoldered for months consuming our invaluable heritage. If we knew how to defend ourselves, Nalanda, today, would have ranked as the oldest university in the world. Yes, the oldest. University of Bologna, deemed to be the oldest existing university, dates back to 1088, and Oxford the oldest in the English speaking world, was established in 1096 and Cambridge, much later in 1206. Harvard came up only in 1636.

As the fourteenth century was drawing to a close, Timur continuing his relentless march to Delhi arrived in 1398 to combat the armies of Sultan Mehmud who was in the thick of royal pastime called internal battle for ascension. The Sultan’s army was easily vanquished. In December1398 Timur entered Delhi and the city was mercilessly sacked, destroyed, and left in ruins. Before the battle for Delhi, Timur, the marauder, indulged himself by executing more than a lakh of Hindu captives.

What lesson did we learn from all this to defend ourselves?

The decay of the Mughal power saw a series of brutal invasions by the Persian adventurer, Nadir Shah. After his death, his Royal Guardsman Ahmed Shah Abdali – a Pashtun – embarked on a similar spree and forged one of the largest Muslim empires of the 18th century. The high point of his conquests was his victory over the supposedly powerful Marathas in the third Battle of Panipat in 1761.

Silver Lining

The only freak silver lining in the ominously dark and dense clouds, is the Sikh empire founded by that great ruler, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1819, Kashmir was conquered by Sikhs who registered another resounding victory over Afghan General Jabbar Khan. The Koh-i-Noor diamond was taken by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1814. In 1823 a Sikh Army routed Dost Mohammad Khan the Sultan of Afghanistan.

By 1834 the Sikh Empire extended up to the Khyber Pass. Hari Singh Nalwa the Sikh general remained the governor of Khyber Agency till his death in 1837. It was he who consolidated Sikh hold in tribal provinces. The northernmost Indian territories of Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh were annexed between 1831-1840. That’s something not just to be proud of but suitably commemorated so as to be remembered by generations to come.

Have we built a national memorial in honor of General Nalwa? He merely gets an obscure mention in tomes of history.

Dogra General Zorawar Singh Kahluria (1786-1841) was another great conqueror. He indeed left behind an enviable legacy of conquests in the Himalayas, including Ladakh, Tibet, Baltistan and Iskardu. Military historians have referred to him as “Conqueror of Ladakh” and the “Napoleon of India”.

To perpetuate the memory of the General Zorawar Singh’s association with Tibet, the Tibetans constructed a memorial in the shape of a chorten – equivalent of a Samadhi – wherein the remains of the dead General have been kept. Today, the Samadhi stands a mere heap of stones erected at a distance of a few kilometers from Taklakot in a secluded place. The Government, busy perpetuating the deeds of Nehru and his descendants had no time to get constructed a suitable memorial in the ever lasting memory of the great General, who created history.

How many of my readers are hearing the name of this great warrior who waged wars in high altitudes, for the first time? Somehow, we as a people have a notoriously short memory for those who did indeed do us proud in military history. I’ve run into a biographical account of the great warrior by a retired IAS officer, Sher Singh who wrote The Sikh Conquest of Ladakh and Tibet: 1834-40 A.D.

Shabby Treatment

Instead of honoring our military heroes we excel in treating them shabbily. Take the case of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. How disgracefully did we treat the only general who, in our chequered history, gave us, after a very long time, a decisive victory in the 1971 Bangladesh War? Every effort was made to deny the man what he was entitled to.

Yes, he was promoted to the rank of a Field Marshal. Though the Government could not take away his rank, it did take away everything else to treat him shabbily indeed. He retired in January 1973. Field Marshals get full pay and allowances till death. Manekshaw never got even the pension of the rank he held nor a house or a car to live after retirement. It took the Government of India – hold your breath tight – 36 years to decide his scale and entitlements. When he was in Military Hospital in June 2007 during his last illness suffering from complications of pneumonia, a babu from the Ministry of Defense called on him in the hospital to hand over a cheque of Rs. one crore sixty lakhs towards arrears of his entitlement. I don’t have the heart to print what he told the august functionary of a heartless system that presides over our destinies. Imagine, if you were Manekshaw how would have you reacted?

A few days later on June 27, 2007, he passed away. None of the VVIPs of Delhi – and India’s metropolis teems with them – was present at his funeral.

The custom has it that the ruling sovereign in England attends the funeral of every Field Marshal with the Prime Minister and Service Chiefs in tow. The President of India, the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister and the three Service Chiefs (obviously, on orders from above) were too busy to attend the last rites of India’s first Field Marshal. The Minister of State for Defense was the sole political representative. That’s how the political establishment chose to honor the victor of Bangladesh war – a great soldier who restored the ‘izzat’ of the Indian fauj after the debacle of the 1962 China war, and the honor of the motherland by instilling a sense of confidence in a de-moralized nation.

Wars Are Inevitable

Let’s not forget there have been wars and there will be wars. This was summed up in another memorable aphorism of Santayana: Only the dead have seen the end of the war. Three of the ten most costly wars, in terms of loss of life, have been waged in the last century. These are of course the two World Wars, followed by the Second Sino-Japanese War (which is sometimes considered part of World War II, or overlapping with that war). The death toll of World War II, being 60 million plus, surpasses all other war-death-tolls. (This is partly due to significant recent advances in weapons technologies.)

Since 1947, we have had three wars with Pakistan and one war with China. And today, what is happening on our northern borders may result in an armed conflict. Are we ready for it?

As a nation we should have turned a new leaf in 1947. Did we sit down to think afresh how to defend our territorial integrity after a hard-won freedom? Unfortunately, no. Not at all.

Most Casual Approach

Let us take the all-important issue of choosing Defense Ministers ever since Independence. Our overall approach can best be described by the term casual or perfunctory. The incumbent could be X or Y since it was a decorative position. Publicly iterating and reiterating its vital importance, we have all through been casual in our choice. No wonder therefore, the Narendra Modi government has conformed to the practice as it obtained over the years. In fact, he has gone too far. An ailing Arun Jaitley, in and out of hospital, has a dual charge: finance and defense. Can you imagine anything more weird than that? Each of his charges is more than full time assignment.

List of Incumbents

Here’s the updated list of all incumbents of our Defense Ministry before Prime Minister Modi allotted – supposedly for the time being – the all-important portfolio to Arun Jaitley which makes him the 35th incumbent to be followed shortly by the one likely to be announced sometime later. Heavens know, when? He will be our 36th Defense Minister. Thus we shall have 36 Defense Ministers in 66 years since Independence which yields an average tenure of 1.8 years per incumbent.

Incumbency Chart

The following is incumbency chart of India’s Defense Ministers which I’ve taken from the Defense Ministry’s official website.

Incumbency Chart of India’s Defense Ministers

1 Baldev Singh 15.08.1947 – 15.05. 1952
2 N. Gopal Swamy Ayangar 13.05.1952 – 10.02.1953
3 Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru 27.01.1953 – 10.01.1955
4 Dr. Kailash Nath Katjoo 10.01.1955 – 30.01.1957
5 Jawahar Lal Nehru 30.01.1957 – 17.04.1957
6 V.K. Krishan Menon 17.04.1957 – 01.11.1962
7 Jawahar Lal Nehru 01.11 1962 – 21.11.1962
8 Y.B. Chauhan 21.11.1962 –13.11.1966
9 Sardar Swarn Singh 13.11.1966 – 27.06.1970
10 Jagjivan Ram 27.06.1970 – 10.10 1974
11 Sardar Swarn Singh 10.10.1974 – 01.12.1975
12 Indira Gandhi 01.12.1975 – 21.12.1975
13 Bansi Lal 21.12.1975 – 24.03.1977
14 Jagjivan Ram 24.03.1977– 27.07.1979
15 Chidambaram Subramaniam 30.07.1979 – 14.01.1980
16 Indira Gandhi 14.01.1980 – 15.01.1982
17 R. Venketaraman 15.01.1982 – 01.08.1984
18 S. B. Chavan 01.08.1984 – 31.12.1984
19 P. V. Narasimha Rao 01.01.1985 – 24.09.1985
20 Rajiv Gandhi 24.09.1985 – 24.10.1987
21 V. P. Singh 24.01.1987 – 12.04.1987
22 K. C. Pant 18.06.1987 – 03.12.1989
23 V.P. Singh 06.12.89 – 10.11.1990
24 Chandra Shekhar 21.11.1990 – 20.06.1991
25 P. V. Narasimha Rao 21.06.1991 – 25.06.1991
26 Sharad Pawar 25.06.1991 – 05.03.1993
27 P.V. Narsimha Rao 05.03.1993 – 16.05.1996
28 Pramod Mahajan 17.05.1996 – 31.05.1996
29 Mulayam Singh Yadav 31.05.1996 – 19.03.1998
30 George Fernandes 19.03.1998 – 15.03.2001
31 Jaswant Singh 16.03.2001 – 14.10.2001
32 George Fernandes 15.10.2001 – 22.05.2004
33 Pranab Mukherjee 23.05.2004 – 24.10.2006
34 A.K. Antony 24.10.2006 – 26.05. 2014
35 Arun Jaitley 05.26.2014 – Temporary Charge

And here’s the list of Defense Ministers in China since mid-1950’s

List of Defense Minister in China

1 Marshal Peng Dehuai Sep 1954 – Apr 1959
2 Marshal Lin Biao Apr 1959 – Sep 1971
3 Marshal Ye Jianying Jan 1975 – Mar 1978
4 Marshal Xu Xiangqian Mar 1978 – Mar 1981
5 Geng Biao Mar 1981 – Jun 1983
6 General Zhang Aiping Jun 1983 – Mar 1988
7 General Qin Jiwei Mar 1988 – Mar 1993
8 General Chi Haotian Mar 1993 – Mar 2003
9 General Cao Gangchuan Mar 2003 – Mar 2008
10 General Liang Guanglie Mar 2008 – Mar 2013
11 General Chang Wanquan Mar 2013 – Incumbent

The average tenure of eleven incumbents works out 5.5 years against our 1.8 years. You draw your own conclusions how seriously defense-minded are we. Again, take the concept of defense diplomacy which broadly represent as the peaceful application of resources from across the spectrum of defense, to achieve positive outcomes in the development of a country’s bilateral and multilateral relationships. Even Pakistan is far ahead of us in this area.

Continued to "Defense Isn’t for Tinkering"


More by :  H.N. Bali

Top | Analysis

Views: 3407      Comments: 6

Comment Your analysis couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. The manner in which the defence portfolio (and other important ones) was handled by political leadership in the country has come in for sharp criticism on various occasions. This carries particular significance at a time when our hostile neighbour makes it up at the border even when it loses a hockey match with India. The typical casual manner in which the present Govt is dealing with the defence portfolio is rather amazing. Initial reports said that Arun Jaitley would hold additional charge of defence for a month or two. By any reckoning, can a finance minister be over-burdened with defence in the first place? There are no ‘coalition compulsions’ here, nor is the PM answerable to a super-boss unlike in the previous dispensation. Like we had the ‘Hindu Rate of Growth’ in the 70’s and 80’s, this can be termed as yet another Hindu way of succumbing to the philosophy of tolerance as we are taught from childhood. Seldom did we as a nation stand up to an aggressor; we often take it into our stride and are happy with the aphorism of God punishing the wrongdoer. Can we continue to be in the habit of the other guy deciding our fate? I am optimistic that the present regime would rise to the occasion and take urgent corrective steps to give a new orientation to replace our outmoded ways of handling things.

11-Oct-2014 06:55 AM

Comment Excellent analysis.
Our politicians are NO different from the likes of Abdalis, Nadir Shahs etc., only interested in looting and amassing wealth(Laloos, Chautalas, J Lalitha-------!). They have NO long term vision but only short term goal-COLLECT wealth.

Lt Col Paramjit Singh,Veteran
09-Oct-2014 22:22 PM

Comment Sam is still with us. A history maker. Alas, we live in India!

09-Oct-2014 06:53 AM

Comment Addressing the repeated invasion of India by foreign, predominantly Muslim powers, that to you shows up the weakness of Indian defence of its establishment transposed as a national trait, which diagnosis I disagree with, the clue lies in the latter term, 'establishment'. The powerful Roman Empire was widespread in its establishment, was quite capable of defence, yet it was brought down by the Huns who had no establishment which the Romans could effectively counter-attack. Instead, Roman towns were overrun by marauding hordes out of the blue with no comeback. Herein is the clue of invasion by forces that succeed: the vulnerability of establishment to unexpected assault, with the invaders taking all but having nothing to take from. The modern equivalent is the terrorist organisation that can bring down the Twin Towers in New York - but New York cannot retaliate because the terrorists have no land-based establishment to counter-destroy. So New York has to implicate powers that do have a territorial establishment, Iraq, and bomb them.

The great mistake of establishment powers in the past like Germany and Japan was to wage war against countries that could hit them back because they had an establishment in bricks and mortar in a specific laocation. Thus in today's world, increasingly so, it is terrorist powers with no establishment base in a location, but those of their sponsors who acquire invulnerability to assault from other establishment powers, that wreak all the havoc associated with war. War against terrorism is not one that inhibits the terrorist unless its base can be identified within what is inevitably an established power, and its ‘cells’ counter-attacked, be it a residence in Pakistan as was the case for Bin Laden.

In India's case, defence is only a spectre in the mind, no Achilles heel, since both China and Pakistan will think twice of attacking what seems like the open expanse that is India, because they too are establishments, counter-vulnerable. War will always be in the nature of a skirmish that quickly is resolved by a truce, and in time avoided for that reason.

On a somewhat amusing note, the African asylum seekers causing such disruption in the French coastal town of Calais, brazenly and in broad daylight, and with an acquired method of entering container lorries headed for English Dover through the channel tunnel, do so at no loss to themselves, and sustain their exploits because the establishment at the locus of the problem cannot cope, least of all by retaliatory methods. Stepping back, one could see this as the asylum seekers defeating the might of establishment France! - but in a historical context, a demonstration of the invasion method.

07-Oct-2014 13:04 PM

Comment What an insightful and well researched piece! Indeed efforts must be made to rectify these slights to the very people we owe our freedom to, the un-named, overlooked brave Indian solider who dies so that we may live as free men and women. More so defense of the nation needs to be given the importance it deserves. Even as I write, Indians are routinely being killed in unprovoked cross border firing and we are content in simply threatening stern action. Will it be too little too late?

Madhavi Irani
07-Oct-2014 07:18 AM

Comment Mr H.N.Bali,
Your article is superb and has information for the likes of me who loves history. There are many failed policies of the past governments of our country but have no answers, perhaps, they were left in the cupboards to gather dust.

Nay, I would be considered naive if I am to say that there are new problems. The problems are with us since time immemorial but even if our each and every succeeding governments knew about it, their apt answers would be ..."that was then and this is now"...Oh yes, Mr Minister this is now and see whats happening in J&K now and the internal turmoil too.

We cannot be traditionally myopic.

Your take on SAM MANEKSHAW is SAD and have dismayed me tremendously. We are treating these great soldiers as parasites deliberately forgetting that it has always been THEM FIRST who guards and lay down their LIVES for our country.

Well done Mr H.N.Bali and looking forward to your next PART.....PART 2.


Syed Nazimur Rahman

syed nazimur rahman
06-Oct-2014 02:36 AM

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