Art of Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Worrisome Tinkering with Defense Portfolio – Part III

Continued from “Defense Isn’t for Tinkering”

If ever there was a country where political ham-handedness recklessly frittered away, a winning hand that it had been dealt, and with astonishing regularity, that is post-Independence India. One enviable institution that the British built and bequeathed to free India was a well-trained professional army which, when called upon to serve the Republic, acquitted itself most creditably. Indeed, the 1962 War is an exception. However, the reasons for its poor performance then, were entirely on account of inept political leadership.

Right from the first war with Pakistan in 1947, our political leadership developed the art and craft of snatching embarrassing defeat from the jaws of hard-won victory. And that these repeated let-downs have not dented the professional performance of our armed forces does them proud. However, their political masters stubbornly refused to mend their ways. While elsewhere in the world such feats would be mocked at and every possible ignominy heaped on them, in our society, the perpetrators for such sordid deeds escape unscathed.

Once a war is on, the combatants have one and only one aim, namely, to fight to win and not a la Nehru to cringe and crawl before super powers to save us. While fighting a war, our creed should be in Churchill’s memorable rhetorical flourish “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. Yes, nations pay the price — howsoever formidable - to fight and fight to the finish. The enemy is enemy whosoever he may be. Don’t forget the Mahabharata War and the clarion call of Krishna on the battle field embodied in the Gita.

Indeed, Bhisma Pitamaha was the most venerable paterfamilias of the Kuru clan. But since without killing him the war won’t end, Krishna exhorted Arjun to be unsparing. Similarly, Dronacharaya was their respected teacher but he too had to be eliminated. Hence, the resort to a stratagem — however questionable - to kill him. Also, unfair indeed was the mode of killing Karan when he was trying to extricate the wheel of his chariot, but it stands justified to achieve the one overriding end of war i.e., to win it.

Nehru’s Distrust

Somehow, the bloodshed of the Mahabharata War and the spell of the Buddhist and Jain credo of ahimsa and the Gandhian emphasis on non-violent struggle, highly diluted - if no altogether destroyed – what’s popularly referred to as the killer instinct. Further compounding our lack of war-preparedness was Nehru’s distrust of our armed forces.

The supremacy of the political authority over the military establishment was a fait accompli by the time India became independent. Nehru, however, felt insecure and was distrustful of General Cariappa’s popularity who took over as the first army chief after 1947.

Field Marshal Cariappa’s son, Air Marshal K C Cariappa put on record in his book on his father how Jawaharlal Nehru had a lurking fear in the 1950s that General Cariappa would engineer a coup against him. So shaken was Jawaharlal by the constitutional coup in Pakistan in 1953, that he immediately packed the General off after his retirement, to the other end of the world i.e., as High Commissioner to Australia. The son records: “Father was perceived as being too popular, not only in the Army but among those in other walks of life too. Perhaps, there was a lurking suspicion that he might engineer a coup. Nothing could be further from truth.

Air Marshal Cariappa’s testimony is borne out by Field Marshal Manekshaw. Delivering the inaugural lecture on the all-important theme of leadership, Manekshaw turned to General Choudhury who had introduced him, and said:

General Choudhury, I thank you for the very kind words you spoke about me. You have told us all the good things that Field Marshal Cariappa has done. But one big thing that he did, you haven’t mentioned. He taught the Indian Army to be completely apolitical. Ours is one country, where soldiers have kept out of politics. I think that was the biggest achievement of Field Marshal Cariappa, the greatest service to this country. (Italics added.)

Nehru however had his own notions of political control. He kept armed forces completely out of the loop of decision-making and consultation in matters of national security. He merely expected unquestioning acquiescence to his orders like the one he issued to his favorite commander Lt. Gen. B M Kaul: “throw the Chinese out.” Hence the absence of any meaningful discussion with the top brass of armed forces in matters related to national security. The result was the growth of art and craft of how to snatch an embarrassing defeat from the jaws of victory.

May I illustrate my thesis by the following examples?

The Kashmir Mess

There can be no better example of shooting in one’s own foot than India’s ridiculously clumsy handling of the Kashmir issue in 1947 and thereafter. It is a sad tale of naiveté compounded by blinkered vision of a leadership that needed lessons in decision-making.

Hari Singh was the reigning monarch of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. He was a past master in fence-sitting. The Pakistani tribal marauders, duly backed by the Pakistan army, shook him up in October 1947. Unable to counter them, Hari Singh appealed to India for assistance and he agreed to accede to the Dominion of India. Indian forces blunted the invasion and wrested back vast areas.

First, India erred by not insisting on unequivocal accession of the state. Sheikh Abdullah who had carefully camouflaged ambitions to be the Sultan of Kashmir, manipulated Nehru into giving special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir through Article 370 of the Constitution. Secondly, when on the verge of evicting all invaders and recapturing the still-occupied parts of the State, India halted operations on 1 January 1949 in response to the UN Security Council resolution.

It is the only case in recent history wherein a country, when on the threshold of complete victory, voluntarily acceded in the misplaced hope of winning admiration of the world community, its own occupied territory. Above all, the most inept political leadership under the spell of a manipulating Governor General - Tricky Dicky as Mountbatten was called by perceptive observers - most shockingly, the Indian leadership made an offer of a plebiscite in Kashmir under the auspices of the UN.

Have a look at the map of the area. As much as 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. Later in 1963, Pakistan magnanimously ceded a significant chunk under its control to its political ally, China. Simultaneously, the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin while we slumbered.

As fallout of the unresolved dispute, India and Pakistan have fought four wars (if you include the Kargil operations too) and innumerable skirmishes with no solution in sight. Worse, the local politicians are holding India to ransom by playing the Pakistan card. Kashmir issue is a self-inflicted cancerous furuncle that defies all medications and continues to bleed the country.

Will Indian leadership ever have the courage to mount a surgical operation to eliminate the festering boil?

Capture of Aksai Chin

During the 1950s, China built a 1,200 km (750 mi) road connecting Xinjiang and western Tibet, of which 179 km (112 mi) ran south of the Johnson Line through the Aksai Chin region claimed by India. We did not even know about the existence of the road until 1957, which was confirmed when the road was shown in Chinese maps published in 1958.

For purposes of record, the Indian position was that the Aksai Chin was a “part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries” and that this northern border was a “firm and definite one which was not open to discussion with anybody”.

The Chinese maintain that the Aksai Chin was already under Chinese jurisdiction, and that negotiations should take into account the status quo. Incidentally, we had the first Government of India after Independence headed by Nehru, which didn’t know what precisely its frontiers were.

It is noted in Air Marshal Cariappa’s biography of his father, how a few years later, General Cariappa asked Nehru for the reason of the ceasefire. “You see the UN Security Council felt that if we go any further it may precipitate a war. So, in response to their request we agreed to a ceasefire,” Nehru added: “Quite frankly, looking back, I think we should have given you ten or fifteen days more. Things would have been different then.”

The book also mentions that in 1951, there were disquieting events in the North-Eastern region when Chinese troops were caught with maps showing some parts of North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) as part of China. Because the Army had no operational responsibility there, the region being under the Assam Rifles who were under the control of the Governor of Assam, General Cariappa brought this to the notice of Nehru only to be rebuked that “it is not for the Army to decide who the nation’s likely enemies would be!

Panchsheel Fetish

While ominous the Chinese threat was building momentum, Nehru was enamored of the much-trumpeted and least honored Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence - popularly known as Panchsheel - which are a set of principles to govern relations between states. (Their first formal codification in treaty form was in an agreement between China and India in 1954.) So obsessed was Nehru with Panchsheel that he completely forgot the distinction, enunciated be British historian E H. Carr, between realistic international policies versus utopian ones. Carr had argued that in realism there is no moral dimension, and that what is successful is right, and what is unsuccessful is wrong.

That Nehru’s international vision was completely blinkered was proved by the drubbing which we received at the hands of the Chinese in the 1962 war. One often overlooked fact of the Sino-Indian conflict is the utter docility of the armed forces to stand up to tell the political establishment that they weren’t prepared for an attack in October 1962. Field Marshal Manekshaw had the moral courage to confront the Indira Gandhi cabinet on April 28, 1971 to tell some blunt home truths about the situation. And that made the profound difference between the repeat of 1962 and the victory of December 1971.

Tashkent Agreement

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 exceedingly 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.

What did India get in return? A bland undertaking by Pakistan to abjure war! Even the unlettered villager knew Pakistan had no intention whatsoever to honor the undertaking. It was just a maneuver to wriggle out.

To add mystery to the whole process, Prime Minister Shastri died on 10th January, 1966 after signing the Tashkent Declaration with President Ayub Khan to return Haji Pir Pass to Pakistan. There are people who believe that the stress of being forced to take a very unpopular decision, under Soviet pressure, in all probability contributed to the fatal heart attack that Prime Minister Shastri had on that fateful night in January 1966.

Return of the vital Haji Pir pass was, strategically, a mistake of monumental proportions for which India is suffering till today. In addition to denying a direct link between Poonch and Uri sectors, the pass is being unabashedly used by Pakistan to sponsor infiltration of terrorists into India. Inability to resist Russian pressure was a manifestation of the spineless Indian foreign policy and an extremely short-sighted political leadership.

History, regrettably, is unforgiving. And since historical mistakes cannot be undone, they have complex cascading effect on a nation’s future. However, the wise ensure such mistakes are at least not repeated. We, on the contrary, repeat them with gay abandon.

Continued from “Heads I Lose, Tails You Win”   


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3397      Comments: 5

Comment Thanks for the continuing enlightenment Bali saab.

BS Murthy
23-Oct-2014 02:24 AM

Comment You assess the 'Five principles of Peaceful Co-existence' Nehru honoured as hopelessly idealistic. But war is always initiated in defence of principle, often expressed in a single sentence, the compulsive affection to act because principle is identified with life itself. This is evident in the more recent wars of the 20th century: it was in each case a defence of principle in a simple irrevocable term. Principle is upheld by each party in the context of a conflict of interests because principle is its life. The inherently good or evil principle is determined by what human life is identified as in each case. Principle is defined as good if it stands for all human life. The aspect of evil principle is pride of person or nation or religion that distinguishes itself from the rest – overruling the common principle of humanity. Since evil and good is defined by the principle of humanity, it is clear the latter is Divine. Unless humanity is identified with the Divinity it can never be respected in human beings.

22-Oct-2014 22:53 PM

Comment see one thing is right we lost in China war , but we should not forget that wars are not fought over impulses . you should have the rock heart . What gandhi taught was to learn peace in full. We most of Indian has taken it as symbol of cowardness. our past has taught and also Gandhi xchma shobhti uss bhujang ko jiske pass garal ho. When we are not strong in war time we can not blame our failures to the enemy s better skills. We have never been prepared by heart for a war ever we won by timely hard work of soilders. We must understand that chanakya said .shastren rakshite rastra shastra chintite pravertete. , only the countries who have better arms can follow the development of shastras and development . of people. We were miserably failing since independence. we are dependent on others for our arms as leaders get commissions in that. we are always poor performer for the war front. just imagine if Two formidable enemy attacks India , will we be able to sustain on the imported weapons . We need to develop private sector and self production in arms . only then we can meet the situations like 1962


21-Oct-2014 13:39 PM

Comment While I agree with the general thrust of your analysis, I am compelled to pause and wonder if what Nehru did to Gen. Cariappa wasn't really the calculated move of an astute politician. Going by the rising popularity of the General, Nehru, like Julius Caesar, might have thought "Yon Kariappa has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much; such men are dangerous". All said and done, if our defence forces are really apolitical today, I think the nation owes it to Nehru and the much-maligned Krishna Menon, who restructured the armed forces during the early post-independence days.

Nehru repeated the feat by making the Communists, particularly those of Kerala, toothless by luring them into the democratic bait of power through popular elections. The reds in India today believes in verbal revolution only thanks to Nehru.

Hope Modi will do the same with our current insurgents in the hinterlands.

I don't think we need to do tit for tat in relation to Pakistan and China. Why forfeit self-respect and behave like our unscrupulous opponents. We need to necessarily hold on to our principles, including panchsheela, and command respect using definite force, when and where required, by giving due role to the armed forces in decision-making. It is not our principles that have made us look ridiculous internationally. It is our lack of self-respect and inability to assert and act out our principles.

Hope Modi shows the way and makes us a self-respecting nation.

21-Oct-2014 01:39 AM

Comment Ever Since Lord Parshuram destroyed the Kshatriyas over & over again, Kshatriyas have been looked upon with suspicion by the indian ruling Brahmins. Since then,India has been short of Good Fighters & We have been defeated time & again because of this shortage.Even today,the Indian Establishment treats the Kshatriyas [ Armed Forces & Martial races ] with suspicion & keeps them away from Vital decisions on Defence & security..Only a true Kshatriya can Plan,Anticipate problems, boldly stand up to the politicians, Execute & win wars with finesse. They have the Killer instinct required to win a war.The Examples of Late Field Marshal Maneckshaw in 1971 & Lt.Genl.Harbaksh Singh in 1965 wars. India URGENTLY NEEDS TO BRING THE KSHATRIYAS BACK TO IMPORTANT DECISION MAKING IN DEFENCE,DEFENCE PRODUCTION & INTERNAL SECURITY etc otherwise we will keep on being wobbly & ham handed in war like situations.

20-Oct-2014 11:37 AM

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