Army chief row - Will history repeat?
The real issue is the state and morale of the defense forces, not the leaked letter or petty politics. Fifty years ago, demoralization and neglect of the armed forces by Nehru and Krishna Menon led to national humiliation in the 1962 China war.
“History does not repeat itself,” it is famously said, “but fools repeat history.” Philosopher-poet George Santayana put it slightly differently when he wrote— “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
To those old enough to remember the events leading to India’s humiliation in 1962—and both Manmohan Singh and A.K. Antony are old enough—these famous quotes have a familiar ring in our own time, especially in the controversy over the army chief General V.K. Singh’s difficulties with the government. More than fifty years ago, in 1959 to be exact, General Thimmayya, the savior of Kashmir had handed his resignation to Prime Minister Nehru protesting Defense Minister V.K. Krishna Menon‘s refusal to consider his plans for preparing the Army for the forthcoming Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. Nehru refused to accept it and persuaded him to withdraw his resignation. However, little action was taken on Thimmayya’s recommendations and he soon retired.
When Thimmayya’s term as army chief ended, Nehru and Menon ignored Thimmayya’s recommendation to make General Thorat the army chief, preferring to appoint Pran Nath Thapar. Where Thorat was known as a ‘fighting general’ in the mould of Patton and Rommel, Thapar was known to be politically well connected, related to Nehru by marriage. (He was the uncle of historian Romila Thapar and TV journalist Karan Thapar’s father.) Thanks to family connections, another political general Brij Mohan Kaul was appointed commander of the Indian forces in the vital northeast sector. Kaul was to earn eternal infamy by running away from the battlefield to get himself admitted to a Delhi hospital when the Chinese attacked in 1962.
Nehru and Menon had no interest in national defense. They saw their positions not as guardians of India but a platform for projecting and preaching their utopian ideas to the world. Above all they, especially Nehru wanted to impress Westerners. In 1948, he ignored Thimmayya’s advice and took Kashmir to the United Nations. At the same time he rejected General Cariappa’s advice to develop the infrastructure in the northeast. He listened instesd to the advice of a British missionary called Verrier Elwin who said that the northeast should be kept primitive to preserve tribal cultures. Elwin pretended to be interested in tribal welfare, but it was only a pretext to exploit them, especially the young girls. He married and divorced at least two tribal girls much younger than himself. He was a Nehru favorite!
It is not widely known that India was offered a permanent seat in the Security Council when the United Nations was formed. Nehru rejected it insisting that Mao’s China should be given the seat before India. Even when China occupied Tibet in 1950, which was then independent with close ties to India, Nehru ignored the danger and spent his time over the Korean War. Menon even defended the Chinese action claiming that it would never attack India!
(Personal sidelight: I heard the following story from the famous astrologer the late B.V. Raman whom I used to know quite well though I don’t follow astrology. In spite of their ‘rationalist’ exterior, both Menon and Nehru used to consult him— Menon directly, but Nehru surreptitiously through his emissary the late Gulzarilal Nanda. Dr. Raman predicted that Menon would soon lose his cabinet position and also China would attack India. Menon dismissed him saying, “You may be right about my losing my position, but China will never attack India because we are both socialist countries.” Is this also not a form of superstition? For the record, China later had border wars with both the Soviet Union and Vietnam.)
Coming to the specifics over the controversy involving the army chief V.K. Singh, he has done a great service to the nation by exposing the corruption. What else should he have done? Keep quiet while pocketing the money? Also, the army chief’s leaked letter to the PM has highlighted serious deficiencies in defense preparedness. Should this also be kept hidden from the public just to protect incompetent and dishonest officials and politicians? Going back fifty years, when the Sino-Indian war started, it was found that our soldiers in the Himalayas didn’t even have winter clothing. There were many non-combat deaths due to frostbite and cold but Nehru and Menon had neglected basic needs. Should we not learn from that sad history?
Some vested interests have been targeting General V.K. Singh for months. First it was his date of birth which should have been an internal matter, and now this. Why? Because, General Singh is known to be very strict; and totally against corruption and irregularities. This comes in the way of people interested in making money in defense contracts. They want him out of the way as soon as possible.
Krishna Menon is widely regarded as a Communist ideologue disinterested in money matters. This ignores the fact that Menon presided over the first scam of Independent India. While serving as Indian High Commissioner in London, he ignored established government procedures to sign a deal worth Rs 80 lakh—then an enormous amount—with a foreign firm for the purchase of army jeeps. While most of the money was paid up front, only about 150 jeeps were delivered even though the contract was for many times more. (Each jeep cost the government more than Rs 53,000, which was at least ten times the market value.) But Prime Minister Nehru forced the government to accept them. In the face of the scandal, Nehru inducted Menon into the cabinet, who soon became the second most powerful minister after Nehru.
Because the amounts involved in defense contracts are so large kickbacks and corruption have always been part of defense procurement in all countries. With the coming of Rajiv Gandhi it was taken to a new level.
The Bofors paradigm
The Bofors scam in which the Gandhi family and Sonia Gandhi’s close friend and business associate Ottavio Quattrocchi enriched themselves beyond their wildest dreams marks a watershed in modern India. The corruption was not without precedent, and the scale was to be surpassed in our time. But what Bofors represents is a shift in the way Indian politicians and bureaucrats began to look at defense needs. It was no longer to protect the nation, but a mammoth procurement bazaar in which huge profits can be made through kickbacks and commissions.
So beginning with the Gandhi-Quattrocchi partnership, more attention was given to procurement and spending than analyzing defense needs. With notable exceptions like Dr. Abdul Kalam and the late Raja Ramanna (a nuclear physicists), there was little discussion about defense policy much less strategy or doctrine. Politicians and bureaucrats couldn’t care less about military strategy or defense needs as long as opportunities existed for kickbacks in defense procurements. This factor should be kept in mind as we look at the outrage expressed by politicians over General V.K. Singh’s revelation that he was offered a large bribe to approve substandard army vehicles.
It is a sign of this state of affairs that even today India has no military doctrine. Does anyone recall a debate in the parliament over military doctrine or strategy? The media is no different. For all the hoopla over Gen Singh’s revelation and the leaked letter, the media is talking more about the scam than its implications for national security. It is no different with the politicians. During the recent elections, did Rahul Gandhi or anyone else talk about security or threats to the nation? Did anyone in the media raise it? All we saw were family exhibits— Rahul in his beard, Priyanka (without one), her husband until finally her little children.
Kautilya on king’s duty
Excerpts from the letter from the army chief V.K. Singh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have appeared in newspapers. The letter raised serious questions about important matters relating to national defense. The PM apparently ignored the army chief’s, and possibly the Defense Minister’s concerns. Knowing the strict protocol followed in the army, one can be certain that Defense Minister Antony was fully aware of Gen Singh’s letter and had approved it. This suggests that the leak was probably deliberate, and came from the defense ministry frustrated at the Prime Minister’s indifference with regard to national security.
We are constantly being told that Dr Manmohan Singh is personally honest though he is presiding over the most corrupt government in modern Indian history. What good is personal honesty when public officials under him are allowed to plunder and loot? After all it was this ‘personally honest man’ who allowed the swindler Ottavio Quattrocchi to get away with his loot. Above all, he has neglected national security. There is no greater duty than preserving the nation’s freedom. The PM Manmohan Singh may not worry about it, but more than 2000 years ago, the greater thinker Kautilya reminded his king of his duty.
Here are excerpts of a letter written by Kautilya to Emperor Chandragupta. I am grateful to Sri Krishan Kak for bringing it to my attention. The wording may not be exact, but still contains enough wisdom for the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister to read and benefit from. (Their masters in 10 Janpath would benefit too, but they lack the literacy to read it, let alone appreciate its perennial wisdom.) Kautilya discretely but firmly reminded the king that his safety and security as well as of his empire depend on the trust and sacrifice of his soldiers.
“The Mauryan soldier does not the Royal treasuries enrich nor the Royal granaries fill. He does not carry out trade and commerce nor produce scholars, littérateurs, artistes, artisans, sculptors, architects, craftsmen, doctors and administrators. He does not build roads and ramparts nor dig wells and reservoirs. He does not do any of this directly.
“The soldier only and merely ensures that the tax, tribute and revenue collectors travel forth and return safely; that the farmer tills, harvests, stores and markets his produce unafraid of pillage; that the trader, merchant and financier function and travel across the length and breadth of the realm unmolested; that the savant, sculptor, maestro and mentor create works of art, literature, philosophy and astrology in quietitude; that the architect designs and builds his Vaastus without tension; that the tutor and the priest teach and preach in peace; that the rishis meditate in wordless silence; that the doctor invents cures and medicines undisturbed; that the mason and bricklayer work unhindered; that the mother and the wife go about their chores and bring up children in harmony and tranquility; that the cattle graze freely without being lifted or stolen.
“Pataliputra reposes each night in peaceful comfort, O King, secure in the belief that the distant borders of Magadha are inviolate and the interiors are safe and secure, thanks only to the Mauryan Army standing vigil with naked swords and eyes peeled for action, day and night, in weather fair and foul, all eight praharas (round the clock), quite unmindful of personal discomfort and hardship, all through the year, year after year.
“While the citizenry of the State contributes to see that the State prospers and flourishes, the soldier guarantees it continues to EXIST as a State! To this man, O Rajadhiraja, you owe a debt: please, therefore, see to it, on your own, that the soldier continuously gets his dues in every form and respect, be they his needs or his wants, for he is not likely to ask for them himself.”
Then Kautilya, known also as Chanakya gave his king this blunt warning: “The day the soldier has to demand his dues will be a sad day for Magadha for then, on that day, you will have lost all moral sanction to be King!”
If the Indian state has been reduced to this condition, its people don’t deserve to be defended by soldiers willing to lay their lives down for the country. Why fight and defend a government and a people who don’t care for them?
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