“The safety, honour and welfare of the country comes first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command comes next and your own ease, comfort and safety come last always and every time.” These lines are just not engraved in the central hall of the Indian Military Academy but also inscribed in the minds of every officer passing out from the academy.
The Indian soldier – especially the officer corps – is unmatched in bravery and tactical innovation. The high ratio of officers killed in India’s wars shows that the officers are leading from the front. This naturally inspires the NCOs and soldiers on the battlefield to emulate their leader and achieve the nation’s military objectives.
However, the Indian Army has failed on several occasions because of poor leadership at the higher level. This happens because too often the political leadership sidelines brilliant commanders (like General Kodandera Thimayya) and finds yes men (like General Pran Nath Thapar), which leads to a less than satisfactory ending to India’s wars. On numerous occasions, gains made by Indian soldiers on the battlefield were frittered away on the negotiating table. The Army is a key pillar of the Indian republic and cannot allow this to happen because, as Carl Von Clausewitz wrote, “War is an extension of diplomacy by other means.” If we win wars and then surrender captured territory and POWs without gaining anything except a false promise of good behaviour, then why fight the war in the first place?
To illustrate the leadership crisis, let’s take a deep dive into four conflicts in which the Indian Army played a pivotal role.
1962 War: Himalayan Blunder
In 1951, the Chief of the Army Staff, General KM Cariappa, apprised Nehru of the growing Chinese threat across the Himalayas. The Prime Minister chided Cariappa: “It is not the business of the Commander-in-Chief to tell the PM who is going to attack us where. In fact, the Chinese will defend our NEFA frontier. You mind only Kashmir and Pakistan.”
While China was building roads into Tibet and preparing for an invasion with more than 80,000 troops, Nehru and his sidekick Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon kept misinforming Indians and lied to Parliament that China had only peaceful intentions.
The Army’s pleas to give it the weapons needed to defend India were harshly rebuffed by Nehru and Krishna Menon, who acted more like China’s Defence Minister. A pliant officer like General Thapar – with little warfighting skills and completely ignorant of the situation – was promoted to the position of Chief of the Army Staff, supplanting the more capable and charismatic General Thimayya, who was humiliated and forced to resign for highlighting China’s aggressive intentions and harsh diplomatic language which even a child could have seen were not friendly.
The Chinese invasion caught India completely unprepared. When the war broke out on 8 September 1962, Nehru was away from India. The commander of IV Corps, General B.M. Kaul, was not on the front lines and had checked himself into the Military Hospital at Delhi.
In order to negate the impression that the political leadership was neglecting the frontline, Nehru and Krishna Menon positioned small numbers of poorly equipped soldiers – with zero backup – in areas contested by the Chinese. For instance, at an exposed mountain outpost in Aksai Chin, 60 Jat soldiers were positioned against 2,000 Chinese troops. These troops fought bravely and killed a large number of Chinese soldiers but were eventually devoured by the Dragon.
Lesson: Thimayya chose to go down silently in the traditions of the apolitical Indian Army. But the patriotic thing to do would have been to go to the press and expose Nehru and his cronies before the nation. Just one press conference by the General would have shown the nation – and the world – how the Prime Minister was appeasing the Chinese dragon while sacrificing India’s interests. This would have confirmed the opposition’s charges that Nehru was indeed neglecting India’s defence. Shamed and exposed, Nehru would have had no choice but to strengthen the Himalayan defences on a war footing.
1965 War: Misinformed Army Chief
During the peak of the 1965 India-Pakistan War, with a Pakistani armoured corps crossing the border into Indian Punjab, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri, ordered General Harbaksh Singh to withdraw behind Amritsar and virtually surrender half of Punjab to the invading Pakistanis. Singh refused and asked the Army chief to provide the order in writing. Chaudhuri did not have the courage to do so, and Singh dug in for the fight, which resulted in over 200 Pakistani tanks being destroyed at Khem Karan. It turned out to be the biggest tank battle after the Battle of Kursk (1943), and Khem Karan became famous as Patton Nagar after the numerous enemy tanks left burning or abandoned in the fields.
Worse, Chaudhuri provided wrong information to Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, saying India should stop fighting because the Army was low on ammunition although India still had ammunition to fight for 22 more days. In contrast, Pakistan only had supplies for four more days. The Indian Army had already reached the outskirts of Lahore and Sialkot, so if the war had continued another week, both cities could have been captured. In the end, when the ceasefire was declared, the Army was denied an outright victory.
Shastri also surrendered the crucial Haji Pir pass which was won after a superhuman fight by Indian soldiers. Today it is the most used route for infiltration by Pakistani terrorists. The Army should have privately told the Prime Minister that soldiers would rebel if the pass was handed back to Pakistan.
Lesson: General Chaudhuri’s mentors were the Sandhurst-educated British generals – who had utterly failed before the Germans and Japanese during World War II. Sadly, he also lacked war-fighting qualities. In his book, ‘1965 War: The Inside Story’, former Maharashtra chief secretary R.D. Pradhan writes: “He was so good on paper that Chavan often wondered how good he would be in warfare. Chavan wrote in his war diary that during the war Chaudhuri would frequently lapse into depression. Each time the Indian Army suffered a setback, the general would walk dejected into the Defence Minister’s room, and Chavan had to give him a pep talk. The British-trained officers in the Indian Army had a defensive mentality and lacked the aggression required to achieve breakthroughs. It’s the element of surprising and daring that wins wars, and few generals in the Indian Army possessed that in 1965. Clearly, a general like Chaudhuri who lacked courage – and critical information – should never have been allowed to hold the top job.
1971 War: Frittering away strategic gains
More than 93,000 Pakistani POWs were allowed to walk free after being kept in Indian camps near Delhi for over a year and half. They were housed in Indian officers’ flats while the Indian soldiers and officers and their families slept in tents. Even more shocking was the fact that in the first few days after they surrendered in East Pakistan, the Pakistani soldiers were allowed to keep their weapons – an act that is unprecedented in military history. The reason was that Bengalis – who had suffered a horrendous genocide under the Pakistan Army – were seeking revenge, and India wanted to deter the Bengalis from having a go at the Pakistani POWs.
An outcome of allowing Pakistani soldiers to retain their personal weapons was that at least one Indian officer (of colonel rank) was shot dead by a Pakistan soldier inside a POW camp, following a scuffle. Yet, not one Pakistani was tried for war crimes, although they had killed 30 lakh Bengalis and raped 400,000 Bengali women. This was a case of the Indian Army completely abdicating its responsibility after winning the war. Compare this with the Nuremberg trials where General Eisenhower made sure most of the top Nazi war criminals were either executed or given long sentences. General VK Singh writes in ‘Leadership in the Indian Army’ that many Indian POWs were tortured and blinded before being shot by their Pakistani captors.
And yet all this Indian generosity was misplaced and spurned. Pakistani POWs told their Indian captors that they would never forget this humiliation and take revenge one day.
Here’s an instance of the lack of Shatrubodh among some Indian commanders. On December 17, after the Indian Army smashed the Pakistani Army near Khulna, Brigadier Hayat of the Pakistan Army offered to surrender. When he saw that his opponent was Brigadier Tiwari, he said, “Are you Tiwari?” Tiwari recognised his old batchmate and roommate and replied, “Abey Hayat, tum yahan kaise?”
Tiwari and Hayat hugged each other and cried. (Or at least Tiwari cried genuine tears of joy at seeing his old batchmate. Hayat cried crocodile tears to win clemency for his war crimes.)
Meanwhile, the Bengali Mukti Bahini guerrillas who had seen their country up in flames; their wives, sisters and mothers raped; their old fathers bayoneted; and their children smashed against walls, were undoubtedly shocked and saddened by such a naked display of affection for these genocidal maniacs. Having fought shoulder to shoulder with the Indian Army they saw these Indian officers offering tea to the tormentors of the Bengalis, and later at night sipping whiskey and sharing jokes.
This batchmate bonhomie – and the refusal of Indira Gandhi to try the 93,0000 Pakistani POWs for war crimes – was the chief reason why the Bangladeshis turned against India.
Had India allowed the Mukti Bahini to conduct reprisal attacks on the Pakistani soldiers (and conducted a Nuremberg-style tribunal and hangings of the most barbaric of the officers and soldiers) Pakistan and Bangladesh would have become permanent enemies. By allowing the Pakistanis to get away without being punished for their war crimes, India too became a party to those crimes.
Also, the strategic Haji Pir was captured yet again on the western border and surrendered a second time.
Lesson: The Indian Army needs to take executive action against POWs in future wars instead of behaving like magnanimous kings. They should not blindly obey the orders of the political leadership which may want to hide the atrocities committed by the enemy. The surrender of strategic posts and areas must not happen again.
1984 Golden Temple fiasco
This was classic 1962 all over again – the PM bypassing the army chief and asking his No.2 for opinion, leading to a major disaster.
When Indira Gandhi asked Chief of Army Staff AS Vaidya about using the army against the Khalistani terrorists hiding inside the temple, he advised against it, because of several reasons: the Indian Army had never attacked a religious place in its history; it would disturb the communal harmony of the Indian Army; it was like using a hammer against a fly; it would lead to civilian casualties.
However, Mrs Gandhi asked the chief of Western Command K. Sundarji who, against protocol, was in the same room as the COAS and the PM. Sundarji said he would liberate the place in hours. This was just what the Prime Minister wanted to hear and she overruled Vaidya.
The army attacked on a full moon night when the terrorists could easily pick out the soldiers (dressed in black) against the white marble floors and walls. As many as 83 soldiers died in the first assault. (In comparison, when a force of 4,000 Pakistani troops and 200 tanks attacked a company of 200 Indians at Longewala, only 2 Indian soldiers died in a battle that raged all night.)
Worse, the Army went to attack on the birth anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev when the temple had many pilgrims, leading to scores of civilian casualties.
Lesson: The Army Chief’s advice is not mere opinion but is based on decades of experience and assessment of the situation on the ground. The PMO should not have bypassed him. Vaidya made a blunder by allowing the ambitious Sundarji to be in the same room as the Prime Minister.
As in the past, in the future too India will face high-intensity, short-term wars. At the same time, going by the trend of radicalised elements rioting across the country, civil conflicts are expected to grow in various pockets around the country, and the Army may find itself deployed more often in internal peacekeeping duties. In view of this double-barrel threat, the Army needs to become more politically aware and become an advisor to the government rather than become a tool the political class can wield at will.
For the Army (and other forces) to play a more useful role in conflict resolution, there should be induction of retired generals and commanders into the political establishment – both at the centre and in states. For, they are in a better position to advise the government on conflicts. After all, when it comes to national security shouldn’t we employ professionals rather than career politicians?
Failing this, we will again face situations as in 1957, where Congress politician and diehard Gandhian JB Kripalani asked the government to disband the Army because according to him the followers of Mohandas Gandhi must not wage war. Five years later, after the Chinese overran unprepared Indian defences, Kripalani asked Nehru and Krishna Menon to resign for not providing the Army with weapons. Clearly, war is too serious a matter to be left to politicians.
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda