Dressing up military history in fatigues

Shekhar Gupta
Saturday, 5 May 2018

Over the decades, a spiced up, hyper-nationalist version of military history has been built: That politicians wronged the generals. No wonder PM Modi got his facts all mixed up.

The Prime Minister mixing up military history is between him and his aides. If only they had checked Wikipedia they would have known that (then) Gen KM Cariappa (not Thimayya) became the first Indian Army chief on 15 January 1949 and that is the reason it is celebrated as Army Day. Cariappa was just 50 (born 1899) when he took over. They made much younger chiefs then.

That history can get you in a twist partly because of rapid developments that were overlapping and intertwined. For clarity: both Indian and Pakistani armies were led by British commanders through the 1947-48 campaign. They often exchanged notes with each other as the fighting went on.

 A picture of Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrintAs if that wasn’t complicated enough, the operations on both sides were handed over to ‘native’ commanders dealing directly with the political leadership. India picked Cariappa to lead the Kashmir campaign. Then a Lt Gen, he was made to head the Delhi and East Punjab command. He promptly renamed it the Western Command.

Confusion arises because Cariappa, in turn, hand-picked a fellow Coorgi, Maj Gen KS Thimayya; coincidentally, the initial “K” in both their names stands for Kodandera, their common clan. Cariappa sent Thimayya to command the Kashmir (later 19th) division which did the crucial fighting in the early months. Coorgis (or Kodavas) are a small and super-successful ethnic group. In the 1950s, these names were both unfamiliar and similar-sounding. Both worked together, earned well-deserved heroism in the Kashmir campaign, and became chiefs.

Thimayya, unlike Cariappa (whose defence minister was the genial Sardar Baldev Singh, whose name preceded Santa-Banta for the good-hearted joke industry) had run-ins with his defence minister VK Krishna Menon. Menon, a deep-crimson Communist, detested the starched, anglicised Army brass. Thimayya had no patience for his minister’s constant interference. The late Inder Malhotra, among the finest chroniclers of those years, recounted the delightful story of how Thimayya once wanted to take leave to avoid another inevitable face-off with Menon and his aide asked him what should he mention as the reason. “Just say I have a touch of Menongitis,” Thimayya said. Thimayya resigned in angry protest in 1959, only to be persuaded by Nehru to withdraw and complete his term in 1961.

All this, and the quaint Coorgi coincidence, can confuse ordinary folk. But how can it also get the Prime Minister and his office mixed up? We might have a plausible hypothesis.

Our history of 25 years after independence is marked with wars, large ones with Pakistan (1947-48, ’65 and ’71) and China (1962), and small ones in Hyderabad (1948), Goa (1960) and China again in Sikkim’s Nathula, 1967. Barring 1971, none of the major ones was a clear Indian victory. 1962 was a clear defeat, ’65 was a tired stalemate and ’47-’48 is unfinished business. A belief-set has been consistently built through decades by the political class that the Army could have done much better if it wasn’t let down by political leaders of the day.

To say that the politicians swallowed this poison to cover for the armed forces is an oversimplification but only because they had no choice. These were the postcolonial world’s perilous decades. Democratic institutions were still forming and the armies were taking over, notably next door. The political class, led by Nehru, had many anxieties when civil-military equations were still evolving. The challenge was establishing civilian/political pre-eminence. At the same time, a civil-military tension was to be avoided. Small fact: Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan, who grabbed power in Pakistan in 1958, had served as a Colonel under Cariappa in his brigade in the Frontier.

A strategic doctrine of politico-military story-telling, therefore, was built over these years: That the armed forces and their commanders could do no wrong. All blame for setbacks, or a lack of success, was to be taken by politicians. Of course, success would be shared, as Indira Gandhi did after 1971. This hasn’t changed since. Kargil, 1999, was more a failure of military leadership than of the Vajpayee government. How did the Pakistanis manage to come in so deep, dig in across such a large frontier, undetected? Once again, a convenient (but necessary) mythology was created. The blame was parked with civilian intelligence, very few in the Army leadership were called to account, and all we now remember are stories of heroism and victory. Because the doctrine of quarantining the armed forces from any criticism was, and is, vital. Armed forces have institutional continuity, so blaming individual leaders would bring the entire institution into disrepute. Politicians will come and go, usually replaced and always criticised by rivals.

Probably the most authentic account of these fateful decades is in a recent publication: ‘Army and nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence’ by Yale professor Steven Wilkinson. He describes these tensions in a manner most Indians—including, honestly, this writer—would be afraid to. He writes, for example, of the anxiety the politicians had over the Army’s domination by the Punjabis, and the steps they took to widen its base: finally leading to Babu Jagjivan Ram’s landmark decision to bring state population-based recruitment quotas. Not all states fill up their shares and these devolve to others. But the fake colonial ‘martial races’ theory is being systematically rolled back. By the way, the state to take the largest share beyond its own quota isn’t one the British, or even the ethos we inherited, considered particularly martial. It’s Kerala.

Accounts by Wilkinson and other chroniclers all tell us that one reason India was able to rebuild its military after Krishna Menon’s eccentric depredations and the disaster of 1962, was also two sagacious defence ministers during the warring 1962-71 decade, YB Chavan and Jagjivan Ram. You never heard them blame any generals. Generals Thapar and BM Kaul took the rap for 1962 but mostly it was blamed on a politician, Krishna Menon. It was Chavan who took the call to classify the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report and keep it from Parliament.

Not because it would have exposed any secrets to the Chinese, but because it was critical of the Army’s performance and leadership and ran contrary to the Haqeeqat-ised victimhood version (as immortalised by Chetan Anand’s film by that name), laced with Lata Mangeshkar’s Aye mere watan ke logon…. Fifty-six years later, it is still classified.

Through the decades, a spiced up, hyper-nationalist version of this history was built: that the generals were always doing the right thing but the politicians came in the way. It goes like: if only Cariappa/Thimayya/Chaudhari/Manekshaw were given a free hand, there’d be no PoK, the Chinese would’ve been taught a lesson and Tibet liberated, 1965 would have slain the Pak demon, and in ’71, just another fortnight’s fighting after Bangladesh and West Pakistan would’ve been occupied. No authoritative military account from any side suggests anything remotely like any of these. But a ‘my Army strongest’ sentiment was essential in a new democracy while it firmly kept the soldiers out of the power structure.

In the RSS lore, it was embellished further. It helped that most of these ‘pusillanimous’ leaders were of their detested Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. In the RSS versions it became something like: Cariappa/Thimayya/Chaudhari pleaded with the PM of the day, give me a little more time please. But the Gandhi-Nehrus got cold feet, or worse, were complicit with foreign powers. The only trouble here is Shastri in 1965, who the RSS deifies. But, in the din of rhetoric, you gloss over it. Ask anybody with an RSS exposure and you will hear the same argument. In that process, chronologies, names, even periods do get mixed up, but never mind as the point—strong Army denied by effete, cowardly Congress—is made. This is where PM Modi is coming from. And also why he and his aides got it so mixed up.

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