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July 28, 1999

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E-Mail this column to a friend Kanchan Gupta

Egg on their faces

One of the apocryphal stories that came to symbolise the absurdity of Indira Gandhi's totalitarian rule during the Emergency years when the press was whipped into submission by the dear departed mother-in-law of Sonia Gandhi (who is so fond of singing, in her lispingly guttural Italian accent, hosannas to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's commitment to democracy) is about why The Guardian was blacklisted by the terror regime.

According to the purveyors of this apocryphal story (mostly drunken hacks), The Guardian ran a full-page special report on the 'Empress of India' along with an eight-column headline that screamed: 'Mrs Gandhi's Pubic Image Takes A Beating'. The venerable newspaper of the British working class was quick to spot the printer's devil and insert the letter 'l' in its rightful place in all further editions, but Mrs Gandhi was not amused: The Guardian's correspondent was banished from Indian shores.

I was reminded of this wickedly delightful story when the Congress recently quoted a news report from The Guardian to buttress its allegation that the Vajpayee government had struck a deal with the Pakistan government on Kargil almost three weeks before the guns fell silent. According to The Guardian, or so the Congress claimed, even after the deal had been struck, the Vajpayee government had dragged on the conflict for political gains at the cost of the lives of our soldiers.

In spite of its best efforts to portray India's thumping military triumph over Pakistan and unprecedented diplomatic success over Kargil as a "defeat" and a "failure", the Congress has so far not succeeded in convincing any self-respecting Indian newspaper to portray India as the loser and Pakistan as the winner. Coincidentally, Mian Nawaz Sharief has failed to convince the Pakistani press to portray his army's humiliating defeat and his government's diplomatic debacle as a victory over India.

Hence, the Congress has had to seize upon a report based on Pakistan Information Minister Mushahid Hussain's insidious propaganda and published in The Guardian to berate the Vajpayee government. Depending upon a foreigner to get votes is not enough for the party that aspires to rule India; it must now depend on foreign media patently hostile to India for its survival in domestic politics.

Incidentally, at the height of the Kargil conflict, when the Indian Army and Air Force had unleashed their combined might on the Pakistanis, giving the intruders a taste of death and destruction, The Guardian had published a report, filed by its New Delhi-based correspondent, on how Indian forces were handicapped by lack of weapons and ammunition. The source of this absurd claim was a "Western defence analyst" in New Delhi.

It later transpired that the "Western defence analyst" was actually an arms dealer who had landed in Delhi in the hope of securing emergency wartime contracts, but found that our national armoury was quite well-stocked. In sheer frustration, he put out the story that found its way into The Guardian, hoping that it would force a rethink among decision-makers in New Delhi. What he had not reckoned with is that a certain Italian called Ottavio Quattrocchi no longer presides over India's defence purchases.

But we digress. The fact of the matter is that the Congress president and her colleagues are a frustrated lot today -- each attempt of theirs to embarrass the Vajpayee government ever since the Kargil conflict erupted has failed. Indeed, all that they have to show for their efforts is egg on their faces.

First it was the clamour for an emergency session of the Rajya Sabha. Sonia Gandhi, who does not have the foggiest idea of what the 1962 war was all about and the humiliating debacle India had to suffer at the hands of China, petulantly told journalists: If Panditji could call a session then, why can't a session be called now? We need to discuss Kargil. She, of course, chose not to attend the all-party meetings called by the prime minister to discuss the Kargil conflict.

Next was a demand for an inquiry into the government's "failure" in Kargil. When it was pointed out that the Indian Army had won the battle for Kargil, Sonia Gandhi's retainers retorted: the army may have won, but the government has lost. It is touching, this faith in inquiry commissions.

This faith, however, was nowhere in sight when Rajiv Gandhi tried to suppress the findings of commission after commission. Those who prompt his widow today have forgotten to inform her that it took the combined effort of the Opposition to force the government into making public the Ranganath Misra Commission report on the massacre of Sikhs by Congress hoodlums. That the Thakkar Commission's report on Indira Gandhi's assassination would not have seen the light of day if The Indian Express had not published its damning contents.

Nor did the illustrious predecessors of Sonia Gandhi, who happened to be prime ministers and members of the exalted Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, ever bother with setting up commissions of inquiry to assess failures and look into loss of lives in wars fought by India. Such details, of course, would be unknown to Sonia Gandhi who has as much disdain for historical facts as Rajiv Gandhi had once openly proclaimed.

Be that as it may, now that the government has constituted a team to look into all aspects of the Kargil conflict, the Congress has done the expected: it has denounced the inquiry by questioning the credibility of those charged with the responsibility of conducting the inquiry. We need to learn from our mistakes, not gloss over them, argue members of Sonia Gandhi's charmed circle.

Learn from our past? The best way to do so would be to read the authentic history of our military operations prepared by the Military History Division of the Army; they were equipped and trained to do this job and were best placed to assess things in their right perspective.

But the last Congress government to rule India from 1991 to 1996 decided that there was no need to maintain a division to record India's military operations; obviously, the Congress did not believe in learning lessons. And, as part of its abject undertaking to the International Monetary Fund that India's defence costs would be cut, the Military History Division was axed.

Sonia Gandhi would, of course, not know of these and other minor details. Therefore, it would be in order to draw her attention to the 'Memorandum of Economic Policies for 1992-93' submitted by then Union Finance Minister Manmohan Singh on behalf of the Congress government to the managing director of the IMF in June 1992. Genuflecting at the IMF altar, the memorandum said: "Total defence spending is budgeted to rise by 7 per cent in nominal terms, resulting in a further real decline to 2.5 per cent of GDP."

The axing of the Military History Division was only one of the fallouts of this cutback on defence expenditure. By persisting with reducing funds for our defence forces in real terms, enormous damage was caused to the preparedness of our army, air force and navy, both in terms of men and material, during Congress rule. Should not any inquiry that is now ordered begin with the Congress neglect, under foreign pressure, of national security concerns?

Or, since no inquiry was ever ordered into any war fought by India and its outcome, should we not go further back and begin with the outcome of the first war independent India fought in 1947-48? For, if we were to accept the reasons now being proffered by Sonia Gandhi and her flock of faithful, then the same reasons would, and justifiably so, apply to the wars that India fought under Congress rule.

Look at the evidence:

In October 1947, Pakistani Army regulars intruded into Jammu and Kashmir while Jawaharlal Nehru fiddled in New Delhi, refusing to act till Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession. By the time formalities -- for which Mohammed Ali Jinnah cared a toss -- had been attended to, murderous Pakistani soldiers were on the outskirts of Srinagar.

The Indian Army fought valiantly -- 1,103 soldiers sacrificed their lives and another 3,152 were wounded. By the beginning of 1948, the Indian Army had managed to turn the tide; the Pakistanis began to retreat. But even as India stood on the threshold of victory, Nehru meekly accepted a United Nations-dictated ceasefire, halting the Indian Army in its tracks and preventing our soldiers from wresting back from Pakistan 83,100 square kilometres of Indian territory, thus creating what is now known as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

A decade-and-a-half later, in 1962, a dumb-founded Government of India, headed by a paralysed Nehru, watched the Chinese army march into India. An ill-clothed, ill-armed, ill-fed Indian Army was sent to defend our national frontier with nothing more than defunct .303 rifles and cotton shirts to protect them from snow and blizzard. India lost 1,521 soldiers; 548 were injured and 1,729 listed as missing.

In what till date remains the most dishonourable act of New Delhi, the people of Assam were left to fend for themselves after the army was asked to withdraw south of the Brahmaputra. We lost Aksai Chin (38,000 square kilometres) and inherited a border dispute that continues to fester.

Today when we hear Sonia Gandhi's personal bawarchis allege that Kashmir has been "internationalised" by the Vajpayee government by seeking international support against Pakistan's perfidy, Nehru's pathetic appeal for American assistance against the Chinese army comes to mind. Maj Gen D K ('Monty') Palit, who was director general of military operations, Army Headquarters, in 1962, records in his book, War in High Himalaya: The Indian Army in Crisis, 1962, how Nehru wrote to President Kennedy, begging for American assistance.

"I do not now recollect what the opening paragraph was," Maj Gen Palit, who was shown a copy of the letter, says, "but my diary records what the second contained: in it the PM was pleading for 'the active participation of the US Air Force' for the defence of India. The specific request was for 'twelve squadrons of F-104 fighters and two squadrons of B-57 bombers'."

Should we not inquire into why that letter was written? What was the quid pro quo offered by Nehru? Was it a promise to let the Americans set up a Voice of America transmitter on Indian soil? Was the council of ministers taken into confidence before the letter was written? Was the Opposition consulted, and if so, who in the Opposition agreed to Nehru's plan? Should we not learn from the unmitigated debacle of India and the resultant loss of 38,000 square kilometres of our land?

Soon after the debacle in Bomdilla, in 1965 India was forced into its second war with Pakistan. India lost 2,902 soldiers; 8,622 were wounded and 361 listed as missing. But strategic gains secured by the Indian forces were surrendered by Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent. No inquiry was ever ordered into why the Government of India, then under Congress control, thought it fit to give up vantage positions that would have today put India at an advantage over Pakistan.

India's decisive victory in 1971 cost the nation dearly: 3,630 soldiers died on the battlefield; 9,856 were wounded and 212 listed as missing. With more than 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, India could have secured a full and final solution to the Kashmir issue by driving a hard bargain with Pakistan. But Indira Gandhi did not do so while signing the Simla Agreement. If anything, she signed away India's advantage. Is it worth inquiring into what compelled her to give away so easily what had been secured by the blood and sweat of our soldiers?

As for the disastrous Indian Peace-Keeping Force mission to Sri Lanka, India's former foreign secretary and high commissioner to Colombo, J N Dixit, records in his book Across Borders: "Rajiv Gandhi insisted on the (Indo-Sri Lankan) agreement despite his being advised by the intelligence agencies and the armed forces not to take on the responsibilities envisaged in the agreement. Rajiv Gandhi should not have sent in the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces to Sri Lanka; (The disastrous IPKF mission) signified a major foreign policy failure for India, which Rajiv Gandhi could have avoided."

The nation had to bear the cost of Rajiv Gandhi's juvenile delinquency: 1,157 Indian soldiers were killed and 2,065 wounded. And there was nothing to show as gains for this enormous loss. Let us then inquire into why Indian soldiers were sent into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam minefields. Why intelligence reports were ignored? Why the army's opinion was overruled? And why didn't the government cut its losses when it was evident to all that we were in the wrong place for the wrong reasons at the wrong time?

The only inquiry that has ever been conducted into military operations is the Henderson Brooke inquiry into the 1962 war. But it was an inquiry instituted by Army Headquarters, not the government, and its mandate was limited to the Bomdilla debacle. The Congress never made the findings of this inquiry public. On the contrary, "national interest" was cited to keep it a secret.

It's a pity that knowledge of India and Indian affairs is so lacking in the woman who wants to be prime minister of India. If she had had the intelligence to grasp more than the sound bytes that are provided to her on cue cards by her equally ill-informed advisers, then she would have had the good sense to "shut up" (to borrow one of her on-camera expressions) than make a mockery of national sentiment and pride.

Post Script: Larry Feign's cartoon strip in the July 26 issue of Time magazine is no apocryphal story peddled by a drunken hack. Mian Nawaz Sharief is caricatured as wishing Sonia Gandhi were the prime minister of India during the Kargil conflict as that would have fetched victory for Pakistan. Asked why, he retorts, "Since when has an Italian ever won a war?"

There's history again teaching us a lesson.

Kanchan Gupta

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