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The Rediff Special/Lt Gen Eric A Vas (retd)

May 27, 2004

Truly, an extraordinary fellow
orty years ago this day, May 27, India's first prime minister passed into the ages.

Jawaharlal Nehru's legacy is the theme of constant discussion in India and abroad.

Many Indians believe that many of India's achievements -- its vibrant democracy, its industrial prowess, its knowledge advantage, even its military strength -- would not have been possible without the strong foundations laid down by Nehru.

Many others believe that Nehru's policies -- his insistence on the public sector, on linguistic states, on non alignment, on blindly imitating the Soviet Union -- retarded India's progress and forced a great nation into the ranks of the Third World.

Over the next few weeks, will bring you opinions and views from both sides in an effort to evaluate the true worth of Nehru's legacy.

Today: Lieutenant General Eric A Vas (retired) begins this debate with his perspective of Nehru's relationship with India's military.

On the anniversary of the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, it is customary to recall his many virtues. When India gained Independence, he was undoubtedly the darling of the masses. He was young, alert, handsome, well-spoken in English and Hindi, physically and morally courageous, modern and liberal in his outlook, and a patriot who had served jail sentences in the cause of freedom.

Like all democratic leaders, Nehru believed that military force was the last resort in any political struggle for power. But unlike others, Nehru carried his distaste of military power to extremes. This was probably because his belief was reinforced by Mahatma Gandhi's successful non-violent struggle against the British and his experiences whilst facing imperial colonial military power.

In fact, Nehru neither understood nor was interested in politico-military matters. At the time of Independence he believed, or was cleverly made to believe by Mountbatten, that there was no Indian capable of taking over as head of the army. The fact that he asked a British officer to stay on as commander-in-chief shows his frame of mind.

But in the initial decades of his rise to power, few perceived his distaste of the military as an obsession or considered it a serious liability. This was because India was busy celebrating its freedom, setting up democratic institutions, sorting out its internal problems, and integrating the princely states. Moreover, it was seen that India's military power was being used effectively to assert Indian authority on disputed borders in Jammu and Kashmir and in northeastern India. But military officers and others who were in close contact with Nehru had firsthand experience of his obsessions. A few anecdotes will illustrate what this implied.

Nehru, who was honest enough to admit that he knew little about military matters, left the setting up of the newly established defence ministry to Admiral Mountbatten and Lord Ismay. Nehru was advised by Mountbatten to organise the defence structure on the council system [each of the services having a council, composed of military staff] presided over by a politician and run very much on the lines of the Railway board, with military heads as chiefs of their respective service staff or boards. Under this system, there would be no need for a bureaucratic defence secretary [whoever hears of a railway secretary?] This would require the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate the three services at the defence minister level. But Nehru was unwilling to do that.

Lord Mountbatten has stated in a letter that 'although Prime Minister Nehru agreed with me in principle, he said it would be difficult at this moment to get through the appointment of a CDS as it would give to the Indian politician the impression of perpetuating the idea of the great Commander-in-Chief in India. Lord Ismay and I worked hand in hand on these proposals but I thought it would come better from him than the constitutional Governor General as I then had become. He [Ismay] also tried to negotiate a CDS but met with the same opposition from Nehru and for the same reason.'

Shortly after assuming the office of prime minister, Nehru was being taken around to the newly set up military wing of the Cabinet secretariat. When he entered the room he was startled to see several military officers wearing air force, naval and army uniforms. Nehru turned angrily on the secretary and began shouting and demanding to know what military officers were doing in the Cabinet secretariat.

Later Nehru calmed down when Lord Ismay explained the role of the military wing and why military officers were needed. Obviously the prime minister had no concept of the newly established higher defence system This episode was witnessed by military officers who were later told that they would always wear civilian clothes whilst at work; a practice which is followed till today.

Nehru would lay down the law to his Cabinet ministers knowing that none would dare oppose him. He felt he could do the same while dealing with elementary military issues about which he was quite ignorant.

During the early days of the Jammu and Kashmir operations Nehru visited the Srinagar airfield and was being briefed by IAF pilots. He was told they were using 500 lb bombs. He at once said this was an excessive use of force and the less powerful 250 lb bomb should be used. He was told the target area was criss-crossed with nullahs and deep valleys and less powerful bombs would be ineffective. Nehru protested that this was a violation of the principle of 'minimum force.'

He was tactfully told this was not an aid to a civil power operation but a full-fledged war against aggressors. The principle of minimum force was not relevant in this instance. It was essential for the air force and army to use adequate force while dealing with this enemy. It is significant that the senior military officers who accompanied Nehru seemed to be overawed by the prime minister and kept quiet.

On another occasion, Nehru and his entourage were waiting at Palam air force station for a VIP to arrive. The prime minister turned to the air chief and pointing to an air force plane parked nearby, asked, 'Why are your planes marked Indian Air Force? Surely no foreign planes could be parked here.' The air chief mumbled that he would look into the matter. A young air force officer standing nearby intervened and said, 'All air forces follow the practice of using national names. Thus we have the Royal Canadian Air Force, the French Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force and so on.' Nehru seemed taken aback at this response, turned to the air chief and said, 'Do look into this.' Later, after the VIPs had departed, the air chief scolded the young officer, telling him he should guard against talking about policy matters that were above his head.

Over the years, the army continued to press for a CDS and were supported by some members of Parliament. Nehru sensed a growing pressure for reform. In March 1955 he announced in Parliament the change in designation of the three service chiefs from commander-in-chief to chiefs of staff. This was nothing more than a verbal smokescreen. It is a misnomer to call our service heads chiefs of their respective service staffs without forming integrated service councils.

Whilst announcing this change of designation of the service chiefs, Nehru stated that as in other democratic countries, India too would have a defence council. The House loudly cheered this statement. Few understood what was being promised. However, this ploy confused the issue and silenced the political critics. Meanwhile, our irrational and inefficient system of politico-military command continues till today.

In the late 1950s, our government was keen to purchase modern guided missiles for the air force. Negotiations for this were in progress with the British government. The Indian military attaché in London was in touch with British suppliers. While Nehru was visiting the UK, the attaché arranged for the firm concerned to display a short demonstration film for the prime minister. Electronic display systems were not invented at that time and a projector was set up at the Indian high commission. A senior director of the firm made it a point to be present out of respect for the prime minister. Moreover, the deal was worth a lot of money.

The brief film was a very realistic and ended with a loud bang as a missile shot down an 'enemy' plane in a cloud of flame. Nehru got up in a rage, and shouted, 'I will have nothing to do with these sort of weapons' and stormed out of the room followed by his daughter Indira Gandhi. The British director who witnessed this scene was bewildered. He turned to the Indian military attaché and said, 'Extraordinary fellow.' A few minutes later, Indira returned to the room, apologised for what had happened and thanked the director for the trouble he had taken to arrange the display. The concerned weapon was later purchased.

At the personal level, the prime minister's attitude towards military officers was in sharp contrast to the treatment of bureaucrats and police officers by the home minister. Sardar Patel knew that his officers had served the British loyally. Nevertheless after 1947 he accepted them as apolitical civil servants. He did everything he could to raise the prestige and morale of those serving under him and never questioned their loyalty. The bureaucrats responded magnificently to their minister and served him handsomely. The smooth merging of the princely states into the Union is sufficient evidence of that.

During a conference in South Block, Nehru was very impressed by the performance of a young police inspector. He turned to Sardar Patel and muttered, 'Why can't we have men like that to lead our army, rather than employing highly paid majors and colonels?' The prime minister of India seemed blissfully unaware that police officers and military officers have different roles. This remark to the home minister was overheard by several military officers who were present and did nothing to enhance the morale of the officer corps.

After the end of the Second World War, a large number of the newly liberated colonies in Africa and Asia, including Pakistan, were overwhelmed by military coups. Nehru's casual approach to key defence issues and military officers was evident to the bureaucrats who surrounded him. Taking their cue from the prime minister, the Intelligence Bureau took every opportunity to denigrate senior military officers by questioning their loyalty. The more efficient and popular the military officer, the greater became the opportunity to play upon the politician's fear of a coup. Officers like Generals Thimayya, Thorat and others were spied upon day and night by junior IB minions. This further undermined the morale of the officer corps. Moreover, all this took place at the expense of genuine intelligence work, which was neglected.

Nehru hoped to create a world where nations, instead of forming groups to act against each other, would learn to eschew conflict and settle their disputes in a peaceful manner. He felt that India, with its philosophy and idealistic past, could provide a lead in this direction. He placed his faith in the United Nations. Overlying his idealism was a hatred of war and of all things military. Thus his intellectual make-up lacked an important dimension. He gave no deep thought to politico-military matters and this prevented him from making sound security decisions.

There should, therefore, be no surprise that the war in Jammu and Kashmir took the course it did and the Indian army was stopped from driving Pakistan out of Indian territory when it was in a position to do so. It is not surprising that he was later to order the Indian army to 'throw out the Chinese' from Thangla ridge when the troops located there were in no position to do so. It is not surprising that there were no longer any efficient and forthright senior military officers to question this suicidal decision.

It is not unusual for elected prime ministers to be ignorant of military matters. They offset this handicap by seeking the guidance of reliable advisers. Unfortunately, Nehru chose as his defence minister Krishna Menon, a man who was even more prejudiced and ignorant about military matters. Mountbatten wrote, 'The last time Nehru stayed with me here at Broadlands, before the Chinese invasion on the North-East frontier, I urged him to appoint General Thimayya to the CDS post right away as I could see trouble brewing up. I warned him that if a war came, the Indian army would suffer a quick defeat. He said there was no question of there being a war as India wished to be at peace with everybody. To this I replied that it took two sides to decide whether there would be a war or not and if either China or Pakistan were to invade, there would be a war on your hands. This [CDS system] however he was unwilling to do as Krishna Menon was against it.'

It was left to the Chinese to rid the Indian government of Krishna Menon, and leave Nehru a shattered man. Meanwhile, the unending debate on the CDS system continues.

It is convenient to blame Nehru for not initiating reforms in the early years of independence, because of a mixture of reasons: misguided fears of a military coup and a lack of knowledge of the legitimate role of the military in decision-making on security issues.

After Nehru's death on May 27, 1964, political instability at the Centre prevented any government from initiating such reforms. Bureaucrats adopted devious methods to bring down the services at every opportunity. This was particularly apparent in the succession of orders issued on the Warrant of Precedence. The committee of secretaries, which decides the Warrant of Precedence recorded that 'military officers have been placed unduly high in the old Warrant of Precedence, presumably as it was considered essential for officers of the old army of occupation to be given special status and authority.'

So after the Indo-Pak war [1947-1948] the service chiefs were made junior to Supreme Court judges. They further dropped in status after the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict and became junior to the Cabinet secretary. Their decline continued unabated and they were made junior to the attorney general after the Indo Pak war of 1965 Yet again, after the 1971 Indo-Pak war, they were put next to the Comptroller and Auditor General

Bureaucrats, who occupied key positions in the defence system, functioned as a 'wall' between harassed politicians and military officers. Insecure politicians preferred this arrangement as it left them free to indulge in their first preoccupation: to cling onto their seats in Parliament. Keeping their respective constituencies happy was their first priority. They had no time to worry about reforming a military system, which was apparently working fairly satisfactorily. But that is surely not the situation today.

History will record that Nehru's obsession about the military is easily eclipsed by his many other qualities and achievements. He was truly an extraordinary fellow. It is time that his successors rise to the occasion. India is the only major country, which has failed to adopt the Council System and has thus been losing out on maximising the efficiency of its three Services. It is absurd to keep talking about modernising our services without modernising this essential aspect of the higher command structure.

The reform of our politico-military higher command structure will not cost money. On the contrary, it will save the exchequer crores of rupees every year, reduce manpower, ease accommodation in Delhi, cut down paper work and will enhance political control of the services.

Image: Rajesh Karkera


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