Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Half Century down-‘Are we Stabbing the Dead…Yet Again?


 Etched in stone, this soul-wringing message from 'dead soldiers' greets you as you enter the famed Kohima War Cemetery: "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today." As one takes a round of the Cemetery, one sees hundreds of small plaques with the words ‘Known Unto God’, meaning that we do not even know the names of the valiant men who gave their lives so that we may live. Can there be a more poignant sacrifice? That was Second World War.

 What about the Indo-China war, the first and the most devastating that India has fought post-Independence? Do we remember the near 3000 men, who caught unawares, laid down their lives in a desperate bid to save the honour of the Indian Army and the integrity of the Indian nation? Do the names of Major BK Pant, Lieutenant Subash Chander, Naib-Subedar Snehuneshu Biswas, Havildar Phani Bhushan Nayak, Naik Joybandhu Datta, Sepoy Jag Pal Singh…and many, many others ring a bell?

These are but a few random names taken from a list of the brave sons of India who died on the night of 19/20 October 1962 at Nam Ka Chu when the Chinese attacked 2nd Rajput positions at the base of the Thagla Ridge beyond the Zimithang Valley in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). This was the beginning of the bloody clash across the previously considered ‘impregnable’ Himalayas that caught the Indian leadership napping and left 2,420 officers and men dead in this theatre alone.

A brief recap. By October 1962, an Infantry Division had operational control of the NEFA border with 34 Assam Rifles posts of section/platoon strength established all along the McMahon Line. As the fighting started on 19 October, the Chinese crossed the McMahon Line in other sectors also, always in much superior numbers. Despite the surprise and all the hardships faced due to lack of even basic defensive requirements, at no stage did any of the army units fail to resist the Chinese onslaught giving rise to the phrase ‘last man, last round’!

Much earlier, in the 1950s itself General Cariappa had apprehended trouble on the McMahon Line and had outlined his plan for NEFA suggesting some urgent measures. Having heard him out Nehru flared up, thumped hard on the table and said: “It is not the business of the Commander-in-Chief to tell the Prime Minister who is going to attack us there. In fact the Chinese will defend our Eastern Frontier. You mind only Kashmir and Pakistan.” A deflated and disappointed Cariappa walked out of the Prime Minister’s office.

Subsequent advice from Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel on similar lines, led to some lukewarm motions to set right things. But subsequently Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, in an arrogant manner kept on belittling the Army Chief General KS Thimayya. Besides interference in promotions and the schism that had been created, Menon was poking into strategic matters compelling General Thimayya to tender his resignation. That Prime Minister Nehru talked him out of it and later berated him in Parliament is history. Thimayya’s humiliation was a severe blow not only to his own honour but the prestige of the Army as a combat institution.

To cap it all, on Thimayya’s retirement he was replaced by General Pran Thapar instead of the more competent Lt General SPP Thorat who was expected to take over as Army Chief. The country paid a very heavy price for this manipulation at the very top.

End-result of the humiliating defeat in the Indo-Chinese war under the watch of General Thapar saw the entire blame shifted to the Army. Today the road leading up to Sena Bhawan is ‘Krishna Menon Marg’ and his larger than life statue adorns one corner of Army HQ. But all those who sacrificed with their life and blood have been forgotten, their names ‘known only unto God’. Indeed true of an ungrateful nation: “God and the Soldier, all adore; in times of danger and not before. When danger is past and everything righted, God is forgotten and the old Soldier slighted”

Where are we now, half a century after those fateful days that shook the country’s conscience? What is the state of the Army, its preparedness, its morale and the fighting spirit of its officers and men? Army Chief General Bikram Singh says everything is hunky-dory and roses all the way.  Speaking a month before the 50th anniversary of China’s military offensives he said: “I am assuring the nation as the Army Chief that 1962 will not be repeated... No way. We have plans in place on all borders to safeguard our country’s territorial integrity.”

But, when the integrity of the Army itself has been severely eroded in recent times, how the Army Chief’s tall claim is even tenable? In June 2012 Admiral L. Ramdas, former Naval Chief, along with few former senior civil and military officers including the writer wrote to the Prime Minister and Defence Minister highlighting several serious issues haunting the Army:

·       A serving Army Chief denied justice and forced to move the Supreme Court only to face the embarrassment of being advised to ‘blow with the wind’;

·       Bribe offered to a serving Army Chief for defence deals, in his own office;

·       Corruption charges in the procurement of defence equipment (TATRA) from a serving Army Chief, and he being hounded because of that;

·       `Top Secret’ letter from the serving Army Chief to the Prime Minister about the near-total unpreparedness of the Army and its leak from Cabinet Secretariat tantamounting to treasonable act;

·       Totally false and fabricated accusations that a serving Army Chief was responsible for spying/snooping on the Defence Minister’s office;

·       Insidious insinuation of military coup, casting aspersion on the serving Army Chief which virtually meant  instigating mutiny in the Army;

·       PIL and Review Petition by responsible citizens for safeguarding the institutional integrity of the Army and the same being disposed of in a cavalier and perfunctory manner;

·       Raising the `communal bogey’ to divert attention from the charge of creation of a ‘line of succession’ at senior echelons of the Army that has demoralized the Officer cadre.

All these are symptoms of a deeper malaise within the system– indicating years of brushing uncomfortable questions under the carpet thereby adversely affecting the morale of the serving personnel. The continuous failure of the top civil and political leadership to  address the steady erosion in the ethical framework which had always provided the underpinning for decision making at the highest levels, has only reinforced a growing feeling of discontent and cynicism. There is a widespread perception that while the rank and file is subjected to severe disciplinary action for even minor offences, those higher up, with the right connections, can get away with anything! Not only is this reflected in the most recent appointments to the highest offices within the Army, but also, and more seriously, has led to the disturbing view, circulating at many levels, that it is not worth fighting for a country that is in the grip of ‘corrupt and conniving characters’.

No wonder, the powers-that-be do not want to respond to these very pointed posers and apprehensions. It looks as if the ‘adhocracies’ in the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters have entered into a ‘kleptocratic pact’ that could make the repeat of 1962 very much possible. Because winning and losing is not on the borders of the country, but in the heart and mind of every soldier.

Where does it leave ‘We, The People’? Sure, in the next few weeks we will again dust out our good-old Lata Mangeshkar ‘Mere Wattan ke logo’ LPs and shed a passing tear or two before moving on to the more mundane matter of surviving in modern-day India.
Were the boys who died in the high Himalayas alive today they would be in their 70s. Having been commissioned in the Army soon after the 1962 war, I sometimes wonder whether they were the lucky ones who have been spared the agony of seeing the rot that the country and its institutions are today. And then ask a mind-wrenching question: ‘Are we Stabbing the Dead…Yet Again?’

[Author is a former Army and IAS Officer. Email:


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