Defence Minister India should not have had
It is impossible to rewind history. What happened has happened. It is, however, always possible to learn from past successes, victories, as well as defeats. In fact there is certainly more to learn from blunders.
One, called by one of the main actors, ‘The Himalayan Blunder’, relates to the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. It is difficult to imagine that 54 years after Lt Gen Henderson Brooks submitted his report of the 1962 war, the document is still ‘classified’. Prepared for the Government in 1963, the report went into the reasons for India’s defeat in the 1962 border war with China.
One could also learn from the report written by Lt Gen SPP Thorat, then Army Commander, Eastern Command, about the ‘Chinese threat’ on India’s borders. On October 8, 1959, Lt Gen Thorat sent his paper on the defence of NEFA to the Army chief, who forwarded it to Krishna Menon. Lt Gen Thorat’s findings were rejected: He was accused of being an “alarmist and a warmonger”.
The report began thus: “Previously, the only real threat against India which merited consideration was from Pakistan. To this now has been added the threat from China…This is primarily due to the claim made by China upon large territories which are clearly ours… (China) has also refused to recognise the McMahon Line as the international boundary and has made deliberate incursions into our territory in Ladakh, Uttar Pradesh and NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency).”
In May 1957, General Thimayya took over as Chief of Army Staff and around the same time, VK Krishna Menon became the Defence Minister. But differences soon cropped up between Menon and Thimayya, forcing the latter to send in his resignation, (which he unfortunately withdrew later). Lt Gen Thorat too fell out Menon’s favour; in particular, the Defence Minister did not agree with the officer’s suggestions on the way to reorganise the defence of the Sino-Indian border.
Maj Gen VK Singh, who wrote Thorat’s biography, noted that the Army Commander “clearly brought out that with the troops, weapons and equipment available at that time, a Chinese attack could not be contained or defeated, and the ‘forward policy’, being advocated by Menon, was not practicable”. Thorat also provided a time-table showing “how the defences would fall day by day in case the Chinese attacked.”
Maj Gen VK Singh writes: “When Thimayya retired in May 1961, it was expected that Thorat would succeed him as the Army Chief. He was highly decorated, had combat experience, and was held in high regard in the service. Most important, he was GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, and was familiar with the situation on the borders with China.” Unfortunately (for India) Gen PN Thapar got the top job; though senior, he had little field experience. We know what happened next.
An exchange between Gen Thapar and Lt Gen Thorat, which has recently come to light, shows the pettiness of the then leaders; it occurred as Lt Gen Thorat was in the process of retiring.
At 8am on June 24, 1961, Lt Gen Thorat received a letter from the Army chief, and by the evening he had replied to all the points. Gen Thapar had been ‘asked’ by the Prime Minister “to request you (Thorat) for your comments on the following allegations against you which have come to his notice”.
The first allegation was about a speech given by Lt Gen Thorat in Ranikhet where the Army commander is said to have stated that “Indian officers were seeking promotions through political influence which was disrupting our Army – or words to that effect”.
Lt Gen Thorat replied that he had only said that “officers must give their loyalty to their superior commanders and through them, to the COAS whoever he may be. Any tendency to look in other directions for early advancement was likely to ruin the discipline of the Army”.
But the habit of finding other ways of ‘advancement’ had already sneaked into the Army, mainly due to the Defence Minister’s ways of working.
The second allegation was that Lt Gen Thorat had told a senior IAF officer that he was “allergic to the Defence Minister whom (he) could not stand and who was disrupting the Army”. There is no doubt that many in the Army thought that way. Had Thorat said it openly? And if he did, who denounced him to Menon and Nehru?
Thorat answered to his chief: “I recollect that some IAF officer possibly at Jorhrat or Tezpur asked why I had not been appointed COAS. To the best of my memory, I remember having replied that you were senior to me and also that the Hon’ble Defence Minister and I were not very fond of each other. I realise now that it was not proper for me to make a statement of this nature and am sorry for it.” This exchange, however, shows the small-mindedness of those who asked these questions, a few days before Lt Gen Thorat’s retirement,.
The next query was worse: “Your Headquarters spent large sums of money on the farewell parties, functions and parades for General KS Thimayya in Lucknow during his visit earlier this month. How much money was spent, and how many vehicles were employed under the items mentioned above?”
The Army commander listed ‘his’ expenses during the farewell functions:
(a) At Home: April 26 Nil
(b) Guest Night: April 29 Nil (About Rs450 may be spent from the Mess Entertainment Fund)
(c) Parade: May 1 Rs450
He went on to provide the details for the Rs450 spent.
He was then accused to have said in Korea in 1954 that “India would not have survived after independence but for the many sided assistance she received from the Americans”.
Lt Gen Thorat just said that he denied the allegation “which I am supposed to have made seven years ago”. In a professional manner, he went through the Press clippings of that time which proved that he never made any such statement.