Strategic Blunders of India
by N S Malik on 01 Aug 2009 9 Comments

At a recent seminar, the various leadership challenges India has to overcome in order to become a superpower were identified. It was rightly asserted that Indian civilization right from Mehrgarh (7000-3000 BC) through the Golden Age (Maurya and Gupta period) to the Sikh Empire had a glorious tradition of administration, scientific innovation and empire building. A nation which had the largest cities in the world, the best sanitation system, people of high calibre and moral values, gave civilisational values to the world, shunning violence and military conquest as the means of glory, and yet protected itself securely. India’s greatness as a nation emerged clearly.

The long period of slavery under foreign rule brought us to a level where after independence the question raised was ‘will India survive as a nation.’ Today, 60 years later, the question being raised is ‘will India become a superpower.’ It was pointed out that India lacks a strategic culture, and has failed to articulate clearly its sense of national interest and national security strategy. To have an impact as a leading world power, a strategic vision and a military tradition that brooks no security lapses tactically and strategically, is paramount.

Sixty years of neglect of security has brought us to the stage where we need to lean on the ‘sole superpower’ to help us put pressure on our neighbour who has proclaimed a strategy of a ‘thousand cuts’ to bleed India. India is incapable of answering the outrageous terrorist attacks on Mumbai, numerous other cities, and mayhem in J&K.  This is all a culmination of the mindset of a paranoid leadership that views the Indian Armed Forces as a threat and fears coups, as in the neighbourhood. The greatest blunder has been the non-inclusion of the armed forces in strategic decision making, thus missing military inputs in our diplomacy.

History is a great teacher if one wants to learn; military history even more so, as most history is based on military victories and defeats. My study of the strategic blunders brings forth the most stupendous stupidity any national leadership can be accused of.

Pandit Nehru was the visionary who set us on this course of neglect of the armed forces. His vision of security was based on the flawed principle of Ahimsa, perhaps reinforced by an erroneous understanding of the freedom struggle, Congress having taken all the credit for it by Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. It failed to take into account the role of the Azad Hind Fauj and Netaji Subhash Bose’s relentless struggle for India’s freedom. 

This was to deny the greatest son of India his role in forcing the British to quit. The court martial of three officers of the Azad Hind Fauj, Col Shah Nawaz, Maj Prem Sehgal and Capt Gurbax Dhillon at Red Fort in 1945-46 ignited the nation and made the Indian Army uneasy.  Naval mutiny at Bombay and various mutinies by small units at various military stations, such as Karachi, Jabalpur, and daily fisticuffs in Officers messes and verbal duals between British and Indian officers made the British uncomfortable.

The Intelligence input was that if anything happened to the three INA officers under court martial, India would erupt and not a single British man or woman would escape to England.  The result was a hasty decision to leave India, even advancing the date of transfer of power from 30 June 1948 to 15 August 1947. 

This was confirmed by Lord Clement Atlee at Calcutta when he visited India later. He was asked why the British ran away from India when actually there was no real movement for freedom after 1930, except for the British policy of divide and rule, igniting Hindu-Muslim feuds throughout India. His answer was straightforward, ‘we had lost the trust of the Indian Army.’ In answer to the second question as to the impact of the non-cooperation movement on the freedom of India, he is supposed to have sarcastically chewed out the words M-I-N-I-M-A-L.

The new Indian leadership, instead of strengthening the Indian Armed forces, decided to cut them to size, both in strength and standing. The Army’s pay packet was reduced by one-third. Its strength was brought down to 150,000 and later to 75,000 only, as Pandit Nehru told Parliament, ‘we are a peace loving nation, we do not need a large standing army, police will do the job.’

Fortunately for India , further disbandment came to a halt as Kashmir erupted when the Pakistan army attempted to takeover the state with Kabalis and disguised Pak army personnel. 1947-48 saw intense fighting in J&K, where the Indian Army again achieved such firsts as taking tanks to the highest point at the Zojila Pass and opening the Srinagar-Leh Road, failing which Ladakh would have been lost as Gilgit and Skardu were. The Army was on the move and the Pak army running away when our first major strategic blunder took place. India went to the UN, in spite of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the Army advising against it. The result has been a totally mismanaged J&K policy since.

Recognition of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet in 1950 and withdrawal of our military posts from Lhasa and Yatung brought China to our northern borders and opened another front to guard. That was not the end of this flawed China policy; we hallucinated about Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai and neglected our defence. This resulted in the shameful debacle of 1962, rightly called a ‘Himalayan Blunder.’

But the most shameful act was the acceptance of ceasefire, unilaterally declared by the Chinese, and not preparing to fight back. After all, nations suffer tactical reverses, but they do not necessarily become strategic defeats. The British Army was down and out at Dunkirk and had to evacuate the European mainland, but returned after four years to defeat the Germans. Singapore was lost in 1942, but the British Indian Army went back and defeated the Japanese. Why have we accepted the 1962 debacle as final and never thought of retaking our lost land from the aggressor?

The 1965 war was another blunder that could have turned into a monumental disaster, but for the tenacity of the Indian soldier and the overconfidence of the Pakistani army leadership. In 1958, Pakistan entered into a pact with USA and started receiving arms aid. The only action Nehru took was to get a verbal assurance from the US that these arms would not be used against India. Pray, who were they for then?

It did not dawn on our leadership to upgrade our army arsenal to match Pakistani preparations. Worse was the effect of the 1962 debacle, which woke us up, but diverted all attention to the mountains, neglecting the western front. The result was a mismatch and a weaker than Pakistan army taking to the field against Pakistan’s Patton tanks, 155mm long range guns, and F-86 Sabre and F-104 Star fighters. They were not only far superior to our WWII equipment in performance, but numerically also outnumbered us.

Besides, our intelligence failed to establish even the basic structure of the Pakistan army, with the result that we went in thinking Pakistan had only one armoured division, the main striking force of any army, same as us, when it had two. Fortunately our soldiers fought Pakistan to standstill in the plains area, while our troops in the mountainous terrain of Pir Panjal and Kargil sector captured the important Haji Pir Pass, reopening the Poonch-Uri Road and making Pakistani defenses untenable in these areas.

Alas, at Tashkent our national leadership magnanimously returned the strategic Haji Pir Pass, again closing the link to Uri and allowing Pakistan the freedom to infiltrate J&K through this pass. We won the war on the battlefield, but lost it on the negotiating table.

1971 is a glorious chapter in the annals of Indian military history. We created history by liberating a nation and decisively defeating the Pakistan army on the battlefield, capturing 93,000 PoWs. Alas, we squandered the victory at Shimla where Indira Gandhi fell for the false promises of the smooth talking Z.A. Bhutto.  We won the war on the battlefield, but lost it on the negotiating table.

In 1974, our scientists did India proud by making the N-bomb and demonstrating it at Pokhran. Alas, we fell for the American threat and disassembled all infrastructure for the same; though an alerted Pakistan went all out to acquire the bomb and finally succeeded in making one in 1985, while we remained without one for a much longer period.  Under the threat of the bomb, Pakistan was able to put Punjab on fire and later J&K.  Our stronger armed forces were impotent as a new kind of warfare had surfaced in the subcontinent.  Fortunately in 1998, India got a government that looked to security first, and under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee we reasserted ourselves at Pokhran II. 

Kargil was to a certain extent an intelligence failure, but righted by the valour of our soldiers and young officers. It is a tribute to the Army officer class that such high rates of casualty among officers shows leadership from the front. Our Shat Shat Shardhanjali to the 527 brave hearts of the Indian Army and Air Force. The nation paid tribute to them on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Kargil Victory, though government actions left a bitter taste at the end.

The question being asked today is whether Sharm-Al-Sheikh will fall in the same category of strategic blunders as earlier ones. Will we ever learn from our shameful historical blunders?

As a retired soldier I feel saddened when I find the leadership pays no heed to national security. With changing dimensions of warfare, we need to devise new ways and means to be a step ahead of the enemy. But first we must recognize the enemy and his modus operandi. It is no good making diplomatic overtures and resting on assurances that are not worth the paper they are written on. How many times has Pakistan made promises it never kept?

How are the Chinese claiming Arunachal Pradesh? Their intentions are clear; we refuse to see. India is threatened externally and internally, and the democratically elected government is fast asleep. Unless a country is militarily strong, no one will respect it, and all economic gains will be for someone else to enjoy. Let us not repeat the story of the past seven hundred years.

Lt. Gen. N.S. Malik, PVSM, is former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

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