A dubious exercise

Print edition : August 14, 1999

Despite widespread public disquiet about intelligence failures that led up to the Kargil conflict and the response of the Government and the Army after Pakistan's intrusion was discovered, the Kargil committee appointed by the Government has a s everely narrow remit. Its anodyne terms of reference do not inspire confidence.

TO be worth its name, any inquiry must be directed in unambiguous terms to the specific issues that caused public disquiet and prompted the demand for an inquiry. In the Kargil case, the issues were not confined to intelligence failure or to events befor e Pakistan's intrusion. They covered even more pointedly the Government's and the Army's response after they discovered the foul deed. Not least, the dates of discovery. The Government and the Army differ on that.

The Government of India knew of the widespread disquiet and the precise questions on which the people demanded the answers. It chose, nonetheless, to appoint on July 24 a committee of four members with the most anodyne terms of reference terminating sha rply at the intrusion - "to review the events leading upto the Pakistani aggression in the Kargil district... and to recommend such measures as are considered necessary to safeguard national security." These were later embodied in a formal announcement o n August 4 without any significant change in response to public criticism. No effort was made to expand the terms of reference to cover other issues in response to public demands. The Opposition was not consulted either on the terms of reference or on th e membership. Here is a unique committee whose vague terms of reference were left to a spin doctor to flesh out. Pramod Mahajan's lack of seriousness is evident in his remark that it can go into "two years or twenty years of history." He said also that " the committee is free to interpret" (the terms of reference) and "when we say events leading to, it may be intelligence, administrative, political failures." The remit ends abruptly with the incursion and is delightfully vague. No committee can "interpre t" it to exceed the limits. No committee should accept terms so imprecise as those. The least it can do now is to declare its own understanding of its terms of reference for the public to know. Especially since Defence Minister George Fernandes wiped out the spin the very next day in Calcutta. He said that the committee was not meant to probe intelligence failure. It will only review the situation that led to the conflict and recommend measures to strengthen national security.

None will accept Fernandes' denial of the Calcutta statement the day after he made it. PTI as well as correspondents of reputed dailies reported him in identical terms and in direct quotes, too. PTI reported him as saying: "The committee is not meant to probe intelligence failure. It will only (sic.) review the situation that led to the conflict and recommend measures to strengthen national security."

(From right) External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, the three Service chiefs General V.P. Malik, Admiral Sushil Kumar and Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, Defence Minister George Fernandes and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra.-V. SUDERSHAN

The report in The Statesman (July 26) has this nugget, besides, which explains Pramod Mahajan's reference to 20 years. Fernandes is quoted as saying: "The three-member committee formed to probe the build-up to Kargil will review the role of oth er governments and other Defence Ministers vis-a-vis the present one, apart from suggesting measures of national security, he announced." The intention is plain - tarnish the name of predecessors, exonerate the incumbents, the Government and t he Defence Minister, both. Consciousness of guilt is all too evident.

This is surely not the inquiry which the Government had promised nor one which the public expected of it.

By a spate of statements, the Government of India had pledged itself to the nation and, not least, to the jawans who had risked their lives, that there would be an inquiry into the lapses which had enabled the intruders from Pakistan to go as far as they did; so far, indeed, as to make sacrifice of the lives of the jawans necessary. That inquiry is an imperative of democratic accountability.

The crucial question always was: what will be the scope and remit of the probe. In a TV interview on July 17, National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra said that an inquiry would be conducted to find out if there was an intelligence lapse on the Pakistani intrusions and whether the Army failed to react on time. In a press interview on the same day, he spoke of a "post-mortem to find out what went wrong and what lessons we have learnt from the Kargil episode." This is comprehensive. Asked "When did the Go vernment first hear of the intrusion?", he replied: "At a moment, we can say that the first information came on 6 May."

However, Fernandes told the all-party meeting on May 29 that it was only on the night of May 12 that the Army informed him of the intrusion. The Army had learnt of it through a shepherd on May 6. In an interview to Sunday (June 13), he amplified t hat at Srinagar, later, the Corps Commander told him that "things were under control and we should get back the ridges that had been occupied in a day or two. When I returned, I asked for a situation report. I found no mention of this in the routine sit- rep. When I asked what was going on, I was told those chaps are there, but we will have the situation under control soon."

There is clearly a strong case for all involved to answer. Especially in view of Fernandes' own statements, contradictary as they are. On June 27 he said that the "intelligence establishment had failed to provide any advance warning of the Pakistani infi ltration." Eighty per cent of them were Army regulars. "The fact was that there was no intelligence on this." On July 14 and since, he has repeatedly denied that there was any "intelligence failure".

Disclosures of various cautionary reports by officials mount by the day; based, no doubt, on anguished sources within the Army and the paramilitary forces. They cite precise dates of reports which they had sent, only to be ignored. There are also credibl e reports on the commencement of the intrusions.

Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh said on July 20 that the Government would soon institute a high-level inquiry into whether intelligence failure led to the Pakistani intrusion into Kargil. "The members of the inquiry commission and its terms o f reference will be known (sic.) shortly."

The terms of reference should not be confined to the initial intelligence failure alone but should also cover the responses of, both, leaders of the Government and the Army, at all levels. It would have been in the fitness of things had they been drawn up in consultation with former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and H.D. Deve Gowda. (Inclusion of I.K. Gujral will not add to the prestige of the group.) Additionally, senior leaders of the Opposition, such as Harkishan S ingh Surjeet, Jyoti Basu, A.B. Bardhan and Sharad Pawar, should have been consulted. An inquiry with a narrow remit which excludes failures such as those of intelligence and the roles of the men at the top, whether in government, the Army or in the intel ligence services, will not inspire confidence. It will be a mere "review", not an "inquiry" at all. There can be no underestimating the depth of the resentment felt by many at attempts to cover up. They fear that the probe would be programmed to let the big fish escape. Appointment to comfortable posts of persons in the know, who are themselves accountable, has fuelled the suspicion.

In such an atmosphere, the Establishment begins to leak like a sieve. The ship of state is the only one to leak from the top, as Sir Humphrey Appleby reminded Bernard Woolley. Why did the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court disagree with Chief Justice War ren Burger's proposition in the Pentagon Papers case that the duty of every citizen with respect to the discovery or possession of stolen property, applicable to cabmen, applies also to The New York Times? Because the Government was perceived to b e deceiving the public.

Hardly had Outlook (July 25) come out with an expose setting out in precise detail repeated warnings by Brigadier Surinder Singh, Brigade Commander, Kargil sector, since August 1998 than a correspondent was tipped off that the documents were among the 26 letters attached to the Brigadier's legitimate Redressal of Grievance (ROG) petition addressed, through proper channels, to the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. V.P. Malik. At least two retired Lieutenants-General have added their voice to criticism of the Government. No prize is given for identifying the source that leaked the ROG to the correspondent.

The committee will be gravely remiss if it does not requisition the entire record and summon the principal actors. Section 11 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 empowers the Government to arm "any authority (by whatever name called) other than a Com mission appointed under" the Act with the coercive powers available to a Commission of Inquiry, proper. Will the Kargil committee demand these powers? The committee's silence in the face of disquiet over its severely narrow remit is deafening. The commit tee's statement on August 4 invites inputs from the public "based on reliable and authentic information", but said nothing in response to public criticism of its absurdly narrow remit. "Highly placed sources" told Chandan Nandi of The Telegraph (A ugust 4) that the committee had been advised to proceed in a "general" manner and not make it "individual-specific". In other words, individual culpability is excluded. A farce of the process of accountability. The source added, "The focus will be on sys temic problems."

Significantly, we have not had any commitment from the Government that it would publish the committee's report. The litmus test of accountability is that the process must cover the entire state machinery involved in the affair - from the top downwards.

THE Kahan Commission of Inquiry, set up by the Israeli Government to probe into the atrocities in the Shatilla and Sabra camps in Lebanon, observed in its report, submitted on February 7, 1983: "We wish to note to the credit of the lawyers who appeared b efore us that none of them raised any argument to the effect that in the investigation being conducted before us, the status of Cabinet members (the Prime Minister and the Defence and Foreign Ministers) is different from that of others. In our view, any claim that calls for a distinction of this sort is wholly untenable."

For three days (August 3 to 5, 1983), Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke gave evidence before the Hope Commission on Security Agencies and was closely cross-examined by counsel for the Security Intelligence Organisation and for the suspect, David Combe. Intelligence is not a subject exempt from judicial inquiries.

There are, of course, obvious procedural precautions to be observed. Two precedents reveal starkly the contrast between the Government of India's committee and a mechanism for real accountability. One is the report of the Franks Committee of Privy Counse llors entitled "Falkland Islands Review", the other is the Agranat Report on the Yom Kippur War.

On July 8, 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that, following consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and leaders of other Opposition parties, the Government had decided to appoint a Committee of Privy Counsellors under the Chairmans hip of Lord Franks with the following terms of reference: "To review the way in which the responsibilities of Government in relation to the Falkland Islands and their Dependencies were discharged in the period leading upto the Argentine invasion of the F alkland Islands on 2 April 1982, taking into account all of such factors in previous years as are relevant and to report." Nothing was excluded. Note that the focus was on the discharge of responsibility. This is what accountability is about. The Kargil probe is hopelessly unfocussed.

Documents of the Foreign Office and of the Ministry of Defence on the subject were furnished to the Committee as well as all relevant files of the first three months of 1982; as also "every report from the intelligence agencies relating to the Falkland I slands from the beginning of 1982 until 2 April 1982", the date of the Argentine invasion, plus "a number of reports from previous years" and "every assessment on Argentina and the Falkland Islands made by the Joint Intelligence Organisations since 1965, together with any relevant minutes of meetings."

The public was invited to submit memoranda. The Committee studied press reports and consulted a number of books. Oral evidence was taken of all the Prime Ministers since 1965. It read "all the relevant papers that the Prime Minister personally saw from t he time the present Government took office" and "all relevant Cabinet and Cabinet Committee papers and minutes of meetings from 1965 onwards."

The Committee met in camera. The Report, published in January 1983, recommended a shake-up of the intelligence machinery. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, resigned from his office.

The Agranat Report is perhaps an even more appropriate model. The Yom Kippur War began on October 6, 1973. On October 22, 1973, Egypt agreed to a ceasefire. Soon thereafter, on November 18, 1973, the Israeli Cabinet adopted the following resolution:

"Resolved: A) That the following matters, namely: 1. The information, in the days preceding the Yom Kippur War, concerning the enemy's moves and his intentions to open war, as well as the assessments and the decisions of the duly authorised military and civilian bodies with regard to the aforementioned information; 2. The Israel Defence Forces' deployment for battle in general, its preparedness in the days preceding the Yom Kippur War and its actions up to the containment of the enemy - are of vital pub lic importance at this time requiring clarification.

"B) That an Inquiry Commission shall be set up to investigate the aforementioned matters and report to the Cabinet..."

Contrast the precision of these terms of reference, with their explicit mention of the topics on which the public demands the answers, with the vague terms of reference of the Kargil inquiry.

The Inquiry Commission was headed by Dr. Shimon Agranat, President of the Supreme Court, and comprised four other members. The Commission's Report was presented on April 2, 1974. The Agranat Report is a veritable classic on accountability.

It will be noticed that the terms of reference covered both intelligence failure and the Army's role; its preparedness in the days preceding the war as well its "actions up to the containment of the enemy". The Commission discussed the personal responsib ility of the Prime Minister and the other Ministers concerned. The Commission's "Partial Report" was devoted to intelligence, its evaluation and the state of alert. It decided to consider in a later Report the Army's deployment prior to the war and its p erformance on its outbreak, till the ceasefire. "The public is entitled to learn as soon as possible of the findings and recommendations on those subjects on which the Commission has concluded its deliberations, and it is desirable that the Government ma y be able to act in accordance on them without delay."

It, added, however, that "this report contains a general, very brief, description of facts, insofar as such a description is needed for an understanding of the conclusion. In view of its contents, this report may be published; whereas the further report, which contains a detailed description of the facts and a complete exposition of the Commission's conclusions reached by the Commission, will contain many secret facts which, in all probability, will rule out publication in full." Accountability to the n ation and preservation of military secrets in the nation's interests are not incompatibles.

The Commission was set up under Israel's Inquiry Commission Law, 1968. In its resolution, the Cabinet decided that "the matter which are the subject of the investigation and the Commission's deliberations require secrecy." Accordingly, the Commission dec ided to hold its deliberations in camera. But legal representation and the cross-examination of witnesses were allowed to persons whose conduct was in question. One para vividly illustrates the nature of the inquiry and deserves to be quoted in extenso.

"The opening of the war by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, 6.10.73, at approximately 14.00 hours, took the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) by surprise in that until the early morning hours of that day the IDF's Supreme Command and the political leadership did not evaluate that total war was about to commence and on the morning of that day. When it was already clear to them that the war would break out, the Supreme Command mistakenly assumed that it would break out only at 18.00 hours. Responsibility for thes e mistaken evaluations should be placed primarily on the Director of Military Intelligence and on his Principal Assistant in charge of the Intelligence Branch's Research Department, which is the only body in the country engaged in intelligence research. They failed by providing the IDF with totally insufficient warning: It was only at about 4.30 a.m. on Yom Kippur that the DMI, on the strength of fresh intelligence he had received, notified that the enemy would open war at 18.00 hours on both fronts. Th is brief warning did not allow for mobilisation of the reserves in an orderly fashion, and involved the hasty mobilisation of the land forces, contrary to the regular time tables and mobilisation procedures. The additional error of four hours, between 18 .00 and 14.00, further reduced the interval between the call-up of the reserves and the opening of fire by the enemy. This second error caused further disruptions in the readiness of the regular forces at the fronts and their correct deployment, particul arly on the Canal front."

The Commission proceeded to analyse the reasons for the failure of the authorities responsible for evaluation. It pronounced not only on the intelligence set-up and on the Foreign Ministry's Research Department, but also on the functioning of the Cabinet in the parliamentary system. The Director of Military Intelligence was praised for his candour and for his abilities; but "in the light of his serious failure, Major-General Zeira can no longer continue to serve in his position as Director of Military I ntelligence." Similar censures were passed on some other senior officers.

Heads rolled, in consequence. And this is the true test of any honest, thorough inquiry. It must reach the tallest poppies in the field: "During the period of tension in the week preceding the war, he (the Chief of Staff) did not even visit the fronts, i n order to get a personal feeling of what was happening there, to receive a first-hand impression from the threatening signs discovered by the observations which had been made to elicit information from the commanders in the field and to consult them. To the Chief of Staff's credit it should be recalled that he demanded the mobilisation of the whole body of reserves on Saturday morning. But in the existing conditions he should already have recommended a partial mobilisation of the reserves on 1 October, when the Egyptian 'exercise' began, and at the latest on 2 October. We did not accept his explanation that on that day he did more than enough by declaring the highest state of alert in the regular army, including the Air Force (the cancellation of leav es, duty rosters of officers at command posts, etc.), and putting the reserves mobilisation system in a state of alert." After a careful consideration of the evidence, the Commission concluded: "We regard it as our duty to recommend the termination of Lt .-General David Elazar's appointment as Chief of Staff." The Report concluded with a tribute to the armed forces.

In contrast to Indian inquiries, the Franks and Agranat Reports were submitted with remarkable despatch; a reflection on Indian work culture. It is unlikely that the committee which the Government of India has appointed will have much impact.

We shall be surprised if it performs half as well as these two bodies and if its report assuages public disquiet. The BJP and the Congress(I) will exploit the Kargil affair for political ends. But the public at large are contemptuous of attempts at polit ical exploitation of the tragedy. Concerned with national security, they ask precise questions. They are entitled to the answers - fully and honestly.

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