Open secret?

Published : Apr 24, 2009 00:00 IST

THE Central Information Commission (CIC), headed by Wajahat Habibullah and comprising on the Bench, M.L. Sharma, has rendered a grave disservice to the nation by ruling that the report of Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat on our military debacle in the India-China war of 1962 cannot be disclosed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. The reasons are not only wrong palpably, but are far-reaching in their implications. They ignore hallowe d precedent as the book under review shows.

The report cannot compromise either Indias security or its ties with China for the simple reason, as this writer disclosed earlier, that Neville Maxwell has a copy of the report. His book Indias China War, published in 1970, is based on it (vide the writers article Looking Back, Frontline, April 10, 1992).

Maxwell has since gone a step further. He has openly avowed possession of a copy of the report in an article in the Economic & Political Weekly (April 14, 2001) entitled Henderson Brooks Report: An Introduction. He revealed that the report is long [its main section, excluding recommendations and many annexures, covers nearly 200 foolscap pages]. He avers that the report includes no surprises and its publication would be of little significance. The officially published brief summary was largely misleading.

Is the Indian citizen to be denied access to it nearly half a century later? Especially since the entire exercise was undertaken to assuage an anguished people. In form, it was an internal review instituted by the Army chief, General J.N. Chaudhari. But it was in pursuance of Jawaharlal Nehrus assurance to the Rajya Sabha on November 29, 1962: I hope there will be an inquiry so as to find out what mistakes or errors were committed and who were responsible for them.

Accordingly, Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan announced the institution of the inquiry on April 1, 1963. He gave a garbled summary to the Lok Sabha on September 2, 1963. He claimed it was the type of inquiry that was promised but pleaded that the public interest would be harmed by disclosure. The Defence Ministrys claims that reports of internal review are not even submitted to government is puerile. The government has a right to ask for it, and in this case it was submitted to the Army chief on May 12, 1963 who forwarded it to the Defence Minister with his comments on July 2.

The Ministry falsely asserts that disclosure of the Armys operational strategy in 1962 has a direct bearing on the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control. The Chinese and the world know of the strategy and troop deployment. The demarcation has gone nowhere. China wants a political accord. Disclosures of 1962 have no bearing on the LACs alignment. Every one knows that Dhola Post and a few other places were north of, and beyond, the McMahon Line. Nehru admitted as much on September 12, 1959. In some parts the McMahon Line was varied by us.

The CIC misdirected itself by holding that this is a live issue, hence, no disclosure. It implies that disclosure will only follow an accord on the boundary question. This defeats the object of the inquiry and also the whole purpose of the RTI.

It is relevant to read the transcript of the testimony recorded at the hearings conducted jointly by the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees into the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur (The New York Times, May 4-June 8, 1952). Although the proceedings were in camera, a censored report of the entire evidence was made available that very day.

Apart from the General himself, the others who gave evidence were the Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Defence Secretary General George Marshall, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Omar Bradley. The inquiry was not limited to the actual dismissal. It covered a very wide range of issues and comprised a thorough discussion of the rival concepts of strategy and tactics and the differing opinions on American military strength.

We are stripping the nations security framework to the bare skeleton, Chairman Richard B. Russel remarked. He was not wrong. Americanreporters were chagrined to find the TASS correspondent regularly coming to buy the transcript for a few cents. (The full text was published in The New York Times). And all this while the Korean war was on. It ended two years later.

A special commission was set by an Act of the British Parliament to enquire into the Dardanelles campaign. Eminent admirals, generals and a judge were its members. The terms of reference were for the purpose of inquiring into the origin, inception and conduct of operations or war in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, including the supply of drafts, reinforcements, ammunition and equipment to the troops and fleet, the provision for the sick and wounded, and the responsibility of those departments of the government whose duty it has been to minister to the wants of the forces employed in that theatre of war.

On July 18, 1916, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced in the House of Commons, at the end of a two-day debate, that he would set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the Dardanelles operations. Its report was debated in the House of Commons on March 20, 1917, while the First World War was on. It ended in 1918.

This book could not have made a more timely appearance. It is due to be published on April 25. Judges of the Supreme Court will profit much by it if the case goes to the court in appeal, as one hopes it will.

Prof. Robin Prior has consulted the archives to provide a full account that demolishes many myths. The campaign in the Gallipoli peninsula, across the Dardanelles, in 1915-16 attempted to shorten the war by eliminating Ottoman Turkey, then Germanys unwise ally, creating an alliance in the Balkans, and securing a sea route to Czarist Russia through the Dardanelles. Had it succeeded, the Ottoman and Czarist regimes might have survived.

It ended in disaster, at a loss of 390,000 lives. It was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, head of the Admiralty. His career suffered a setback when he was removed from office.

As Secretary of War, Horatio Kitchener was privy to it. The Cabinet was busy with plans to divide the Ottoman Empire and ignored the campaign. As in Arunachal Pradesh in 1962, the Ministers failed in the higher direction of the war (page 70) a phrase also used in the Henderson Brooks Report.

Students of history will welcome this definitive work. The politics of war are exposed thoroughly. The vain effort to achieve a cheap victory holds lessons for all. One hopes the author will follow up this work with a full-length study of the Dardanelles Commission.

By the way, did the CIC know that Israel set up two commissions of inquiry into military campaigns. One was headed by the president of the Supreme Court, Shimon Agranat, on the Yom Kippur War of 1974. The other, headed by a retired Judge, Eliyahu Winograd, submitted a 629-page report on the campaign against Lebanon in 2006. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had to testify before it. Even Margaret Thatcher set up the Franks Inquiry into the Falklands war.

In 2009, our CIC bars disclosure of a report of 1963 on a military debacle of 1962. Are we such a substandard democracy?

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