From Kargil to Sarp Vinash

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

The continuing story of the use and abuse of the Indian Army by the NDA government.

in New Delhi

AS the Kargil war wound down in the autumn of 1999, another war began: one to protect the image and legitimacy of Defence Minister George Fernandes, his allies in the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the top leadership of the Indian Army. The weapon of choice for the Army and the Defence Ministry's media managers was flat denial of each expos. The Army had not, its public relations officials angrily insisted, vacated any forward posts in the winter before the war. No hard intelligence existed that Pakistan was planning a limited offensive, they went on. Operations had not been botched. Allegations of command failures were untrue. Point 5353, a key feature in the Dras sector that India failed to recapture, was not even on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC). All criticism was ill-placed, misinformed, motivated, dishonest, and verged on the anti-national.

And it worked.

Much of the defence-reporting set-up kept quiet, and most of India's reading public never came to know that evidence of gross mismanagement and top-level incompetence even existed. Even after authoritative military histories written by former officers, such as Major-General Y.M. Bammi (The Impregnable Conquered) and Major-General Ashok Kalyan Verma (Blood on the Snow), substantiated critical allegations that had emerged and pulled a few more skeletons out of the closet, the mainstream media chose to remain silent. Underpinning the silence is a National Democratic Alliance-run system of media control. At one end of this system lies punishment. Dissidents have to face a systematic denial of access and sometimes personal vilification; their sources speak to them at the risk of losing their jobs. At the other end? Reward in the form of the odd freebie, the odd exclusive story and a cosy first-name relationship with the Army's top brass.

And it is working again.

A fortnight has passed since Frontline's expose of Operation Sarp Vinash as a public relations fraud dishonourable even by the shabby standards that have prevailed ever since Defence Minister George Fernandes took office (Frontline, July 4). During the fortnight, it has become clear the tools put in place before 1999 have been sharpened, and are now being exercised with greater finesse. This time, confronted with the mass of documentary evidence that emerged in the course of Frontline's Sarp Vinash investigation, the Army has not even bothered to put out a denial - possibly because it can again be challenged. Instead, the Ministry of Defence has resorted to some unsubtle leaning on all those it believes may have leaked the damning documents, including the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Research and Analysis Wing and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. At a cocktail party held for the defence press, Defence Intelligence Agency chief Kamal Dawar claimed that the Frontline Cover Story was the outcome of "rivalries between intelligence agencies", and lamented to all who were willing to listen about the incompetence of the I.B.

Not one word, it should be noted, has so far been said on the two key elements of the expose: that the Army grossly exaggerated the numbers of terrorists it had eliminated, that its claims about hundreds of terrorists running training camps and making war-like preparations were hokum (see tables). The only action taken, highly placed sources say, is that the Chief of the Army Staff, General Nirmal Vij ordered an internal inquiry, the principal task of which is to investigate just how his organisation ended up making claims that it could not substantiate. Even this minimal effort is better than what has been put up by sections of the media. Just one journalist, the Press Trust of India's Sumir Kaul, has sought to follow up on the Sarp Vinash expose. Kaul reported that an internal inquiry conducted for the Home Ministry had found that just 30-odd terrorists had been killed during Operation Sarp Vinash. This figure is consistent with Frontline's findings. But the silence of the media in general has helped the Army to get away with the scam: Dawar, for example, told journalists at his cocktail party that the Operation had been a "roaring success" and that it had claimed the lives of 182 terrorists.

BUT the Army is not the real problem. In order to understand just what is going wrong, one has to examine the conduct of the politicians who have been running it since 1998. Fernandes was the first leader within the NDA to understand just how easily the Army could be used for political ends. Shortly after he took office, he initiated a well-advertised campaign to show that the new Minister, unlike his predecessors, cared for the Army and its rank-and-file. The Minister was seen with unprecedented regularity paying Field Marshal-like visits to forward posts in the most inhospitable corners of India's frontiers. On one occasion, bureaucrats who had delayed the purchase of snow scooters were despatched to the Siachen Glacier to atone for their recalcitrance. Yet, the truth is that Fernandes' `Army-friendly' image was nine parts media myth to one part fact. The 19th Report of the Standing Committee on Defence, tabled in Parliament earlier this year, shows that troops continue to be short of the most basic equipment, and that most of the modernisation programmes of the forces are stalled because of poor planning. Of the 3,53,765 bullet-proof jackets needed by Indian soldiers, for example, only 1,24,640 had been purchased.

Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister L.K. Advani added to Fernandes' myth-building exercise. On May 18, 1998, after the NDA's first major meeting on Jammu and Kashmir, he advocated a `proactive' policy, a term which rapidly proliferated into threats of `hot pursuit' of terrorists into Pakistan. The more politically astute Generals had understood the signals emanating from New Delhi. In an interview to Frontline, the Quartermaster-General, Lieutenant-General Krishan Pal, suggested that the real solution to Pakistan's low-intensity war was "to go across and strike them". (Frontline, April 3, 1998) His subordinate in the Leh-based 3 Division, Major-General V.S. Budhwar, even hosted Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) personnel who visited the town to participate in the Sindhu Darshan festival. By early 1999, propelled by Pokhran-II fuelled euphoria, the NDA and the Army began to congratulate themselves on having contained terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. In one particularly hilarious article, the RSS even announced that Advani's "proactive Kashmir policy [had] effectively checked [the] trans-border influx of trouble-makers." The Minister, it asserted, had "helped the Kashmir Valley to steadily, though not quite so fast, return to their earlier pleasant days of a `Happy Valley.'"

Had anyone been counting, these claims were just more fluff. In 1994, with a supposedly weak Congress regime in power at the Centre, 1,851 terrorists were killed. The figures were 1,338 in 1995, 1,194 in 1996 and 1,177 in 1997. In 1998, the first `proactive year', the figure fell to 1,045, with 648 Indian security force personnel killed in response. In 1999, the number of terrorists killed was 1,082, while the number of security force personnel who died went up to 723. Kargil - or at least the media construction of what happened there - helped the NDA evade the consequences of mismanagement. Both during and after the war, the appropriation of the military for political ends continued. In a startling departure from precedent, Fernandes even took General Vij to brief a meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party's National Executive. Injured war hero Yogendra Yadav had been asked to touch the feet of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) senior vice - president Giriraj Kishore; when he was found to be physically unable to comply, his wife made the gesture in his stead. Members of the women's wing of the VHP marched to Army headquarters carrying lotus-shaped rakhis, or ornamental wrist-bands, a ritual symbol of brotherhood made in the form of the BJP's political symbol.

Even Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee joined in advertising the supposedly organic relationship between the nation's Army and the party that claimed to represent the essence of Indian nationhood. On one notable occasion during the 1999 post-Kargil elections, he addressed a campaign rally in Haryana from a platform decorated with portraits of the three Service chiefs. General V.P. Malik, the Chief of the Army Staff, weakly protested against this and other efforts to associate the Army with the BJP, but usually to little effect. The Prime Minister, for example, put the blame for the billboard erected in Karnal on the local organisers of the event, but no one within the organisation suffered censure. Neither did Gen. Vij, to whom Gen. Malik made his unhappiness known. Neither did Generals Krishan Pal and Budhwar, despite their well-documented failures of command and strategic appraisal during the Kargil war. Fernandes himself was bailed out by the BJP after the debacle, despite the evidence that emerged of his sitting on top of a defence contracts empire with links to a system of payoffs.

Using the Army to sell a political order is fundamentally different from using models to sell the most whitening toothpaste or the most gentle soap. It has very real consequences for the security of India. The experience of Pokhran-II should, if nothing else, have taught both politicians and military leaders this basic lesson. The NDA carried out its schemes with no coherent understanding of their long-term military consequences, and without even the trouble of conducting detailed war games, believing that a nuclearised subcontinent would be free of the risk of war. Vajpayee was even moved to describe the nuclear bomb as "a weapon that helps in preserving the peace". This understanding fuelled the `hot-pursuit' thesis, and finally imploded on India in Kargil. In fact, it is possible to argue that the tests were ordered by people who had not even consulted a good undergraduate textbook on nuclear deterrence. The three-decades-old `Stability-Instability Paradox' postulates that conventionally weak but aggressive states like Pakistan may be emboldened to pursue their objectives against strong opponents under the cover of their nuclear umbrella.

By late 2001, the Union government had been brought under intense pressure by an adversary who did appear to have done his reading - Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. The pile of debacles - the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight 814 to Kandahar, followed by the bombing of the Legislative Assembly building in Srinagar and, finally, the attack on Parliament House in New Delhi - mounted beyond politically acceptable limits. The NDA responded by using the Army. Operation Parakram, the largest mobilisation of troops since the 1971 war, brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the edge of war. The forward build-up, however, exposed the structural problems in India's military posture vis-a-vis Pakistan. For one, key modernisation programmes, including the induction of a new main battle tank and advanced airborne early warning systems, have given India only a marginal conventional edge over Pakistan. Any war would be a limited one, it seemed, and would serve no real military purpose. More important, the risks of nuclear escalation, although discounted by many experts, were real and present.

Operation Parakram was eventually called off, and the troops were withdrawn after a sapping forward deployment that ended up leaving morale knee-high. It illustrated the serious problems that feel-good polemic has generated for both the Army and the NDA. The NDA blamed the former Army chief, S. Padmanabhan for not being willing to initiate hostilities at the outset of the operation; sources close to him insist that the government had backed out when the Army was ready to go for it. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact remains that knee-jerk political reactions have shaped military decisions. Sadly, Gen. Padmanabhan played along with Operation Parakram long after it had turned into a fiasco, and attempted to rebuild his political bridges by pushing for Fernandes and the Kargil-era External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, to receive war medals. Meanwhile, Pakistan realised that India was simply not in a position to exercise its conventional might, and that this fact left Pakistan free to escalate the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir more or less at will. At the start of Parakram, Musharraf had publicly stated his willingness to end cross-border movement of terrorists; now he has made it clear that he would do nothing of the kind. "If they think I am going to stop even a bird flying across the LoC, I will not," he told The Times (of London) on July 20. The word will has obvious significance.

And that brings the issue back to Operation Sarp Vinash. The sad fact is that five years after the `proactive' policy was put in place, India still has no coherent strategic plan to deter Pakistan from continuing its sub-conventional war in Jammu and Kashmir. The June 28, 2003, terrorist attack on an Army camp on the outskirts of Jammu, coming soon after Musharraf returned from his less-than-successful visit to the United States, has signalled that Pakistan now intends to use escalatory tactics to secure what it wants.

It is unlikely that many people in the Ministry of Home and the Ministry of Defence are unaware of the dangers that stare India in the face. Yet, in the face of inability to respond with real action, it suits both the politicians and the Generals to invent triumph and to manufacture good news that will insulate the establishment from the public anger and contempt that its dismal record of failures in Jammu and Kashmir has inspired. It is still far from clear just who manufactured the Sarp Vinash myth, and in a sense it does not matter. The bottom line is that unless both the politicians and the Army decide to take serious business seriously, India is going to continue to be at the receiving end of a brutal and long-running war.

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