A probe and its prospects

Print edition : August 14, 1999

The composition of the Committee of Inquiry on the Kargil war and the fact that it does not have any statutory authority raise questions about the real reasons for its formation.

THE Union Government's Committee of Inquiry on the Kargil war is not dissimilar to a board of Union Carbide employees charged with investigating the Bhopal gas disaster. The Committee is responsible for reviewing the events that led to the Kargil war and making recommendations to prevent such situations in the future, but the organic links of its members with the structures of power in New Delhi have done little to inspire confidence that the exercise will serve any meaningful purpose. The fact that the Committee has no statutory authority means that it will have little real power. Cynics may be forgiven for believing that the sole purpose of setting up the Kargil Committee is not to excavate the truth, but to permit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) go vernment to broadcast that it has nothing to hide.

It takes little to see why many observers have greeted the Committee's formation with derision. Two of its three members - journalist B.G. Verghese and defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam - are members of the National Security Council's Advisory Board (NSCAB ). The NSCAB is a government-nominated body, which advised the defence establishment on its management of the crisis, which they will now examine. The Committee's Member-Secretary, Satish Chandra, heads the National Security Council's Secretariat, which is responsible for appraising intelligence and integrating strategic doctrine. Since the Government's failure to evaluate and act on intelligence reports vis-a-vis Kargil is one of the key controversies to emerge from the Kargil conflict, Chandra will ju dge, among other things, his own conduct. Lieutenant General K.K. Hazari, who retired from service in 1986, is the only person of the Committee who does not hold any official position.

While the personal integrity of the members of the Kargil Committee is beyond dispute, its composition clearly fails to meet the minimum standards of what would constitute an impartial inquiry. Even more curious is the Government's failure to set up a st atutory body with legal powers to summon witnesses and documents. Given its lack of statutory status, the Committee will have no right to seek intelligence documentation or demand those who were involved in the conflict to appear before it to answer diff icult questions. Indeed, those witnesses who do choose to appear will be under no legal obligation to speak the truth. Some observers suggest that the individual reputations of the Committee's members will render official stonewalling difficult. This is, however, a less than adequate guarantee of the integrity of the process of inquiry.

Defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam, who heads the Kargil Committee.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan laid out on July 24 the Union government's agenda for setting up the Kargil Committee. The Committee, he said, would "review the events leading up to the Pakistani aggression in Kargil district in Lada kh in Jammu and Kashmir." On the basis of its review, the Committee would, he said, "recommend such measures as are considered necessary to safeguard national security." When asked whether the Committee would investigate only the events of the conflict o r also the processes that preceded it, Mahajan said that it was free to do what it wished. The Kargil conflict, he said, "may have a short or a long history," and the Committee could look at "two years or twenty, and not just what happened in the last th ree months." "When we say events leading to, it may be intelligence, administrative, political failures. We are not binding the Committee with one or two aspects."

Mahajan proceeded to outline the reasons for setting up the Committee in the first place. Concern for future security policy, the stated purpose of the Committee, appeared to be the Union government's secondary concern. Mahajan's principal line of attack was on the Opposition's calls for a Rajya Sabha session on the conflict. The setting up of the Committee, he claimed, made clear the Union Government's commitment to transparency. "Many times in the past," he said, "the Prime Minister, the Home Minister , the Defence Minister and the External Affairs Minister have repeatedly said that there is nothing to hide for the government, that national security is supreme, and that after the war is over, we are ready to inquire into it." "We are sure," he conclud ed, "that the Committee, which has eminent persons, will give us a report which will help us strengthen national security."

Speaking to party workers in Chennai on the same day that Mahajan announced the formation of the Kargil Committee, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani expressed surprise at the Congress(I)'s decision to attack Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for his Karg il war record. "Is anyone advising them, I asked myself. Nothing but suicidal tendencies could make them choose such an agenda for the elections." Indian troops, he said, had won against the enemies on the Kargil heights and the government had secured a signal diplomatic triumph. "Every country now praises Prime Minister Vajpayee and his government, except for Pakistan," he said. Every party in this country is praising Vajpayee, except for the Congress. The world has now come to realise that the Army in Pakistan is a rogue Army. It is not a democracy like India where the elected representatives have the last word. There are autonomous centres in Pakistan who act on their own."

It is clear that the announcement of the Kargil Committee was designed to strengthen the BJP's defensive fortifications against the Congress(I)'s election assault. However, some problems remained. Defence Minister George Fernandes may have been delighted at Advani's belated endorsement of his controversial claim that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had nothing to do with the Kargil aggression, but he had other problems. On July 25, Fernandes proclaimed that the Kargil Committee would not review pos sible intelligence failures. Clearly, he was less than delighted by even the remote possibility of the flow of information about Pakistan's plans in the Kargil sector to Defence Headquarters, and the responses to it, being subjected to scrutiny. But two days later, faced with public outrage, Fernandes, true to his form throughout the Kargil conflict, denied that he had said anything of the kind.

However, more problematic than the political theatre surrounding the Kargil Committee is the possibility that its members may be starting their tasks with closed minds. Even as Vajpayee's management of the conflict was under attack, Subrahmanyam sought t o argue that the Prime Minister's errors were no different from those made by previous Congress(I) Prime Ministers. "It is forgotten," Subrahmanyam wrote in The Times of India (June 7), "that this is not the first time an Indian Prime Minister has taken Pakistani declarations at face value and was then taken for a ride." "It happened to Lal Bahadur Shastri. As the Indian and Pakistan envoys (who also happened to be brothers-in-law) were signing the agreement on submitting the Rann of Kutch disput e for arbitration in June 1965, General Ayub Khan was preparing to unleash the Operation Gibraltar infiltration force on Kashmir."

Subrahmanyam proceeded to flesh out his case with a series of polemically persuasive but facile parallels between the BJP's gross mismanagement of the Kargil campaign and mismanagement of similar situations by Congress governments. "Zulfikar Ali Bhutto," the defence analyst states, "wheedled the Simla Agreement out of Indira Gandhi, promising to work for conversion of the LoC (Line of Control), but let her down." "General Zia-ul-Haq talked of a no-war pact even as he was supporting the Khalistani terror ists and pushing ahead with his nuclear weapons programme. Ms. Benazir Bhutto spoke to Rajiv Gandhi about greater understanding among the post-Partition generations, even as her Inter-Services Intelligence was triggering the insurgency in Kashmir, and he r Army was toying with the idea of nuclear blackmail in 1990." The Union government's errors were therefore, no greater than those of its predecessors, probably less so.

Subrahmanyam came out with even more express support for the government in another artcile he wrote in The Times of India (June 21). "Pakistan's aim in initiating this aggression," he argued, "is obvious." "It was intended to internationalise the Kashmir issue as per the Pakistani framework. It was carried out at a time when Pakistan thought the Indian leadership, preoccupied with the forthcoming elections, would be weak and indecisive." But, Subrahmanyam proceeded, this strategy had collapsed. " Now Pakistan knows this plan has failed. The Indian response was both firm and restrained. The air strikes were launched, but both ground and air operations were confined to Indian territory except for retaliatory artillery fire. The most disappointing d evelopment for Pakistan was the recognition by leading nations that there was a definite aggression by Pakistan across the LoC."

The similarities between this endorsement of the government's management of the Kargil war and Advani's Chennai speech are unmistakable. Indeed, Subrahmanyam's thinking on other issues also closely mirrored that of the Union government. In the June 21 ar ticle, he challenged the "fixed ideas that the U.S.-Pak, U.S.-China and Pak-China relationships - which were developed in the Cold War - are immutable." "Pakistan no longer serves a useful purpose for the United States as it did in the Cold War era, and during the period of intense US hostility to Iran." Similar claims were later made by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh in an interview to Star News.

In a third article which appeared in The Times of India on June 29, Subrahmanyam even asserted that India's "armed forces have all the necessary skills and the professional competence to be ready to meet the whole range of Pakistani escalation pos sibilities." The proposition then leaves open to question whether the Kargil Committee has a raison d'etre.

The issue here is not whether Subrahmanyam's views are correct or not, but whether he can be an impartial judge of the events that led to the Kargil war. If the Kargil Committee is meant merely to be an in-house review of events, the composition of its m embers and their ideological persuasion would be of little relevance. However, the Committee is being projected to India's people as a public exercise, an alternative to transparent discussion in Parliament of the failures that led to Pakistan occupying and holding some 1,500 square kilometres of Indian territory. The string of events which began with the Pokhran-II nuclear tests last May, and the subsequent window of opportunity which opened for Pakistan to secure international intervention on Kashmir, are unlikely to be the subject of a credible and dispassionate discussion by an evidently partisan Committee.

As A.G. Noorani has pointed out in his discussion of possible inquiries ("Questions of Accountability", Frontline, July 2, 1999), there are more than a few appropriate models for what should have been put in place after the Kargil conflict. Soon a fter the Yom Kippur War of 1973 ended, for example, Israel set up a formal Commission of Inquiry empowered by a Cabinet resolution to investigate the state of intelligence before the war and the preparedness of the Israel Defence Forces to cope with it. The Commission was headed by Shimon Agranat, the President of Israel's Supreme Court. Noorani describes the report as a "veritable classic on accountability." "It would do Indian democracy no credit," Noorani wrote, "if Ministers and officials of the Gov ernment of India are allowed to escape accountability." "The people are entitled to know the facts."

However, the BJP-led government clearly believes otherwise. No one is as yet certain if the Kargil Committee's report will be made public, and whether Parliament will have an opportunity to discuss it. But it is increasingly clear that if the Union gover nment has its way, it is more than likely that the report will mark a triumph for fiction over fact.

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