On Operation Parakram, Singh has been stingy with truth
Former foreign minister, Jaswant Singh’s recent book, ‘A Call to Honour’ provides an opportunity to review Operation Parakram, the 10-month long military stand-off with Pakistan that has many unlearnt lessons for India’s national security. Following the terrorist attack on Parliament on 13 December 2001, after a similar attack on the state legislature of Jammu and Kashmir on 1 October 2001, Jaswant writes, ‘the government, outraged, ordered a troop mobilisation; a near year-long stand-off between India and Pakistan followed.’ ‘It (the stand-off) was an example of coercive diplomacy, combining aggressive diplomatic action internationally with firm military positioning that contained the potential of pushing consequences should recalcitrance persist.’ He adds that the nuclear war scare raised by the US and the UK was odd. ‘I found this odd, also entirely unnecessary: Why cause a deliberate scare by raising alarms about a possibility of a ‘nuclear conflict’, or of this troops’ mobilisation acquiring any kind of uncontrolled autonomy? The scare is incomprehensible, for a nuclear dimension just did not exit.’ In short, what Jaswant has said is that troops’ mobilisation was meant to exercise coercive diplomacy alone; there was little possibility of a war, hence the question of nuclear exchange did not arise. The then Prime Minister A.B Vajpayee, however, has admitted that India was close to a war with Pakistan on two occasions, in January and June 2002. Importantly, Vajpayee publicly regretted not going to war with Pakistan after December 13, admitting that it was a mistake. Moreover, the then chairman, chiefs of staff committee and the army chief, General S. Padmanabhan, at the official termination of Operation Parakram on 16 October 2002 said that, ‘whenever there is a situation calling for army’s help, the latter’s role should be clearly defined to avoid confusion.’ All this is public knowledge.
Now a bit of the inside story; since the matter is serious I have decided to share a telephonic conversation I had with General Padmanabhan a few months ago. The general told me that sometimes in beginning January (2002) he had met Jaswant Singh and the National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra in the latter’s office. Padmanabhan was there to apprise them that the armed forces were fully mobilised and ready for war. Just then an aide walked in to inform Jaswant that he had an important call waiting for him. Jaswant left the meeting immediately while Padmanabhan spent some more time (over an hour) with Mishra discussing certain war details. Mishra appeared satisfied with the talks. However, within hours on the same day, Mishra called Padmanabhan back into his office to inform him ‘in a sombre tone’ that war had been called off. The gentleman Padmanbhan told me that before he ever writes his personal account about Operation Parakram, he intends to meet with Jaswant to know who called him and how that call changed the course of India’s determined action. What does it all mean?
Jaswant Singh is short on truth. Here are some facts: The defence forces, and especially the army were told to mobilise for war, which undoubtedly was a knee-jerk reaction as the Vajpayee government wanted to do something equally spectacular as the terrorist attack on Parliament. In his enthusiasm, the GOC, 2 corps, Lt Gen. Kapil Vij permitted reconnaissance patrols beyond his corps concentration area in the Thar desert in beginning January 2002, which on US’ instructions led to his immediate replacement by Lt Gen. B.S. Thakur. (As an aside, if we allow ourselves to get bullied by the US on such a small matter, then how can we ever stand up to them on big issues, read July 18 Agreement). The US was alarmed that war was certain, and if it had joined, it could not have remained a ‘controlled autonomy’ as Jaswant claims. The chances of Pakistan sounding a serious nuclear threat were certain as its reserves, 11 and 12 corps, were tied down in the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban. Defence minister, George Fernandes later told Parliament that the Operation cost 130 lives, and Rs 8,000 crores to the exchequer excluding Rs 300 crores compensation paid to villagers in border areas. What he did not say is that India’s conventional war capabilities stood completely blunted, the army leadership was confused as no one had told them to mobilise for coercive diplomacy, and there was a massive wear and tear on equipment worth hundreds of crores.
Therefore, here are a few observations: The military leadership should be in the national security policy-making loop, especially when serious things like war and policies for border areas are discussed and formulated by the Cabinet Committee on Security. This is not all. The chairman, chiefs of staff committee should be a member of the National Command Authority that deals with decisions regarding nuclear weapons. In case of war, the political leadership should issue a written directive to the military leadership stating unambiguously what it wants the armed forces to do. The present system of the three service’s headquarters calling itself an integrated headquarters of the defence ministry is a farce. The need is for better integration; civilian officers in services’ headquarters, and service officers in the defence ministry. And importantly, there is a need for the political leadership to know more about military matters, especially when a rising India desires to play a larger role in the world.