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Did Pandit Nehru And VK Menon Destroy The Indian Army?

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We often read about the Indian Army’s 200 years of unblemished history and their near destruction under former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and former Defense Minister VK Krishna Menon. We are told that the military was revived under later PMs Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi and that it has been going strong since. This myth is so widely accepted that even the Congress Party believes and perpetuates it, selling out Nehru with no qualms.  

“Glorious Past” of the Indian Army

When people accuse Nehru of destroying the Army, they think very highly of the British colonial rulers. British Indian Army was indeed a strong fighting force who kept India under slavery while defending against Afghan attacks from time to time.

But the claim that the British Indian Army had an unblemished record for 200 years or that it was “Asia’s most powerful fighting force” are overstatements. We know that the British Indian Army failed multiple times in Afghanistan and was on backfoot against the Japanese during the second world war.

Whatever might be the record of pre-1947 Indian Army, during Partition, the Indian Army had to part with one-third of its men who not just became part of the Pakistani Army, but the biggest enemy, requiring most of the remaining force to counter it. The Navy and Air Force ceased to exist because the British took all the hardware that remained after the war. 

Even before the departure of British hardware, in 1947 India had to rely on civilian aircrafts to deploy troops and supplies to Kashmir. Today we hear arguments that India could have won in 1962 if the Air Force was deployed. How could India acquire such a powerful Air Force in the first place if it was not for Nehru and Krishna Menon?

So, the claims of Nehru and Krishna Menon weakening the military are false. The military that was inherited by Nehru and Krishna Menon was very weak, whatever the glory of the British Indian Army had been. Further, since the Indian Army lost two-thirds of the housing built in what had become Pakistan, the military families had an acute shortage of housing. Through Operation Amar and other projects, Krishna Menon provided housing to the soldiers.

A Period of Adjustment

The Indian Army was an arm of British oppression in pre-1947 days. While the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is well known, the British Indian Army helped the British government check on the freedom struggle and its leadership. Post 1947, the situation was not the most comfortable for the officers of the Indian Army. 

The outlaws and traitors under British rule have suddenly become the government themselves. These were the same people the Army had lathi-charged, spied on and put behind bars. So, the animosity towards not just Nehru but VK Krishna Menon who oversaw the smooth transition of political power to the civilian leadership needs to be considered.

Whether there could be a military coup in India, as was the case in Pakistan or Bangladesh, is considered speculation of no merit in the modern-day. But the truth remains that Pakistan was void of inspiring political leadership after the death of Jinnah and assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan. The Pakistani Army filled that vacuum.

Fortunately, there was no shortage of such civilian leadership in India even after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. It was a source of disappointment for our military leaders who saw their former colleagues do bigger and better things in Pakistan.

Contempt for Khadi Clad Leaders

The officers who ascended through the British ranks were loyal to the crown to whom they owed their careers and comfortable lifestyle. Even after independence, these officers continued their loyalty to the British, although they drew their paychecks from the Indian Republic. Indeed, old habits die hard.

In his book, Confrontation With Pakistan, Lt Gen BM Kaul wrote of his colleagues’ eagerness to please westerners. Kaul expresses displeasure over the top-secret Brooks-Bhagat Report being handed to British-Australian journalist Neville Maxwell while it had been inaccessible even to the Indian Parliament. 

Sam Manekshaw hanging pictures of Robert Clive and Warren Hastings in officers’ dining room is well known. In his book Himalayan Blunder, JP Dalvi contemptuously refers to the politicians as “so-called freedom fighters”. Officers such as BM Kaul who readily switched their allegiance from the British to the new khadi-clad leadership were looked down upon as sycophants, traitors and snitches. References were made to them as “generals in Nehru jacket”. 

Manekshaw’s reported unflattering comments about the political leadership got him into trouble and court-martialed, although the charges were dropped later. Those that criticise the prosecution of Manekshaw need to understand the widespread indiscipline among the ranks of the Indian Army at that time, as well as the public uproar against such behaviour. 

Neville Maxwell and TJS George narrate opposition leaders such as JB Kriplani citing newspaper reports of such indiscipline during parliamentary debates. Kriplani accused Menon daily of his incompetence to discipline the military. Menon had thus become a punching bag for both the military and political class.

Menon could not indefinitely tolerate the childish behaviours of the likes of Manekshaw. He had to draw the line and even make an example. Fortunately, Manekshaw’s behaviour changed in the aftermath and he served India well under khadi leadership.

Eagerness to Please the British

General Thimayya
General Thimayya.

In his biography of VK Krishna Menon, Jairam Ramesh writes of then Army Chief, General Thimayya, discussing the ministry of defence’s happenings with his neighbour and British High Commissioner Malcolm MacDonald, over scotch. It appears that much of that information was false while Thimayya seemingly wanted to impress MacDonald by reporting what the latter wanted to hear. 

For example, Thimayya reportedly told MacDonald that Menon was plotting a coup against Nehru. This was triumphantly reported in Pakistani Newspapers, although Ramesh himself could not prove such a coup. Thimayya was indulging MacDonald by trash-talking Krishna Menon.

Adoration for the Britishers and eagerness to please them was not just limited to the military men of that time. Many other Indians who were not part of the freedom struggle indulged in such behaviour as well. Ramesh describes the cordial relationship and indiscreet discussions with MacDonald by then Vice-President Dr S Radhakrishnan.

By all accounts, Thimayya agreed with Krishna Menon that Pakistan was the enemy and that Aksai Chin was not worth picking a fight with China. It was only after Krishna Menon began implementing the Forward Policy against his own better judgement in 1959 that they parted ways.

Yet, as Ramesh reports, Thimayya gave exact opposite arguments to MacDonald. He must have done so because that was what MacDonald wanted to hear. At that time, the British government wanted India to join the Cold War, hand over Kashmir to Pakistan and jointly fight Communist China — none which neither Nehru nor Krishna Menon was willing to do. 

According to Ramesh, Thimayya complained to MacDonald that Krishna Menon did not take the Chinese threat seriously and that Menon was too obsessed with Pakistan. In early 1962, that same Thimayya would publicly declare that enmity with China was untenable and that a peaceful negotiated political settlement be found to the Sino-Indian border crisis, which had been Krishna Menon’s position all along.

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