INDIAN ARMY BEFORE AND AFTER OPERATION VIJAY

Vijaymeans Victory, the sacred adage of the Indian Army. In the history of the Indian Army, there have been three campaigns called Operation Vijay. In the first two, the Indian Army tasted total triumph with its head held high. The first one was the liberation of Goa in 1961 and the second one was Kargil War in 1999. Why is this that the Indian Army, at least those men that can still think straight and independent without recourse to undying sycophancy, has to be apologetic about the still-in-progress Operation Vijay (Kumar Singh)? To answer this question objectively, let me relate a personal experience.

Op Vijay 1961 – Liberation of Goa

In 1996, on promotion to the rank of Captain in the Indian Navy, I was selected to undergo the 25th Higher Command Course with the Army. The next Army Chief, or Army Chief designate, General Bikram Singh, was my course mate in the AHCC. During our first operational tour, we visited the Northern Sector. General KV Krishna Rao (Retd) was the Governor of Jammu & Kashmir. On the first evening of our visit to Srinagar we were invited to At-Home with His Excellency, the Governor. In the entire AHCC, there were just two Indian Navy officers. As soon as the Governor spotted me, he jokingly commented, “It appears to me that the Indian Navy has a strange way to elect a Chief”. The remark was a dig at the quaint way in which Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s impending succession as the Naval Chief on First of October 1996 had started a bush-fire of polemics. As Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, from which post Admiral Bhagwat took over as the Chief, he was at the helm of controversies. Earlier, as Chief of Staff of the same command, he had been accused of phone-tapping of his adversaries. Later, on 30th Dec 1998, he had the dubious distinction of having been sacked by the Government of India.

As I felt somewhat regretful about the Navy chief’s succession being hotly debated in the open, little did I know that 16 years later when Bikram would be at the verge of taking over, the heat of controversies would leave the Vishnu Bhagwat episode cold in comparison.

India is not a country where the people at large are generally knowledgeable about defence matters. The dumbing down of our people caused by the relentless diatribe unleashed by the media may be a recent phenomenon; however, Indians have always liked to indulge more in rabble-rousing jingoism than proud patriotism. The attempts to bring down the armed forces to the low levels achieved by the civil administration are only matched by the arrogant ignorance about achievements of the armed forces in general and army in particular. When I visited J&K and was briefed about the incomparable way Army has conducted itself there, my belief became stronger that we have to be thankful to the Indian Army for not only peace and progress in Kashmir but also for keeping it safe as integral part of the country. Most of our countrymen are not at all au fait with the strategic sense, restraint, calm and exemplary commitment displayed by the Army under trying conditions.

How many people are aware that the Army’s strategic sense in Kashmir includes giving credit to the police and civil administration for jobs that army does for the people; eg, Op Sadhbhavna (Operation Goodwill), and safe conduct of elections.

With such general ignorance and neglect of the Army, every once in a while, someone or the other brings out how the country not only does not have a monument to honour its soldiers but most of our countrymen have no idea of what the Army does, its training, operational readiness, achievements etc.

I would say that about ten percent of the people who read the papers and watch the television are aware of the glorious accomplishments of the Indian Army. Ninety percent either are ignorant or ain’t impressed. For example, the Liberation of Bangladesh in the 1971 Indo-Pak War is being taught in the war colleges abroad as one of the finest examples of a most successful campaigns. However, not many are really aware what it entailed to fight a war in which even the political aims were not defined by the government. Many people have forgotten that in 1947-48, when called upon to do a duty that was suddenly thrust on it, the Army achieved the unsaid aims gloriously and that we are in a mess in Kashmir because the political leadership failed to follow up on Army’s Vijay.

Op Vijay – 1999 Kargil

George Fernandez as Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) threatened to send the babus (bureaucrats) to Siachin (at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet; where the Indian Army maintains permanent presence in arguably the most inhospitable conditions in the world) to let them have a feel of what is entailed when their babudom procrastinates decisions to be taken for procuring urgently required equipment to survive at those heights.

Volumes have been written about the ever deteriorating civil-military relationship – a relationship between one of the worst in the world and one of the best in the world. Of course, the thankless nation and national leadership would like to keep the Army as a tethered puppy ready to become a mastiff with the external enemy but otherwise ready to lick the feet of the political and bureaucratic bigwigs.

In this scenario, we have the latest Operation Vijay (Kumar Singh). There is an age old precept that bad news and publicity travels much faster than good news. So, whereas in the years of hard work, dedication, commitment and achievements of the Indian Army, very few people are really appreciative of the army (I put the figure at about 10 percent of the media – watching people), now, nearly 90 percent are aware that a Chief, for “purely personal reasons” has attempted to drag the Army into needless wrangling. No one is denying that the matters of corruption and deteriorating civil-military relations need to be tackled. But, exactly how Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat’s infamous attempts to sort out these issues were an afterthought to his initial and much publicised opposition to the appointment of Vice Admiral Harnder Singh as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff; General VK Singh’s belated pursuits to sort out corruption in army procurements and remedy the worsening civil-military relations, would always be seen by his abortive attempts at upsetting the carefully laid out succession plan.

Hence, the adverse offshoots of Operation Vijay (Kumar Singh) are:

  • He has made the task of his successor extremely difficult as far as relationship with the government is concerned. Without any fault of General Bikram Singh, the government and the nation would be suspicious of any move by him, if at all, to set right the balance of civil-military relations; for the simple reason that everyone involved would be assessing how the General personally gains by it.
  • The good that the Army did is, as it is, known only by a few. Now, with the personal greed of the General VK Singh, what the countrymen would remember of the Indian Army would be unsavoury wranglings for power, avarice, corruption and megalomaniac ambitions.
  • The impression that the rot in the Army is deep rooted is strengthened by the vituperation of the camp loyal to General VK Singh against the heretics and vice-versa. In this milieu the all important issue of setting right the balance of civil-military relations has taken – and will take – a back seat. I don’t know why this simple fact has not sunk in with the loyalists.
  • Lastly, let us weigh the effect of this, and such controversies in the past, on the junior leadership of the army. The senior hierarchy often talks disparagingly about the ‘decline in values and moral standards of those who join the army nowadays as compared to the good-ol’-days‘. The junior officers and men, therefore, would be excused if now onwards they have a bias that the seniors should first set their own house in order (Read ‘Leadership in the Navy – Past, Present and Future‘) and stop washing army’s dirty linen in public. A few decades back, in the US Naval Institute Proceedings (USNIP) there was an article titled ‘The Fish Rots at the Head’

I am quite sure that after General VK Singh has taken his well-deserved retirement and finished writing his bestseller memoir regarding how there were matters of national security involved in the “purely personal” issue of his date of birth, he would pause and think about the damage his continued belligerent stand has done at various levels. This would, I am afraid, continue for some time to come.

It is easier to throw a stone in the pond; it is harder to let the ripples die down suddenly.

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