After perfunctory noises for decades, the incumbent Govt finally showed the will to install the first CDS and Gen Rawat was the perfect choice

Several months after the conclusion of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, rumours had begun to fly that, due to its success, the Army might take over power from the then Congress Government. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was anxious for her own reasons. That inflation was increasing if not raging which, she believed, was a frequent cause for losing elections. She, therefore, asked General Sam Maneckshaw to meet her. While chatting, she happened to mention rumours of an Army takeover, and asked the General if he had any such plans. Maneckshaw, with his wry sense of humour, reacted by asking: “So?”

This made Indira Gandhi nervous, but eventually she got an assurance that Maneckshaw had no such plans. This episode put a lid on the concept of the integration of the three services of the armed forces under a single chief of staff. Divide and rule through bureaucrats remained the system, whose seed had been sown by Jawaharlal Nehru, who was doubly convinced that he was right when Ayub Khan seized power in Pakistan in 1958. Nehru had apprehensions since the morrow of Independence. At the time, the British interim commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, General William Lockhart, asked Nehru as to the scale and style of the Army he would like the C-in-C to plan for. To this, the Prime Minister’s reply was that India was a peaceful country and therefore had “no need for an army”. The police would suffice to protect the country. The style and scale therefore, ought to be to whittle down the Army.

VK Krishna Menon, India’s then Foreign Minister, Nehru’s friend and guru on foreign affairs and international relations, also believed that the armed forces generally were a threat to the civilian Government of a Third World country. He also believed that no Communist country would even attack India because it was looked upon as a “fraternal power”. The Chinese Communist Party by then was winning that country’s civil war and was expected to defeat the Nationalist Kuo Min Tang of Chiang Kai Shek, which it eventually did in October 1949.

As time went on, the Indian Government’s policy was to appoint gentle and obedient generals as commanders-in-chief, soon to be watered down to Chief of Staff. Only when there were strong candidates who could not be superseded were less gentle generals appointed to the top post. Generals Thimayya and Choudhary were examples.

This issue of a joint commander was not only swept under the carpet, but was dug deep into its grave. It was publicly raised for the first time when the BJP first came to power with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister. After that, the idea was tossed about with the respect a shuttlecock deserves.

It was not until the incumbent Prime Minister took over in 2014 that the idea of a Joint Chief of Defence Staff starting jelling seriously in political circles. The late General Bipin Rawat was first elevated to the position of Chief of Staff. It is only when he retired that the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was created and General Rawat was appointed there. His was perfectly a professional appointment. It is just possible that if the CDS had been in place in 1962, the Indian Air Force (IAF) might have been deployed in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, or both. As it happened, Prime Minister Nehru was flabbergasted so much as to weep on the radio with the words, “Assam is in danger.” The then Chief of Army Staff General Thapar had resigned, while General Brijmohan Kaul had no combat experience. In the meantime, the Indian soldiers, sent up at the last minute, had hardly any woollen clothes while trying to fight at up to 16,000-feet attitude. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 was possibly the most amateurishly fought by one side in the history of warfare, whereas the invading forces were well-trained and better equipped. Such a one-sided affair might have been avoided had there been more experience of generalship with the help of a joint command of the three wings of the armed forces.

Much water has flowed in the Ladakh rivers since. Warfare in the modern age is a multidimensional affair with an awesome variety of weaponry. It calls for a great deal of knowledge and experience, which a joint command would help to provide with Generals, including naval and air, sharing thoughts and inputs together. The air force in a war has today become indispensable. The navy has become a combination of war in the air as well as water. Even the Army needs its own aircraft in today’s theatres of war. The outcomes that flow from these permutations and combinations are truly mind-boggling.

Military commanders have to be thorough professionals in their domains and not the personal choices of the Prime Minister or political leadership. This is particularly important for our country because its culture has traditionally been inspirational as distinct from empirical. From mathematics to medicine, ancient India’s contribution has flowed through inspired rishis as opposed to research, experimentation and debate. For example, the great physician Charak revealed Ayurveda without seeing the inside of a human body. Therefore, we emphasise that our appointments should be strictly professional; neither personal nor inspirational.