OP PARAKARAM : A MONUMENTAL BLUNDER

Consider these facts:-

  • On 31st October, 1984, the then Indian Prime Minister Smt Indira Gandhi was assassinated at her official residence in New Delhi by her own Sikh guards, who were supporters of Khalistan. It was and is open secret that Pakistan was actively supporting Khalistan movement.
  • On 28th July, 1987 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was hit with a rifle by a Sri Lankan Navy sailor while inspecting a guard of honour at Colombo during his official state visit to that country. I cannot recall or have heard of any parallel anywhere in the world.
  • On 21st May, 1991 Mr Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Sri Lankan woman at Sriperumbadur, who blew herself while feigning to pay respect to him by touching his feet.

Each one of the above stated event resulted in cacophonic whimper, which slowly but surely turned into deafening silence. After the assassination of Smt Indira Gandhi, cacophonic whimper turned ugly and led to widespread anti-sikh riots in Delhi, which remains a blot on the democratic and secular fabric of the country and was orchestrated by the self- serving politicians, silently and obediently watched by Delhi police. So much for the  contribution to national unity by the politicians and an important element of bureaucracy, the police. That the executive head of state was the target in all the above quoted events, twice having to pay for by her/his life was of little consequence to nation in general, decision makers in particular, specially politicians. In both cases when the PM was assassinated, the attention/concern of political bosses was focused on as to who would/would not be the next PM. Bureaucracy waited for next executive head and military was placed on so called ‘alert’ were the only reactions. Not a vehicle or troop moved from their peace locations. Our reaction as a nation was measured and rational, even if it was by default. The powers that be did not allow emotional outburst to take control of their senses.

Now look at this,

  • On 13th December, 2001 five terrorists entered the parliament complex through top security cordon. In the ensuing gun battle all five terrorists and five Indian personnel on duty were killed.
  • “The terrorists entered the parliament complex in vehicles, supposedly carrying stringent and relevant identification marks/papers viz stickers/passes etc through a multi-layered security network, which essentially was a grave security lapse by the security agencies. Perfunctory and casual approach of security agencies needs no elaboration. The only cause of this episode was “a lax and indifferent security apparatus”. The event galvanized the politicians, bureaucrats and military commanders and they took the most irrational decision after partition. Indian military was ordered to move into offensive positions on 16th December, 2001 for an attack on Pakistan. No sane voice, at least in public then, for that matter even now was/has been heard against this horribly irrational national decision at all levels, be it politicians, bureaucrats or military commanders. The war cry was “ we shall take revenge for the attack on parliament, our temple of democracy”. For the 72 hours during which the decision makers confabulated, they appeared to have either pawned their brains or left them in deep freeze. Almost unanimously, they decided that the entire Indian military shall move and take positions for an attack on Pakistan.”

A peep into the India psyche would be essential to unravel the reasons for our response. Immediately after partition when the Pak Army elements termed as ‘Razakars’ were plundering the state of Jammu & Kashmir, the then Indian Government headed by Pandit Nehru did nothing to stop the plunderers until Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession on 25th October, 1947. By the time Army was airlifted, the Razakars were virtually knocking at Baramulla. When everything seemed to be going right and Indian Army was in a position to chase the Razakars not only from the valley but also the entire erstwhile J&K, Pandit Nehru, the great statesman, decided to approach United Nations in spite of Sardar Patel opposing the move. UN controlled cease fire came into existence on 1st January, 1949. We had chosen to commit HARAKIRI on our own.

In 1962, when Chinese invaded, non-employment of Air Power was a voluntary decision based on unbelievable and astonishing facts such as the supposed threat to Calcutta from Chinese Air Force. Even at the cost of stating the obvious; in 1962 the IAF was fully functional and operational Air Force in Asia. Weapon platforms comprised of Hunters, Mysteres, Toofani, Canberras, Gnats etc and were capable of decimating Chinese troops on the ground while operating in a situation of total air superiority. By not employing Air Power we not only lost valuable territory, but also sacrificed hundreds of brave soldiers. Contribution of our eminent parliamentarians was limited to adoption of a motion in parliament, which read “ we shall not rest until every inch of Indian territory is taken back or words to that effect.” Such emotional, possibly irrational outbursts do not cut any ice at international forum. Indeed we have not rested in peace since then and are not likely to rest in peace in foreseeable future with Chinese openly claiming the entire Arunachal Pradesh as their territory. Henderson Brooks report continues to remain a top secret document, nearly 35 years after it was drafted and lies hidden in some vault somewhere.

In 1965 war with Pakistan our valiant soldiers captured Haji Pir Pass at the cost of hundreds of lives. But the Tashkent agreement undid the sacrifice of our valiant soldiers and we voluntarily withdrew from the most important pass from the strategic point of view. We were destined to commit the same HARAKIRI six years later.

In 1971 war with Pakistan we captured 93,000 prisoners of war of Pakistan Army, the largest PWs anywhere in the world other than the two world wars. We chose to release them unconditionally after Shimla agreement. Most potent bargaining tool was allowed to be washed down the waters of Chenab with virtually nothing in return.

Perhaps I made a wrong statement; we indeed got and are still getting returns of our political and bureaucratic blunder in form of terrorism, not merely confined to J&K but the entire nation. Returning Pakistan PWs without getting any concessions and failing to formalize the international border with Pakistan will remain the darkest hour of our bureaucracy, which failed to advise the then PM against such unilateral move. It is ironic that it was the military which gave such unique opportunity to our political masters but was kept out of decision making. The then secretary Home, External Affairs and Defence must carry this baggage to their grave. If a Service Chief could put his personal appointment at stake in deciding the timing of the war, why couldn’t the supposedly well informed bureaucrats do the same in advising the then PM against such move?

In 1999, the Indian military, Army in particular, slept peacefully while the western neighbour planned and executed a near perfect plan to cut off Kargil. We got away by the skin of our teeth and celebrate Kargil as victory, a most glaring and startling untruth. Sad part was total lack of understanding, trust, coordination and cooperation between the Army and Air Force. The Service Chiefs were at each others throat is the ultimate testimony of professional profligacy and total lack of maturity. There is absolutely no need to enquire and decide as to who was right. Both were wrong.

When I was child my father told me that if two children fight, one could be right and the other wrong. But when two parents fight, they are wrong, always and every time. Service Chiefs are our professional parents.”

Such profligate behaviour on their part says very little about the existing professionalism in Indian Military. But military alone cannot be said to be lacking in professionalism. Indian bureaucracy cannot claim to have done any better as an institution. In fact it has done far worse than the military. If it were left to the politicians and bureaucrats, who were at the helm of affairs in 1971, the Indian military would have been forced to go to war in summer of 1971. But for the amazing professional foresight and courage combined with statesmanship of exceptional order on part of Sam Bahadur, the then Army Chief, we would be licking the 1971 wound as well in addition to 1962 ignominy of defeat at the hands of Chinese. Sam Manekshaw put his foot down and refused to be cowed down by the ill- informed bureaucracy and emotionally unstable politicians led by the then Raksha Mantri Babu Jagjivan Ram. They wanted to attack Pakistan as soon as the refugee influx commenced from East Pakistan in March, 1971.

Absolute and total ignorance of the ruling elite comprising of politicians and bureaucrats regarding wars fought by ill equipped armed forces was challenged by one man; The then Chief of Army Staff Sam Manekshaw. Indira Gandhi’s autocratic style faced first and only challenge to her authority. For once in the larger national interest the Army Chief’s recommendation to fight the war on his terms was accepted albeit with lot of reluctance. Rest of the story of 1971 war is part of history. A well-equipped armed force achieved the most impossible task of liberating a country nearly the size of Europe. Bangladesh came into existence. It was the crowning glory for the Indian armed forces. Mrs Gandhi must be given credit for deflecting enormous pressure that was mounted on her by her colleagues and bureaucrats to go to war in summer of 1971. Bureaucrats fell in line only after Mrs Gandhi directed them. Our bureaucracy truly believes  in’ his/her master’s voice’ even today. Ironically in the end the bureaucrats had the last laugh, when they succeeded in convincing Mrs Gandhi to keep Service Chiefs out of the conference table decision making during Shimla peace talks.

An astute reader might be left wondering that the title of the article and narration so far do not connect. The narration was essential to highlight the emotional and irrational decisions taken by successive governments that invariably were against national interests. Whether it was Pt Nehru’s decision to go to UN IN 1948 or Mrs Gandhi’s decision to return Pakistan PWs without sorting out the border issue, the national interest always became a casualty. Op Parakaram was in keeping with the emotional decision making by ignorant politicians and profligate bureaucrats. It would be professional profligacy on my part if I spared the then Service Chiefs from this irrational decision of operational deployment of entire armed forces to avenge  terrorist attack on parliament. To our bad luck there were no “Sam Bahadurs” in Chief’s chairs.

Watershed event with regard to terrorists aided by Pakistan becoming active can be clearly and undeniably linked to ‘orchestrated’ kidnapping of Dr Rubaiya Sayeed followed by her dramatic release in 1989 in exchange of release of five jailed terrorists. It is nearly two decades since the event mentioned but terrorism has not abated and is unlikely to be in foreseeable future. Pakistan’s acknowledged support to ‘Jehadis’, as is their perception, is a reality and very little can actually be done about it from mainland India. A strike at terrorist bases in POK, though difficult, but is a practical and genuine option. But for that political masters have to adopt a balanced approach and not a knee jerk reaction as we did in commencing Op Parakaram on 16th December, 2001.

The Kargil misadventure by Pakistan was essentially a failing on our part. Our military and civilian intelligence agencies failed to monitor extensive built up over at least 24 months in the inhospitable terrain. Our patrols simply did not ‘patrol’ and merely maintained the task register. There may not be many takers for this blatant professional dishonesty. Ironic it would appear that while our then PM was embracing the then Pak PM at Lahore, Pakistan Army was busy transporting arms, ammunitions and building fortifications in Kargil region. Icing on the cake was provided by the open discord/disagreement between the then Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Air Staff. Indian armed Forces had hit a new low. Instead of believing/practicing ‘Mutual Inter-Dependence’ as the credo, every Service even as on date is concentrating on establishing/proving primacy over other Services. Defending the indefensible has become the order of the day.

It was quite evident that the Pak aided terrorists were intending to target vital installations all over the country. It did not require knowledge of rocket science to appreciate that Parliament House will be the prime target. I have absolutely no doubts that security instructions existing were more than adequate to take care of any contingency. But the irony is whether these instructions were followed in letter and spirit? Without any doubt whatsoever blatant disregard to security rules/instructions, which led to terrorists driving into parliament complex, must be attributed to few undisciplined members of parliament. That the enquiry findings do not state this single fact explicitly is only due to subservience of the state machinery to these ‘flawlessly endowed’ politicians, who can commit no wrong and consider themselves to be above the law. Proving their identity to a diligent security guard lowers their status and stature. Moral illiteracy of some of our parliamentarians   had cost the nation an unbelievable hardship.

The responsibility for breach of security in Parliament, therefore, rests squarely with our parliamentarians and/or their staff. Even as on date our parliamentarians, for that matter even their minions, do not like to be frisked at the airports. I have personally been a witness to their baggage being loaded into the aircraft directly from their cars in which they travelled till the ladder placed on the aircraft. Their super inflated ego takes precedence over matters of national security and safety. Nowhere in the world the lawmakers are as undisciplined and averse to follow rules and regulations as in our country even today. In a recent media expose a famous parliamentarian had two cars with security stickers so that his cronies too may have unrestricted access to parliament complex. The terrorist attack on parliament depended entirely on one fact and that was whether or not the vehicles in which they were travelling could gain entry into the complex unchecked. Security guard at the gate must have given a smart salute seeing the stickers. According to the procedure, the stickers are issued only in the name/dedicated vehicle. The nation, even as on date, does not know the details of stickers. Information has been deliberately masked from the ordinary citizen taxpayers, whose hard earned money was wasted due to intransigence of our MPs.

Hour long gun battle with the terrorists not only resulted in casualties but also it shut the brains of our decision makers ably assisted by our media, which suffers from the disease called ‘sensationalitis’. Headlines on TV  screamed ‘ Temple of Democracy has been Desecrated’. Politicians of all shapes and sizes declared that they will avenge the attack. Failure of media, print media in particular, failed to differentiate between ‘CAUSE’ and ‘EFFECT’ at this crucial juncture. Essentially it was a failure of security agencies. Nations do not go to war due to failure of their security agencies or do they? Military leadership chose to remain a spectator and merely followed the orders of poorly briefed and informed powers that be. Silence of a sane voice was deafening. Op Parakaram commenced on 16th December, 2001.

In a democracy like ours the decision to mobilise armed forces is taken after a detailed consideration and consultation amongst politicians, bureaucrats and military hierarchy. Even the Cabinet Committee on Security, the highest decision making body, needed to be briefed about the pros and cons. Terrorist strike and a full scale pre-emptive strike by an adversary was considered to be one and same. Our parliamentarians are barely aware of the international scenario, they lack the wisdom required for sound decision making and have no moral accountability whatsoever. Handful of parliamentarians, who are knowledgeable cannot influence decision making. Majority/unilateral decision to attack Pakistan for covering failure of security agencies was an emotional decision taken from heart; rational part of brain was placed in deep freeze.

Having discussed the (in) competence of our parliamentarians, let us now switch to bureaucracy, which include secretary defence, external affairs, home, NSA and RAW chiefs. It simply cannot be fathomed that all of them advised and/or accepted political dictate that we must mobilise the military. Such decisions have to be taken keeping into the prevailing geo-strategic scenario and international ramifications. At that point USA was burning and still struggling to get over attack on world trade centre, middle east was burning, Russia had her hands full in Chechnya, Bosnia Herzgovina was on the boil. Nearer home Afghanistan was in the clutches of Taliban and Iran was openly challenging/confronting the western wrld USA in particular. How on earth our best bureaucratic brains failed to appreciate/perceive the chances of a successful intervention in Pakistan by Indian Military? Indian bureaucracy failed in totality. A firm ‘NO’ from any of the five prominent appointees would have shown the light at the end of the tunnel and wisdom would have dawned but they chose to ‘FAIL’ almost willingly.

Now the role of  military leadership. In any democracy military takes its orders from democratically elected government. But the institution of military headed by Service Chiefs reserves the right to offer sane, militarily appropriate and rational advice even if it were to be diametrically opposite to that of politicians, bureaucrat combine. Indian Military had an outstanding legacy of Sam Bahadur to follow but all three Service Chiefs succumbed to the pressure and failed to convince the powers that be about the irrationality of their order. Although it is not likely to be in public domain ever but I sincerely hope that at least one Service Chief would have called the decision to mobilise as insane.

To some readers it might appear that I am recommending/suggesting that the attack on parliament should have been treated as just another event of terrorism. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As a professional military soldier I only regret that the godsent opportunity to carry out surgical strike at terrorists bases in POK was frittered away. International community would have either supported our action or would have been too busy to comment due to their personal commitments. It defies logic when one learns that our decision makers in 60s had authorized IAF aircraft to carry out strike missions in Nagaland and later in Goa. I would like to believe that the then CAS offered the advice of carrying out surgical air strikes in POK. If not, it was a monumental professional failure. This issue has also not been brought to notice of an ordinary citizen.

Op Parakaram envisaged mobilizing of all three strike corps viz 1, 2 and 21. I was heading the IAF element attached to 21 corps and spent 13 months in the tents in desert of Rajasthan. Strike corps of the Army are mammoth organization, having their units stretched across the length and breadth of the country and take nearly three months to re-organise at operational locations. The equipment and ordnance stores were still arriving as late as June, 2002.

Instead of ordering full mobilization if the decision makers had ordered a surgical air strike at terrorist camps in POK, it would have fetched far greater dividends. An air strike by IAF fighters was not only the most appropriate and economical option but also it was once in a life time opportunity to convey our resolve, not merely to Pakistan but also to the entire world that we as a nation were determined to fight the scourge of terrorism with all possible means at our disposal including use of military. In any case POK is our territory so an air strike in POK was an internal matter. Almost certainly we lack the will to say and execute when the opportunity arrives and situation demands. Bold decision and calculated risk taking capability is supposed to be hallmark of top decision makers. Our top decision makers, however, continue to enlighten the nation by extolling the virtues of their hindsight.

Morbid fear of escalation of conflict continues to occupy a large area of the brains of our decision makers and is a national shame. We did not use Air Power in 1962. We nearly did not use Air Power in Kargil. In fact the so called fear of escalation has been used by our decision makers to hide their weakness and inability to take tough and timely decisions with regard to use of Air Power. Over 700 strike aircraft purchased from taxpayers money were not meant for Republic Day fly past and aerobatic displays. These powerful machines are an instrument of national pride and are meant to fire in ‘anger’ if our national prestige is marginalized by any nation. We had the opportunity but wasted it. Instead we opted for the most irrational, impractical and expensive option of mobilizing the entire armed forces.

Nations which have used Air Power have never lost a war. I must hasten to add that Air Power alone cannot win the war. But in situation, where time is at a premium, air strikes are the most effective military deterrence. Had we chosen to carry out air strikes within POK based terror camps within hours of attack on parliament, we would have conveyed to Pakistan our resolve to decimate terrorism. What would have been response from Pakistan? A retaliatory air strike with conventional weapons or a nuclear strike? Pakistan would have resorted to neither options. Why? Pakistan does not have the capability to inflict any worthwhile damage using conventional weapons. A nuclear strike by Pakistan, indeed, would result in substantial damage to few of our cities but our retaliatory second strike capability, if exercised, would wipe out Pakistan. Pakistan knows it. We must not forget that potency of nuclear weapons have made these weapons ‘impotent operationally’. Utterances by fundamentalists notwithstanding, a nuclear exchange with India is a ‘no option’ for Pakistan. Of course a terrorist outfit could use a nuke in any part of the world. Even if my assessment were to be wrong and Pakistan Air Force retaliated, they would have  had to decide their military objective. Let us now examine our military objective/s while taking the insane and professionally profligate decision to mobilise.

The military objective that could be associated with Op Parakaram can be stated as ‘Teach Pakistan a Lesson’. Was this or can it be described as a military objective? Show of force had no effect on Pakistan is clearly evidenced by their continued terrorist acts such as KALUCHAK massacre in May, 2002 and many other incidents that occurred after 16th December, 2001. It might be described either as an irony or coincidence that Pak aided terrorist outfit struck every time just before the visit of a US department official to sub-continent. We had failed in scaring Pakistan with the mobilization. The protagonists of full scale military deployment as a reaction to what was essentially a security lapse resulting in terrorists entering parliament building obviously have no face to face the truth. ‘Teach Pakistan a Lesson’ cannot be termed as a military objective and as an anti-terrorist measure full scale deployment was even more irrational.

Let us, therefore, move away from the rhetoric and get down to brass tacks as to what our decision makers wanted the Indian armed Forces to achieve during Op Parakaram other than teaching a lesson (what lesson) to Pakistan. Emotional blindness of our parliamentarians masked their vision so completely that they refused to see the writing on the wall due to their intemperate and irrational decision making. In the interest of taxpayers it is essential to mention few ‘military’ facts while dealing with Pakistan. Our north-western border with Pakistan can be broadly divided in four clearly discernible geographical regions. These are:-

  • Area Jammu and north of Jammu.
  • Area Jammu and south of Jammu till Fazilka.
  • Area south of Fazilka till north of Rann of Kutch.
  • Rann of Kutch and area south of it till the sea.

Any military campaign against Pakistan in area Fazilka and north of it would be of little or no significance. Hilly region north of Jammu and man made nearly impregnable defences between Jammu and Fazilka in the form of Ditch-cum-Bandh, canal sector and finally riverine terrain will not permit any worthwhile operational gains on the ground even by the strike corps of either side. Any land battle fought in this region shall always remain a battle of attrition for the land forces. Operations of land forces in Rann of Kutch would be an impossible proposition. That leaves the area SOUTH OF FAZILKA to NORTH OF RANN, which essentially is desert terrain. 21 Corps of which I was a part was deployed in this area. Lessons from the three wars with Pakistan (excl Kargil) indicate that any territorial gains across the international border were invariably returned by either side when we met at negotiating table after the war. It is only across the LINE OF CONTROL that the principle of ‘occupiers are owners’ apply. Did our parliamentarians and bureaucrats believe that by ordering full scale military deployment we will succeed in either exterminating the terrorism or the line of control will be declared as the international border or worse still that we will reach Muzzafrabad? Neither of these were achievable then or for that matter even now. These stark facts were obviously beyond the understanding of not only Parliamentarians but also most of bureaucrats, hence their myopic outlook and impoverished decision making. Around 2001 a book authored by Ashley Tellis discusses Indo-Pak issues with specific reference to military option as one of the solutions. Author’s finding clearly state that military option is a ‘no option’ to resolve the issues. We must be absolutely certain that Pakistan could never dream of any military misadventure against us in foreseeable future. Terror promotion will remain their only option. Indian decision makers, therefore, must prepare themselves for exercising limited military option in form of surgical air strikes not only by fighter aircraft but also by heli-borne forces. Fear of escalation must no longer afflict the cortex in the brain. In a rather sadistic way our decision makers have remained consistent in non use of Air Power. As an individual I am an eternal optimist but I do not foresee a change in this retrograde thought process.

Eleven months of deployment and high alert could neither contain the terrorist activity nor resolve the long standing border issue. Apart from having wasted nearly annual defence budget in deploying and then retracing steps back to peace locations, we as a nation became a laughing stock amongst the comity of nations.  The only positive outcome of Op Parakaram can be termed to be realization of our strength and weakness. All three strike corps were mobilized for the first time. It would be travesty of fate for every Indian, military establishment in particular, if we do not bridge the yawning gaps we discovered in our operational capability on paper and actual as it turned out to be. We would talk about Op Parakaram as ‘a war we did not fight’ because there was no military objective defined by the political masters. Hoping that  yet another security breach due to laxity on our part would once again not drive us to insane military decision such as this.

Article authored Jan 2007

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