4 April 2017


I will be speaking tomorrow at the DSSC, Wellington on the India-China territorial and border issues. I am sure our conduct of the 1962 war will come up in the discussions as will the Henderson Brooks report.

Nothing in the Henderson-Brooks Report we don’t already know.

I must confess that I have read Part I of the Henderson-Brooks Report (HBR) many years ago. I also read a copy of an executive summary of the HBR, which is made available to certain senior military officers. Don’t ask how and don’t wonder why? Some of us get to see things that we are not meant to see. There is nothing in both of them that most of us on comment on security issues didn’t know.

The HBR is a severe indictment of how our government goes about handling critical issues involving national security. It was meant for government to derive lessons to enable it to improve its security related decision-making processes. Since the Report was seen more as an indictment of a particular regime, it was turned into a badly kept national secret. Actually the Report was as much an indictment of how the Indian Military and in particular, the Indian Army conducted itself in 1962. Since the military at some levels does get to study the main points made in the HBR, it is possible that at least the military has derived some lessons from it.

But the military, despite accounting for almost a fifth of the national budget is only an attached department of the government, and not part of it. Which means its status is no different from a government owned Road Transport Corporation in the government. Even the Indian Railways is a part of the government, and we all know that all governments love civil aviation because of all the attendant implications of controlling the national carrier, the airports, and regulating who flies in and out with how many seats.

So the institution that accounts for a fifth of the national budget and about 2% of GDP has no say in government, which means it has no role in policy and decision-making. It will only do as it is told and make do with what it is given.

Thus, if a submarine has to put to sea with its batteries at the fag end of their life cycle it just has to do so. If our artillery is deployed with only half its normal carried ammunition, so be it. If our air force has to fly with its hard points empty, so be it. That this is so even is well known. In 1962 we did not know it.

The HBR pointed out all this among other shortcomings. Since nothing had actually changed since Jawaharlal Nehru was hustled into dubious battle with China by an unthinking and constantly baying opposition and media, and an explosive mix of ignorance and naiveté, none of the non-Congress governments which have “enjoyed” power from time to time in Delhi really bothered about making public the contents of the relevant HBR.

I had spoken to PMs VP Singh, Chandrashekhar and Vajpayee to make the report public, but they knew better. One just said when you point one finger outwards you point three at yourself. And that about sums the situation even now.

On 18 June 1940, at Britain’s bleakest moment as it braced for a German invasion, Winston Churchill addressed Britain’s Parliament. In his speech he reiterated Britain’s resolve to meet the German threat come what may. In the course of this speech he said: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. “ It is said that as the House of Commons thundered applauding his stirring rhetoric, Churchill muttered in a whispered aside to a colleague, "And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that's bloody well all we've got!"

A country fights with what its got. It is the responsibility of the government to be aware of the risks a country is constantly subjected to. Commanders are apt to exaggerate threats and prepare for all contingencies and the worst-case scenarios. That’s their nature. But policy makers must temper military expectations with reason and probability. To be over prepared also invites risks. There is a fine balance between showing readiness and threatening. That cut must be made by policy makers elected to do that job.

But our problem is that those who are most competent and qualified to influence and make military policy are not a part government. And those tasked with this responsibility in government still don’t know very much. So if there is another debacle ala 1962, we may not need a new HBR. We may as well dust the old one and read it. Or be ready to sing “Aye mere watan key logon!”


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