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How Nehru, Menon conspired against army chief Thimayya

The Indian army experienced its worst ever defeat during the Indo-China conflict of 1962. This excerpt from Shiv Kunal Verma’s thoroughly researched book shows how Nehru and Krishna Menon conspired to discredit General Thimayya, setting in motion a chain of events that contributed to India’s rout in the Himalayas.

books Updated: Feb 13, 2016 10:53 IST
Hindustan Times
Jawaharlal Nehru

Lt General Kodendera Subayya Thimayya, Chief of the Army Staff was elevated to the substantive rank of a General. Jawaharlal Nehru, Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon and Majithia Deputy Defence Minister are seen in this file photo with General Kodendera Subayya Thimayya at the function.

The Indian army experienced its worst ever defeat during the Indo-China conflict of 1962. This excerpt from Shiv Kunal Verma’s thoroughly researched book shows how Nehru and Krishna Menon conspired to discredit General Thimayya, setting in motion a chain of events that contributed to India’s rout in the Himalayas.

The political manoeuvring by Gandhi in 1938 to sideline Subhas Chandra Bose in the presidential race of the Congress Party virtually handed Nehru the prime ministership of independent India. Bose was perhaps the only Indian political leader who understood the significance of armed power as an instrument of state policy while being aware of modern politics. With Bose’s exit and Sardar Patel’s death in 1950, there was no one who could provide the necessary inspiration for the reconstruction of an army (that had so far served British interests) into an integrated military instrument that could identify potential threats and tackle them militarily.

Nehru, unlike Bose and Patel, veered away from building military power. Although, when cornered, he was not averse to using it—as in the case of Kashmir in 1947-48 and then Goa in 1961—for the most part, he talked disarmament, non-alignment and Panchsheel. In a speech delivered at the Kerala Provisional Conference in 1928, Nehru had spelt out his international assessments: ‘No danger threatens India from any direction; and even if there is any danger we shall cope with it.’ No surprise then that when the first Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, General Sir Rob Lockhart, went to Nehru with a formal defence paper that needed a policy directive from the prime minister, Nehru had exclaimed: ‘Rubbish! Total rubbish! We don’t need a defence policy. Our policy is ahimsa (non-violence). We foresee no military threats. As far as I am concerned you can scrap the army—the police are good enough to meet our security needs.’ It’s a different matter that Nehru had to eat his words by the end of October 1947 itself when the tribal hordes invaded Kashmir.

Read: Nehru rejected suggestion that Bose be dealt with as war criminal

Perhaps Nehru could not have reacted militarily when China invaded Tibet in 1950, but since then he had had more than ten years to prepare, from the time General Cariappa had warned him that the army did not have the capability to face the Chinese. Despite repeated warnings from the army and the various committees, Nehru did very little to address the shortcomings of the army.

…Nehru was never comfortable with the armed forces. …his political indoctrination had … instilled in him a desire to downgrade India’s officer cadre rather than tap their leadership potential and assimilate them into the machinery of government. This in turn created a vacuum in the decision-making chain, into which the civil servants stepped. …taking important military decisions that they were not equipped to handle. At a personal level, Nehru was not impressed with most of senior officers and found them shallow, posturing caricatures, generally aping the British in their mannerisms and who had taken no interest in the freedom movement.

To make matters worse, Nehru, along with other politicians, began to develop a deep-seated paranoia about the army. Many other countries that had become independent after World War II fell prey to military coups (the most pertinent example being Pakistan)….

As he drove from South Block to Teen Murti, Thimayya was acutely aware of the prime minister’s deep distrust of the military. Even before he took over from General S. M. Shrinagesh, Thimayya had made no bones about the fact that he was deeply distressed by the continuous neglect of the army. Publicly Nehru was seen to be fond of Timmy; however, behind his back, the prime minister adopted tactics that clearly indicated that he viewed Thimayya as a rival who could challenge his position as the undisputed head of the Indian Union. Given the general’s track record in World War II—Thimayya had been the first and only Indian officer to command a fighting brigade in the Arakan where he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO)—and the role played by him in the Jammu and Kashmir Operations, Nehru knew he could not browbeat him.

Read: Nehru let northeast down during 1962 China war, says Kiren Rijiju

Timmy was universally respected. …The announcement of his impending appointment had led to an editorial comment in the Times of India: ‘A thrill has just passed through the Army. The signal has gone out that Timmy is on.’ In the meantime, just twenty days before Thimayya took charge of the army, Nehru had replaced the defence minister, Kailash Nath Katju, with Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon.

Nehru was waiting for Thimayya and for the first time, the normally reticent Timmy exchanged angry words with the prime minister. He told Nehru that his arbitrary decision of making NEFA (North East Frontier Agency now called Arunachal Pradesh) the responsibility of the army, made public in Parliament, was preposterous and completely against Indian interests. Thimayya felt that Nehru had completely compromised the army.

Without providing the additional resources required, handing over the borders to the army was a meaningless gesture; this would allow the Chinese the opportunity to claim that the Indians were the aggressors, for they always went to great pains to describe their own troops as border guards. Thimayya asked Nehru to find a way out of the mess in the next couple of weeks...

Nehru and Krishna Menon knew that the prime minister was in serious trouble. He had got away with the admission in Parliament earlier in the day only because the triple whammy—ongoing clashes on the border, the construction of National Highway G219 across the Aksai Chin and the Khenzemane and Longju incidents—had come as a shock to the members of the House. …Thimayya wanted Nehru to undo the mistake; but should the prime minister formally withdraw his statement about deploying the army and revert to the previous arrangement, he would be committing political hara-kiri. The threat of Thimayya taking over the reins of government, at least in Nehru’s mind, was very real.

Read: Nehru asked Kennedy for US assistance during 1962 Indo-China war

Politics is full of subterfuge, and survival… Not only did the Nehru-Menon team now have to survive, they had to neutralize Thimayya. Three days later, Krishna Menon sent for Thimayya in ‘a highly excited state of mind’ and vented his anger at the chief for having approached the prime minister directly, suggesting instead that the matter should have been resolved at his level. Threatening Thimayya of ‘possible political repercussions if the matter became public’ Krishna Menon ended the meeting. A seething Thimayya… promptly sent in his resignation letter.

The letter, which was received by Teen Murti on the afternoon of 31 August, was put up to Nehru who promptly sent for Thimayya in the afternoon. … After a long conversation in which the prime minister persuaded the army chief to withdraw his resignation letter in the larger interest of the nation, especially since the problem with the Chinese had flared up, the matter of the resignation was deemed closed.

However, after Thimayya’s departure, news of his resignation was deliberately leaked to the media while the subsequent rescinding of the letter was held back. … Thimayya resignation made banner headlines the next morning. …

1962: The War That Wasn’t by Shiv Kunal Verma, (Rs 995; PP 425).

On 2 September 1959, the prime minister once again rose in Parliament to make a statement. He told the Lok Sabha that he had persuaded the chief to withdraw his resignation. He then went on to speak about the supremacy of the civilian authority over the military and then, had surprisingly, proceeded to castigate Thimayya, saying the issues that led to his resignation were ‘rather trivial and of no consequence’, and that they arose ‘from temperamental differences’. He then chided the chief and reproached him for ‘wanting to quit in the midst of the Sino-Indian border crisis’.

Even today, the contents of Thimayya’s resignation letter remain a highly guarded secret. Instead, vague stories about Thimayya’s resignation were routinely floated where it was said that Timmy had resigned out of pique because of the manner in which Krishna Menon treated him. On careful scrutiny, that doesn’t hold water.

The much adored prime minister, who could do no wrong in the eyes of the public, had betrayed General Thimayya. Trapped in this bad situation, the chief had no option but to quietly endure the humiliation and get on with the job of trying to prepare the army to face the Chinese…

The prime minister’s attitude towards Thimayya was damaging to the chief as well as the army. … General Thimayya was… a seasoned, disciplined soldier who would hardly have made issues over trifles. … After the resignation drama Thimayya was seen as an alarmist and a defeatist. Having thus weakened the office of the army chief, the prime minister now placed his hope in …Lieutenant General B. M. ‘Bijji’ Kaul whose star was on the rise.

Nehru, unlike Bose and Patel, veered away from building military power. Although, when cornered, he was not averse to using it — as in the case of Kashmir in 1947-48 and then Goa in 1961 — for the most part, he talked disarmament, non-alignment and Panchsheel... when the first Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, General Sir Rob Lockhart, went to Nehru with a formal defence paper that needed a policy directive from the prime minister, Nehru had exclaimed: ‘Rubbish! Total rubbish! We don’t need a defence policy. Our policy is ahimsa (non-violence). We foresee no military threats. As far as I am concerned you can scrap the army — the police are good enough to meet our security needs.’ ...Nehru had to eat his words by the end of October 1947 itself when the tribal hordes invaded Kashmir.

Perhaps Nehru could not have reacted militarily when China invaded Tibet in 1950, but since then he had had more than ten years to prepare... Despite repeated warnings... Nehru did very little to address the shortcomings of the army… Nehru was never comfortable with the armed forces… his political indoctrination had… instilled in him a desire to downgrade India’s officer cadre rather than tap their leadership potential... To make matters worse, Nehru... began to develop a deep-seated paranoia about the army. Many other countries that had become independent after World War II fell prey to military coups (the most pertinent example being Pakistan)…

As he drove from South Block to Teen Murti, Thimayya was acutely aware of the prime minister’s deep distrust of the military... Publicly Nehru was seen to be fond of Timmy; however, behind his back, the prime minister adopted tactics that clearly indicated that he viewed Thimayya as a rival who could challenge his position as the undisputed head of the Indian Union. Given the general’s track record in World War II — Thimayya had been the first and only Indian officer to command a fighting brigade in the Arakan where he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) — and the role played by him in the Jammu and Kashmir Operations, Nehru knew he could not browbeat him.

...Nehru was waiting for Thimayya and for the first time, the normally reticent Timmy exchanged angry words with the prime minister. He told Nehru that his arbitrary decision of making NEFA (North East Frontier Agency now called Arunachal Pradesh) the responsibility of the army, made public in Parliament, was... completely against Indian interests... Without providing the additional resources required, handing over the borders to the army was a meaningless gesture; this would allow the Chinese the opportunity to claim that the Indians were the aggressors... Thimayya asked Nehru to find a way out of the mess...

Nehru and Krishna Menon knew that the prime minister was in serious trouble. He had got away with the admission in Parliament earlier in the day only because the triple whammy — ongoing clashes on the border, the construction of National Highway G219 across the Aksai Chin and the Khenzemane and Longju incidents — had come as a shock to the members of the House… Thimayya wanted Nehru to undo the mistake; but should the prime minister formally withdraw his statement about deploying the army... he would be committing political hara-kiri. The threat of Thimayya taking over the reins of government, at least in Nehru’s mind, was very real. Politics is full of subterfuge, and survival… Not only did the Nehru-Menon team now have to survive, they had to neutralize Thimayya. Three days later, Krishna Menon sent for Thimayya in ‘a highly excited state of mind’ and vented his anger at the chief for having approached the prime minister directly, suggesting instead that the matter should have been resolved at his level. Threatening Thimayya of ‘possible political repercussions if the matter became public’ Krishna Menon ended the meeting. A seething Thimayya… promptly sent in his resignation letter.

The letter, which was received by Teen Murti on the afternoon of 31 August, was put up to Nehru who promptly sent for Thimayya in the afternoon… After a long conversation in which the prime minister persuaded the army chief to withdraw his resignation letter... the matter of the resignation was deemed closed.

However, after Thimayya’s departure, news of his resignation was deliberately leaked to the media while the subsequent rescinding of the letter was held back… On 2 September 1959, the prime minister once again rose in Parliament to make a statement. He told the Lok Sabha that he had persuaded the chief to withdraw his resignation. He then went on to speak about the supremacy of the civilian authority over the military and... to castigate Thimayya... He... reproached him for ‘wanting to quit in the midst of the Sino-Indian border crisis’.

... The much adored prime minister, who could do no wrong in the eyes of the public, had betrayed General Thimayya. Trapped in this bad situation, the chief had no option but to quietly endure the humiliation and get on with the job of trying to prepare the army to face the Chinese… The prime minister’s attitude towards Thimayya was damaging to the chief as well as the army. … General Thimayya was… a seasoned, disciplined soldier who would hardly have made issues over trifles… Having thus weakened the office of the army chief, the prime minister now placed his hope in… Lieutenant General BM ‘Bijji’ Kaul whose star was on the rise.

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