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The Major and the General

Are you aware the defence services regard politicians with contempt? In Daddy’s time they used to refer to them as ‘dhoti-kurtawallahs’, writes Karan Thapar.
By Sunday Sentiments | Karan Thapar
UPDATED ON APR 02, 2008 04:08 PM IST

Are you aware the defence services regard politicians with contempt? In Daddy’s time they used to refer to them as ‘dhoti-kurtawallahs’. Since then the Sandhurst accents might have disappeared but the sentiment remains unchanged. The army, the navy and the air force are equally convinced that politicians enjoy cutting the services down and, worse, they’re reluctant to defend them.

Jaswant Singh’s treatment of the Army Chief is a telling illustration of this. Not only was Singh wrong but he’s also guilty of dragging General Kapoor into an unseemly and unnecessary controversy. As a former defence minister — and an armoured corp major — he should have known better.

In an interview to me last month, the Army Chief said there was “a degree of misperception” behind the recent press concern with Chinese incursions. Explaining that China and India have “different perceptions of the Line of Actual Control”, he added that when China patrols up to the full limit of its perception India considers that an incursion and vice-versa. “We would be as much blameworthy for that kind of incursion,” he stated.

This, of course, is the truth. More than that, it’s time someone allayed the growing concern before it turns to anxiety. And what could be better than the Army Chief, the man ultimately responsible for the nation’s security, doing this?

Alas, ‘Major’ Jaswant Singh disagrees. Describing the General’s comments as “unwanted, unwise and …. irresponsible,” he added they were “unbecoming”. Singh’s case, as far as I can tell, is that borders aren’t a matter of perception but determination. But the problem is that large chunks of the India-China border are not undisputedly determined. That’s why there is a dispute. And at the core of that dispute are different claims of where the line lies. Now, if I’m not mistaken, that’s another way of saying perceptions differ!

Of course, the Major’s criticisms of the General did not stop at this. He accused him of “engaging in … (a) free-for-all on television about Pakistan, China and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir”. However, the one thing you cannot accuse General Kapoor of is a “free-for-all”, whatever that silly phrase might mean. Not only was it a tightly scripted interview — which a free-for-all would not be — but the General (unlike the Major) spoke in very precise and carefully chosen terms. Of course, the Major would have realised this had he seen the interview. But as he himself admits: “I did not witness it because I am not (an) avid viewer of television.” If only he had, he might have reconsidered his criticism.

Unfortunately that did not stop the Major going yet further. He also claimed General Kapoor’s statements were “harmful for the dignity not just of the high office that he holds but also for the total responsibility that he carries and for the security of the country”. That’s rubbish. But what is true is that the Major’s public attack is “harmful” to the “dignity” of the Army Chief’s office. Major Singh, it would seem, is guilty of degrading the Army Chief’s dignity, not General Kapoor!

But then the Major is a politician and the General is not. Perhaps that distinction also explains the response of the Defence Minister and the rest of the government. Rather than defend his Army Chief, Mr. Antony has taken recourse to silence. Worse, unnamed colleagues in the Cabinet Committee on Security have expressed criticism, thus adding to the Major’s ill-considered comments. So, are you surprised the services look upon politicians as a rum lot?

And if you think I’ve picked a poor example — or I’m exaggerating — ask yourselves why it’s never occurred to any of our politicians to award Field Marshal Manekshaw the Bharat Ratna? Forty people have got it but is there even one amongst them who deserves it more? Certainly there are several who should never have got it at all.

If the Major wishes to atone for his lapse, I suggest he take up this cause instead. If he does, all three services will thank him. At the moment they have very different things to say.

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