How Modi & Congress got military history wrong

Deccan Chronicle.  | Karan Thapar

Opinion, Columnists

How lucky Mr Modi is that most newspapers and television channels didn’t pick up on his errors and make merry with them.

Clearly in his enthusiasm to suggest Congress governments have ill-treated the military heroes of Karnataka, the PM has got practically all his facts wrong and ended up embarrassing himself. (Photo: PTI)

It’s no secret that politicians love to score points against their opponents and rivals. You can see the thrill in their eyes. They clearly revel in it. So imagine how embarrassing it must be when they seek to correct or foot-fault an opponent but end up getting their facts wrong and, instead, reveal they don’t know what they’re talking about. This happened so often on Thursday that it exceeded a laughing matter. It seemed almost pathetic.

Most of the mistakes were by the Prime Minister but the Congress, in its riposte, stumbled almost as badly. It all began when the PM used his Karnataka rallies to claim that the Congress had humiliated important sons of the state like Gen. K.S. Thimayya and Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa. To reveal the multiple errors he made, let’s see what the PM said about each of these officers and then compare that to the actual facts.

First, speaking about Gen. Thimayya, the PM said: “1948 mein Pakistan se yudh jeeta... General Thimayyaji ke netritv mein. Lekin us parakram ke baad, Kashmir ko bachane waale General Thimayya ka us samay ke Pradhan Mantri Nehru, aur us samay ke Raksha Mantri Krishna Menon ne baar baar apmaan kiya tha. Aur isi kaaran, General Thimayya ko apne pad se samman ke khatir isteefa dena pada tha.” (In 1948, it was under... Gen. Thimayya’s leadership that the war against Pakistan was won. But after that victory, the saviour of Kashmir, Gen. Thimayya, was repeatedly insulted by then Prime Minister Nehru and then defence minister Krishna Menon. And it was for this reason, his honour, that Gen. Thimayya had to resign from his post.)

Unfortunately, there’s very little in this statement that’s actually correct. In 1948 Gen. Thimayya was not Army Chief. That was Gen. Roy Bucher. At the time Thimayya was a divisional commander with the rank of major-general. He first headed the Jammu and Kashmir Force and then Sri Div. Above him was the corps commander, Lt. Gen. S.M. Shrinagesh, and the Western Army commander, Lt. Gen. Cariappa. Second, though it’s correct Gen. Thimayya played a critical role in the Kashmir war, he wasn’t then or shortly thereafter humiliated by either the then PM or Krishna Menon. Third, Mr Modi is wrong in claiming Krishna Menon was defence minister in 1948. That was Sardar Baldev Singh.

In fact, a cursory look at Thimayya’s career shows how the Nehru government rewarded him for his good work. In 1953 Nehru appointed him to head the United Nations Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea, a very prestigious appointment.

After he distinguished himself in this post, the Nehru government awarded him a Padma Bhushan in 1954. Three years later he became Army Chief, allegedly superseding two officers, Lt. Gens. Sant Singh and Kulwant Singh.

There’s no doubt that while serving as Army Chief in 1959 he had differences with the government over its reluctance to accept Pakistan President Ayub Khan’s offer of a Joint Defence Arrangement and offered to resign, but Nehru persuaded him to withdraw his resignation and Thimayya did so. He continued as Army Chief till May 1961.

Unfortunately, while trying to set the record straight, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala made glaring mistakes of his own. In a tweet reported by NDTV, that apparently he soon deleted, Mr Surjewala claimed from 1957 to 1962 Thimayya was Indian high commissioner in Britain. Those, in fact, were almost his exact dates as Army Chief in Delhi. The high commissioner was, of course, V.K. Krishna Menon.

Now let’s come to what the PM said about Field Marshal Cariappa and how he also got that wrong. The PM claimed: “Field Marshal Cariappa, 1962, Bharat aur China ki ghatna, aaj bhi itihas ki tawarikh mein darj hai aur unke saath, Field Marshal Cariappaji ke saath kya vyavahar kiya gaya…” (Field Marshal Cariappa, 1962, India-China war, is in the annals of recorded history. How he was treated, Field Marshal Cariappaji…). Once again, this is almost entirely wrong.

Gen. Cariappa was not Army Chief during the 1962 India-China war. He had retired nine years earlier. In fact, it was his fourth successor who was Army Chief when the war broke out.

As for the suggestion that Cariappa was badly treated by Congress governments, the facts suggest otherwise. Although Nehru and Cariappa had differences in 1951 over the fact that the latter, as Army Chief, would often air political views, at the end of his four-year term he was sent as high commissioner to Australia, thus starting a tradition of posting retired Army chiefs as ambassadors that continued into the 1980s.

More important, 33 years after his retirement, Rajiv Gandhi promoted Cariappa to Field Marshal. Given that Field Marshals technically never retire but remain on the active list, this also meant Rajiv Gandhi broke with Army convention to elevate Cariappa after over three decades of retirement. No one could have conferred a greater honour.

So what’s the conclusion? Clearly in his enthusiasm to suggest Congress governments have ill-treated the military heroes of Karnataka, the PM has got practically all his facts wrong and ended up embarrassing himself. If only Mr Surjewala had kept quiet, the mistakes would have been entirely on one side.
But how lucky Mr Modi is that most newspapers and television channels didn’t pick up on his errors and make merry with them. I suspect that’s because they didn’t realise these were dreadful mistakes.

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