When India and the US signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement on August 29 on sharing each other's military bases, almost all sections of the media and shades of political opinion claimed that this was a break from the past. However, it isn't as if the US military will be entering India – the deal simply allows it to come back.
LEMOA is not the first of its kind between India and America. From 1942 to 1946, during World War II, India was the logistical base for the US military’s Far Eastern operations. More than two lakh American soldiers were stationed in India during the war. The privileges acquired by the US armed forces during the war continued in postwar and post-Independence India.
When the Congress party described the recent military-pact as a “fundamental departure” from India’s time-tested policy of “strategic military neutrality”, it was perhaps unaware that Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim government had signed a similar agreement with the United States. The July 1, 1947, deal permitted US military aircraft to use logistic facilities at various Indian airports. The agreement was renewed in 1949, a few months prior to Nehru embarking on his maiden visit to the US. The new provisions granted US military planes greater access to Indian airspace and ground support facilities. The Americans were allowed to station their maintenance crew (in groups or units) till the completion of aircraft repair and servicing.
The agreements, which are available on the Ministry of External Affairs website, make it clear that US Military Air Transport Service or MATS flights were initially exempt from paying landing and housing charges at the Indian civil airports. In 1955 India began levying charges on MATS flights. In 1962, the US asked for these charges to be waived. In addition, it also sought a visa waiver for the pilots and crew of its military aircraft. India granted these concessions to facilitate arms supplies from the US during the 1962 china war. The benevolence of the Nehru government was not limited to the MATS planes alone. It also covered the US embassy in India, which had exclusive rights to station two military aircraft permanently at Delhi’s Palam airport for use by the US naval and air attaché. The arrangement with India ended when MATS was inactivated and US Air Force and Navy set up separate strategic airlift commands in the 1966.
While the Congress seems to have a touch of amnesia, the Bharatiya Janata Party is no better. The right-wing party is projecting LEMOA as a strategic victory that was denied to India all these years. Nehru’s dislike for defence is blamed for this missed opportunity. A different picture would emerge if the ruling party would dig a little deeper into contemporary history.
Immediately after the Kashmir problem assumed military dimensions in 1948, Nehru bypassed Asaf Ali, India’s ambassador in the US, and directly deputed Lt Gen BM Kaul (then Colonel), Indian’s military attaché in Washington, to obtain weapons from Pentagon. Less than six months into Independence, on January 27, 1948, Kaul was at the Pentagon headquarters with a shopping list, demanding delivery in less than four months. The list included 1000 jeeps and 43 B-25 Mitchell bombers.
In April 1948, Girija Shankar Bajpai, India’s Secretary General in MEA visited Washington to seek military aid. And in March 1949, HM Patel took a military mission to Washington to pursue a military alliance. America remained lukewarm to Indian overtures because in its strategic calculus India was more suited to neutralism. The military ally status was reserved for Pakistan because during that period the US gaze was fixed on oil reserves in the Gulf.
Now, with China as the most prominent blip on the US strategic radar, India is more suited to perform the same role which Pakistan was assigned six decades ago. It is primarily for this reason that America, despite numerous military bases in Asia (it is about to establish five new military bases in Philippines) is keen to rejuvenate its military moorings in India through agreements like LEMOA. And Modi like Nehru is more than willing to oblige.
LEMOA’s first victim is history.
Atul Bharadjwaj is a former Naval officer and an Adjunct Fellow at The Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.