On September 1, the nation’s highest-ranking air force officer, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, gave us a rather inaccurate history lesson. Few commentators have bothered to analyse his speech, in contrast to the feeding frenzy that accompanies similar statements from politicians. It’s an indication of the free pass the military gets even from liberal sections of the press.

Raha said, in the course of his speech:

“In 1947, immediately after Independence, hordes of raiders from across the border supported by the military and government from across the border tried to overrun the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian army on ground was not strong enough they did not have enough boots on the ground to react to these raiders and prevent them from overrunning Indian territory. It was the Indian Air Force’s transport wing with Dakotas which came to the help and rescued the situation. Large number of troops, military equipment, weapons and logistics were brought into Srinagar, Poonch, Leh and other areas… and the Indian Air Force therefore played a very important role in helping the Indian army to push the raiders back, and when [a] military solution was in sight, I think taking moral high ground, we went to United Nations for a peaceful solution for this problem. But the problem still continues. PoK remains a thorn in our flesh even today.”

Some errors

This account matches the prevailing right-wing view of the early years of Indian Independence. In that version, Jawaharlal Nehru was a weakling constantly at odds with the forceful Sardar Patel, who ought to have been prime minister. Nehru’s misplaced idealism engendered the Kashmir problem , and his support for a plebiscite in Jammu & Kashmir State was a grave mistake.

Let me point out the obvious errors in Raha’s narrative, before discussing the bigger picture. He speaks of raiders sent by Pakistan “overrunning Indian territory”, but no such thing ever happened. When tribal militias from Pakistan invaded Jammu & Kashmir on October 22, 1947, it was an independent state that could not be described as Indian territory in any shape or form. India had no "boots on the ground" at all when the raids began.

India sent troops into J & K only on October 27, the day the Instrument of Accession executed by the state’s king Hari Singh was accepted by Governor General Mountbatten. Those five days should have been enough for Pakistan to take over the entire Kashmir valley. I will discuss its failure later in this article.

For the moment, let’s keep with Arup Raha’s fantasy. We were on the verge of victory, he claims, when we lamentably got the United Nations involved, choosing ethics over pragmatism. The actual timeline tells a very different story. India first approached the United Nations in January 1948, two months after fighting had commenced. The UN adopted Resolution 47, which was non-binding, on April 21 of that year. None of this made any difference on the ground, where fighting continued through that year. A ceasefire was finally agreed at one minute before midnight on January 1, 1949, a full nine months after the United Nations had passed its Kashmir resolution.

It should be obvious that the UN played no role whatsoever in the ending of armed conflict. What happened was that, after a series of battles fought through two bitter winters, India and Pakistan realised they were in a stalemate. Far from Raha’s belief that victory was within sight, both sides were so entrenched in regions they controlled that a decisive result was more distant than ever when the Line of Control was demarcated.

Jinnah's errors

It could have been different had Jinnah overruled his most senior general. His first mistake was to look the other way while a bunch of Pathan tribesmen were sent into Kashmir rather than a professional army. They behaved as one would expect, looting conquered territory and alienating villagers instead of concentrating on the main task. This gave Hari Singh time to accede to India and for Indian forces to be airlifted to Srinagar. Pakistan could still have won the day in late October 1947, but the nation’s acting Commander-in-Chief Douglas Gracey rejected a direct order to deploy the army in Kashmir. It wasn’t until April of the following year that Pakistani troops officially joined the war. Had Jinnah fired Gracey and immediately sent troops to support the raiders, people from Lahore and Islamabad could well have been driving over to Srinagar and Gulmarg for their holidays today.

That would have been a logical development for a Muslim-majority state more easily accessible from Pakistan than from India, and ruled by an unpopular Hindu king. Jinnah, however, erred in accepting a military man’s excuses instead of pursuing his own vision, and Pakistan lost most of a state that was its for the taking. How much did India gain from annexing the part of Kashmir it controls? The answer depends on whether one believes a nation achieves greatness through the brute fact of possessing land, or by securing adequate rights for its residents.

Strangely, nationalists who define greatness by power and territorial control remain a dissatisfied lot despite India’s gain of parts of J & K that few thought would belong to it at the time of Partition. These nationalists believe, as Minister of State Jitendra Singh expressed a few days ago, that India ought to be in control of all the territory of the erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state, including regions administered by Pakistan since 1947. Presumably because the problem of a disaffected citizenry can be addressed by adding more disaffected citizens.

What is certain is that, contrary to Air Chief Marshal Raha’s claim, India got as much land as it possibly could by military means. Nor was Kashmir the only theatre where it did so. Even as conflict raged in the northern state, India launched a "police action" to take over Hyderabad. Nehru, while less gung-ho than Patel about forcibly annexing the state, was more concerned about the optics and timing than the ethics of the action. In the end, he backed Patel against the head of the army General Roy Bucher, who argued his forces would be overstretched if they invaded Hyderabad while also tied down in Kashmir. Bucher threatened to resign, only to have the astute home minister call his bluff.

Nehru was ethical enough to order an enquiry, headed by Pandit Sundarlal, following rumours of excesses committed by Indian forces in Hyderabad, but pragmatic enough to bury the report after it brought to light massacres and rapes of Muslims by Indian army men and Hindu militias.

Two mutinites

The asymmetry in the response to the mutinies of two British generals, Gracey in Pakistan and Bucher in India, is a pointer to the way the two nations developed. India kept its generals on a tight leash and, as a result, survived as a democracy. Pakistan gave the military more play and experienced a series of dictatorships and divided control even during democratic phases like the current one.

In the decades since Independence, India’s civilian leadership has been far more assertive than our self-perception would have us believe. Sardar Patel is given credit for decisive action, but we forget that Nehru ordered forces to annex Goa, Daman and Diu long after Patel’s death. Indira Gandhi sent troops into East Pakistan bringing about the creation of Bangladesh, tested a nuclear weapon, and authorised the pre-emptive takeover of Siachen.

The one military action she ordered which is universally condemned today is Operation Blue Star, the assault on the Golden Temple in June 1984 aimed at killing terrorists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had gained safe haven inside. General A S Vaidya, who was then the army chief, assured Gandhi there would be few casualties and the sacred site would be left intact. In the event, the army had to bring in heavy armour to crush obdurate resistance, tank shells severely damaged the Akal Takht, and hundreds of soldiers, militants and civilians perished.

Indira Gandhi, to her credit, never complained about General Vaidya’s erroneous assessment publicly or in private in the few months she lived after Operation Blue Star. But the episode serves as a lesson to us that the officer’s view is often misguided, even about military matters. When top officers make spurious claims about the past in the manner of Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, it is essential we set the record straight, for misunderstanding history is a recipe for future misadventures.