Campaigning for the upcoming Karnataka Assembly elections in Gulbarga on Thursday, Prime Minister Modi combined two of his favourite issues: criticising Nehru and militarism. “Karnataka is synonymous with valour,” said Modi. “But, how did the Congress Governments treat Field Marshall Cariappa and General Thimayya? History is proof of that. In 1948 after defeating Pakistan, General Thimayya was insulted by PM Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon.”

Since both Cariappa and Thimayya were born in Karnataka, Modi was attempting to tap an element of state pride in referencing them. Unfortunately, the prime minister seems to have mixed up his facts.

General KS Thimayya was not the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army in 1948. That position was held by a British armyman, Roy Butcher. It was only in 1949 that the position was first handed over to an Indian, KM Cariappa. Nehru clashed with Cariappa in 1951 over the army chief airing his views on political matters. As a result, the Nehru government sent Cariappa to Australia as high commissioner after he retired to prevent his entry into politics.

Nor was Krishna Menon the defence minister in 1948. That was Baldev Singh, independent India’s first defence minister, who held the post till 1952.

Thimayya versus Nehru

However, Modi’s contention that there was friction between Prime Minister Nehru, Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon and General Thimayya is true – although that was from around a decade after 1948 and had nothing to do with first Indo-Pak war.

Thimayya and Menon clashed a number of times as Menon pushed for a stronger voice for the civilian administration over and above what the Indian Army had enjoyed under the Raj (under the British, the commander of the Army was also the defence minister). This was resented by Thimayya, who believed that the top brass of the army did not need this level of involvement from the Union government. Thimayya also had strong opinions on defence policy and believed that Delhi should accept Pakistan President Ayub Khan’s offer for a joint defence arrangement between India and Pakistan – a matter that Nehru disagreed with.

Matters came to a head in 1959 and Thimayya wrote to the prime minister, offering to resign. Nehru, eventually, persuaded Thimayya to take back his resignation but the matter was also leaked to the press.

The issue became ideological with allegations from the Left of Thimayya “unwittingly becoming a tool in the hands of the ‘American lobby’” while the Right as well as the non-aligned press sided with the General.

In Parliament, Nehru went on to criticise Thimayya for “wanting to quit in the midst of the Sino-Indian border crisis”.

Thimayya continued on as commander till 1961, a little over a year before the Indo-China war of 1962. The discord between Thimayya, Nehru and Menon is one of the reasons cited by historians for the low level of preparedness of the Indian Army leading to its defeat at the hands of the Chinese.