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Debacle of 1962 and the resounding victory of 1971: There is a lesson in History that we must learn

The cacophony of the opposition and compulsion of the government to act in view of the approaching elections should not impact the timing recommended by them.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Frequently and wrongly attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, this truism from George Santayana’s ‘The Life of Reason’ (1905) is contextual in view of the events of the past few days. The attack by Pakistan backed terrorists on the CRPF convoy at Pulwama, and the overwhelming outrage thereafter. Cries for avenging the blood of our men on one hand and the oblique targeting of the government by the opposition (after initial veneer of solidarity) on the other.
In 1962, an ill-informed government sent an equally ill-informed and unprepared army to war with China. This was a consequence of a long chain of events, beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy‘ in 1961 and climaxing in an overwhelming strength of Chinese soldiers surrounding the tactically unsound Indian post at Dhola. The news caused a massive media outrage, which echoed in the parliament with demands to retaliate becoming louder. Having painted himself in a corner with his earlier false bravado, Nehru tried to save face by telling the Indian Army to ‘Throw the Chinese out’. The result was the debacle which remains the darkest blot on the otherwise glorious history of Indian Army.
In 1971, Indira Gandhi ordered the Army Chief General Manekshaw to go to war with Pakistan over the East Pakistan refugee issue. The refugees were causing a crisis, and there was a public hue and cry, especially in the Eastern states whose thin resources were stretched to the extreme due to the influx of millions of miserable souls fleeing from Pakistani atrocities.
Gen Manekshaw had the moral courage to stand up to the Prime Minister, asking for the right to strike at the time of his choice, keeping the time for preparation and campaigning season in mind. And to her credit, Mrs Indira Gandhi had the sagacity to listen to professional military advice and not succumb to public pressure. The result was a resounding victory, a bloody nose to Pakistan, and the creation of Bangladesh.
The difference in the results between the two instances above ought to serve as a lesson for India’s strategic planners in the current environment. Yes, our patience has been tried once too often. The thousandth cut has been inflicted, and it’s necessary to sever the hand wielding the knife administering them. Yet, the response cannot and must not be a political face-saving exercise – it has to be well thought out, decisive and appropriately punitive.
The government has already taken several measures aimed at hurting Pakistan economically and isolating it diplomatically. This should definitely be followed up with an appropriate military response, but given at the right time and place, choosing which should be the left to the service chiefs. The cacophony of the opposition and compulsion of the government to act in view of the approaching elections should not impact the timing recommended by them.
That’s what the past tells us.

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A former Army officer, now a Learning and Development consultant, Author of 'Delhi Durbar 1911 - The Complete Story', 'Riding the Raisina Tiger', 'Brave Men of War - Tales of Valour 1965', 'In the Line of Fire' and 'Academy - Bonded for Life'. He was also part of the panel  engaged by Ministry of Defence for writing official history of India's participation in First World War. Follow Rohit on Twitter @ragarwal

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