Military history has been much in the news in India this month because it was twisted by Narenda Modi, the Prime Minister and leader of the ultra-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, in a blatant attempt to besmirch his great rival, the Congress Party. Campaigning in Karnataka in the south-west of India, Mr. Modi declared, “In 1948 we won the war against Pakistan under General [Kodendera Subayya] Thimayya’s leadership. But after such gallantry, the saviour of Kashmir, General Thimayya, was repeatedly insulted by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. And for this reason, General Thimayya, to retain the sanctity of his position, had to resign from his post.”
General Thimayya (1906-65) came from Karnataka and is widely considered the most distinguished combat soldier in the history of modern India. The only Indian to command an infantry brigade in battle during World War Two, he became Chief of the Army Staff from 1957 to 1961. Yet the 1948 war was not fought under his leadership; in fact, the armies of both India and Pakistan were commanded by British generals. Krishna Menon was not the Defence Minister in 1948; Sardar Baldev Singh was. Thimayya distinguished himself, but did not lead the Indian Army until nearly ten years after the 1948 war, and in fact he got on very well with both Nehru and Menon personally, and was neither insulted by them nor forced to resign.
In the same speech, Modi made a similarly untrue statement (or at least insinuation) about another very senior Karnataka-born soldier, Kodandera “Kipper” Cariappa (1899-1993), one of only two Indians to hold the rank of Field Marshal. Referring to India’s 1962 war with China, Modi said of the Congress government of the day, “What did they do to the Field Marshal?”—implying that it had behaved badly towards him too. In fact, Cariappa had retired in 1953, almost a decade before the Sino-Indian War.
The Indian Army has always stayed above politics, in a way that Pakistan’s certainly has not. For Modi to try to make political capital out of these non-events of half a century ago shows how toxic Indian politics has become under his sectarianism. His attacks on the two revered Congress politicians Nehru and Menon illustrates this polarization. The Army’s apolitical nature was tested several times—not least during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule in 1975—but has always stood up well. As Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, the Director of the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi, put it in a thoughtful op-ed in The Hindu newspaper after Modi’s inflammatory comments, “The form and content of [political] discourse must be in keeping with a constitutional, democratic ethos and acknowledge that the abiding national security interest transcends the electoral fortunes of political parties.” Another piece of advice might be that if you are going to try to use military history to make political points, you should first get your facts straight.