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Some thoughts on Victory Day

Paper No. 5845                                Dated 18-Dec-2014

By Col. R. Hariharan

[Based on excerpts from an interview in a TV channel beamed on the occasion of ‘Vijaya Divas’ on December 16, 2014.]

Q: On the occasion of the Victory Day commemorating India’s victory in the 1971 India-Pakistan War, what are your thoughts in general?

The 1971 War was not merely another India-Pakistan War. It was probably the shortest war after II World War that created a new nation. It restored the prestige Indian army had lost in the 1962 conflict with China.

In 1965 as an artillery officer I was at the frontline in 1965 Kutch operations, which was a prelude to the 1965 India Pakistan War that ended in a stalemate. So participating in the 1971 war as part of the victorious 57 Mountain Division that marched into Dhaka on December 15, 1971 was of special significance to me.

I could visibly see the rising morale of our troops as we moved forward with lightning speed. The Victory Day is a tribute to our soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the people of Bangladesh. 

Officially it started on December 3, 1971 when Pakistan Air Force carried out Operation Chenghiz Khan and struck 11 Indian air bases to trigger the war. But in eastern sector, skirmishes with Pak army had been going on even before that. It ended on December 16, 1971 when General AAK Niazi, commander of Pak forces, signed the surrender document in Dhaka. The end of the war saw 93,000 Pak soldiers who surrendered as prisoners of war in our custody. Pak Army’s strong anti-India sentiment is rooted in their shameful defeat in 1971 war.

Q: Who is the real hero of the 1971 War?

For me there was more than one hero. For the people of India and Bangladesh Mrs Indira Gandhi was the idol. She had the courage and drive to achieve her objective in the face of American threats and Chinese intimidation.  She kept the international community fully informed of India’s concerns to the human tragedy that was being enacted in East Pakistan by Pak Army. Mrs Gandhi signed the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty before going to the war; it came in handy when Nixon tried to browbeat India by sending the 7th Fleet to break the Indian naval cordon around East Pakistan. Last but not the least, Mrs Gandhi listened to General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw’s advice to give adequate time to the armed forces to prepare for a winning war. She would be remembered for this achievement despite all other shortcomings of her overbearing rule of the country.

Of course, for all of us in and out of uniform Sam would always remain the Hero of the 1971 war. He planned the war with text book precision.  I saw the flawless execution of the plan first-hand because we trained for it in the earlier months. Not one detail was missed out. We had reinforcements positioned in our rear areas to replace war casualties. Food supplies, fuel and ammunition were stocked well before we went to war. Civil administrators were ready to be inducted into captured areas to ensure continuity of the administration. Such planning and preparation were in sharp contrast to the 1965 war and I am sad to say in the more recent Kargil operation as well.

I would also include the people of Bangladesh who defied the Pak Army’s might and inhuman conduct and fought alongside with us both in and out of uniform. I salute them for their patriotic fervour with which they fought to protect their area of habitation, language and culture.

Q. It is alright to talk of army during times of war or on the Victory Day but what do they do in normal times?

Your question reflects the mindset of most people who consider armed forces as a burden on society. We are able to sit like this in peace because someone out there, day or night, is either ready or training to be ready to ensure our security is not threatened. Army trains eight to nine months a year to hone their military skills and fitness for war. As against this, civilian organizations i.e. big companies or multinationals train their staff for a maximum of nine days. Other organizations train for one and half days in a year.

That is why the armed forces are able to go into action in real time even in peace time i.e. national disaster like earthquake or tsunami. Recently when Jammu and Kashmir faced devastating floods that immobilized the government machinery it was the army and air force that immediately brought succour and relief to the people.

A few days back when water supply system was damaged and the people of Maldives faced unprecedented water shortage, it was an Indian naval ship that went to their aid in a matter of hours. It supplied immediately 10 tons of water stored in the ship and continues to provide 4 tons of water a day from its desalination plant to the people. You might also remember the 2004 tsunami disaster; it was Indian navy that reached Sri Lanka with relief materials in a matter of three hours after the disaster. Sadly we do not educate our people on these issues; even educated persons do not know the difference between a Param Vir Chakra and a Vir Chakra and the criteria for eligibility.

Q. Why do people join army, for livelihood or as a service to the nation?

In our times soldiers came mainly from regions where joining the army was a tradition or a done thing. It gave them dignified identity in society regardless of their social and educational limitations. In Tamil Nadu they mostly came from dry districts of Ramnad and North Arcot. They were mostly rural folks with little education but accustomed to privation and hardship. And army took care of them.

Now things have changed. People are better educated. They have better job opportunities nearer their homes with better pay and comfort levels, whereas army service means separation from your families and hardship in difficult areas. Most of those who join the army now are from semi-urban and urban areas accustomed to a softer lifestyle. They join the army because they could not get a lucrative civilian job or failed to get a secure government job. So there is a qualitative change in the armed forces. We have to accept this and adopt measures to overcome the limitations it imposes. 

Once they join the services, the army trains them to take pride in their service to the nation. In this process it imbues them with a spirit of sacrifice for the honour of their fellowmen, ‘paltan’ (regiment), family, community, and region.

Q. Civilians feel their freedom is curtailed in the army. Is it true? Did you ever feel while in service or now that your military service has been a waste?

It is true army curtails certain freedoms available to the citizen; for example an army man cannot form a union. He has to follow a chain of command for all his actions. At the same time, it provides him a disciplined way to lead a healthy life and optimize his performance in a planned and structured way to achieve clear objectives using time tested methods. This is achieved through regimentation of ideas and functioning.

But it also provides space for you to function with very little interference in your area of responsibility. Different opinions are accepted if put across in appropriate occasions. As an intelligence officer I had to present assessments from the enemy perspective which could be at variance with the operational plan. Invariably, I found the commanders listened to it carefully even if they did not agree with it before they implemented their operational plan. 

All of us who serve either in uniform or otherwise feel disgusted at times with the way things are done. It is a natural phenomenon. But such occasions are few while in service because you are steeped in your work. Of course, when a serviceman retires he comes out of his cocooned life and orderly world. So it takes some time for him to confront with problems created by caste and religious issues which seem to rule the roost in civilian style of work and lifestyle.

There has been a societal change in the attitudes towards armed forces. Previously they were held in high esteem by civil administration. But it is not so now; this is not only in India but all over the world.

As a commanding officer I have written to the District Collector to help a soldier in getting illegal occupation of his land vacated. And it always used to work. Even before I left the army, I saw a change in the response of civil administration. Nowadays it is unfair to expect a collector take such remedial action to help a soldier because he is under tremendous extraneous pressure from politicians or other negative influences.  Probably even if he wants he might not be able deliver because his bosses would not allow him to do so.

This has downgraded the ability of the officer to intercede on behalf of the aggrieved soldier, particularly when they see their commanders are unable to get even the errors in army pay scales rectified.

One thing that makes me feel disgusted is that we have not built a war memorial in our national capital after we became independent. All efforts of serving soldiers and chiefs to get it sanctioned have failed and nobody seems to be bothered. It is a shame we continue to use the war memorial built by the British colonial power. In Tamil Nadu, memorials and statues have been put up for many individuals including fictional characters. But there is no memorial for thousands of soldiers from the state who perished for the country. This national disregard for the war dead makes me feel ashamed of being an ineffective veteran.

 (Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: haridirect@gmail.com   Blog: http://col.hariharan.info)  

 

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