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Field Marshal KM Cariappa: political ambition as well as mistrust of politicians

Cariappa contested the 1971 Lok Sabha election from Bombay North East as an Independent, and finished third.

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi | Updated: January 31, 2020 1:23:23 pm
General K M Kariappa, military rule, who is K M Kariappa, K M Kariappa on military rule, K M Kariappa on jammu kashmir, first Indian Army chief, General K M Cariappa on Constitution, Indira Gandhi term, Indian army head Kariappa on Indira Gandhi Field Marshal K M Cariappa (right) with then President Giani Zail Singh in April 1986. (Express Archive)

The discovery of a clarificatory note by the late Field Marshal K M Cariappa in the state archives in Karnataka has shone new light on his views in 1971 about the state of India’s democracy, political parties, and linguistic states. He wanted them abolished, and to have “President’s cum Military Rule” for five years to set things right. (The Indian Express, January 20)

The Army’s first Indian Commander-in-Chief appears to have arrived at this view fairly early in his career. The National Archives of India contain a letter by one Major A A Khan to the then Brigadier Cariappa, which refers to a meeting during which the two officers had “agreed that if our statesmen cannot agree, then they should hand over the country to the army and we will show them how to run it”.

The letter is dated May 18, 1947, when Cariappa was taking a course at the Imperial Defence College in the United Kingdom. According to the letter, the meeting in question took place earlier that same month.

At a meeting with Sir Hastings Ismay, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff, in London on May 9, 1947, Cariappa suggested a role for the military in the government of independent India. This followed Cariappa’s remark at the Defence College that the British Indian Army should not be partitioned — which allowed Liaquat Ali Khan (who became the first Prime Minister of Pakistan) to argue with Mountbatten that the seniormost Indian officer wanted military rule.

first Indian Army chief, General K M Kariappa, General K M Cariappa on Constitution, Indira Gandhi term, Indian army head Kariappa on Indira Gandhi General K M Cariappa didn’t want linguistic states.

“Cariappa came to see me yesterday and volunteered the amazing suggestion that Indian Army with either Nehru or Jinnah should take over power when we left in June 1948,” Ismay said in his telegram to Mountbatten. “It is hard to know whether Cariappa in putting forward this idea was ingenious and ignorant or disingenuous and dangerous or both.”

In India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Ramachandra Guha wrote that while Cariappa restricted himself to military matters at the beginning of his tenure as C-in-C in 1949, he soon began to offer his views on such questions as India’s preferred model of economic development.

On October 13, 1952, Nehru wrote to Cariappa, advising him to hold fewer press conferences and, at any rate, to stick to safe subjects. The Prime Minister enclosed a letter from a cabinet colleague, which complained that Cariappa was “giving so many speeches and holding so many press conferences all over the country”, that it appeared he was “playing the role of a political or semi-political leader”.

After Nehru appointed Cariappa India’s High Commissioner to Australia within three months of his retirement in 1953, which led Cariappa to tell the Prime Minister that “by going away from home to the other end of the world for whatever period you want me in Australia, I shall be depriving myself of being in continuous and constant touch with the people”.

Field Marshal KM Cariappa’s statements about politics and democracy had triggered debates even in the early years after his retirement. Express Photo by R L Chopra/Archives.

During a visit to Pakistan in 1958, Cariappa publicly praised the military coup by Ayub Khan, his former colleague in the British Indian Army, saying it was “the chaotic internal situation which forced these two patriotic Generals to plan together to impose Martial Law in the country to save their homeland from utter ruination”. Cariappa went on to claim that for these Pakistani generals, “war between India and Pakistan was simply unthinkable”.

In December 1968, Cariappa offered an opinion piece to The Indian Express, in which he argued that the chaotic internal situation in West Bengal demanded that President’s Rule be imposed for at least five years. Editor Frank Moraes returned the piece, pointing out to the retired C-in-C that “it would be embarrassing in the circumstances both to you and to us to publish this article”.

Earlier, in mid-1965, Cariappa had written in this newspaper that a two-year period of President’s Rule might be needed to restore order and proper standards of administration. The article provoked 13 opposition legislators to move two privilege motions in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly against Cariappa and the Editor-in-Chief, seeking to impeach them for contempt of the House. Speaker B V Subba Reddy exonerated them both in a 2,500-word ruling that agreed with Chief Minister K Bramhananda Reddy that “it would be more in keeping with the dignity and prestige of the House to ignore the objectionable passages in the article by General Cariappa”.

After the Congress government criticised his remarks to the press in 1970, Cariappa spoke of entering politics himself. He was supported by a large number of retired military officials, including Lt Gen S P P Thorat, Air Marshal Ranjan Dutt, Rear Admiral S G Karmarker, who told reporters in February 1971 that they “felt that the General’s entry into politics would provide an element missing in the Indian political scene”.

Cariappa contested the 1971 Lok Sabha election from Bombay North East as an Independent, and finished third (90,110 votes) behind Mukundrao Sundarrao Agaskar of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1,08,513) and the winner, Rajaram Gopal Kulkarni of the Congress (2,83,792).

In his farewell speech in 1953, however, Cariappa had told his soldiers that the Army’s job was not “to meddle in politics but to give unstinted loyalty to the elected government”.

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