While addressing an election rally in Karnataka last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that India won the 1948 war against Pakistan under the leadership of General K S Thimayya, and that the General was repeatedly insulted after the victory by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon, thereby prompting him to resign.
However, the fact is that then Maj Gen Thimayya was a divisional commander during the 1948 War. Lieutenant General S M Shrinagesh was the Corps Commander, Lt Gen K M Cariappa was the Western Army Commander, and General Roy Butcher was the Army Chief.
Although Thimayya played a crucial role in the War, he wasn’t then, or shortly thereafter, humiliated either by Nehru or Menon, who served as India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom between 1947 and 1952. Menon was appointed Defence Minister only in 1957. In fact, Thimayya was seen to be very close to Nehru, which contributed to him being selected as Army Chief in 1957, superseding two senior officers, Lt Gens Sant Singh and Kulwant Singh.
Thimayya once recounted how he had first met Nehru in the early 1930s, when they were both at the cinema in Allahabad. Nehru, on noticing Thimayya in his British army uniform, walked up to him and asked, “So, how does it feel to be wearing a British uniform?” Thimayya replied, “Hot”.
Prior to being appointed as Army Chief, Thimayya was deputed by Nehru in 1953 to head the United Nations Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea. After he distinguished himself there, the government awarded him the Padma Bhushan. It is true that as the Army Chief, Thimayya did send his resignation to Nehru in September 1959, but he withdrew it subsequently.
Why did Thimayya resign? The popular lore is that the resignation was spurred by his unhappiness with the style of functioning of Defence Minister Menon, who was very abrasive and overbearing in dealing with senior military officers. Thimayya and Menon had a major disagreement over the promotion of senior officers, which led to Thimayya’s resignation.
Historian Srinath Raghavan says archival records suggest the reasons for the resignation ran deeper. Just a few weeks before the affair, Indian and Chinese forces clashed on the eastern frontier. To counter the growing Chinese threat, Thimayya wanted the Indian leadership to agree to a proposal mooted by Pakistan President Ayub Khan for joint defence arrangement between the two nations. Menon opposed the plan.
The late J N Dixit recounts in his book, India-Pakistan in War and Peace, that when General Ayub Khan proposed a Joint Defence pact in 1959 after China’s invasion of Tibet, Nehru famously retorted, “And who is this Joint Defence aimed at, pray?”
After being rebuffed by Menon, Thimayya took his issues directly to the Prime Minister. Nehru had previously turned down Ayub Khan’s offer, as it would imply forsaking non-alignment. He, however, assured Thimayya that he would discuss the issues with Menon. But when there was no progress, Thimayya sent his resignation.
Nehru saw Thimayya’s action as a way to force his hand on policy issues. He persuaded the General to withdraw his resignation, but did not give him any assurances. But the matter had been leaked to the press. When questioned in Parliament, Nehru played down the problems, saying they were due to differences of temperament. Nonetheless, Nehru’s concerns were obvious when he admonished Thimayya and stressed that the “civil authority is and must remain supreme”. Clearly, the nub of the dispute was policy, not just a clash of personalities.
Thimayya retired as Army Chief 15 months before the 1962 Sino-Indian War. He was appointed Commander of UN Forces in Cyprus in July 1964, where he died in December 1965. He continues to be hailed as one of the great military leaders of independent India.