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Army’s shadow over Shastri’s succession

General Chaudhuri ordered 6,000 soldiers in UP to come to Delhi for Nehru’s funeral. He omitted to inform the defence minister

Written by Inder Malhotra |
July 9, 2012 12:20:56 am

General Chaudhuri ordered 6,000 soldiers in UP to come to Delhi for Nehru’s funeral. He omitted to inform the defence minister

In order to wind up the story of Shastri’s succession to Nehru it is necessary to recount just one more episode of some consequence,especially because it finds no mention in most of the narratives of this critically important interlude. The basic reason for the underlying restraint is that the incident had brought in the army,though very briefly and marginally,into the political process at that crucial and delicate juncture.

The facts that are being cited here have never been disputed by anybody. But on what they really meant differences were sharp,even angry. Suspicions arose that perhaps taking advantage of the interregnum the army leadership was toying with the idea of attempting a coup. By the time the government,at the highest level,concluded that nothing of the sort had happened,a lot of bickering and blamegame had gone on in the higher echelons of the establishment though almost entirely behind a curtain of secrecy.

The government’s verdict,together with the country’s proud belief that the Indian military is apolitical and under civilian control,became the incentive to not merely downplay the incident but to ignore it altogether. However,it is wrong to suppress any facet of history. So here goes the sequence of events.

At the time of Nehru’s death,the army chief,General J.N. Chaudhuri (“Muchu”,to friends) was inspecting the troops down south. He immediately flew back to Delhi. The first thing he did was to call in the area commander to ask him whether he had enough men to be able to control the sea of humanity that would turn up for Nehru’s last rites. The major-general confidently replied that he had. But the chief was sceptical. Not wanting to take any risk,he ordered 6,000 soldiers in nearby districts of Uttar Pradesh to come to Delhi. What he omitted to do was inform Y.B. Chavan,who was defence minister in the cabinet,now headed by G.L. Nanda. Chaudhuri’s subsequent explanation to Chavan and many others was that having been in charge of Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral in January 1948 he had found that the manpower at his disposal had proved to be inadequate. This time round,therefore,he wanted the arrangements to be foolproof. About his failure to inform the government his explanation was that it was a routine troop movement. All he was ensuring was that nothing would go wrong while managing crowds of gargantuan proportions mourning a beloved leader.

The highly influential intelligence chief,B.N. Mullik,who had stayed at the prime minister’s elbow practically all through the Nehru era,had anticipated Chaudhuri’s explanation and rejected it completely. He had smelled a rat and had lost no time to inform his boss,Nanda,who was both prime minister and home minister. Not content with this,the intelligence czar even took some rather laughable measures to thwart a military coup. For,he rushed in quite a few battalions of paramilitary formations into the national capital. Those few who knew of this development were surprised that a man of his wide experience should have been so naïve as to think that formations of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) could take on the army’s might. The Border Security Force (BSF) is much better equipped. But it did not exist at that time; it was formed only after the 1965 war with Pakistan.

In all fairness,one must not be too critical of Mullik. He may have been paranoid but there was a reason why he acted the way he did. Since the army takeover in Pakistan under Ayub Khan in 1958 and the Krishna Menon-Thimayya spat in this country — Menon was a waspish defence minister and Thimayya a highly respected and popular army chief — shortly thereafter,he was a deeply disturbed man. He deemed it his paramount duty to see to it that the disaster of military rule never struck India. His fears were accentuated in 1960 when General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government in Burma,now called Myanmar. He therefore kept a sharp eye on the goings-on within the armed forces,especially on generals he regarded as ambitious. Unfortunately,the situation got aggravated after Chaudhuri became chief of army staff nearly 18 months before the end of the Nehru era. Relations between the two became heavily strained because the general constantly accused the director of the Intelligence Bureau (there was no other intelligence agency then) of not providing the army with the intelligence it needed,and Mullik charged Chaudhuri with pusillanimity for refusing to send the troops back to at least those areas of today’s Arunachal Pradesh which even the Chinese,after their withdrawal,conceded were to the “south of the so-called MacMahon Line”. This inevitably affected the events of May 28-29,1964.

Unlike Mullik,Nanda did not get agitated or excited. Coolly he asked the Union home secretary,L.P. Singh,to find out what exactly was the legal position about the army’s right to move troops in the kind of situation the country was facing. LP entrusted the task to his trusted aide,B.S. Raghavan,who reported back that under the law governing the army while rendering aid to the civil authority,and the accompanying rules and directives,the army could bring in more troops if it felt that the “situation was likely to spin out of control”. This brought the matter to an end.

In any case,by then Nehru’s funeral was over. As the famous British journalist,James Cameron,wrote in The Guardian,during the iconic prime minister’s last journey,New Delhi had become the “most overpopulated spot on earth,and yet not a single untoward incident had taken place”.

Only one small mystery remained among only those in the know. Why had it taken Chaudhuri a fortnight to go and see Chavan and for the latter to express “full satisfaction” with the way all concerned had handled the situation and to declare the chapter as closed? Months later,it transpired that the general had suffered a mild heart attack and could leave his sickbed only when allowed by his doctors.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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