As a soldier’s daughter, one of my most vivid childhood memories is of the war with China in 1962. In boarding school, we were infused with patriotism and so spent our free time knitting socks for the troops and making cards to send them. But when I came home to the Army station in which my father was posted, all I heard was angry talk about how the political leadership had betrayed our soldiers. They were sent to war without proper clothing, boots or weapons. And, in the ordnance factories, I remember hearing, they were producing coffee percolators instead of ammunition. I did not know much about Jawaharlal Nehru then, but remember that after his China war he was very unpopular in the Army stations of my childhood.
Buried memories came back last week when 20 of our soldiers were beaten to death by Chinese thugs in the desolate heights of the Galwan Valley. The Modi government has not been able so far to fully explain why our soldiers were unprepared for what the Chief Minister of Punjab has correctly described as a ‘stone age’ battle. From the Army we have heard nothing and the silence of the Defence Minister has been deafening. But, the Minister for External Affairs tells us that our soldiers were not unarmed. They chose not to use their weapons while being clubbed to death with iron rods clad in barbed wire. This explanation is bizarre because even an amateur would use his weapon if he was being beaten to death. These men were trained soldiers.
It is for military experts to investigate what really happened. For my part, I want to concentrate on the manner in which this ugly episode was handled politically. This needs analysis because in more ways than one, the manner in which the political fallout has been handled has been disastrous. When opposition leaders and the media started to question what happened on the border, the first responders came not from the government but from the BJP. They appeared on primetime TV shows to denounce as traitors anyone who dared ask questions about what happened on the border. This is a time for nationalism, they hollered, not a time for ‘anti-nationalism’.
This is an old playbook that has been used so often since Narendra Modi’s second term began that it has become tattered and useless. Nationalism as defined in this playbook means not questioning anything that the government does. To question Modi personally amounts to treason, because in the view of those who wrote this playbook, the nation and the Prime Minister are synonymous. Instead of fielding arrogant BJP spokesmen it would have been wiser to field those who are actually responsible for the defence of this country. Where was the Chief of Defence Staff? Where was the Army Chief? Where was the National Security Advisor? We should hear from them because from them we might get what really happened instead of silly lectures on ‘nationalism’.
We should also hear from the Prime Minister. So far, we have seen him grieve publicly for the dead while solemnly chanting ‘Om Shanti’. He needs to tell us much more. Are we on the verge of another war with China? Are Chinese soldiers still occupying Indian territory? Is it true that Indian soldiers remain in Chinese custody? What is our future strategy? These are questions to which only he has answers since he runs his government in a highly centralised fashion from the PMO. He also conducts foreign policy in a highly personalised way, and has chosen to invest a great deal of capital in his friendship with Xi Jinping. There is no other world leader he has met more often since becoming prime minister.
Whenever there have been tensions with Pakistan, the Prime Minister has been vocal, aggressive and assured. When the Indian Air Force conducted its strike on Balakot it was from Modi that the country heard the details. He went to the extent of saying that he personally ordered the strike on a ‘cloudy night’ because he believed that this would help our fighter pilots fly under the radar. In the election campaign that followed immediately afterwards, Balakot became his symbol for being a tough, decisive leader.
This time the Prime Minister has been unusually reticent, but those ‘proud to be followed by Modi’ on Twitter have not. Like the BJP spokesmen they have hurled abuse at anyone who has dared ask questions about why 20 Indian soldiers were killed so brutally. If I were to recount the number of times I have been called a traitor in response to the questions I have asked about the Galwan massacre, I would have to write a whole separate column. Does the Prime Minister realise the damage that his supporters are doing to him?
What is more important is for him to understand that when the country appears to be teetering on the edge of another war with China, it is not ‘anti-national’ to ask questions. The opposite is true. Two men who have asked exactly the questions that need to be asked by patriots and true nationalists are the Chief Minister of Punjab and another ex-soldier, Lieutenant General H S Panag (retd). I am willing to bet that the questions they asked last week are being asked in Army towns across India.
When soldiers are battered to death, questions will be asked.
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