The National Identity IV: India's original "Cold Start" and the day the Indian military nearly went rogue
Arun Singh strode away into the mountains of Almora, the heartland of Kumaon. If it felt like a betrayal of his close friend Rajiv Gandhi, it was at least a decision taken with a heavy heart. Thrice, he had been persuaded by Prime Minister Gandhi to continue as Minister of State for defense, but with the weight of the Bofors scandal sagging shoulders in the Ministry of Defense, he thought it was best to go. He had wrenched himself away to an altogether different world, far removed from Delhi not just in distance but even more so in time, and he had no intention of returning.
The year was 1988. A year earlier he helped oversee an operation which brought a freshly nuclear armed Pakistan and India to the brink of war.
"Thence north to the glaciers" - Simla Agreement, 1972
The intervening years between 1974, when India displayed her nuclear might, and 1987 were largely peaceful, in the conventional sense. India and Pakistan didn't engage in open conflict, but as the arms race between the two neighbours heated up, so did the misadventures. In Operation Meghdoot in 1984, India wrestled control of the highest battlefield in the world, Siachen Glacier. With the Simla Agreement in 1972, failing to demarcate Indian and Pakistani territory, India for once, assumed a defensively-offensive posture to capture the area beyond point NJ9842, referred to as "thence north to the glaciers" in the Simla Agreement. As India had preempted Pakistan, India had the advantage of commanding the heights and used it to devastating effect to counter wave after wave of Pakistani attempts to gain a foothold on the glacier. More than thirty years on, India still controls the entire Siachen Glacier.
Perhaps buoyed by this daring manoeuvre, the Indian Army wasted little time in developing blueprints for future "preemptive" and "defensively-offensive" strikes. The Indian Government had, since Independence, assumed a purely defensive posture but under Chief of Army Staff General Sundarji, the military was at least ready to showcase its conventional might, as a sign of deterrence to Pakistan.
''This is not a third-world army, this is a modern army, fully competent for any mission, easily as good as the Chinese, the Koreans or the French." - A Western diplomat who attended the Operational manoeuvres, 1987
Moving on from the initial three phases of the Operation which involved consultations with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the first phase to sand modelling in the third, the Army entered Phase 4. It was the largest troop mobilization since World War II, larger than any NATO massing of troops. The operation involved moving 500,000-800,000 troops to the international border with Pakistan in East to West, South to West and North to West manoeuvres. The year was 1986 and the operation was codenamed Brass Tacks.
In fact, even though it was an internal exercise, this was India's first "Cold Start". General Sundarji was the Chief of Army Staff who lent his name to the Sundarji doctrine - involving three strike corps based in the hinterland (Ambala, Bhopal and Mathura), which having evaded first brush with the enemy (the corps closer to the border would take the first hits), would then strike Pakistan in a sledgehammer like motion. This doctrine would ultimately lead to India's failure in Operation Parakram exactly 15 years later.
Operation Brass Tacks was a Ministry of Defense operation/exercise, championed by General Sundarji and the Minister of State in the defense ministry Arun Singh, to simulate the operational capabilities of the Indian armed forces. This came on the back of India's Siachen Glacier mission and a long running Pakistani backed militancy in Punjab. This was, on the record at least, meant purely as an internal exercise to demonstrate the new armoured and light infantry capabilities of the Indian Army. The troop concentration was in the Indian state of Rajasthan and on the other side of the border lay the Pakistani province of Sindh.
Such a large troop movement would obviously not go unnoticed in Pakistan, and the Pakistani President and Chief of Army Staff, General Zia responded by moving three of his corps to the international border. Pakistan had misread the exercise as a declaration of war. He also activated the reserves and massed troops along the northern borders with India. Close to a million troops stood within firing range of each other, waiting for the shot across the bow. One bullet fired and one casualty, and all bets would have been off from the desert to the high mountains.
"Hoon is taking us to war" - Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Mani Shankar Aiyar, December 1986
The Prime Minister was his own Defense Minister at the time, so what is definitely clear is that he knew about Operation Brass Tacks. Where the water turns murky is when the operational manoeuvres began in Phase 4, in December 1986. Allegations by the Prime Minister's office say the Army pushed an internal exercise into a war mobilization, and Rajiv Gandhi, away on holiday, was unaware of it.
Scholarly evidence rests on the side of the Indian Army that Operation Brass Tacks was purely meant as an internal exercise. Whilst, the Indian Army wanted to display to Pakistan that the bleeding militancy in Punjab had not blunted India's conventional forces, the intention was never to incite war. Lieutenant General Hoon was the Western Army commander at the time, and was in charge of the entire operation. He, to this day, remains convinced that General Sundarji wanted to go to war with Pakistan and the operation was meant to incite a first strike from Pakistan. A hot line between the Military Operations Directorates of the two nations were never opened. For an exercise of this scale, it is often the first task accomplished and it is hard to term this an "oversight". Rajiv Gandhi has shades of a callow JFK, in that, his generals didn't directly disoby him or misinform him but were more than happy to create situations in which the nation would be forced to go to war. Shielding the Army was Rajiv Gandhi's closest friend, and fellow Doon School and Cambridge alumnus, Minister of State Arun Singh.
Rajiv Gandhi diffused the situation by inviting General Zia to lunch in Delhi, under the pretext of watching a cricket match. In February 1987, the two sides agreed to withdraw 150,000 troops from Kashmir. The retreat agreement for troops in the deserts of Rajasthan was reached in March 1987, but India continued the final manoeuvres, asserting that Pakistan had no reason to feel provoked. The final manoeuvres were overseen by foreign diplomats, including one Pakistani diplomat, in a rare Confidence Building Measure. Even though the situation mildly flared up again in late March 1987, when Pakistan's nuclear scientist AQ Khan said that Pakistan now had nuclear weapons, the worst was over. The two nations had pulled back from a war which, in all likelihood, would have involved battlefield nuclear weapons.
"Pakistan's nuclear escalation ladder has only one rung" - Shireen Mazari,
political scientist and central spokesperson of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
This points back to the original question posed in Part III, where was the civil military coordination? Without any knowledge of what strategic goals we might have, the Indian general, even if successful in instigating a Pakistani first strike, would have been forced to retreat from Pakistani territory without anything more than tactical and operational victories. Also called, pyrrhic. India's difficulty has always been moving from a purely defensive mode to the defensively-offensive mode. The Indian armed forces have always known the need for this, but the civil leadership has never humoured the armed forces.
Operation Brass Tacks was a game of chess. The general, according to some more reports, hoped that Pakistan would view this exercise as an announcement of war, and true to form land the first strikes. This would give India justification for attacking Pakistan. It was envisioned that India would lay waste to Pakistan's retaliatory apparatus in multiple deep incursions into Pakistani territory, but more importantly destroy their nuclear facilities. A Pakistan, now split into two, would be forced to come to the negotiating table. Although it would have been viewed as an extremely hostile move by the world community, India could have potentially destroyed Pakistan's nuclear capabilities. India would not have had to fight the Kashmir insurgency and the Kargil war under the shadow of a nuclear war, always careful to not take "that one step" which would give Pakistan justification for using nuclear weapons.
"He has been vetted by our Intelligence agency and has been sworn to the Official Secrets Act" - Minister of External Affairs, Jaswant Singh, 2000
Operation Parakram in December 2001, exactly fifteen years on from Operation Brass Tacks, brought India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war and only a US intervention saved the day. It was the second time in fifteen years when close to a million troops faced each other along an international border. The US intervention came about because the Sundarji doctrine took three weeks to implement, enough time for General Musharraf to seek US help and to make his famous "denouncing the Jihadis" speech.
A little known personality was brought back into India's decision making loop during the Kargil War, two years ago. He was inducted into the MEA as Officer on special Duty with undefined powers and functions. He was subsequently made advisor in the Ministry of External Affairs with the rank of a minister of state, with doubtful constitutional status. When questioned on his appointment in the Parliament, Jaswant Singh would go on to make that famous remark. With Defence Minister George Fernandes sidelined from the decision making process by Prime Minister Vajpayee, the freshly inducted man would go on to be at or near the helm of two of India's most sensitive exercises, operations post 1987. Bought back into the loop, to complete General Sundarji's legacy, was none other than Arun Singh, the recluse of Almora.
Rather than institutionalizing decision making we, again and again, personalize it. There in lies our greatest folly.
While I have been "asked" to shed more light on the diplomatic options that would be open to India once the Cold Start doctrine is implemented, I thought it prudent to first go deeper into the background of the cold start doctrine - from the military's standpoint. The first post on this issue perhaps did not come across as rounded, and that is not something I aim to rectify with this post. The national identity is going to be a long series, hence I will let the military have it's day out on the national identity.