P. Chidambaram on Surgical Strikes: Defence Minister’s statements invited ridicule

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New Delhi | Updated: October 16, 2016 7:23:18 AM

According to the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), there were “surgical strikes” on “launch pads” situated “along” the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar (file photo)Defence minister Manohar Parrikar (file photo)

According to the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), there were “surgical strikes” on “launch pads” situated “along” the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. I believe the DGMO, as we have always believed past Director Generals and past Chiefs of the Army. The DGMO said that “significant casualties” had been inflicted on the enemy but he did not give any number. He was at pains to emphasise that there were “no plans for further continuation”. The nation applauded him and the Army.

But somewhere in the translation the message was lost. It was certainly lost on one person who ought to have maintained restraint—the defence minister. His utterances since the strike have been over the top, gross exaggerations, and invited ridicule even from quarters that generally supported the government.

Truth is the casualty

Pause here and reflect. Is there any truth in, or justification for, the defence minister’s statement that—

l like Hanuman, the Army did not know their prowess until I pointed out to them their strength and capacity;

l such an action has never been done before and this is the first surgical strike by the Army;

l nowhere in the world has such an operation been done with such a degree of success;

l 30 years of helplessness and frustration have been lifted by this action and the people erupted in joy.

Much of the above could be brushed aside as the enthusiasm of a first-time central minister if they had no consequences. Unfortunately, there will be consequences. That is why, I think, the Prime Minister had to caution his ministers not to indulge in “chest thumping”. Who did the Prime Minister have in mind, if not the defence minister? But Mr Parrikar is not deterred. He is on a roller-coaster ride and totally unmindful of the fact that he has made a spectacle of himself.

Dividends of strategic restraint

As the Army’s spokesman said, “this is not the first time and this will not be the last time”. The LoC is a line of truce. It is in the mutual interest of India and Pakistan that the understanding to maintain ceasefire, reached in 2003, is maintained by both sides as fully as possible and as long as possible. If the understanding is breached by one side, it will invite retaliation by the other. Both Armies know this simple rule. In the past too, there have been breaches and retaliations. No less a person than General Bikram Singh, a former Army chief, confirmed this recently. No less a person than Mr Shivshankar Menon, a former NSA, explained the nature of such cross-LoC actions. And The Hindu dug into the records and published an undeniable report on Operation Ginger (2011).

The UPA government followed a policy of ‘strategic restraint’. No one had seriously questioned the policy at that time. It yielded dividends in the matter of reducing the level of violence in J&K:

Only a person who is unusually obtuse will say that the policy of the UPA government was muddle-headed or wrong. The situation began to change in 2014, yet the number of incidents and number of fatalities were under control.

Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Pampore and Uri brought about a qualitative change. The government of the day is entitled to review the policy of strategic restraint. It is also entitled to authorise cross-LoC action and, in its wisdom, take political ownership of the Army’s action. What the government is not entitled to do is indulge in exaggeration and vilification of previous governments and their policies. That is the fault of the defence minister.

Criticism is liberty

There will be criticism of the defence minister. There will be criticism of the modified (and seemingly muscular) policy. There will be criticism that the government has not weighed the consequences of raising an Army-level ‘tactical operation’ to a Government-level ‘policy instrument’. Alternatives will be suggested.

Questions will be asked. When did “along” the LoC become “deep strikes”? Is not “launch pad” associated with missiles? What is the difference between “cross-LoC action” and “surgical strike”? Did the DGMO give the number of casualties?

Criticism—and questions—will enrich public debate. It is the essence of liberty. The events that will unfold in the weeks and months to come may prove the critic to be right or to be wrong. Even if he is proven wrong, the critic is not unpatriotic or anti-national.

Freedom movements have been criticised. War-time leaders have been defeated. Civil wars have been fought among citizens of a country with neither side forfeiting the right to be called patriotic. Through all the turbulence, the one value that has stood out among people who cherish liberty is freedom of speech and expression. If you kill that voice, you will kill liberty.

I am afraid that there are too many people out there—in political parties, in governments, in the media, in the social media—who seem determined to kill the voice of liberty.

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