When an Army Chief almost quit

A new biography of General K.S. Thimayya, in his centenary year, by Brig Chandra B. Khanduri sheds fresh light on the famous clash between the celebrated Chief of Army Staff and Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon, which is a landmark in Indian political and military history.

In 1959, the Chinese had extended their occupation of Aksai Chin, illegally ceded to them by Pakistan, by taking over the heights overlooking Chushul and Rezang La. The Chinese openly rejected the McMohan Line as the international boundary between China and India, and declared that Tibet was an "inalienable part of China."

The Indian armed forces were in a poor state. There was pressure to reduce the defence budget, which was already low at just Rs 305 crore.

General K.S. Thimayya, Chief of Army Staff, conducted two exercises cum war games in the Eastern and Western Theatres. "Timmy" personally directed the exercises, with Major General P.P. Kumaramangalam leading a force acting as the Chinese.

The main conclusion of Exercise Lal Qila in the North East Frontier Area, led by Major General S.P.P. Thorat, was that available troop and equipment levels would not be sufficient to contain or even delay the Chinese aggression. Combined with the results of the other exercise, Sheel, in Shimla, an increase in forces and an initial deployment pattern was recommended by Army Headquarters to the Ministry of Defence, headed by V.K. Krishna Menon.

But when it reached Menon, he shelved it, finally taking it up only after much prodding. A meeting was organised, and he asked Timmy to explain the rationale for such a large force. The COAS duly did so, only to have Menon declare that it was "too much" and it needed to be "pruned down." Timmy resisted. And Menon’s stand changed from discussion to confrontation. Excerpts from Thimayya, An Amazing Life.

Time took a full-size photograph of Timmy in his tent at the Hindnagar Demilitarised Zone
took a full-size photograph of Timmy in his tent at the Hindnagar Demilitarised Zone

Thimayya was aware that the minister of defence had been "not too happy" with the earlier recommendations based on Exercises Lal Qila and Sheel but he attributed it to his perspective nuances as well as comprehension. After all, it was his job to make the prime minister, defence minister and president understand the strategic requirements of defence of the border and the country. None of them was a military man, nor exposed to the process of strategic thinking. He was perturbed at the "bickering" as he called it, that had ensued between him and Menon a month earlier.

* * * *

The overall deduction of the study in early 1959 saw clearly the "Chinese intention of crossing the Rubicon" and that "with the present state of development, the Chinese could launch a major incursion across any part of the border or create a situation where there would be the likelihood of a major operation taking place unless threatened by major retaliatory action by India."

* * * *

Thimayya was getting disenchanted, terribly disappointed that his "brilliant boss," was refusing to see reality.

The Thimayya family in 1954: (from left) Nina, Timmy and Mireille
The Thimayya family in 1954: (from left) Nina, Timmy and Mireille

Menon was the dictator whom the service chiefs chose to secretly nickname "God Almighty." Another problem with Menon, as observed by Navy Chief R.D. Katari, was his "inherently devious ways." He would even go to the extent of tempting any officer pliant enough to be cultivated. In doing so, he often ran into the unexpected. Major General Manekshaw, for example, was asked by Menon what he thought of General Thimayya, Sam, blunt as ever, replied, "Sir, as a junior officer, we are not permitted to express an opinion on our superior officer. We respect our seniors and we have no two opinions on it." That was a good enough rebuff to see that a "rebellious" Sam was "fixed" at a suitable time!

Because Menon (contrary to his own tall claims) could understand neither technical nor tactical issues, he would call junior officers directly to explain cases to him although the same would already have been done by the chiefs themselves or their PSOs and directors. Worse still, he would issue orders to the chiefs through these officers. This did not appeal to the disciplined minds of the defence services. When the chiefs tried to explain the established ethos, protocol and operating procedures as norms for the services, he would not only get angry but also show contempt for their suggestions.

"I will not be bound by your sterile rules and procedures," he once told his chiefs angrily," and I know how to manage the services. I will call any one, any time and for that I need no permission from you."

The prime cause of differences, besides Menon’s abrasive personality, was one of perspectives. For, the chiefs, principally Thimayya, advocated that the strategy to be adopted by India against the two perceived enemies it faced had to be "dissuasive." Time and again, he would explain assiduously that it implied the "adoption of a strategy of adequate and appreciable counterpoise, causing damage to the aggressor, by striking deeper inside his territory and thus forcing him to recoil from his aggression. "He would then explain through individual cases. Against China, he would emphasise that the strategy had to be one of a calibrated response — a mix of defensive-offensive postures that would be viable.

But because Indian defence capability against China was limited, it had to be one of a mix of the military and diplomacy. It had to go along with a diplomatic flexibility of give and take. Concurrently, for the defensive capability to be effective, a build-up on the border, and raising and equipping of forces were imperative; so were improvement in logistics and communications. It called for an immediate evaluation of the threat posed, in both long and short periods of time.

* * * *

Menon’s perspective was different. He harped on India-China friendship, while Pakistan to him was like a red rag to a bull. He saw no need for the growth of the army at the rate that Thimayya regarded as inescapable. He, however, accepted the need for modernisation, but only at his own pace of inducting indigenous equipment and arms. He was so obsessed with the public sector under the MoD, that the private sector dealing with defence production was ignored, starved to such an extent that they rebelled and cultivated the Opposition.

Menon’s concept of indigenisation of defence industry and production, nonetheless, was a plausible one. But the policy he followed had mixed results due primarily to his own limited vision, obfuscation of priorities and obdurate belief in his own infallibility in everything, including tactics and strategy.

"If only tactics and strategy were so simple," reflected Thimayya, why would he and other masters, have wasted their life-time to learn, practise and relearn them. He began to wonder if Menon would ever develop the humility to learn from others or would continue to bully and bluster.

Then as if to exert his rights, as he had conveyed to them earlier, Menon began to call the chiefs for "consultations," at all hours of the day and even at odd hours of the night, at his home, at the office, at the airport and railway stations. In the office especially, they would have to wait in an ante-room while he scribbled through files, made long telephone calls, or dealt with other visitors, a number of whom would be sitting with him inside or waiting outside.

* * * *

On August 7, 1959, the news of a fresh Chinese intrusion into Khinzemane, in North East Frontier Area (NEFA), came in. It was on this day that Thimayya again met Menon, this time determined to convince the minister of the need to see the Chinese (and Pakistani) threats realistically, rather than ignore them.

He urged the minister to apprise the prime minister what the army felt about the defence of the Chinese border.

* * * *

Thimayya saw Menon grow not only cold to anything he, or the other chiefs suggested, but actually hostile to them. While appeals for accretions were being ignored, their professional soundness was being questioned. What was bothering Menon? Thimayya wondered.

* * * *

In the meeting with Nehru, Thimayya apologised for bothering him about defence matter when there was a full time minister and he was fully aware of the worsening situation on the border and of the imminence of hostilities.

He then drew Prime Minister Nehru’s attention to the need to raise additional force for the northern borders, equip them and develop communications at priority. He pointed out how averse the defence minister was to those inescapable requirements, that had, indeed, been based on professional deliberations and analyses. He highlighted the lacunae in the defence set-up and how it needed to be urgently refurbished.

* * * *

Nehru heard him uninterruptedly, sipping his whisky and smoking his cigarette. Thimayya then told him how Menon refused to see the service chiefs’ points of view and how often he would tear his hair’ when they persisted with their needs for improvement of their services, integration resources, etc. for a real threat from China, and how treating them as school boys they had been told to "look west" and "forget the north." He argued that politicians could understandably make political statements for general public morale, but as service chiefs, they could not "sweep the facts under the carpet."

* * * *

Thimayya suggested that the prime minister should rather call Menon and make him see the gravity of the situation and if he deemed it fit, he and other chiefs could join him (Nehru) to review the border situation at a suitable place. Nehru insisted that Thimayya first talk to Menon in a day or two after he returned telling him (Menon) that he had discussed the problems with him too. Thimayya demurred, "I doubt," said Thimayya, "If he would listen to me or any one of us. I fear he might misconstrue the whole thing."

Nehru said bypassing a minister may not be in order, though he would personally not treat the contents of the present discussion as bypassing him. And after Thimayya had spoken with Menon, he could meet him (Nehru) again. Thimayya could read the prime minister’s mind and his desire. There could be no further argument.

As Thimayya returned, the prime minister called Air Chief Subroto Mukerjee and Katari for a brief discussion with a view to ascertain their views.

Menon returned on the night of August 19 and dispensed with the regal reception at the airport. He met the prime minister the following morning and was badly upset. He then gave a diatribe on his chiefs and repeated his criticism of them — some of it in public. Still fuming, Menon told Nehru that he would ask Thimayya to "resign" and go, if he wanted.

"He is not indispensable. The others too could follow," he remarked caustically.

"None of us is indispensable," said Nehru, "but time is a vital factor. We need him but ‘tame’ him along with the other service chiefs." He advised Menon not to talk to Katari and Mukerjee as he already had talked to them. "Don’t let them take up a collective stand," was the final word of counselling.

Thimayya met Menon on the evening of August 21. Dressed in a jacket and slacks, Thimayya walked in and wished the minister before sitting down. He gave him a summary of his meeting with the prime minister, the ensuing discussion on defence preparedness for the Chinese border, and, how things needed to be expedited. Menon asked Thimayya as to why he had met the prime minister without his permission.

"It was the prime minister who asked me to give him an update," said Thimayya.

Menon told Thimayya that he had no business to meet the prime minister without his specific approval. Thimayya reiterated that the prime minister desired to know about the preparedness, and the state of morale of the services, and he told him nothing that he had, over the period of 18 months or so, not discussed with the minister.

But Menon was furious and finally said: "No, General. It’s downright disloyalty and impropriety."

To this, Thimayya said: "I make no allegations. You can call the other chiefs too. They will say the same that they and I have continuously said — that the services are being neglected and that their morale is lowering. These are the facts that we have told you earlier and the prime minister now. I am reiterating that by speaking candidly I and other chiefs are being loyal to you, the government and country. That’s what loyalty means to me."

Thimayya saw no point in carrying on the conversation further with Menon. Deeply hurt at his remarks, he got up and said: "I have never been disloyal to anyone, least of all to you, my country and the government."

(Menon shouted at top of his voice). "You are disloyal to me and I have no place for disloyal generals around."

It was no longer possible to conceal the tension between Menon and the service chiefs. He left.

It was 9.30 p.m. when Thimayya reached home and told (his wife) Nina to be ready to pack up and then murmured, "It’s time to pack up honourably." He also talked to Mukerjee and Katari and told them he was seriously contemplating putting in his papers the next day or so. Both repeated their vow to ‘follow the leader’.

"Sink or crash, we’ll do it together," was the commitment.

"Unitedly, we will all," became the motto.

After Thimayya left, Menon met Nehru, who asked him not to rock the boat. He assured him that he would once again get the chiefs’ willing cooperation, provided he showed patience.

Thimayya drafted his resignation letter the following morning and showed it to Mukerjee and Katari, both of whom confirmed their willingness to follow suit. "My conscience says, wait," Nina was saying.

Thimayya called Major General S.P.P. Thorat, who advised the same. So was the suggestion of Bogey Sen, his CGS and Wadalia, his deputy chief. General Cariappa who was in Delhi asked him to meet the prime minister again before he ‘bunged in’ his ‘letter’.

* * * *

That night, Thimayya thought and re-thought about throwing away a career, the great honour the country had bestowed upon him and the trust his officers and men had reposed in him. It was one of the saddest nights of his life`85.

* * * *

Putting his arm around Thimayya’s shoulders, Nehru asked him why he hadn’t met him, rather than sending in his resignation. "Please withdraw it straight away," ordered a visibly annoyed prime minister. "I will see you again at 7 p.m. with a letter withdrawing your resignation. In the meanwhile, I am keeping the letter with me." He then asked him to return at 7 p.m."

In the meanwhile, Katari had informed Mukerjee, by now in London, that Thimayya had submitted his resignation and he was following suit. He expected Mukerjee to do so, although he made no such specific suggestion. He was expected to naturally follow them.

The period between 2.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. was used by Nehru to control the damage which the resignation of the chiefs would cause to the government, the services’ morale, and the gains the enemy would make.

Nehru rang up Katari and told him that he had called Thimayya and he was withdrawing his resignation and he should not entertain any such proposal. (A similar message went to Mukerjee through the High Commission.) He told him that Thimayya would meet him again in the evening and he should meet him at 9.30 p.m.

So by the time Thimayya arrived at the Teen Murti residence of the prime minister at 7 pm through a carefully articulated manoeuvre, Nehru had distanced the other chiefs from Thimayya by "talking them out of it." Menon too was asked to keep a draft of his resignation handy. An emergency meeting of the Cabinet Committee of the Parliament was also called.

* * * *

And then he (Nehru) began to win over Timmy with his charm but Thimayya said that he had not changed his mind and instead urged the prime minister to accept his resignation. In his defence, he argued: "That’s the only honourable course left to me and the other chiefs. When professional advice and recommendations are flouted at the drop of a hat, the chief loses his place and importance."

Nehru, however, said: "We have sufficient problems. And at this moment of crisis, one should not do anything to encourage opponents or the enemy. Shouldn’t it be so, Timmy?

Thimayya further explained that it was indeed a "moment of crisis" and it was his loyalty to him and his sense of patriotism to the country that had really moved him to sacrifice his job. But he repeated that Menon as defence minister had "made it impossible" for him and the other chiefs to work as head of the services, and unless Menon was moved out of defence, there could be little progress. But he understood that as this obviously could not be agreed to by the prime minister, he — and the other chiefs — should step aside, and, therefore, his submission of his resignation.

Nehru admitted that Menon was a "difficult man", but he was simply "brilliant" and was doing service to defence which no one earlier had done. Thimayya agreed, but suggested that his methods of "man-management" were "outrageous" and even his brilliance was that of an "Oxford professor of philosophy" rather than of a man dealing with the country’s defence forces which have to be prepared to fight enemies.

* * * *

And, finally, he truthfully said to his prime minister: "With the present state of the army, I can hardly assure success. We are not prepared. All my efforts — as also of others — have failed for the past 24 to 30 months to make the armed forces a viable defence force. So let someone else do the job... I request my resignation be kindly accepted."

Nehru heard him out and said he agreed. Then he pleaded with Thimayya: "Timmy, I ask you to withdraw this resignation. I, as your elder and not necessarily your prime minister, am requesting you to do so. I promise to restore dignity to you and the other service chiefs’ offices. We have to fight an enemy. For my sake, withdraw it."

* * * *

At 9.30 pm Katari had met Nehru who told him that they were "ganging up" against Menon and that "Thimayya had withdrawn his resignation" — both factually wrong. Katari, then decided to call off handing in his letter of resignation without even checking with Thimayya."

Whether it was the charm of the prime minister or fear of retribution or the weakness of Katari — and Mukerjee — one will never know. But enormous damage was done to the chiefs’ solidarity.

* * * *

On the morning of September 1, the Capital awoke alarmed in the wake of the disturbing disclosures in the Press about Thimayya’s resignation (which he had, by then, withdrawn).

* * * *

There was also considerable applause when the prime minister assured the House — and through it, the country — that "under our practice, the civil authority is, and must remain supreme" (while it should, however, pay due heed to expert advice). There was also applause when he referred to the army’s "fine mettle" and "excellent morale."

* * * *

It was (daughter) Mireille who wept bitterly at the public condemnation of her father in the Parliament (where she sat alongside Indira Gandhi) by Pandit Nehru. When she recalled the scene to her father, tears welled up again. She understood nothing of politics, but surely had human sentiments, and spoke of these things to her father on the telephone at Secunderabad where he had gone for the forthcoming inauguration of the Joint Land Air Warfare School.

"Daddy you have been let down. Mummy was right in asking you not to withdraw your letter."

Thimayya said nothing. Later, on his return to Delhi, he showed her the office copy of his letter of resignation that contained the gist of what had transpired between him and Nehru, besides the appeals from the prime minister to withdraw his letter.

Thimayya, An Amazing Life Excerpted with permission from Thimayya, An Amazing Life. Published by the Centre for Armed Historical Research United Service Institution of India and Knowledge World, New Delhi. Pages 399 Rs 1095

"You’ll now on defend your father, I hope," he said.

"Always passionately, daddy," replied Mireille.

"If these are trivial, then I know of none other important issues," he told Nina, who was furious at the withdrawal, and asked him to "re-resign" without a second thought, and expose the duo.

He said he had accepted the advice and the assurances of his prime minister and had withdrawn his resignation. "For, in a democracy, a resignation is the only constitutional safeguard to a service chief against incompetent, unscrupulous or ambitious politicians," he murmured.

The withdrawal of his resignation had its negative effects: Thimayya lost his hold over some of the officers who deified him and could not see him being humiliated.. it forfeited the giving of a jolt to Nehru, who not only seemed to link Thimayya’s resignation with a hypothetically "questioning civilian supremacy" (and indirectly, a propensity for attempting a coup) but got a free run towards brinkmanship, leading to the debacle of 1962. Had Thimayya resigned, it was felt by the observers of the events of that period, the Indian government would have been forced to do some serious thinking about the Chinese threat and done a "course correction."