New Delhi: In remarks that are likely to deepen the political controversy surrounding last month’s military action against terrorists in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, defence minister Manohar Parrikar has attacked claims that the army had launched ‘surgical strikes’ in the past and insisted a “major” share of the credit for the September 28-29 military action belonged to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Parrikar’s statement, made in Mumbai on Wednesday, echoes earlier remarks he made that until Modi and the BJP came to power, the Indian army was not even aware of its own capabilities.
The Congress, which has accused the BJP of trying to gain political mileage from the military action, accused the defence minister of “blatant politicisation” of the issue and demanded he apologise to the army and country.
Parrikar said that while the army and the entire population of India – including “doubting Thomases” – deserve credit for the operation as it was done by the armed forces and not by any political party, the “major share” of credit does go to Modi and the government for “decision-making and planning”.
“In last 30 years, there were three wars and non-conventional attacks like terrorism. There was frustration in the society as well as among the 13.5 lakh army personnel that the enemy does not the bother government,” he said. The government’s decision to launch surgical strikes allowed the steam that gathered over 30 years to finally be vented. “That is why people have expressed joy over it. Had anything gone wrong (during the surgical strike) the entire blame would have been borne by the government,” Parrikar said.
India’s response to terror attacks in the past was always predictable, he said, but as a result of the surgical strikes, “India’s response has become highly unpredictable. This is a very important position we have attained.”
The defence minister was speaking at an event organised in Mumbai by the Forum for Integrated National Security, a think tank seen as close to the RSS.
‘No surgical strike before us’
Responding to a raft of reports that have emerged in recent days of earlier army strikes against makeshift terrorist redoubts along the Line of Control, Parrikar said what his government had done was different because all of the earlier operation were launched by soldiers at the local level “without the knowledge” of the government of the day.
“The earlier military actions were carried out mostly in low intensity and were covert. The reports used to be communicated later to the higher authorities. This was the first such strike which was approved by the government,” he said.
Though technically correct, Parrikar’s assertion conveniently glosses over the fact that earlier governments consciously chose to operate under the umbrella of plausible deniability, former ministers and officials familiar with some of those operations told The Wire.
A former minister in the erstwhile Manmohan Singh government recalled at least one such operation – undertaken after Pakistani soldiers beheaded an Indian jawan on the Indian side of the LoC in 2013. When the cabinet committee on security discussed the need for retaliatory action, the army itself said it would rather handle matters by itself at the local level. “Leave it to us, we will sort them out,” the minister recalled the army brass saying.
In an interview to The Hindu, the former national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon elaborated on the logic behind the strategy at the time:
“Covert operations were not announced to the country because the primary goal was to pacify the LoC and cut down infiltration and ceasefire violations, not to manage public opinion at home. By keeping operations covert rather than overt, it was made possible for the Pakistan Army to climb down and for a temporary peace to be re-established.”
Parrikar’s remarks represent a dramatic escalation of the war of words that has broken out with the opposition over the ‘surgical strikes’ the Modi government said it authorised. With Modi invoking his willingness for ‘yudh’, or war, in his Vijay Dashami speech in Lucknow on Tuesday evening and BJP president Amit Shah declaring that the issue would be made an election issue in Uttar Pradesh, the gloves appear to have been flung aside. “I know my statement will rattle the nerves of many,” Parrikar said.
‘Tame Parrikar’, Modi told
The Congress was quick to respond, accusing the defence minister of “undermining” the sacrifices made by the army. “Mr Parrikar, the Indian Army deserves all credit but why mislead the people and undermine the army’s sacrifices by denying earlier surgical strikes?,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said. “Operation Ginger in 2011 was a large-scale surgical strike. Why is Manohar Parrikar quiet on army’s valour? Is (it) not blatant politicisation?” he asked.
The BJP, he said, was “converting national security into an event management exercise to polish the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” “We urge the ruling dispensation to show maturity and gravitas in handling such crucial issues of ‘National Security’ and sacrifice of our soldiers.”
Surjewala said Modi had a responsibility “to come forward, tame his belligerent Defence Minister and BJP President, apologise to the armed forces on their behalf and publicly vow to never make political capital out of army’s sacrifice.”
“Blinded by political vote garnering out of the blood and sacrifice of our soldiers, Parrikar is unabashedly lying and misleading the people of India. The defence minister is free to give credit to anyone but should abstain from undermining the huge sacrifices made by our armed forces in last 68 years. [He] should immediately apologise for his statement insulting our armed forces, denying their supreme sacrifice during multiple surgical strikes and in defending the nation,” he said.
Surjewala attacked Amit Shah for “publicly declaring” his intention of making political capital out of the surgical strikes. “First, Parrikar claimed that the Modi government had ‘made the army realise its prowess and strength’ for the first time. Going a step further, Amit Shah lied to the nation and disgracefully undermined the sacrifice of our armed forces by proclaiming that ‘the army has crossed the LOC for the first time in 68 years’ under Modi government,” he said.
This statement was an insult to war veterans and ex-servicemen, besides paramilitary and police personnel, the Congress spokesperson said. “Does he mean that those who fought the great wars of 1947, 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999 had no courage and deserved no credit?,” he asked, adding that those who participated in ‘Operation Ginger’ in 2011 are still alive.
AAP accuses Parrikar of ‘low grade politics’
The Aam Aadmi Party too accused Parrikar of “belittling” the valour of the Indian Army, saying his statement over surgical strikes shows that he is indulging in low-grade politics.
The party also claimed that the BJP was trying to cash in on the issue ahead of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, which are due early next year.
AAP’s Delhi unit convener Dilip Pandey recalled the manner in which Parrikar had compared the Indian army to Hanuman, who had to be made aware of his powers. By saying this, he had “insulted” the army said Pandey.
“The BJP has misused issues ahead of polls. During the Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, it got a full page advertisement printed about Chinese incursions. They exploited the cow during the Bihar polls and now they are doing this ahead of the UP polls,” Pandey said.
Not BJP’s army, says Left
The Communist Party of India also hit out at Parrikar for his remarks, asking why the BJP was “making” the surgical strikes an issue of debate and “dragging” the armed forces into it.
“Why are the strikes being made an issue of debate? The Indian army is of the entire country. It is not BJP’s army or that of some other political party. So why is the BJP dragging the army into the debate?” CPI national secretary D Raja asked.
The Rajya Sabha member accused the BJP of “starting and continuing” the debate on the issue.
(With inputs from PTI)