From Israel, a Lesson for Modi on How Democracies Debate the Army

On several occasions, commissions have very publicly faulted army commanders and civilian leaders for their handling of military matters – a far cry from what happens in India.

From left to right: Golda Meir, Ariel Sharon, Bibi Netanyahu. Credit: Wikimedia, PTI

Soon after the Indian army’s surgical strike at points along the Line of Control last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, went to town over it. The climax was reached at Mandi on October 18, 2016 when Modi claimed that the action had won world-wide acclaim. He proceeded to make a damaging claim. Referring to Israel’s exploits he said that “the Indian forces had shown that they are no less than anybody”.

Splendid. Israel has held at least three inquiries into the conduct not only of its government but also of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Heads at the highest level rolled in both wings of the state. Why is Modi not prepared to be less than Israel on this front? Worse, he allowed parliament to set a new precedent in preventing MPs from even asking questions about the logic and effects of the surgical strike.

On October 13, 2016, through a “last-minute change” in the agenda of parliament’s standing committee on defence “under a garb of secrecy” as some MPs put it, members were not allowed to exercise the rights they normally do in committee. The next day, General Bipin Rawat, who was the vice-chief at the time, spoke to the committee. But, its chairman, Maj. Gen. (Retd.) B.C. Khanduri did not allow any questions. Khanduri said: “the term referred to was ‘briefing’ so it was not a question-answer session”. A member’s questions “were not permitted” by Khanduri.

While accountability to the nation and its parliament is mandated by the rules of democratic governance, in the case of the surgical strike the rule was fortified by two additional factors. The strike was ordered by the government, not by some local commander as in the past. Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar told parliament’s standing committee on external affairs on October 18, 2016 that the government wanted to send a strong message across to Pakistan – a military action for a political purpose. Hence its decision to go public for the first time. In a democracy like India, he said the army was mandated to seek clearance from the government for such operations. Precisely, and it is then accountable to parliament for its decision as is the army for the manner it executed it.

The army has doggedly refused accountability in Kashmir, It now aims to escape it altogether. The human shield incident is only the latest instance. In the present debate, politicians will play safe for fear of offending the public’s awe of the “sacred cow”, the Army. The BJP applies the McCarthyite smear of unpatriotic conduct to its critics.

Regardless of the incident which renews public scrutiny of the military’s role in Kashmir, the issue is about the principle of democratic accountability.

In Britain, debates even in wartime

In the UK in 1966, a commission of inquiry on tribunals of inquiry, headed by a distinguished judge, Lord Salmon, recalled in its report that “in the 19th century there were select parliamentary committees of inquiry to investigate the conduct of the expedition to the island of Walcheren, the war with Napoleon and the Crimean War”; that is, military operations.

During the First World War, a special commission was set by an Act of parliament to enquire into the Dardanelles campaigns, the famous debacle at Gallipoli. The terms of reference were “for the purpose of inquiring into the origin, inception and conduct of operations or war in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, including the supply of drafts, reinforcements, ammunition and equipment to the troops and fleet, the provision for the sick wounded, and the responsibility of those departments of the government whose duty it has been to minister to the wants of the forces employed in that theatre of war.” This covered the government as well as the army; the political as well as the military aspects.

While the Second World War was on, the House of Commons on at least two occasions fiercely debated military matters. Read Hansard of those years and you will be astonished at comments on army operations, albeit with proper discretion and civility. On May 7, 1940, Captain Bellinger angrily said:

“The right hon. gentleman the prime minister introduced into this debate a somewhat novel feature. He informed us that the general staff had advised him that it would be inappropriate; I think he used the words “even dangerous,” for a debate in this house on this subject to take place at the present time. I notice that the secretary of state for war is on the front bench, and perhaps he may answer a question that I wish to put to him. Is it the function of the general staff to suggest to the prime minister whether a debate should take place in this house or not? Is it not more their function to advise the prime minister on questions affecting strategy and tactics rather than questions affecting parliamentary procedure?”

Stafford Cripps, a distinguished lawyer, agreed with him:

“What the right hon. gentleman has said, and what is constantly said, is that you must not attack the government because it will endanger the country. There are times when the only safety of the country is attack upon the government, and it will be a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the members of this house if, being honestly convinced that it is necessary to challenge the issue; they take no steps to do it. That is why I regard the debate that we are having to-day as the most momentous that has ever taken place in the history of parliament.”

The debate was held in the wake of military disaster. It is not Leopold Amery’s famous recall of Cromwell’s famous words to the Long Parliament (“In the name of God, go”) which brought down the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, but Lloyd George’s peroration later in the debate. His speech centred on “the conduct of the war” and concluded with these memorable and devastating words:

“He (the P.M.) has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the government show clearly what they are aiming at and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the prime minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.”

When he sat down, Neville Chamberlain knew that his fate was sealed.

This was not all. Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill, had to face a motion of no-confidence at the height of the war following a long succession of defeat in Malaya, Singapore, Burma and in North Africa. It was supported by members of all parties. On June 25, 1942 this motion was placed before the house:

“That this house, while paying a tribute to the heroism and endurance of the armed forces of the crown in circumstances of exceptional difficulty, has no confidence in the central direction of the war”

Churchill rejected an offer of withdrawal by its mover, Sir John Wadlaw-Milne. At the end, Churchill said:

“This long debate has now reached its final stage. What a remarkable example it has been of the unbridled freedom of our parliamentary institutions in time of war! Everything that could be thought of or raked up has been used to weaken confidence in the government, has been used to prove that ministers are incompetent and to weaken their confidence in themselves, to make the army distrust the backing it is getting from the civil power, to make the workmen lose confidence in the weapons they are striving so hard to make, to present the government as a set of nonentities over whom the prime minister towers, and then to undermine him in his own heart, and, if possible, before the eyes of the nation. All this poured out by cable and radio to all parts of the world, to the distress of all our friends and to the delight of all our foes! I am in favour of this freedom, which no other country would use, or dare to use, in times of mortal peril, such as those through which we are passing.”

The motion was defeated by 475 votes to 25.

I would only invite MPs and journalists to read the transcript of the testimony recorded at the hearings conducted jointly by the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees into the dismissal of General MacArthur in May and June 1952. Although the proceedings were in camera, a censored report of the entire evidence was made available the very same day. Apart from the general himself, Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, General Marshall, the defence secretary, and Gen. Omar Bradley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, gave evidence. The inquiry was not limited to the actual dismissal. It covered a very wide range of issues and comprised a thorough discussion of the rival concepts of strategy and tactics and the differing opinions on American military strength. “We are stripping the nation’s security framework to the bare skeleton”, chairman Richard B. Russell remarked. He was not wrong. American reporters were chagrined to find the TASS correspondent regularly coming to buy the transcript for a few cents. (The text was published in the New York Times). And all this while the Korean War was on. It ended two years later.

Nehru set up the Henderson-Brooks inquiry into the reverses in the 1962 War. Its report was not published thanks to an unpardonable decision by Wajahat Habibullah as chief information commissioner avowedly as he claimed on the TV because of his partiality to the army.

Israel shows the way

Shimon Agranat, president of the Israeli Supreme Court from 1965 to 1975. Credit: Wikimedia

This brings me to Narendra Modi’s icon, Israel.

The Yom Kippur War was a touch and go affair though not quite. King Husain of Jordan had alerted Israel in advance and it had a mole at the highest levels of the government in Egypt. The US would not have let down Israel. Still, it was an existential crisis. Soon thereafter, a commission of inquiry was set up headed by none other than the president of the Israeli Supreme Court, Shimon Agranat. It submitted its preliminary report on April 1, 1974. On the same day, the chief of staff, Lt. General David Elazae resigned. So did the then prime minister, Golda Meir, a week later, and her entire cabinet including defence minister Moshe Dayan and foreign minister Abba Eban. The report blamed the military leadership rather than the political leadership for what had happened. In particular, it blamed military intelligence and bad judgment by the chief of staff. Israel had no Wajahat Habibullahs to do the special pleading; nor the bunch of politicians and their stooges in the media to plead for the rulers.

Eban’s biographer, Asaf Siniver writes:

“The Agranat Commission did not release its interim report until April 1, 1974. It recommended the dismissal of the chief of staff, the head of military intelligence, and several other senior officers. Those at the political helm – especially the prime minister and the defence minister – were let off the hook, as the commission judged the investigation of the political decisions leading to the war to be beyond its remit and some thing that should instead the judged in the court of public opinion. That is precisely what happened: outraged that Meir and Dayan came out unscathed while the military was hung out to dry, the public demanded Meir and Dayan’s resignations. Weighed down by the toll of the war and its aftermath, nine days later Meir announced her resignation.”

Golda Meir hated Eban. When told that he was considering himself for the premiership, she asked “In which country?”.

The Agranat precedent was followed a decade later. Hundreds of Palestinians were butchered by Phalangists in the refugee camps of Shatilla and Sabra in Beirut between September 16-18, 1982. The Israeli army had entered West Beirut on September 15. Ariel Sharon was defence minister. Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan was chief of staff. Soon enough, on September 25, 1982, the government of Israel set up a commission of inquiry on the matter. It was headed by Yitzhak Kahan, president of the Supreme Court, and had two other members besides. The report was submitted on  February 7, 1983 and was published in full by Jerusalem Post on February 9, 1983. The commission followed the principles of accountability of ministers in the UK, which the Agranat Commission had also followed. It took evidence from Prime Minister Menachem Begin downwards, top military and intelligence officials and read cabinet papers.

Eliyahu Winograd. Credit: Wikimedia

It found the PM constitutionally responsible, Sharon, the chief of army staff, and the director of military intelligence to be actually responsible and recommended their removal from office. According to the commission, the decision to send the Phalangists into the camp was made by the Sharon and  Eitan some eight hours before Israel troops would enter West Beirut. The Phalangists were chosen, Eitan testified, “because we could give them orders here as it was impossible to give the Lebanese Army orders”. This disclosure contradicted previous Israeli government statements that the Lebanese Army had been requested to go into the camps first, and only when it had refused to do so that Eitan had turned to the Phalangists.

On April 30, 2007 came Judge Eliyahu Winograd’s report on the 2006 War in Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and cabinet and top military officers had testified before it. He said of the Hizbollah: “A paramilitary organisation of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages.”

While the report is harsh on the government, its main target is the army, finding fundamental flaws in everything from battle readiness to planning to discipline to intelligence gathering. On June 14, 2012, the state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the 2010 raid on a Turkish ship carrying aid for Palestinians in Gaza in which nine unarmed pro-Palestinian activists were killed.

Will Narendra Modi set up a commission of inquiry on the Israeli model to inquire into at least some of the recent outrages committed by our armed forces in Kashmir?

A.G. Noorani is a lawyer and author