Did Gen. J. J. Singh play a role in failure of Manmohan Singh's Siachen plan?

The Absent Dialogue
Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India
Book Excerpt 

Siachen: Mountains of Misperception

The conflict in the Siachen glacier between India and Pakistan began when India, in what it claimed to be a preemptive move, inserted its troops into the region in 1984. Since then this localized conflict has claimed thousands of lives. There have been numerous rounds of talks aimed at resolving this dispute, but they have failed to break the impasse. The two countries came closest to some sort of an agreement on four occasions—in 1989, 1992, 1994, and 2005–2006.5A. G. Noorani, “Settle the Siachen Dispute Now,” The Hindu, June 14, 2012 However, it was only after the failure of the 2005–2006 initiative that questions were raised about India’s civil– military relations. It is a commonly held view that opposition from the Indian Army alone stymied the civilian government’s efforts to find a solution.6Srinath Raghavan, “Siachen and Civil–Military Relations,” Economic and Political Weekly 42, no. 35 (2007): 3531– 33; and Siddharth Srivastava “India’s Army Digs in over Siachen,” Asia Times, November 16, 2006 As Srinath Raghavan points out, this militates against the idea of democratic civil–military relations as “the military, in effect, exercises a veto on a critical foreign policy issue.”7Srinath Raghavan, “Soldiers, Statesmen, and India’s Security Policy,” India Review, 11, no. 2 (2012): 128 If the army’s intransigence blocks a deal that politicians had agreed upon, then, indeed, it undermines civilian control. However, a closer examination reveals that this was not a case of a conflict in civil–military relations.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invested heavily in the peace process with Pakistan despite periodic setbacks, usually in the form of terror attacks in India. He believed the Siachen dispute could be solved relatively easily. Anticipating opposition from the army, the prime minister invited almost all of the general officers who commanded troops in Siachen and sought their views on demilitarization of the Siachen glacier. Thereafter, the government went ahead with its diplomatic initiative to resolve the dispute. It is then, critics allege, that the chief of army staff, General J. J. Singh, publicly aired his opposition and “successfully thwarted the government’s policy on a sensitive issue.”8A. G. Noorani, “Talkative Generals,” Frontline, 27, no. 16 (2010): 85– 86

There are three reasons to support the contention that it was not just the army’s opposition which led to the failure of the prime minister’s Siachen initiative. First, the prime minister was not able to overcome opposition from within his own cabinet and senior advisers, including senior ministers Pranab Mukherjee and A. K. Antony and National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan.9Sanjaya Baru, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh (New Delhi: Viking Press, 2014), 188–89; this was confirmed by a senior official who wishes to remain unnamed, interview, New Delhi, July 3, 2013 General J. J. Singh was initially amenable to such an initiative, but later, when others in the cabinet opposed it, he reversed his stance. According to then foreign secretary Shyam Saran, General Singh had “happily gone along with the proposal in its earlier iterations, [but] now decided to join Narayanan in rubbishing it.”10Shyam Saran, Kautilya to the 21st Century: How India Sees the World (New Delhi: Juggernaut Books, 2017), 91 Therefore, it was not the army but other senior members of the government who killed this initiative. According to a former senior official, who wished to remain unnamed,

At the CCS [Cabinet Committee on Security] meeting there was opposition from political leaders, which they had not raised earlier. Once General JJ Singh saw which way the wind was blowing, he also then opposed it . . . [it is] absolutely wrong to say that it was opposition from the army alone that killed this initiative.11Interview, the official was present at this CCS meeting, New Delhi, July 3, 2013
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The other two reasons are circumstantial. On November 12, 2006, on the eve of a meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, the Indian Army held a press conference at Siachen glacier and, in front of domestic and international reporters, declared its opposition to “demilitarizing Siachen.”12Sandeep Dikshit, “Army Once Again Sets Its Face Against Demilitarizing Siachen,” The Hindu, November 12, 2006 A press conference at this location would have required clearance from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), suggesting that the army obviously had got the political approval to do so. Indeed, a few days later Defence Minister A. K. Antony publicly supported the army’s position—confirming divisions within the cabinet.13“Siachen Is Safe, Says Antony,” The Hindu, November 16, 2006 Finally, soon after retirement, General J. J. Singh was appointed as governor of Arunachal Pradesh. It is inconceivable that he could have obtained such a generous post-retirement benefit if he had, as the critics allege, opposed and single-handedly thwarted the prime minister’s peace initiative.

If this was the case, then why did the government allow the belief to persist that the army’s opposition alone stymied this diplomatic initiative and not refute the allegation that there had been a loss of civilian control? Simply because this narrative suited all stakeholders. As we know now, Manmohan Singh was politically a weakprime minister, but early in what was his first term he would not have wanted to advertise the fact that his cabinet colleagues could overrule him. Instead, the army’s opposition provided a better cover—that security considerations did not allow him to do so. This narrative was also convenient for diplomats as they expressed their inability to overcome the army’s opposition. For instance, in a meeting with a US diplomat, then joint secretary T. C. A. Raghavan expressed the difficulty in pulling back troops from Siachen as the “Indian Army has drawn a line with its political leadership.”14Cable report of their meeting held on August 27, 2008, released by Wikileaks: https://www.wikileaks.org/ plusd/ cables/ 08NEWDELHI2401_ a.html. Ironically, this excuse was readily embraced in Pakistan; see “Indian Army Hurdle in Way of Siachen Solution,” Dawn, June 2, 2011. The army too went along with this story as it was perceived to be “standing up to the civilians” and defending its “legitimate” interests.

To reiterate, the issue of troop withdrawal from Siachen was not a matter of civil–military relations but more a lack of political consensus and divisions within the cabinet. This is not to suggest that the Indian military, like other bureaucracies, has not been assertive at all.15Bureaucracies are assertive especially when faced with a weak polity. For instance, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a government employee, Dr. Anil Kakodar, in an interview publicly disagreed with the government’s initiative toward concluding a nuclear deal with the United States and thereby seriously undermined the prime minister; see Praful Bidwai, “Snags Surface in India–US Nuclear Deal,” Antiwar Online, February 13, 2006, http:// antiwar.com/ horton/?articleid=8525 Its stand opposing the AFSPA has been especially strident.

[Excerpted from the chapter 'Tumultuous Times: The Contemporary Discourse on Civil–Military Relations']