31 Jul 2011


‘The Kingdom of GOI’
 Around four hundred years ago, while they went about setting up their business in India, one of the daunting hurdles faced by the businessmen of the East India Company (EIC) was their paperwork. Everything had to be ladled out and a ‘bill of lading’ prepared so that the ships could be loaded on even keel, official and personal correspondence made in quadruplicate and sent by different routes and means so that at least one of them would reach it’s destination. Never ending mountain of paperwork. Only a few of the Englishmen engaged in EIC’s business in India at that time could read or write English or any other language. So they brought in stenographers and calligraphers, mostly young English boys, who had a smattering of education, to take dictations, read out letters and make the bill of lading. These boys were called ‘Writers’. Several illustrious men of that time, including Robert Clive, started their  professional career in India as ‘writers’ in trading stations.

As their businesses grew, with more and more trading stations, it became imperative to create armed security guards to protect their innumerable godowns as well as goods in transit. As the business grew even further to incredible proportion, the number of writers and security guards also grew to incredible proportions. The smart and intelligent ‘writers’ eventually morphed into the ‘administrative service’ (Writers building at Cal as also political assistants all over)  and the mostly uneducated musclemen ‘security guards’ morphed into an army (at fort William, as also all over). Most of the writers could turn soldiers in times of trouble and war, like Robert Clive, but the soldier had much trouble turning to being administers, like pupa to butterfly, in peace time. It was but natural that the military held the administrative and political ‘service’ in great awe and jealousy, and in return the administrative service tolerated the lesser intellectual military morons with some well justified contempt.

After the 1857 mutiny, the English became more benevolent. India became a Dominion, snatched from the clutches of the East India Company. The administrative service replaced the White Moguls, Nawabs and the Rajas. They spread out amongst the length and breadth of India as ‘Collectors’ of tax, District Magistrates, Commissioners and Secretaries to the Govt, the new power house executives in a distant land and strange Govt. Towards the end of the 19th C, due to far reaching changes in mental outlook, both in India as well as in England, Indians began to go to England to not only become as English as they could get, but also learn the ropes in governance, as well as war. There now emerged a new smarter cadre in administrative service called ‘Indian Civil Service’ (ICS), as also King’s Commissioned Indian Officers (KCIOs) in military, who began to have more and more role to play in the governance of India. Like before, some of the ICS held military ranks and KCIOs held political appointments. Like before, the KCIOs held the ICS  in great awe and jealousy, and in return the ICS tolerated the lesser intellectual KCIOs with some well justified contempt.
The equations between the ICS and the KCIOs changed, completely reversed, when the second world war brought the Germans to Africa and the Japs to Singapore in 1941-42. The KCIOs, and their English superiors, took complete control of the governance of India. The ICS were relegated to second position, lowering of their status, power, influence and hence their income. After the world war ended, the military continued to rule the roost on Raisiana Hill, almost till 1950, well after the independence.  The houses that the military lived, during the world war and afterwards, the period immediately after independence,  this may be a reflection of the power they wielded and their and social position in Delhi.  The largest houses in the capital (now Rashtrapathi Bhawan, Tin Murthi Bhawan, Up-Rashtrapathi Bhawan, all the large buildings around India gate) these were all occupied by the military brass. Most of Lutyen’s bungalows were occupied by junior military commanders or the ICS gentlemen. The political, including Nehru, mostly lived in the outhouses or the servant’s quarters in the same Lutyen’s Delhi, or in bungalows in Old Delhi.  .
Barring a handful distinguished stalwarts from the independence struggle, the politicals of post independence era were generally unsophisticated, unlearned and uninspiring nonentities. The political parties were shot through with corruption, inefficiency and favouritism. India's economy was a schizophrenic mixture of state and private enterprise, left leaning socialists with the mindset of capitalists. Religious fanaticism and factionalism grew strong.  To the last man, the politicals were frightened and at loggerhead with both the ICS as well as KCIOs, who just refused to acknowledge the political class superiority, all except probably a few very pliable ones, who were then looked down upon by the rest of the ICS as well as KCIOs.

The KCIOs took shelter behind British chiefs who were retained by the politicals to manage the snooty KCIOs. The armed forces withdrew into a shell, locked themselves in their cantonments and refused to come out even during the cataclysm of partition or to prevent the politically inflamed passions and genocide. With no one to protect them, the ICS fell victims to the political wolves. Under an atmosphere of anarchy and paranoia, the political class made a focussed effort to get rid of the very experienced and non parochial ICS as well as KCIOs. They unleashed a juggernaut, the ‘Babu’ class, a different breed of lesser educated, highly parochial and mutually supportive, self serving pliant cadre, and formed the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), who then proclaimed themselves as the executive branch of the government, usurping the power of governance from both the political class as well as the military. As time went, their power imploded, they became the silent manipulators of the Govt of India. Who was the Govt of India, I doubt any one knew, except the executive branch, the IAS. 

While the military turned to RIMC in Dehra Dun or to churn out a self reliant army of the new independent India, the political class and their new minions, the IAS, turned to the rival school, the ‘Doon School’, for creating a new breed of administrative service that was completely subservient to the political class. Every pampered seedling (sons) of the political class, IAS, as well as prominent businessmen were sent to board at Doon School to inculcate the qualities that would help them form the new ruling class. Unlike the ICS, which the  British had created, the ones with the brawn and the brains, Doon School excelled in creating a new breed IAS which believed that if you have the brains and a political sponsor, you don’t need the brawn.

I had no knowledge of all this when I was born a few years after independence. I was just a simple, cuddly, chirpy, cheerful baby with nary a care for the newly formed Indian union.          

When I was a child, I observed that my father was most pleased with me when I said ‘I shall do it’ rather than ‘I don’t want to do it’ or ‘I will not do it’.
While in RIMC, when I showed enthusiasm to ‘do it’ (anything, even mischief), I was popular, and if I refused to ‘do it’ (anything), I was scorned and punished.
During my growing up years I noticed there were two classes of people, the ‘Doers’ and the ‘Don’t want to do’ types.
I was brought up, like all Rimcolians, to be like the former lot, the ‘do it’ kind.
However, as I went along, a class distinction was created in my mind, ‘Them’ vs ‘Us’. The ‘Don’t want to do it’ types, vs the ‘Do it’ kind.

While in RIMC, we played foot ball, hockey, cricket and debated with Doon School. We also aggressively competed for the affections of Welham Girls and ogled side by side, with equal zest, at the scantily clad Anglo Indian Oak Grove girls. I recollect Sanjay Gandhi, Kamal Nath, Amarinder Singh, Navin Patnaik, Kobad Ghandy, Arun Singh,  as well as several faces who subsequently went on to become the who is who in politics, IAS, as well  as Captains of industry  (surprisingly some in military too). While Doscos generally argued better with theatrics at declamation contest, and totally won the affections of all the girls from Welhams and Oak Grove, Rimcolians usually kicked the shit out of them in sport. We had brawn and they had brains. Most of the contest ended with Doscos parting with a challenge, ‘Tere Ko Dekh Loonga, Saale’, to which we always hooted, ‘Abhi Dekhle, Saale’. Doscos were quite different from Rimcolians, chalk is to cheese. While in RIMC I put Doscos in my ‘Them’ type hate list, I never had a Dosco friend, then or now. I was always very jealous of them, probably because of their friendship with Welham Girls.

As a young officer in IAF, the ‘Them’ vs ‘Us’ class distinctions in my mind grew further apart. I wished to become more and more the type who did things without being told, because I felt that was the right thing to do, even if I was deemed ‘Impetuous’ and it led to punishment. In my mind the ‘Us’ lot grew smaller and smaller, and it made me more determined to remain in the ‘Us’ group. Majority joined the ‘Them’ lot who found rules and regulations to quote and justify not doing things, or do only those things which drew little or no criticism and punishment. 

As I grew older, I found more and more people to club into the “Them lot”. There was the ‘Self Before Service’ kind, there were the lot who asked ‘What can the service do for me’, the kind who misused every perk and privilege, the kind who took no pride in what they did but just hung around and did nothing...... so on. I kept clubbing all of them in my mind as the “Them” lot. As I grew up in a ‘peace time’ AF,  I also discovered the ‘Yes Boss’ kind, as also the compliant and very law abiding folks, the ones who liked to be told what to do. In my mind I shunted all of them into the “Them” kind.

Eventually, after 24 yrs service, the ‘Them’ class morphed into the ‘System’. I was the rebellious kind, an outsider to the “System’, hence an outcast.

Quite frankly  once in a while I jump a red light and get a chalan, I always tell the traffic cop, “Constable Saheb, Tum par Garv hai’ (I am proud of you). I always put him immediately into the ‘Us’ group, they are the pillars of society, without them the veneer of civilisation vanish. Long ago, in late seventies, I was sent on ‘election duty’  to Bellari, where I met and was beholden by an incredible IAS officer. She was as attractive as a film star and as tough and officious as my drill Havaldar ‘Limbu Saheb’ in NDA, and ever since all IAS officers are part of my personal ‘Us’ lot. Saw Crane Bedi clean up Delhi traffic, and ever since she is No 1 on my ‘Us’ lot. So who really are the guys in my ‘Them’ lot ? To be honest, some of them were my peer group or immediate superiors in the Fauj, and of course there was Govt Of India.

GOI has been on my ‘Them’ list for a long time.  It was always the rules and regulations of the GOI which prevented me from doing anything that I wanted to do. In my twenties, I had a girl friend in Calcutta and when I wanted to go and meet her often, I was told that the Travel regulation of GOI, forbade using more than 2 forms C’s in a year. That led to ‘Love Failure’. In my thirties my wife insisted on going to her ‘Maika’ every once in a while and the bloody leave regulation of the GOI almost caused ‘love failure’ once again. In my forties ............well I can go on about what terrible things the GOI did to me while I was in uniform.

All my life I have wondered, ‘Who is Govt of India ?’.
In 1978, I was interviewed by the president of India (Sanjeeva Reddy) for the post of an ADC. In my zealous enthusiasm, after a bit of chatting with the Supreme Commander, I asked him with sincere naivety whether he was GOI. He very absentmindedly said ‘No’. I was so disappointed that I immediately told him that I do not wish to be his ADC (Air Chief Mulgaonkar skinned me for it).  During my stint at Air HQ, towards the end of my service career, I once asked fellow Rimcolian Air Chief Suri, ‘Do you know GOI ?’. Luckily he was in good mood and hence I got away with it. Whenever I got a chance to go to MOD I went around asking everyone there, ‘Are you GOI, do you know where I can find it ?’. To the last man, every one of them denied being GOI or know what it was. Once I even heard the Prime Minster Narasimha Rao on TV complaining, ‘the Govt is yet to formulate policy’. Poor chap, even he didn’t know who is GOI. Finally, the only man I discovered who knew GOI was ‘Yashpal’, the Desk Officer in the Air Wing of MOD. He often wrote letters to me which began, ”I am directed by GOI’, but when asked who is GOI, he refused to confide or confess.   
My last act in uniform in 1993, as a lowly member secretary (clerical work) of a high profile ‘Empowered Modernisation Committee’ was to bring about radical changes to the IAF that would see it through the next 20 yrs. There were literally thousands of things to be done to modernise the AF. One by one all the watertight cases that I meticulously compiled and put up to MOD were returned by Yash Pal saying, ‘Turned down by GOI’. So it became a single handed battle of wits between an unseen and unknown demon called GOI and I.
On the last day in uniform I went to Yashpal with folded hands.
‘Yash Pal Ji, as a parting gift on my retirement, can you do something for me ?’.
I laid before him my last file, a small step towards modernisation, my humble offering to mankind in uniform. In the file was an exceptionally argued case for authorising a ‘self inking rubber stamp’ as a symbol of modernising IAF. Every officer had one. Unfortunately the ink dried up and one had to spit on it to make it work. In my low self esteemed opinion at that time, a self inking rubber stamp would have been the ultimate weapon of air war, to stamp the sky with glory.  It would have cost around 20 additional paise per unit, and a total one time expenditure of Rs 12,426 to GOI. There were two sworn and signed affidavits in the file, from the DCAS and CAS which I had personally obtained with great tenacity and fortitude, that the IAF would meet this expense from internal accruals and would not burden on GOI.  For me, it was the last personal battle of ‘Longe Wala’, the do or die kind.

Yash Pal offered me cup of tea and a ‘Samosa’ as an indication of this great concern for the man in uniform. He even spat out the pan in reverence. He sat up and drew his chair closer. He made a herculean effort to read what I had compiled in my file. Turned the pages one by one with serious intent.  Finally he heaved a long audible sigh, opened his draw, took out a self inking rubber stamp and stamped on the note sheet, ‘‘Turned down by GOI’”.
Why Yash Pal Ji”, I asked with great sadness.
“Oh, Yeh Babudom me hoga nahin, don’t waste your time’. He then put a large pan back in his moth to discourage any further discussion.
I walked out of the Air HQ for the last time, around 1930 hrs, with inconsolable sorrow, and a kill at sight feeling for the faceless enemy of state, the ‘System’, GOI, Babudom as Yash Pal said ....whatever. Ever since then I refer to the ‘System’ as Babudom, the Kingdom of GOI. They are the most powerful of all in the republic of India, the ‘Them’ on the national hate list.  The Indian political system had finally found the way to subjugate the military and make them into well heeled dogs, the ones without the ability to bark or bite. The military had lost the power to even walk outside the HQ to buy a self inking rubber stamp for themselves from the pavement shop without asking the permission of the faceless GOI.

After I retired, my wife finally went back to work for the Govt. Now and then I sleep with GOI. So, now and then I am not too sure about  ‘Them’ and ‘Us’, they have quite morphed and merged in my mind. Now and then I take ‘Panga’ with my GOI, if she objects and issues Gazette notifications to my regular quota of 180 ml Rum every evening.  But like a soul mate from Babudom, she says, ‘bloody man do it only now and then’.  These days the Babudom is kind and gracious, now and then.


11 Jul 2011

‘Ceaseless Quest Of Ram’

‘Sethu Samudram’ (Palk Straits) divides the republics of India and Sri Lanka. Sethu Samudram is the 30 odd km sea space that separate Rameshwaram and Dhanush Kodi, at the southeastern Indian peninsula, from Talai Mannar on the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka. Besides what it says in the ‘Ramayan’, the grand epic of the Hindus, the map and satellite photos indicate the series of islands that connect the two countries. Geologically speaking, similar island connections exist between the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands, Andaman northwards to Burma as well as Carnic southwards to Banda Aceh in Indonesia, though not as distinct as in the Sethu Samudram. After recent earth quakes and the Tsunami with epicenter near Banda Aceh, there is proof that the shuffling of the tectonic plates tilted the seabed causing the water level to rise by about fifteen feet near ‘Indira point’ lighthouse, at the southernmost point of littoral India, in the Andamans.  Rock erosions found at Galle (southern tip of Sri Lanka) indicate that around 9th or 10th century, there was a similar earth quake and Tsunami that lowered the sea bed and raised water level. It is therefore quite possible that this chain of islands was a narrow strip of land that connected India and Sri Lanka before the 10th C. The shifting of the sea bed could have submerged parts of that strip to form the chain of islands as it is today.  I have flown over this historic land link several times, sometimes as low as ten feet above the sea. Sometimes, when the tides are low, the islands emerge out of the water, the highest point around three or four feet above water, horse shoe shaped mounds of corral and sand, no sign of the rocks that Hanuman flung into the sea.  When high tide returns, most of the mounds disappear below water, but one can see the dark and light blue patches underwater, that distinguish the east to west corral strip,  completely blocking and dividing the Sethu Samudram into two parts, making it totally non navigable except for flat bottomed fishing  boats that usually ply in these waters.
To placate the multitude of my Hindu countrymen and women whose moral edifice is built around Ramayan, I am happy to concede that monkeys built this chain of islands. I note with much concern that even in 21st C India, after many decades of tinkering with the education system, monkeys are building bridges and tunnels, and doing heart surgery, so I am prepared to believe that monkeys built the Ram Sethu. However, beyond religious belief, I am convinced that this land link, an umbilical cord of sorts, will remain a ceaseless ‘Quest of Ram’, a provocation that will continue to plague Indo Sri Lanka relations, and lead to fights with or without monkeys and space age sages from the US, unless we dredge the Sethu Samudram, create a deep water passage and permanently severe this umbilical cord of discontentment.
I first heard of Sethu Samudram in 1954, when I was about four years old. Once a year, after the Monsoons passed, my father or mother would read ‘Ramayan’ very loudly in a harmonious sing song manner for an hour before sunset. The ‘Ramayan’ that my parents read aloud was a very old, thick, hard bound and frayed book, always kept open with reverence, on an ornate hinged wooden book holder in the prayer room, where I was usually not allowed to go and play. Hence, the prayer room and Ramayan was usually one of my childish targets, just because I was not allowed to go there or play with it. As a four year old, I probably made a face while using herculean strength to lift Ramayan, probably around 15% of my body weight. My two  elder sisters, then aged 18 and 11 probably found this very funny,  and told me of the story of ‘Sita Swayamvarm’ in which Ravan found it difficult to lift the bow and hence could not claim Sita, while Ram was a body builder and weight lifter of sorts and could do it easily. They would dress me up either as Ram or Ravan, give me a mock bow and ask me to enact Sita Swayamvaram, which I probably did with Oscar winning élan, always being rewarded with another story, another scene to enact, and yet another story.  Then my only brother ‘Vishnu’, older than all my siblings and who was by then a mechanical engineer, came home on holiday. I proudly told him that I am well versed with Ramayan.  I even sang a verse that I had picked up, either from my father or from my paternal uncle, ‘Parvatham kutti parichidinal, pari, pari, pari’. My brother laughed aloud and gave me a back kick which offended my sensibilities and when I asked him why he had kicked me, he grabbed my crotch and said, ‘That is your Pari’. Soon afterwards, when my father twisted my ears for something mischievous, in my anger and frustration, I called him a ‘Pari’. Besides two tight slaps, my father then conducted an immediate enquiry lining up my three elder siblings to find out who had been teaching me unparliamentarily language.  My brother got a severe dressing down and my sisters cried all day. After such a trauma, since I was just four years old, I lost complete interest in Ramayan and Sethu Samudram, at least for a while
My brother, about 18 years older than I, was an exceptionally gifted man. By the time I was old enough to remember, he was already a mechanical engineer and working at Malampuzha Dam in Kerala.  By the time I was eight, he was sent by the govt of India to Russia to learn the art of making steel. On his return, he was part of the core team that designed and constructed the Bhilai and Vizag steel plants. In 1964 he received the coveted ‘National Metallurgy Award’ for engineering excellence and outstanding contribution to nation building, and for designing the venturi tunnel and sluice gates / shutters of the Farakka Dam.   I never quite realised that he was a national hero till I was much older. As a four or five year old, when he was 22, he taught me how to re-engineer  my dad’s discarded dentures, fit an old spring and gear mechanism cannibalized from an old and discarded ‘waking dog’ toy, and converted it all into a “Packman” like toy that went around snapping it’s teeth. It used to frighten my tiny younger sister and make her squeal like a siren.  My brother taught me how to make my own toys, catch water snakes and not to be afraid of the dark. One particular toy that I remember most was a propeller that was made of coconut leaf, with it’s shaft made of a stick from my mothers favorite broom, and the crank made of the hollow stem of a ‘Papaya’ leaf, which went round and round at high rpm when I ran with it. It was the beginning of my aeronautic and engineering pursuits, and a staunch belief that one had to run to get anything going in life.  
I first saw Sethu Samudram thirty years later, in 1984, when I went to ‘Rameshwaram’ with my aged mother, and my brother in a ‘Horlicks’ bottle.  While my mother and I let go my brother out of the bottle and performed the last rights, sending my brother off on his last journey to eternity, I was overwhelmed with sorrow, each childhood event playing in my mind like a nonstop tragic Hindi movie.  After my mother and I returned to our hotel room, unable to withstand the nonstop weeping and tears of my mother, I decided to go for a walk, trying to take a grip on my own sorrow. I walked along the coast line, all the way to Dhanushkodi,  hoping that the  wind and the waves of Sethu Samudram would help me find peace and solace. That was not to be, another adventure awaited me, and completely cured me of the grief and sorrow.
As I walked along the deserted beach, at a distance, I saw a lone army Sergeant (Havildar) with three stripes on the sleeve of his olive green camouflaged fatigues. He was standing motionless, with his hands on his hips, peering intently at the waves. As I approached, he suddenly blew into a whistle, a sharp and long piercing blast.  Suddenly about hundred odd female cadre of LTTE emerged from the waves and ran forward towards me. I was so frightened and taken aback that I dived into the sand and started crawling along the beach. There was another shrill blast of the whistle and the wet nymphets were all around me, crawling along with me, laughing at my dog crawl and haste to get away from them. The whistle blew again and the girls got up and ran forward. Every time the whistle blew, they would fall on their face and crawl forward, on the next whistle they would get up and run, after a long blast of the whistle the girls would run back into the sea and submerge themselves into the waves. I sat on my haunches in the sand and watched this endless routine for a while, till the final whistle and the girls came out laughing and joking and flopped all around me for well earned rest. The girls were LTTE cadre, being trained by an Indian army Sergeant. In the evening, before sunset, I went back again. This time I saw about three hundred young boys doing the same drill, running out of the water and charging up the beach, being trained by another muscular person in green pants and a white sports T shirt. The boys were from PLOT cadre, they were carrying 303 dummy rifles, with a yellow band on the butt.
‘I am a serving officer of the IAF’, I introduced myself to the instructor when they broke up for rest. ‘Who are you ?’, I enquired good naturedly.
It turned out that the gentleman was regular army, on deputation to the RAW at their recruitment training centre at Chakrata, up in the Himalayas at the opposite end of the country. We sat there for a while gossiping, and afterwards when I was walking back, I saw another group of around five hundred odd boys and girls in camouflage fatigues huddled together on the beach. All of them in the age group of 16-20, very young recruits. This time, a very professorial looking gentleman with a goatee beard, with a thick framed spectacles, in pants full sleeve shirt worn outside, and ‘chappals’, was conducting political indoctrination using a black board. He would say something sonorous, like reciting poetry, and the group would repeat it loudly.  I walked past at some distance and there was a strong breeze. Hence, I could not make out what was being said, except that they were talking in Tamil and a single word was repeated again and again, ‘Eeeeelam’, they shouted again and again. At that time I had no idea of what was going on except that our top secret external intelligence RAW was training the Tamil cadre for precipitating some kind of revolution in Sri Lanka, across the  Sethu Samudram.  Immediately afterwards, after dropping my mother to Madras, I went to join my new job at the Aircraft Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) at Bangalore.  Once again Sethu Samudram went out of focus.
Sethu Samudram popped up again in my life, three years later, in mid 1987, in the middle of hyperactive preparations for an ultra secret military operation for capturing Sri Lanka !!! The situation necessitating the annexation of Sri Lanka arose all of a sudden. 
 In quick succession, after the LTTE victory at Elephant Pass end 1986, the Sri Lankan Army commenced a blockade of the pass, triggering starvation of Jaffna and massive exodus of Tamil refugees across Sethu Samudram to Tamil Nadu. Due to apparent political pressure from MGR faction who was then in power in Tamil Nadu, as also probable brief from MEA / RAW / JN Dixt (Envoy in Colombo), Rajeev Gandhi the then PM foolishly decided to send an unescorted Red Cross ship from Madras to Jaffna with humanitarian aid. Half of Tamil politics also boarded the ship with the ubiquitous press, and BBC broadcasting a minute to minute reality show. The Sri Lankan Navy denied access, and when their warning was not heeded to by the red cross ship, they fired a few rounds across the bows. The ship turned around immediately with the political and radio jockeys trailing yellow smelly stuff from fear and cowardice all over the Sethu Samudram. Rajeev Gandhi then had no other choice but to save face, call for IAF to air drop the same stores over Jaffna on 4 Jun 87. This was done using five modified (back open) AN 32 aircraft with Mirage fighter escort. The press was once again onboard and a reality show broadcasted once again by BBC. The operation was planned and launched from ASTE dispersal, where I was then the senior test pilot.
The relationship between India & Sri Lanka quickly worsened. Sri Lanka consigned Tricomalee fuelling facilities to the US Navy in return for military aid, followed by a military pact with Pakistan. In the overall national interest, India was left with no choice but to annex Sri Lanka as it’s 27th province, much like what Indonesia or Australia had done a few years earlier, sorted out their own pain in the a**, with lesser provocation. In those days every one in GOI had balls and thought big !! The military plan that was worked out, involved complete neutralising of the Sri Lankan AF and airfields to achieve air superiority, sending the commandos to do an ‘Entebe’ on Colombo to take out important Sri Lankan political including their President,  air dropping of No 54 Inf Div all over Sri Lanka to take control. In retrospect, it was a very foolish plan with constraints on the force level as well as consequences. However, there was no choice. An assault by sea, like Normandy landing in World War, conveying a larger force and huge amount of stores across the Sethu Samudram was more practical and desirable and also more operationally effective. However, the Navy vetoed this saying that they were out of depth in Sethu Samudram, to operate anything other than landing craft, which they did not have in adequate numbers. So the entire IAF transport command, about 120 odd transport aircraft, 150 odd helicopters, many Indian Airlines Aircraft, about six squadron of fighters, all these were requisitioned from the north and parked all over the southern peninsula,  right in the open, at Bangalore, Chennai, Trivandrum, Sulur, Cochin etc. 54 Inf Div was mobilised from Hyderabad and bivouacked at the airfield, in the open, along with the aircraft at all these locations. The Navy mobilised their fleet and the warships were positioned in the Indian Ocean at striking distance from Sri Lanka. Two days prior to the D Day, US satellites picked up this large concentration of the force and their ominous intensions.  It is also quite possible that the venerable Raman, the spook extraordinaire in RAW, who had excellent rapport with the CIA, had a purposeful ‘tet-a-tet’ with his counterpart in CIA and let the cat out of the bag in order to avoid a military confrontation. I am told that the then US envoy in India, John Gunther Dean, flew into Colombo the next day in a CIA Gulfstream and within two hours got President Jayewardene on a ‘Lanka Air’ charter aircraft heading for Delhi. I am told Dean gave Jayewardene a choice, either make peace with India or be prepared to spend rest of his life in Tihar jail. Strangely none of the civil aviation or IAF radars picked up the ‘Lanka Air’ charter aircraft heading for Delhi. When this aircraft was over Nagpur it called up Delhi approach and informed them that it has President Jayewardene on board and that he wishes to meet Indian Prime Minister on landing. Whether JN Dixit, the astute and very dynamic Indian envoy in Sri Lanka, and the RAW, had any inkling of all this, or whether they had stage managed this blood less coup of sorts, I do not know. I only know that after the aircraft landed at Delhi, Jayewardene was rushed to Rajiv’s house where he met him in his pyjama’s. There was a hurried tet-a-tet between the two heads of state and the infamous peace accord was signed, conditional to the Indian military being sent to Sri Lanka for peace keeping. No one asked the military what they thought about it. So the Indian army was sent to Sri Lanka on the D Day as planned, not to annex Sri Lanka, but to aid it’s non viable integrity. A complete role reversal, leading to total consternation and discomfiture of the armed forces. Like when you lift a skirt with very charged emotions and arousal and find that under the skirt is a man !!! In the collective view of the armed forces in mid 1987, Sri Lanka was a thorn in India’s a**, till such time they would not amend the preamble of their constitution, which said that “Sri Lanka is a Republic of the Sinhalese”. It was our opinion that the ethnic Tamil problem will continue to fester as along as their constitution does not recognise Tamils as citizens.  Sethu Samudram continued to remain in my peripheral vision all through 1987-90, during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka, reminding me of the centuries old conflicts between the two nations, the continuous quest of Ram. The land link (chain of islands) hampered military operations and the Naval assets could not be manoeuvred freely in Sethu Samudram.
In 1991, while undergoing senior commander’s course, we went to visit the Navy at Vizag as well as at Port Blair in the Andamans. We were there in the Adamans when Babri Mazjit in UP was demolished by the Hindu fanatics. Due to the consternation that followed on mainland India, an op alert was issued by the three services HQs that froze movement of all personnel. So we were stuck in the Andamans with the FORTRAN (Fortress Commander Andamans). The poor Navy had to take care of about 50 of us, for 5 days, and for want of anything else to do, sent us around to have a drink on board everything from battle ships to leaking ‘Dingys’. The highlight of the visit was FORTRAN’s briefing on the lack of success the Navy had for blockading arms smuggling by LTTE. I recollect his punch line, that one of the things required to ensure economic and maritime integrity of Tamil Nadu coast line, and prevent smuggling of any sort including arms into India, was to dredge the Palk Straights, create a channel that would permit the Navy to petrol the coastline using ships that had some offensive capability. He talked of a hundred encounters with LTTE where they got the better of the Navy and Coast Guard because the Navy could not bring adequate force to bear in that area. I was reminded of the 1987 war room problems of launching the navy across the Sethu Samudram. 
 There was a demonstration model that the Navy had in Andamans those days which showed how the mythical Ram bridge was built, not by the monkey brigade of Hanuman and Sugreeva, but by the army of millions of Corals over millions of years. I thought of my aged mother. If I had to chose between the FORTRAN’s perceptions and those of my mother, good sense vs blind faith, I would have been in a moral dilemma.     
 Soon afterwards, in 1994, I retired and my perceptions as a soldier withered. Nevertheless, due to discussions by strategic think tanks in India, and in the media, I noticed that Sethu Samudram continued to be a phantom that plagued National Security of India and the concerns have grown in several more dimensions. LTTE is dead, and Sri Lanka is now militarily stronger. It is no longer easy or wise to think of a military adventure to annex Sri Lanka. The ethnic problems of Tamils continue and it is only a matter of time before it flares up again. Another round of IPKF operations is not a farfetched apprehension for Indian military, especially if bad politics and human rights violations create another round of exodus by refugees from Jaffna. Navy’s concerns still remain, they need an easier passage between the eastern and western fleet as also better patrolling of Tamil Nadu coastline by the Coast Guard. In addition, four rounds of ‘National Exploratory Licensing Policy’ (NELP) have produced immense amount of oil and gas off shore, all the way from Kakinada to Pondicherry.  The next four rounds of NELP (tenders) will see feverish exploration along Sethu Samudram and the coast line around Cape Comerin and Kerala. For establishing littoral integrity, and for safeguarding national assets, besides a free and fair shipping lane for maritime commercial activity, it has become imperative and inevitable that we need to dredge  Sethu Samudram, create a passage and severe the umbilical cord with Sri Lanka, put an end to the ceaseless quest of Ram, the eternal conflict. However, if India were to voice such strategic thoughts, the Sri Lankans would create a shindig and send de-marches, that we were dredging the channel for military purposes to take over Sri Lanka. They are not stupid, they benefit by the land link in more than one way. It is in their interest to prevent the dredging as much as it is ours to dredge it. So in my opinion, it may be better to bowl a googly and make it sound like a peaceful maritime requirement.  How about the line that, “We need to dredge the channel for making it easier for the turtles in Indian Ocean to navigate their way to Orissa for their annual mating ritual”.  I think it is a perfectly ecological and irrefutable argument that Sri Lanka may find difficult to bat.  I think the Hindu fundamentalists in India may find that rather palatable and very kind, in line with the ethos of ‘Dharma’ and ‘Karma’.

6 Jul 2011

Namak Haram

Minutes Of Board Meeting
Her Majesty’s Imperial East India Company
(Adapted From Governor General Papers - Jul 1843)

On this wretched morning in Jul 1843, the Monsoons arrived in Calcutta two weeks later than usual. With guilt induced by lack of punctuality, the ‘Kala Basaki’ brought with it a wall of menacing, black, rolling thunder clouds and howling winds that lashed the denizens of Calcutta, both white and brown with equal zest. Calcutta was inundated with chest high water, the flotsam threatening the city with death and decease. With drains flooding the drinking water wells, an epidemic was just around the corner.

Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General, called for an emergency meeting of the secret conclave. The five men met punctually at sunset, the usual business hour, deep within the Viceroy’s lodge. They sat around the traditional round table, their feet dangling in water and coats soaking wet. Droughts of Cognac with warm water, brought by the silent and bare footed ‘Khansama’,  did little to warm their hearts or morale. They were the most powerful men in India, the ones who were empowered by the directors of East India Company in 'India House' at Liddenhall Street in London, to govern India by direct action. Each knew with out being told that the purpose of the emergency meeting called by the Governor General had nothing to do with the natural calamities and misery confronting the denizens of Calcutta. Even though they all were excellent administrators, their driving force was commercial avarice and their raison d’etre, the commercial health and profits of ‘John Company’. Without being told the agenda for the meeting, each man knew why they had been called to this extraordinary board meeting. In Jun 1843, the East India Company was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Ellenborough sat quietly, brooding. His shoulders hunched with the weight of responsibility. The left empty sleeve of his coat folded and pinned neatly, his wrought gold Farber watch in the right waist coat pocket, a reminder of his physical and mental handicaps. He felt as if some one had just walked over his grave.
Osborne was the first to clear his throat with a polite cough, calling the meeting to order. He was the aggressive one. Though only military secretary, he was the unspoken leader of the conclave. The round table was a symbol of their equality and social standing within the company, though the public face and chief executive was the Governor General.

Ellenborough sat up and squared his shoulders.  ‘Paul…’, he addressed Witworth, the secretary of treasury, in barely audible tones. ‘How much can we hold out ?’. He voiced the question that was on every one’s mind.
‘About eight months, ….that is if we take a lien on the salaries and allowances of the sepoys’, he rasped asthmatically.
‘You couldn’t be serious’, Osborne smiled, despite the gravity of the situation. ‘That is about a hundred and twenty five regiments, about a hundred and twenty thousand men…..’ he paused for emphasis. ‘‘I say fellows’, he mimicked in comic disdain, ‘I tell the largest army in the world…., I say fellows, we will not pay you his month or the next….,  I don’t even know when we will pay you…..,  or pay you at all’. He paused to take an ample sip from his glass.  ‘Pray Paul’….., he said with a mocking scowl, ‘What do you think the bloody Seowars and Seeepoys will do then……, coup de mains,  cut our throat ?’.
“Why did you have to go and raise a bloody army, so large ?”. Secretary Treasury was exasperated. “I never did see your point and my views are on record’, he said.
‘Easy’, commented Metcalfe, in a placatory but commanding tone. 
Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe was the charismatic India hand in the conclave. He spoke seven Indian languages and had private business interests in most of the thirty four princedoms in the Do Ab and the Punj Ab region. Although his elder brother Charles was a civil servant of the Company and currently the Governor General in Canada, Thomas was a mercenary of sorts, an entrepreneur and a self seeking profiteer. He also held a ‘Magisterial’ post in Delhi, primarily to keep a watchful eye over the titular Emperor of India, the old, ailing and redundant king 'Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar'. Over a period of three decades he had amassed incredible wealth and landholdings by private trade in guns, horses, opium, indigo, the high value trade goods that could be had in Hindustan.  On behalf of the company he played politics; one Nawab or Raja against the other, unabashedly flexed the muscular might of the Company’s army and in return extracted ‘Firmans’, monopolistic trading concessions and tracts of land large enough to be small kingdoms. Thomas was indisputably the richest Englishman in India. He was hated and loved by the natives as well as the English with equal zest, and totally held in awe by the other members of the conclave. The rest of them understood with alacrity that Metcalfe would make money whichever way the wind blew. Thomas Metcalfe’s position in the conclave was unassailable, partly because of his commanding personality, sterling leadership qualities, and rest because of the substantial inducements that he secretly deposited annually in four individual accounts  in the Bank of England branch at Delhi, one account for each of the other members of the conclave.

‘Easy’, Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe repeated. ‘Your troubles will not go away by quarrelling’.
‘Your Excellency’, Thomas raised his glass offering a toast to the Governor General. ’Let us go and annex a kingdom, the treasure and loot will fill the treasury coffers and the soldiers will be happy. And you gentlemen’, he said nodding towards Osbourne and Witworth. ‘I am sure you gentlemen will appreciate……, under the circumstances this is probably the only way to placate India House’.
There was silence for a while, each man thunderstruck at the sheer audacity of the preposterous suggestion.
‘Which one…., Hyderabad?’, queried John Bull, the fifth and quietest member of the conclave.  Bull was the political secretary and a sick man, prone to repeated bouts of coughing induced by final stages of tuberculosis. Conversation induced coughing and hence Bull usually preferred to keep his mouth closed.
‘The bloody war is going to cost us money and where is that going to come from ?’, Witworth interjected anxiously. ‘Thomas, the escapade with the Afghans cost the treasury three million sterling and nothing in return’.
Metcalfe smiled and jutted his pointed pepper and salt goatee defiantly. With a wave of his hand he summarily silenced Witworth. “Don’t I know”, he asked with a mischievous smile.

The Afghan war was a fiasco. Seven thousand soldiers and officers, mostly from the Queens Foot Regiments,  accompanied by approximately thirty thousand sepoys had marched all the way across Punjab to the North West Frontier and only a few had returned. Besides, a ransom had to be paid to repatriate English hostages including women and children. The logistic effort for the war against the Afghans had frightened India House. Wars necessitated hiring thousands of elephants, horses, camels and mules, and native pioneers for long durations of the campaign to haul cannons, ammunition carriages, provision and baggage trains, the sick and the wounded. Besides, the food for sepoy army, the concubines and servants who accompanied them, plus the fodder and grain for the animals, had worked out to tens of thousands of ‘maunds’ of provisions. Metcalfe had been contracted by the Company to make the field provisions and hire the support columns from adjacent territories as also harness the local resources. When he submitted a bill for three quarters of a million Sterling,  India House had immediate epileptic seizures which finally resulted in a censure of the conclave. India House finally pruned the debts to half million and Metcalfe had been offered position in the conclave as an incentive. The salaries and bonus for sepoys, pensions for the deceased, replacement of horses and equipment lost in war, and ransoms had accounted for the rest of two and half million sterling.  Most of the payments had been handled by Metcalf.
‘This is do or die situation Paul, you either cough up the cash to run the company’, Metcalfe paused for effect. ‘or you go tell the mongrels in India House to kiss my ass and close shop in India….. what will it be ?’. Metcalfe did not wait to see the anguish in Witworth’s face. He turned impatiently to John Bull.
‘Hyderabad or Punjab… choice is yours’. ‘Hyderabad is tactically easier, the Madras army should be able to do it unaided. However, I am not too sure if the repatriation will be worth the effort. The Hyderabad coffers are empty, the treasury in fragmented and in the hands of secret trustees, we won't be able to find them ’.  ‘On the other hand’, he emphasized. “Punjab is a rich”. Metcalfe’s eyes twinkled with concealed excitement. ‘The bloddy Kana, ….sorry old boy, the one eye King of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh, has left behind untold wealth. Broadfoot tells me that Lahore treasury alone has about twenty million in bullion and harem ornaments. The Sikh ‘Subha’ is in shambles over a tenable successor and their considerable army is in disarray. And if you promise Victoria the Kohinoor, Lord Treasury in Buckingham will twist arms in India house to garner support’.
It was a long speech even for Metcalfe. He tilted his head back, emptied his glass and snapped his fingers signalling to the silent and watchful Khansama to refill the glasses.
‘What about the treaty that your brother signed in Amritsar’, Ellenborough interrupted with audible uncertainty.
‘What treaty ?’, Metcalfe raised his bushy eyebrows. ‘Charles is now in Canada and he is not going to complain’. .......  ‘Ranjit Singh is dead and he is not going to complain’. Metcalfe started a monologue. ‘Khadak as well as his son Nihal are dead and they are not going complain’. He started ticking off the names on his fingers. ‘Dhyan Chand the wazir is dead and he will not complain’. He took a sip of his drink. ‘Lal Singh and Gulab Singh can be compromised and hence they will not complain’.  ‘So that leaves the Punjabi Subha. If we give them a reason to mobilize the troops to Cis Satluj, we have a reason to go to war and no one is going to complain about the Amritsar treaty’, he pronounced with finality.  
‘But the army is not prepared for war’, mumbled Osbourne.
Metclafe grinned in exasperation. ‘With that buffoon Gough as the Commander In Chief, what else can you expect ?. Don’t ask him. Just tell him to get on his horse and come back only if he has the Lahore treasury. If you take my suggestion, this is one war in which his Excellency must become Richard the Lion Heart and lead from the front’, he gesticulated towards Ellenborough.  ‘Thomason at Agra can coordinate the war effort. I will personally look after the logistics as usual’.

Ellenborough sat up in his chair. He had visions of the conquest. A vision of  himself in the role of King Richard in the annals of English history. The thought peppered him out of his melancholy.  If he could annex Punjab he may eventually get his seat in the House of Lords, he may even become more famous than his earlier predecesssor, the man who defeated Napoleon. His thoughts were interrupted by Osbourne. 
‘We don’t have enough military resources in Cis Satluj for the war, the Sikhs are very strong in artillery and cavalry’, Osbourne grimaced, remembering his visit to Lahore to make peace with Ranjit Singh prior to the Afghan war. At that time he had grudgingly acknowledged that the Frenchman Allard had trained and equipped the finest army in India for Ranjit Singh, right under the British nose.
“I have been told by Broadfoot that there are enough spies and sympathisers in Lahore”. Metalfe interrupted emphatically, almost in a whisper. “We can split the Punjabi Subha”, he said pronouncing the words without anglicised affliction. “I think we could win without a fight”. Metcalfe half rose out of his chair, dipped his finger into his glass and quickly drew a rough map on the polished table. The others on the conclave leaned forward with rapt attention.
‘We have about thirty odd regiments here in Cis Satluj’, Metaclafe made a circle around Jullunder and Philor. ‘Move them forward to the line from Firozpur to Amritsar’, he drew a north to south line. ‘Move the four Queens Foot regiments out of Simla and Umbala’, he drew an arrow from east to west. ‘They have been enjoying the sunny climes long enough’. ‘Move the six cavalry regiments in and around Gwalior and Jhansi to a forward line near Jhind and Patiala. He drew another circle. The artillery and cavalry from Lucknow and Kalpi can move forward later to the Jullunder and Philor cantonments vacated by the lot who are by now on the firing line. They will be the strategic reserves to turn the battle. Thomason can, and will, induce the Rajas of Bundelkhand, Jhind, Patiala, Jammu and the monkeys from Nepal to pitch in as a diversionary force from the south on the Forzpur Lahore axis if the battle goes out of control’.
 ‘What timeframes are we looking at ?’, John Bull interjected, stifling a cough on a linen napkin, already specked with blood stains.
‘ We will have to plan the campaign in winter, the summer is too hot to mobilise’, retorted Osbourne. Metcalfe noted with glee that his thoughts had germinated fully in their minds and that they were endorsing his views on war as the solution to bankruptcy. ‘Sooner the better, say eighteen months from now’, he said.
‘How do we sell this idea to India House ?’. Witworth was still sceptical, though cooperative. ‘The war needs funding and approval from London, what do we tell them, the Afghan campaign is still a bleeding wound’.
‘ Twenty million Stirling in Lahore treasury should be a convincing argument for London’. In his excitement John Bull had forgotten all about his bad cough. ‘Tough fight, but we could suggest Punjab instead of Afghanistan as a strategic buffer between the empire and the Hindukush. The bloody Tsar or the Ottoman will think twice before compromising the security of the empire’.
‘’Strategically brilliant’’. Cheered by the spreading enthusiasm in the conclave, Ellenborough  finally joined the discussion. ‘But the war will only fetch short term gains, what do we do to avert a long term fiasco as we are now ?’. All eyes turned to Witworth the financial controller.
‘Tax the bloody natives’, Metcalfe interjected without hesitation.
‘What do we tax them for ?’, asked  the Governor General, back now in full control. ‘Commodities ?’.
‘We don’t control all the commerce in India, just some parts’, said John Bull hesitatingly. ‘But we control the transit of goods from one part to another’, we can impose transit tax.
“My foot”, said Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe. “Tax them for Salt”.
There was an imperious silence around the table. They stared at each other with lack of comprehension. Ellenborough broke the silence. “Would you care to explain Thomas ?”, he commanded in his soft voice.
“What is the most precious commodity for the natives ?”, asked Metcalfe, looking around the table. He did not wait for an answer. “What is gold and diamonds for you is salt for the natives, the heathen cannot live without it”.  He paused for effect. “It has been coming from the salt works near Muree since the silk route days”, he dipped his finger in his glass and drew lazy circles on the table top. “It goes all the way from here to China”, he said sliding his finger to the right, “and to Madras” he drew another line south. “Where did Ranjit get his money from ?” he asked pointedly. There was silence around the table. “Why was he keen to send Nalwa to capture Kashmir ?” he asked again.
He pushed his chair back and got up. For a minute he stood there with a faraway look in his eyes. “The most precious possession with Ranjit was not the bloody Kohinoor”, he said hooking his thumbs on his cummerbund. “or money in his treasury”,  he declared. “All his power came from the ownership of the Salt mines in Muree.  Kashmir is the strategic route for the salt to come to India or go east to China. The man who holds the route can also tax the produce”.
He started to pace around the round table.
“Gentlemen”, he drew in his breath. His voice quivered with mischievous anticipation. “I will go along and fight the war with you, I will supply the entire logistic support and also pitch in a 50% discount. You take the Kohinoor, you take the treasury, but give me the salt mines as compensation. Along with Punjab you shall inherit Kashmir, sell it to Gulabh Singh, Broadfoot says that he is keen to buy it. So make more money. And when I sell the salt to the natives and they take it through Kashmir, tax it, make more money. You don’t have to do it yourself, that bloody swine Gulabh will do it for you. God willing, I shall fill your treasury and mine, and there is none to complain”.
There was silence around the table, it was irrefutable solution to their current problem.
Ellenborough broke the silence. ”Stop pacing my good man”, he commanded. “Sit down and let us discuss this harebrained plan of yours”. He picked up the silver spoon and tapped on it to call the Khansama for more brandy. And till late at night they drank and discussed the plan. That night the Military Secretary dictated the top secret directive from the Governor General to the C-In-C, at Shimla. The words were simple, it’s portent evil and ominous.
‘Go to war’, it commanded. ‘Take Punjab quickly’,  it demanded.
None had a choice. It was destiny.
The  ‘Jan Company’ had decided to become “Namak Haram” against the very soldiers who had sworn that they would not be ‘Namka Haram to Jan Company’.
Salt was irresistible, more valuable than Kohinoor.