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Mainstream, VOL LV No 31 New Delhi July 22, 2017

Time to Resurrect Shekhon: An Eminent Air Warrior of Yesteryears

Saturday 22 July 2017

by D.C. Bakshi

Tolstoyan Foreshortening is a ‘perspective’ in which an individual recedes behind the accidents of history or the forces of society; his image getting restricted to the ‘episodic’.

General Omar Bardley’s famous words on quality thrusts for the profession of arms, continue to be the keystone for professional armies throughout the world. He warned:

“Inferior inducements bring second-rate men; second-rate men bring second-rate security. In war, there are no prizes for runners-up.”

Viewed in the above context how does one rate Shekhon? Air Marshal M.S. Shekhon, AOC-in-C (Air Officer-Commanding-in-Chief), Southern Air Command, took premature release from service. It was alleged that he had brought-in political pressure for his upgradation in the IAF. (The episode is around two decades old.) Admittedly, he was an air-warrior of repute; an outstanding flyer and a distinguished administrator. Napoleon Bonaparte has so often insisted, “Fate is inexorable in its irony”; Air Marshal Shekhon’s exit from the IAF was anything but glorious. And certainly it was in deep contrast with the distinguished innings he had in the IAF.

During its existence of 80 years, the IAF has produced a galaxy of commanders; surely there is a slot for Air Marshal M.S. Shekhon as an operational Commander. He was holding the appointment of Air-Officer-Commanding-in-Chief at Trivandrum when the severe blow struck him.

Let us first hear from him what he says about himself.

“I have taken part in every war beginning from 1962, 1965, 1971 and Kargil. I have been decorated with a Vir Chakra. The amount of land that I got for India in J&K, no one knows about it. I pushed the Pakistanis inside by 32 KMs. We took this area in Thoi Sector in Ladakh. The area is still held by us. Out of 40 posts, we took over 36 posts in Kargil.”

(Interviewed by Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh/The Rediff/SHEKHON).

Can any one deny what he has stated above? No air-warrior these days can boast of false claims. All manoeuvres during peace time and during war are documented and recorded. The number of rows of medals on his chest, in fact his career-profile will vouch for the veracity of the above statement. The fact that he rose to the rank/status of Air Officer-Commanding-in-Chief of an Operational Command (in the Air Marshal’s rank) is corroborative of his unblemished record of service. All higher appointments in defence service are cleared by the CCPA (Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs) after multiple clearances from various departments of key Ministries. Till he was appointed AoCinC, it showed the government’s complete trust in Shekhon’s ability to defend India.

The fault-line that breached his reputation was the letter written by him to a political mentor seeking his patronage for upgradation in the IAF. The controversy initially erupted as an episode and later, fuelled by the media, took an ugly turn. It was avoidable; only if we as a nation had the maturity to appreciate the ethos of “Generalship”. If Japan has “BUSHIDO”, the “spirit of the warrior”, we too have our “martial” heritage of which we are highly proud of.

Profession of arms prohibits a General to accept disgrace; an oblivion, even death is preferable. A few examples are relevant.

• Hannibal, the hero of Carthage who had menaced Romans for 14 years (they learnt the art of war from him and finally defeated him) refused to return to his country after the Battle of Zama in which he was defeated by the Roman General, Scipio Africanus. He drank poison, instead, sent by the king.

• Abraham Lincoln did not sack Ulysses S. Grant, one of his top Generals even when there were serious complaints against him for drunkenness. Lincoln rather wanted to know “which brand of whisky he drank”, so that he could recommend the same to other Generals—to learn the art of victory in leading battles (Grant later became the President of the USA).

Obedience is the hallmark of military life. But history is replete with incidents where

Selective Disobedience

by the Generals has been accepted by the King and the political heavyweights. Yes, of course, not for personal egoes but in the national interest.

We are all aware of Field Marshal Moltke’s refusal to bombard Paris much against the wishes of Bismark and on the Indian soil Field Marshal Goh’s refusal to accept tactical manoeuvres suggested by the Governor General during Anglo-Sikh wars. They were not sacked!

• Readers would recall that independent India too faced a catch-22 situation on the appointment of its first Commander-in-Chief. The candidature General (later) of Field Marshal Cariappa, the obvious choice, was not (unanimously) acceptable to the political bosses. Next in the line was General Rajender Singh Ji; when his name was sounded, he publicly announced that he would rather resign than accept the “bye-passing” of Cariappa. Such loyalties to the superiors and the system are unheard of now.

No wonder that the controversy in Japan where the successive Prime Ministers continue to offer prayers at holy Shrines where a number of Generals who the fought in the Second World War defending their motherland (some of them listed as war-criminals by the International Tribunals) lie buried there.

Was the hue and cry raised on Shekhon’s letter blown out of proportion? Technically, it was a reflection on the functioning of the General Staff, as if it lacked the capacity and acumen to handle it? The question is: is the General Staff so fragile that it will not be able to handle such a ‘frivolous’ manoeuvre by a senior officer? The world over the General Staff, under whose purview the Military Secretary’s Branch and Personnel Departments of Air Force and Navy operate, are like citadels. They cannot be breached by ordinary pot-shots. There are set procedures to deal with “external” pressures—for coveted appointments, promotions and transfers. All requests from favour-seekers whether they are from politicians, senior bureaucrats or retired service officers—are disposed of “on-merit” and “subject to service exigencies”. “Merit” is the “lynchpin” and it remains in focus at all times. There are strong checks and balances to eliminate bias. National security is too serious a subject where favouritism and personal preferences could be allowed to weaken its fabric. This is universal and the Indian Armed Forces General Staff is as much ‘impregnable’ as in any country for such like interventions.

Shekhon’s letter to the “political heavyweight” seeking his “blessings” needs to be seen in above context. Left to itself, it would have been routinely disposed of without causing any ripples, since little cognisance is taken of such requests by Promotion Boards constituted by the Government/Services to finalise recommendations for higher appointments.

Since armed forces in our country are a-political by nature and civil supremacy over them a constitutional norm, are there any lessons for the civil authorities as to how they should deal with the Generals?

An incident from Battle of Waterloo where the Duke of Wellington had defeated Napoleon Bonaparte is worth a mention.

(Final countdown)

at Waterloo

.......... A British marksman sighted Napoleon

“There is Bonaparte sir, I think I can reach him — May I fire?”

The Duke forbade him: “No, no Generals guiding armies, have something else to do rather to shoot one another.”

Here is a lesson for the political bosses too!

We have a long way to go in fine-tuning politico-civil-military relationship.

Whether it was Thimayya’s resignation or Manekshaw’s light-hearted statement on his role in the 1971 War (followed by a snub by the Government!) and the sack of Naval Chief—personalities apart, what damage they have caused to the ethos of the profession of arms needs to be assessed.

Shekhon’s resurrection reminds us of an abyss where if you look deep into it, it looks back into you.

The armed forces are supposed to be paragons of propriety; all efforts must be made by their members to retain that image.

Air Marshal M.S. Shekhon was an outstanding officer. His contribution to the IAF’s cause is part of its glorious heritage. It is for the IAF to find ways and means to resurrect his image.

“History has often been unfair to its heroes — having ordinary men to decide the difference between posterity and oblivion.” For the future generations Shekhon is a classic case of Tolstoyan Foreshortening. He has ‘receded’ against the forces of history and the society, it is time for his resurrection.

Group Captain D.C. Bakshi, VSM, IAF (Retd.) never served with/under Air Mshl M.S. Shekhon at any time.

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