It was peacetime and January 1987 when suddenly the Indian Army began moving from the East to West, from South to West from the North to the West. They moved in trains, civilian aircraft and convoys. No Indian saw a military movement on such a large-scale and of this nature. It could only be a preparation for war. The media and the Opposition parties had at that time blamed Rajiv Gandhi the PM, for yet another blunder, and stated that he wanted to divert the public attention from Bofors to this war hysteria.
I was then the Commander-in–Chief of the Western Army.
In 1986 I attended a high level secret conference where the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Sundarji, was present, and it was decided to call the top Senior Officers and Commanders to discuss the various contingencies that the Indian Army could face vis-a-vis the threat from Pakistan and how Formation Commanders should react from time to time to such a situation. This was necessary as new equipment was being inducted in the Indian Army and to update the Army’s workings and theories in war. It was important to hold such discussions and Exercises in the event of WAR.
It was therefore decided at this Conference that Operation Brass Tacks would be conducted in four phases. Brass Tack 1 was a theoretical war-game exercise. It was to be conducted on the map to ascertain the threats India could face and from which directions. This was held in early 1986 in New Delhi for 3/4 days. All senior Military Commanders participated in these war games. Various situations were discussed about how we could engage effectively in an actual war situation. These discussions were attended by Rajiv Gandhi, and the then Minister of State for Defense in the initial briefing.
After this, Brass Tack 2 was held and attended only by Senior Serving Officers. It was conducted at the Western Army Headquarters at Chandimandir. Officers up to the rank of Divisional Commanders (Major Generals) were required to attend this second part of the exercise. There were sand model discussions of similar war situations that could develop at a lower formation level and what actions would be initiated at that time.
Brass Tack 3 was the next Series in which all lessons that were learnt in Brass Tacks 1&2 would be reduced in writing for updating our Operational Plans.
The final was Brass Tack 4, which was to be held on the Western border’s desert areas with troops actually participating with weaponry, tanks, guns and full-scales of ammunition in which the War Wastage reserves were also to be activated, and total Mobilization was ordered.
During late 1986, I was suddenly called by the Chief of Army Staff, General Sundarji, who asked me to make out the entire plans where I could activate, three-fourths of the Indian Army.
While the Plans were being discussed with the top brass of the Indian Army, I inquired whether an Exercise of this magnitude would attract the attention of Pakistan or not. Sundarji, retorted that similar Exercises, may be not on a similar scale, had already been held earlier and ordered me to carry on.
It was also pointed out by me whether such an Exercise should be set in an East to West configuration or a South to North configuration, which would not attract Pakistan’s attention to this event. The discussion on this subject went on for a few days, and it was finally decided by Sundarji that the setting should be in as realistic a manner as possible and that the Troops would be moving in an East to West configuration, which would mean that the Indian Army would be moving towards our Western Border opposite to Pakistan.
I once again pointed out that India should avoid such an East to West movement as it would lead to a War situation since Pakistan was bound to react.
Our Formations, which comprised the Strike Crops, as also the other Divisions (mechanized and others) located all over India were involved, and the mobilization of such forces took time to be brought closer onto the border with Pakistan. The mobilization time in such a configuration was considered to be too great and it was therefore ordered that we take the help of the entire transportation system available in the country, such as the Civil Airlines, Railways and Road transport. The troops would have to move on top most priority in order to cut down substantially on the movement time for concentration. In-fact India was Paralyzed.
At that time, militancy in Punjab was at its peak, and I raised the issue with Sundarji during discussions that if the Forces are to be committed, India must make sure that the lines of communication/transport, such as the bridges over the various rivers in Punjab, and the road and railway were firmly held. This would require additional troops in the rear areas since live ammunition was to be moved by road and rail.
We had to also ensure that the ammunition dumps which were moving forward, had to be protected from any mischief by the militants or Pakistan from the Air. Most important, I personally asked Sundarji, whether what we were doing has been intimated to the Government and more specifically to the Prime Minister, since such a movement from our side may develop into a full-fledged war with Pakistan. Sundarji rudely told me, “Being the Western Army Commander it is not your job to ask me whether the Government or the Prime Minister had been informed. That is my job and whatever is necessary has been done”. A large number of preparations went on for the Operation.
The entire country’s transport system was paralyzed from Bengal to Punjab. When the troops began moving forward in trains, civil aviation planes and in convoys. The plans for war was taken up in all its seriousness since it is only during war that total mobilizations is ordered. Military exercises, on the other hand, can be carried out on the map or through movement and concentration of troops, which do not threaten neighbors without ammunition.
Minister of State for Defense, and Sundarji spent weeks together in the desert in an area called Sardarshaher, North of Bikaner, which was to be our Headquarters. I was not required there and was busy coordinating all the troops coming in and to ensure that the ammunition trains and the paraphernalia move forward.
It was sometime in the month of December that I finally went to New Delhi to brief Sundarji on the progress of the concentrations. After briefing, I told him how everything was moving according to the plan, and that we were certainly compressing the time and that we were doing well.
Before leaving once again I asked him strongly that I hope that the Government or PM has been informed.Sundarji was taken aback and he told me, “I have told you that it has been taken care of, and you must get on with your job”.
I continued with the concentration of the Armed Forces on the Western front.
It was January 15, 1987 when I was required to be present in New Delhi on the occasion of Army Day. That evening, there was a reception given by Sundarji at the Army House. The President of India, Prime Minister and Defense Minister were all invited. Whenever Rajiv saw me, he would walk up to chat with me. This was because I had been professionally close to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, for planning and executing the Siachen Glacier operation .
Even at this Army Day reception, when Rajiv saw me, he walked up to me and asked, “How is the Western Front”? I was sure than Sundarji had briefed him.
I was having a cup of tea, and Rajiv had a samosa in his hand. I clicked my heels and told him, “Mr. Prime Minister Sir, the Indian Army is in fine fettle and very soon we shall be past our Battle Stations”.
To this Rajiv immediately reacted and asked me what I was saying. I repeated what I had just said. This was because the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) Reserves North and South were in the process of moving into their battle locations.
This was an expected move, and I said that the planning and deployments we had gone into it would be obvious Pakistan would be provoked. The greatest provocation that would strike the match was the deployment of Indian troops in positions, which would lead Pakistan to believe that India was about to attack. Rajiv was totally aghast and visibly angered with what I had just told him. He called for Defense Secretary S.K. Bhatnagar and Foreign Secretary Venkateshwaran. They got into a huddle, spoke to each other and soon thereafter Rajiv left the party and I had already scooted and asked my Staff to organize my helicopter to Rajasthan.
Everyone in New Delhi, especially the Foreign Embassies, were already inquiring as to what was happening on the Western borders.
Another attempt to create a possible war scare by Sundarji and Deputy Defence Minister was when an extensive media briefing was held at Army HQ in New Delhi, which was attended by senior Journalists and Editors.
The two explained that even though India had concluded Brass Tacks, the Pakistani Army continued to remain mobilized, even though they too had completed their Exercise. Therefore, Pakistan’s actions and intentions had become suspect, and India should be prepared for the worst. The briefing received a serious protest from the External Affairs Ministry as also the Navy and Air Force because they had even not been informed of the situation and how it had developed. However the Western C-IN-C Air Marshal M.M Singh was with me.
It is despite the fact that the AOC- in-C Western Air Command was with me in the desert throughout, and we were aware of the actual plan but we were ready to take on any preemptive strikes if Pakistan dared us. In fact, Air Marshal M.M Singh is a highly distinguished and decorated officer and we were operating from a Joint Army/Air Force Centre which we had established together in the Desert area.
The Ministry of External Affairs was especially angered because at that time, both India and Pakistan were officially at peace. They saw no reason for this senseless escalation of tension.
Following the January 15 encounter with Rajiv Gandhi, I sensed that something had gone wrong, and I had taken my helicopter flight back to my HQ, located at the Indira Gandhi canal in the deserts of Rajasthan. I briefed my four Corps Commanders, who were, in fact waiting for me to return.
On my return, I told them, “We must hasten since the situation is hotting up, and we may have to take on Pakistan” By this time, Pakistan had stepped up its Armed preparedness by ordering their Southern Army Reserves and bringing them opposite West and South of Lahore opposite us. Pakistan did not conduct their regrouping in any rush. They took a fortnight to redeploy their reserves to their battle areas to face us after they assessed our movements.
For some reason, Sundarji chose to remain silent even after Pakistan had begun to deploy its troops on the border.
As far as the preparedness of India was concerned, everything that the Indian Army possessed had been moved to the Operational Area. Troops from the North East were moving to Punjab. Troops from Central India were moving towards Punjab, Troops from South India had moved to Amritsar and troops from Secunderabad, and Hyderabad had been moved to the deserts of Rajasthan.
This is the time when the Air Force, and the Navy got involved and begun preparations for the war that never was.
A few days after I had briefed my Corps Commanders, I began getting urgent calls from the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) General Mahajan from Army Head Quaters New Delhi asking me to return back as Sunderji wanted me forthwith. I told him that I had just visited Delhi and so why this sudden urgency. General Mahajan told me that Sundarji required my presence immediately for some urgent consultations.
On January 19/20, I returned to New Delhi and met Sundarji. He pleaded with me that I stop moving forward and instead concentrate the troops at Bikaner and Jodhpur. He also asked me to re-orient the troops for an exercise setting by now deploying of all troops from South to North configuration and he desired to know how long this would take to pull back and that I must act immediately.
I told him that the entire Indian Army with all its might was moving towards the Western Front and there is no button that I could push to stop this movement immediately. It will take at least 10-12 days to halt the forward movement and another 10 days to rearrange the concentration. I asked Sundarji what had happened, but the latter did not reply.
Instead, he asked me if the number of days could not be reduced any further. I told him that if a whistle was blown now, then even it would take approximately six days and nights to stop everyone in their tracks and another two-three days to rearrange the plans. This would mean at least 10-15 days.
Following this, I returned to the desert and spoke once again to my Corps Commanders. I ordered that all trains which were moving be brought to a halt. Those trains which could be diverted were diverted. The troops were then re-assembled in an exercise configuration. Our troops known as “Blue Land” were left where they were. Troops were regrouped, and we were ready to commence the exercise.
By that time, I was told that Members of Parliament would be visiting our exercise area and spending a full day with us . I was ordered to brief them answer their questions and confirm that it was only an exercise and how it was being conducted. I specifically remember the BJP member Sh. Jaswant Singh asking me some very relevant questions and, he showed a tremendous understanding of the situation as it prevailed on that day.
Foreign Journalists also poured in. The famous BBC man in India, Mark Tully, arrived and interviewed me in the Desert Area. He asked me the following questions which I replied.
“General, is the Indian Army carrying live Ammunition”?
I said “Yes, we are carrying live ammunition. With the entire Indian Army deployed in the open desert, may be in an exercise configuration, if Pakistan were to attack my troops, tanks and vehicles which were out in the open, I would not want to go down in history as the General who destroyed the entire Indian Army and, as such live ammunition was being carried”.
“Is the ammunition open or in sealed boxes”?
“It is open. And it is necessary that we keep it open. While we could have used stones for ammunition movement simulation, it was necessary for us to send open ammunition forward so that our tanks and gun crews could actually receive the ammunition as it would be in a normal war”. As of now all my Tanks and weaponry are Stowed.
The above interview was broadcast on the BBC the next morning.
Our plan appeared certain to provoke Pakistan into a war with India, It would have blown up into a full-scale war in the Desert, if we had not changed our movement of the exercise from South to North.
Arun Singh backed Sundarji all the way, but the Government did not know about it?
The Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, did not want to go to war. He later confided in me, “How can we go to war when we had no credibility with public and world opinion”
At that time, due to Bofors and other reasons the public opinion would not have been conducive and people would not believe that India was entirely innocent in the matter. Rajiv Gandhi’s credibility with the President of India had already reached its nadir, and besides the world had not been informed of the reasons why India was going to war with Pakistan.
While the media reported that Rajiv had agreed to Brass Tacks to divert the public attention from Bofors, Rajiv was never aware of the dimensions of the scope of the manoeuvre and was never briefed by Sundarji as to the likely consequences. The PM wanted to diffuse the situation. I don’t think that anyone could ever have a convincing rationale for what this war was supposed to achieve? How could Rajiv have taken the country to war when he was being hailed as an international leader, a dominant global personality, who was supposed to be taking India towards a better tomorrow?
During this stressful and tension – filled months, the man who tried to expose the Bofors scandal, Mr. V.P. Singh was moved from the Finance Ministry to Defence Ministry. This was a well thought out and clever move by Rajiv. It was impossible for Rajiv to remove V.P. Singh from the Finance Ministry.
During this moment of crisis, it was something V.P Singh, could not refuse. This shift of V.P Singh drew the least controversy.
The Defense Minister, V.P Singh, visited the forward areas. It was 10.30 pm when the Minister and Officers were all sitting in the Caravan Mess put up in the desert. Arun Singh and Sundarji were enjoying their drinks, and the food had not been served till then. I felt V.P Singh was being ignored. After some time, he seemed agitated and asked me when dinner would be served.
I told Sundarji that the Defense Minister wanted dinner to be served. And this was done.
After dinner V.P Singh told me that he wanted to return to New Delhi immediately at night. I suggested to him that the nearest airfield was at Suratgarh and from where we were at present it would take more than two hours to reach it by road at night, and even if the aircraft took-off at 4:30am he would reach New Delhi at 6am earliest.
I advised him that it would be better if he rested till 5:30 in the morning and take a helicopter to Suratgarh, from where he could depart in his aircraft and arrive at New Delhi by 7:30am. V.P Singh, who was in deep thought, reluctantly agreed with my advice to rest for the night. He left early that morning. LATER IN THE DAY WE GOT THE NEWS OF HIS RESIGNATION FROM THE CABINET AS DEFENSE MINISTER.
While the corruption and merits of the Bofors gun deal dominated the political scene in the years to come, Brass Tacks gave a crippling blow to the equipment, including track vehicles, tanks, BMPs. Every vehicle has a mileage life after which 1st, 2nd, 3rd echelon repairs are carried out and after that the vehicles are discarded. The mileages done by all vehicles were so high that for three years after Brass Tacks THE INDIAN ARMY WAS UNFIT FOR WAR.
It is worth considering whether Exercises at such a large scale should at all be permitted. I say, It was a waste of money and resources which any Country can ill afford apart that we get into a war situation every time we move.
I have already shared this Episode in My book “Unmasking Secrets of Turbulence” (Midnight Freedom to a Nuclear Dawn) Published in the Year 2000.