National Security and the Role of the Media

George Fernandes,Defence Minister


I am grateful to the D.R. Mankekar Memorial Comittee for inviting me to deliver the tenth D.R. Mankekar Memorial Lecture. And I am thankful to Mrs. Mankekar for suggesting the subject for this lecture: "National Security and the Role of the Media."

The subject recaptures the man whose memory has brought us here today. D.R. Mankekar was among the tallest media personalities produced by our country--a courageous reporter, a brilliant editor and an outstanding author. Above all, he was a true patriot to the marrow of his bones. He has left behind enough evidence to establish that national security was one of his primary concerns, and he lived with the enduring vision of a strong and secure India led by persons of integrity and competence.

In his preface to his book The Guilty Men of 1962--a book that x-rayed every aspect of the India-China War that began on October 20, 1962, with a massive offensive by the Chinese forces in the north-eastern part of India, and ended ignominously for India, with China declaring a unilateral ceasefire after having worsted the Indian forces on every front, from Ladakh in the west to Walong in the east, he says:

"In a democracy, the people have a right to know the why and wherefore of a national disaster. The government is accountable to the people. Where the government fails in its duty, a publicist may step in to fulfil that task."

The "national disaster" he was referring to was India's humiliation at the hands of China. The "government's failure in its duty" referred to total lack of preparedness to protect the country's frontiers and criminal negligence in educating the people on matters of national security. That the "publicist" is the media does not need to be stated. He concluded the Prologue to his treatise with these words:

"This is an agonising story. It should be the nation's solemn resolve to prevent its recurrence. But the nation can do so only when it knows what exactly happened in NEFA in 1962 and why."

D.R. Mankekar wrote these lines 30 years ago. And in the 36 years since that fateful war between India and China, the generation which in one way or the other steered India into that "national disaster" has passed away, and two successive generations of leaders have come to guide the destinies of the nation. So, in the year of Pokhran II which is also the 50th year of India's independence, it may be worthwhile taking a look at the national security concerns of the country--concerns which flow out of our threat perceptions.

Let us start with a proposition which is not open to dispute: it is the prerogative of every country to assess its threat perceptions. Concomitant to this is another proposition: it is the right of every country to evaluate its security concerns and equip itself to deal with them.

Now there may be a dispute as to who is best qualified to make the assessments and evaluations. Here, I agree with D.R. Mankekar's assertion that it is the duty of the government.

Every year, the Ministry of Defence of the Government of India publishes its Annual Report whose opening chapter is devoted solely to "National Security Environment." Over the many years, these reports have consistently highlighted the security concerns of India in a language that is designed not to hurt the sensitivities of any country, yet meant to let the people know what the nation's concerns are.

Let me cite from the report of 1995. I choose this report deliberately. Between April 1, 1995 and early August 1996--the period covered by this report—India had three Ministers of Defence: Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao, Mr. Pramod Mahajan and Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav. Their names figure in the report. These men belong to three different parties and three different ideological tendencies. They look at most of the problems facing the nation on the basis of their ideological predilections. However, on issues of national security, they have a common perception. Now, look at this:

"The developments which shape India's national security environment are at the global level, in the regions adjoining the sub-continent, within the sub-continent and in our domestic situation. At the global level, among the most far-reaching events, with serious implication for prospects of a nuclear-free world, has been the unconditional and indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May 1995. The extension was based on a 'consensus' which did not truly reflect the various contending issues that were raised. No clear link was established between the imperative of nuclear disarmament by nuclear weapon states and the voluntary commitment not to nuclearise by non-nuclear nations. There was no move towards global de-nuclearisation. In effect this unconditional and indefinite extension of the NPT has legitimised a major weapon of mass destruction and has allowed a few countries total monopoly over them (emphasis added).

"India's security has to be carefully considered with regard to the implications of these developments. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles in our neighbourhood, adequate defensive measures are inescapable, much as India may have wished otherwise" (emphasis added).

The annual report for 1996-97 again has the names of Mr. Rao, Mr. Mahajan and Mr. Yadav as Minister of Defence. I quote a few lines from this report.

"The existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons by declared nuclear powers continue to pose a threat to international security.

"India has refused to sign the CTBT because it is not a measure for nuclear disarmament. Nor is the treaty truly comprehensive, as it does not arrest the qualitative development of nuclear weapons. Sub-critical testing and computer simulated nuclear tests are not prohibited under the treaty, giving the nuclear weapon states the opportunity for refining and developing new nuclear weapons (emphasis added).

"The indigenous development of missile capability by India is in response to the evolving security environment in its region. China has supplied M-11 missiles to Pakistan and is aiding it with technology and manpower as well in the development of its indigenous missile programme. There are also credible reports about China continuing to assist Pakistan in its clandestine nuclear weapons programme (emphasis added).

"India's concerns regarding China's defence cooperation with Pakistan, its assistance to Pakistan's clandestine nuclear programme, and the sale of missiles and sophisticated weapon systems by it to Pakistan, were conveyed to the Chinese side. The progress that China has made in the recent years in augmenting her nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities will continue to have relevance for India's security concerns. Upgradation of China's logistic capabilities all along the India-China border for strengthened air-operations has to be noted (emphasis added). China's posture in the South-China Sea has implications for the region."

These perceptions and the concerns generated by them have been articulated in one from or the other in various domestic and international fora by the Government of India through its spokespersons and its official publications. But, for reasons that are not hard to guess, they did not become the subject of national concern. Successive governments, in fact, chose not to create awareness about these concerns among the people.

In recent years, Parliament has witnessed a nonchalant but non-partisan approach to defence-related issues, including sanction for the defence budget, often without even discussing it.

Since the system of Parliamentary Standing Committees was instituted in 1994, the Standing Committee on Defence has done some commendable work in examining not only the demands for grants of the Ministry of Defence, but issues pertaining to national security.

This multi-partisan committee has invariably presented unanimous reports identifying the country's threat perceptions, the required level of forces, weapons and other wherewithal required to meet the threats, and has laid great emphasis on research and development and on indigenisation and self-reliance in defence production.

The national consensus--in other words, a broad agreement among the entire spectrum of political parties represented in Parliament--gets truly reflected in every report the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence has submitted since its inception. I shall not inflict on you extracts from the countless reports it has submitted to Parliament and through it to the country, save from the fifth report of the Tenth Lok Sabha presented on August 24, 1995.

"China has developed as a major nuclear and missile power. China also continues to be the main source of major weapons including missiles and allied technology to Pakistan, a very hostile neighbour, causing disquiet to India. Despite warming relations with China, China is, and is likely to remain, the primary security challenge to India in the medium and long terms. Its enhancement of missile capabilities and its immense help to Pakistan in the missile programme are serious security concerns to India. The Committee feel that India has no option but to continue to develop and upgrade its missile capabilities for deterrence and not for aggression, on national security considerations."

While the Ministry of Defence and the Standing Committee on Defence have highlighted the security concerns of the country against the backdrop of the developments at the global, regional and sub-continental levels, the domestic situation has hardly figured in our perceptions as a factor influencing our national secuirty. It is generally looked at as a law and order problem. We seem to overlook the fact that a large force of the Indian Army is today engaged in counter-insurgency operations, with many Chief Ministers of the affected states asking for more Army troops to help them deal with a problem that should be tackled by the state's police force or by the para-military.

This is not the occasion to go into the causes of these insurgencies. But it is necessary to state that the Army is trained to fight a war against an enemy. Fighting against our own people, most of them misled youth, can and does have a negative psychological impact on the training and morale of the soldiers.

Moreover, a nation that is not at peace with itself will have serious problems in forging unity of purpose and action against an external enemy.

For 24 long years from Pokhran I, India chose not to become a nuclear weapon state, despite possessing the capability to produce nuclear devices within a short span of time, as was demonstrated on May 11 and 13 of this year.

Yet, the point needs to be made that India kept open its option for weaponisation from the day it commissioned its scientists to produce a nuclear device that was tested on May 18, 1974, in Pokhran.

That all options would remain open was also implicit in the national consensus that was evolved over not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and later the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Moreover, there are enough indications that India had moved towards exercising the option to go nuclear on more occasions than one.

Therefore, there is neither a hidden agenda nor anything sinister in Pokhran II. Only the paramount interests of India's national security were involved in the tests.

It is not that those who took the steps leading to India declaring itself a nuclear weapon state were unaware of the "sanctions" and other consequences that were to follow. But there was no other option for India when its long cherished dream of seeing a nuclear weaponless world had gone up in smoke, with no hope of it ever being revived.

In the USI National Security Lecture-1996 he delivered on December 12, 1996, under the auspices of the United Services Institute of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Scientific Advisor to the Raksha Mantri and Secretary, Department of Defence R&D, Ministry of Defence, says:

"When I asked Dr. William Perry, former US Secretary for Defence, when he visited India, why 3,000 and why not zero as Pt. Jawharlal Nehru put forth in the 1960s on complete nuclear disarmament, Dr. Perry answered, zero nuclear weapon is a dream."

Dr. Kalam then goes on to add:

"We can assume at no time the five nations will come to zero level nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapon, a strong component as they visualise it, is a deterrent and a weapon of political strength and the same nations are propagating the non-proliferation doctrine. In 1995, the US and other Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) pushed the indefinite extension of the NPT, thereby perpetuating the nuclear apartheid."

Perhaps this is an apocryphal story, but it has lessons, and, in any case, some recent developments have provided evidence that there may be truth in it.

When in 1995/96 tensions between China and Taiwan heightened on the issue of one or two Chinas, with China firing its missiles across the Taiwan Straits, the United States moved some of its warships into the Taiwan Straits to demonstrate its support to, and solidarity with, Taiwan. While speculation ran high on whether the US would really intervene in a military confrontation between China and Taiwan, should there be one, a senior Chinese official taunted a visiting US official by saying, "You will never dare to intervene." When the latter asked, "How can you be sure?" the Chinese official said, "Because we know that you do not want San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York to be destroyed."

The agreement signed between Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin during the visit of the US President to China in June-July this year to de-target each other's cities and installations indicates that the five-member club of the nuclear weapon states have one set of rules to ensure their safety, while they would have no compunction in targetting others with their nuclear arsenals.

In his USI lecture from which I have quoted above, Dr. Kalam succinctly highlighted these issues. He said:

"We have a situation where the national interests of the nuclear nations have come to dictate the international norms and behaviour. The present CTBT signed at UN headquarters is a glaring example of how the powerful developed western groups can steam-roll the agenda of an international treaty of far-reaching consequence. When India first proposed the CTBT in the 1950s as a step towards total nuclear disarmament, the US was totally against it. Now the same CTBT is being blatantly used to serve the non-proliferation agenda of the NWS with total disregard to either the original nuclear disarmament goals or to the legitimate security compulsions of India.

"The double standards of international equations are fast becoming an accepted way of life even though they invariably compromise the interests of the developing countries."

The expulsion of Indian scientists from the US, the denial of critical technology to India, the black-listing of several laboratories, scientific research institutions and defence production units in India by the United States is but a demonstration of these double standards.

It is also a measure of the anger and frustration that has overtaken some of the nuclear powers over India addressing the world with the fait accompli as a nuclear weapon state.

That many powerful public figures in the US think on similar lines is evident from a letter the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, addressed to the members of Congress on May 14, 1998, charging the Clinton Administration of resorting to "double standards" for confronting India with sanctions.

The domestic debate over India's threat perceptions and security concerns, from the time the National Agenda for Governance was collectively released by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliance partners on the eve of assuming office, has unfortunately gone on partisan lines, with the media--print and electronic--playing no mean role in stoking partisan fires. This does not bode well both for our security and our future.

Could it be deliberate mischief, for it could not have been inability to understand the English language, that made a section of the media--both print and electronic--interpret the English words "Potential threat No. 1" into "Enemy No. 1" in the same language. The question is still relevant because people who have been members of the union government holding important portfolios, but are now in the Opposition, continue to repeat the original sin, inside Parliament and outside.

The damage such distortions by the media can cause to the nation's security interests is beyond measure, more so when the global media with its instant reach to every nook and corner of the world can trigger uncalled for international misunderstandings, which can have grave consequences.

Threat perceptions, by definition, are only perceptions.

Despite all the wars fought between India and Pakistan and despite the ongoing proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir, waged by Pakistan against India, the two countries have more often than not engaged in dialogue, never mind if that has not taken us anywhere near solving the outstanding issues between us.

India does not want a war with Pakistan and has never initiated one. There is a deeply felt longing in the minds of most Indians to have not just friendship with Pakistan, but a special economic and political relationship, which would enable the nearly 1.3 billion people on both sides of the divide and in Bangladesh to live in peace and achieve better standards of living.

Therefore, while even in the midst of the current tensions, efforts must and will be made to achieve the much-cherished goal of Indo-Pak partnership for peace and progress; till that goal is reached, the threat perception will remain, and, therefore, steps will be taken to deal with any situation that may impinge on our national security.

The approach to our relations with China cannot be any different. India and China account for four out of ten persons living on our planet. We have a shared past that goes into the millennia. Both are proud of their civilisational heritage. And both are aware that together they can shape the future of the world.

In 1966, during a night-long argumentative conversation with me at his beautiful chalet in the Jura mountains in Switzerland, Edgar Snow, whose book, Red Star over China, opened the eyes of the world to a new China that was being forged in the crucible of the revolution led by Mao and his comrades-in-arms, kept asserting that India and China have a common destiny which they could fulfil in peace and friendship.

If China and the US can have a strategic partnership which makes them de-target their nuclear missiles, and enter into an economic partnership, despite the several issues that divide them, there is no reason why India and China cannot have a still more closer relationship, even while they work towards resolving the outstanding disputes between them.

Those who charge the alliance government with using the nuclear tests for partisan ends only expose a mind-set that refuses to face the reality and to think objectively.

And such of them who drag Mahatma Gandhi's name to buttress their opposition to nuclear weapons miss the central point of Mahatma Gandhi's philosogphy.

When Pakistan marched its troops into Jammu and Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of Independence, and the ruler of the state signed the instrument of accession to India and sought the help of the Indian Army, Mahatma Gandhi saw nothing wrong in India using its Army to drive out the Pakistani raiders, giving thereby the message that in protecting the nation's integrity and territory from foreign aggression, there was no place for non-violence or civil resistance. There is a clear difference between this and non-violence as a weapon for political struggle.

So the armed forces of the country have to be in place, and they have to equip themselves with ever-improving weaponry and fast-changing technology to take on the adversary on the latter's terms.

The nuclear weapons stockpiled by the US, Russia and the three other members of the Nuclear Club have remained as a deterrent or as a threat, and, from all indications, will remain so, unless they fall into the hands of some insane person. India has solemnly declared that its nuclear weapons are meant to be a deterrent, and that we will not resort to their first use.

This takes us to the question of command and control. (Here, we may dismiss as a "rascist" thought the insinuation by some Western nations that India and Pakistan are not capable of acting with restraint and moderation and, therefore, cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons.) Each of the five original nuclear weapon states has its own distinct political system and, therefore, each has a command and control system which differs from that of others.

India's command and control system will necessarily be exclusively its own. While the details of such a system will take some time in getting defined, what is obvious is that such command and control will be in the hands of the political leadership.

A potentially positive development in the domestic arena in the aftermath of India's declaration as a nuclear weapon state is the activation of the campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons. This is in keeping with our country's ethos, which, since the early Fifties, has been in the forefront of the global movement for a nuclear weapon-free world. I too have been a part of this global effort which, unfortunately, has not achieved any tangible success so far.

At the time of Pokhran I in May 1974, I was in detention in Delhi's Tihar jail for leading the railway workers strike. The news of India testing a nuclear device so agonised me that I spent a sleepless night writing a short pamphlet which was later published under the title "India's Bomb and Indira's India." The last lines of that short essay were:

"With her newly-acquired nuclear status, India can mobilise the non-nuclear nations to create adequate pressure on the nuclear powers to abandon the nuclear course and steer the world in the direction of a genuine pursuit of peaceful nuclear technology."

I still stand by that position. I believe that India must use all its strength and sincerity of purpose to persuade the nuclear weapon countries to unitedly resolve to create a genuinely and uniformly nuclear weapon-free world within a given time-frame.

The achievements of our scientists and technicians and the valour of our armed forces who are engaged in protecting the nation's frontiers have enabled India to stand tall in the comity of nations today.

But it is only when the entire country puts all its human resources to full use, and develops its economic muscle, that we shall be counted among the great nations of the world.

Dissent is the essence of a democratic polity. But when it comes to matters of national security, it is the unity of purpose and action of the entire people alone which will see us through.

To achieve this, the media has a critical role to play. The print media, especially the regional and small newspapers, must inform and debate issues of national security. Today the electronic media has a reach unimaginable just five years ago. The simple rural person has an opportunity through television to observe the actions and hear the debates in Parliament. Should they see their elected representatives shouting and blocking democratic debate or can issues such as poverty and national security be discussed with seriousness and responsibility? The media will carry to the people what we say and what we do. At this time, a responsible collaboration between us will democratise and inform the debate on national security concerns.