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'We could take a (nuclear) strike, survive and then hit back, Pakistan would be finished'. (Interview with Fernanded)

'We could take a (nuclear) strike, survive and then hit back, Pakistan would be finished'. (Interview with Fernandes)

Publication: The Hindustan Times
Date: December 30, 2001

Union Minister for Defence George Fernandes is gung-ho... ready to take on all comers, Pakistan, the United States and even the defence bureaucracy. My autobiography will be called "George: My life as an obstacle course" he says laughing. In a wide-ranging interview with Swati Chaturvedi, Fernandes speaks about the clouds of war, defence procurement, the coffin scam and his return to the Cabinet.

Q.: Are you happy with the US's response to the attack on Parliament?
A.: No I am unhappy. I have given expression to my unhappiness against the backdrop of the resolution adopted by the UN Security Council, which explicitly stated that countries could not harbour terrorists. I am angry actually, because this is the UN's resolution a week after September 11. Forget everything else.

Our men are dying for no reason. The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Jaish-e-Mohammad have their offices in Pakistan. Let us even accept that they are nothing but white angels who have come to herald the birth of Christ. But, what about the fact that Pakistan sent its units to fight alongside the Taliban even when the war on terrorism began. So, at the end of it all, what does the UN resolution mean to the US? My anger and concern is rooted in this. How can they see Pakistan as an ally? You are a big power therefore you will decide what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. So today, we must continue to face terrorism.

Q.: Are we ready to go to war with Pakistan? You have just returned from Kargil, what is the mood of the troops?
A.: Everyone is raring to go - from the ordinary jawan to the mid-level officer to the men at the top. This applies as much to the Army as the Air Force. In fact, something that actually bothers them is that things might now reach a point where one says there is no war. I went to the front line bunkers. At one point, we were only 150 metres away, almost eyeball to eyeball with the Pakistani lines. It's the battlefront and the feeling is "Akhri goli, Akhri aadmi tak yey ladai ladi jayegi" (this battle will be fought to the last bullet, last man). That is the spirit there.

Q.: India has taken a slew of diplomatic measures against Pakistan. What about hot pursuit? There is a perception that the Army feels it would not be a good strategy.
A.: We are not looking at hot pursuit at all. It has not been defined and could mean many things. It is actually on wherever our troops are located at the Line of Control, areas from where terrorists are pushed in, where there's lots of shooting. These are the areas where we lose our men, where we actually run down terrorists. We are now looking at the larger picture that arose when they attacked Parliament. Look, it's not just a piece of real estate. It was an attempt to destroy the entire leadership of the country.

Q.: Will there be a war?
A.: The government is hoping that something emerges out of the diplomatic efforts, but Pakistan has to make amends. As of now, there seems to be no desire on their part to do so. War is a decision that will have to be taken at the appropriate time. We have yet not taken a decision of that nature. Troop movement is on, but that is because Pakistan had already moved in its troops.

Q.: Pakistan says it is only reacting to Indian troop movement.
A.: Not at all. Pakistan actually moved its troops in October in the Rajasthan sector. They said then that they were doing exercises and brought in their armour. It could have been a normal exercise. But an alert was sounded on our side at that point because of the way that exercises were progressing. We were concerned. We tried to ask them what they were up to. They claimed that after the exercise the troops would be withdrawn. But then there was no real return to the barracks.

Then December 13 happened and the build-up began the very next day. Pakistan, unlike (Osama) Bin Laden, was aware that an act of this nature would invite retaliation. The BSF also reported that Pakistani army regulars were dressing in the uniforms of the Rangers and being stationed at the border. That's when we took the decision to move our men. Our complete mobilization on the front will take two-three days more. As things stand, we are vulnerable in Rajasthan as it is a long march for us. Logistics are a problem. Pakistan can just drive into the area.

Q.: You had stated in the past that Pakistan's nuclear deterrence was in safe hands. Do you still believe that?
A.: I invited a lot of criticism for that remark. I must have been born under the wrong stars. It has been like this all my life. I still hold that to be true for the simple reason that those who deal with those weapons are sensible. Pakistan can't think of using nuclear weapons despite the fact that they are not committed to the doctrine of no first use like we are. We could take a strike, survive and then hit back. Pakistan would be finished. I do not really fear that the nuclear issue would figure in a conflict.

Q.: What about procuring of weaponry? The post-Kargil period saw emergency procurements. Will that happen now?
A.: In Kargil, our men had to die because for seven years we had neglected defence purchases and procurement of weaponry. Where we had the weapons we did not have the ammunition. These things do not become available overnight. I can't show you papers. It is not possible. Can anyone responsible for defence procurement walk into a shop and ask for things that the shopkeeper will then give without a thought? There are no shops. Take the T-90 tanks. When Pakistan acquired the T-80 we had the T-72, so we were one age behind, we were not all right. We then tried to equip ourselves. It took time and we are still not there where we should be.

Q.: That's a serious statement coming from the defence minister?
A.: What I mean is we don't have enough to feel comfortable. This is not to say that if war is going to be imposed on us we are not in a position to wage a war. However, when Kargil was thrust upon us we were not in a position.

Q.: What about the coffin scam? You have been pilloried.
A.: Well, I have a whole lot of feelings on that. At a personal level I am hurt because in my entire public life of 53 years I have never been called a thief. It is possibly related to politics and the work I have done in the past three years. I have brought in transparency and said that all the transactions we have undertaken should be vetted by the CVC. This would have hurt people who had a free run of the place. The only scam is the way it has been discussed. Otherwise, there is no coffin scam.

Q.: Why didn't you wait for the Venkatswami Commission to exonerate you before you rejoined the Cabinet?
A.: I rejoined at the Prime Minister's insistence. What is the charge against me? If it is that we provided booze to someone and then they turned around and said something, well, then I am not guilty. Atalji called me and said, "You get back". I said "nahi Atalji reheney dijiye," (no, please let it be). He said my swearing in was the next day. I still refused and said I needed to talk to him. He replied in his inimitable style: "We will talk about small things and big things".

The notice from the commission was under a section that related only to my reputation. That it could be tarnished because of the rubbish people talk. That's about all. What is the charge in this? I did not resign because I was asked to go. I even had people suspended that same night and the next morning.

Q.: Why didn't you take action against your party people?
A.: Let's first face this. Have you seen my house? My house is the place for anyone in need of any kind of succour. People who cannot get justice come to my house. There is no stopping anybody. We have the party president's office in my house and Jaya Jaitly was the president of my party. It is not the Ministry of Defence office. It is the house where I have lived for the past 11 years. To say that my house has been used or my office has been used is nonsense.


Update (7 January 2017):

"The above interview appears to have been withdrawn by the Hindustan Times because a digital archive of the same could not be found on their website. There are allegations that the journalist had faked this interview. We can neither confirm nor deny these allegations as only Hindustan Times knows the truth. But we can confirm that George Fernandes, as a Defence Minister under the then NDA government, was always ready to defend our country, and the same was seen during the Kargil war, when our forces gave a befitting reply to Pakistan."


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