Our Story – Walking and talking National Security

It reads like an old-style thriller dealing with national security. A handful of old men meet regularly in run-down municipal schools and community halls in Pune to discuss and plan strategies to make sure that India’s nuclear interests are not compromised. And, like in all such stories, they are led by an idealistic military hero, who bears an unrequited undying devotion to his homeland. He believes in making no compromise with the security of the country he defended for decades.

Lt Gen (retd) D B Sheketkar is an archetype of that hero. After years of witnessing the leadership’s “antipathy” towards the nation’s security, he decided to take the battle to them — calling attention to slip-ups in the Indo-US nuclear pact, among other issues.

But the story begins much earlier.

Sheketkar achieved glory during his career, but of the understated kind. As a young officer in the Maratha Light Infantry, he was captured by the Burmese, but managed to escape; later, for several years, he battled insurgency in the Northeast and Kashmir. He retired as the head of the Infantry School at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh. The high purpose of serving the nation, however, kept throbbing in him.

At home, in Pune, Sheketkar began making friends. Milind Gadgil, 70, a seasoned journalist, was one of them. Like Sheketkar, Gadgil had had an eventful life. He was present in Tashkent in 1965 when the ceasefire declaration was signed; he had witnessed the Americans blundering in Vietnam from the battle lines; at the age of 63, Gadgil was in Batalik, when Pakistani shells landed on Indian positions.

Both Sheketkar and Gadgil felt from their experiences that the civilian establishment was remiss about India’s security. Critical issues like terrorism, insurgency, nuclear security, they felt, were being handled in a slapdash fashion by various dispensations. Worse, no attempts had been made to demystify the gobbledygook for the lay public.

Like it invariably happens in old-style thrillers, the heroes felt they needed to help the nation. In 2003, Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS) born. Sheketkar called on old army hands like 57-year-old Col (retd) R P Tripathi. “The idea was that though our professional careers were over, we were still relevant,” Tripathi says.

Gadgil recruited Bal Desai, 57, an advocate. Soon, 59-year-old IIT-B alumnus and metallurgist Ramamurthy came onboard. Things started off slowly. At the first seminar held in 2003, about 200 people came in response to the thousand invites sent out. The debate on threat to “internal security” remained academic and broke up over tea and samosas. “We don’t get bogged down in endless planning. We choose to act,” says Desai. In 2004, another seminar was held, but once again with similar results.

Undeterred, the FINS men kept meeting in municipal schools in suburbs, at a community hall in Dadar or at their homes. The retirees brought with them biscuits or vada pav and over several cups of tea discussed what the babus in Delhi were doing wrong. And then came a seminar that changed everything.

“The government spoke of signing a nuclear deal with the US and FINS decided to act once again,” asserts Ramamurthy. A seminar was called in July 2006 where former Atomic Energy Commission head Homi Sethna said it would be “better for India to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) than the deal that the US was selling”.
“Not surprisingly, our own people did not even hear Sethna but two days later Condoleeza Rice reacted saying that India would never be allowed to join the NPT,” says Tripathi. The media realised all was not well with the deal, gush FINS members. “A debate had erupted and we smiled,” says a soft-spoken Desai.

The group took the help of retired nuclear scientists to print a pamphlet that decoded the knotty and complex Indo-US nuclear agreement. The pamphlet was posted to members of parliament. “The quality of debate in the Lok Sabha went up several notches as MPs quoted data we supplied,” says Tripathi. Scarfing down biscuits, the old men maintain they are not influential. Instead, they say, they feel like cartoonist R K Laxman’s Common Man. The ‘youngster’ of the group, 35-year-old Vineet Goenka, chips in, “Had I met these men 15 years ago I would have given my life for what they stand for.” The old men beam with joy. They understand the battle is not just theirs now.

This Story was published in The Times of India