Military & Aerospace

Indian Military Leadership needs a relook?
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Issue Book Excerpt: India\'s War since Independence | Date : 03 Mar , 2014

General SHFJ Manekshaw, MC, with the citizens of Bangladesh at Khulna in 1971.

Till the liberation of Bangladesh, India never had a military victory in the previous ten centuries. Indian history is replete with repeated defeats, humiliations and subjugation by more enterprising invaders. Invariably, the Indian forces deployed in successive battles were numerically superior to the invaders, but despite that they never won. As a result the country remained under foreign rule, shackled for years in slavery. Against this background, Bhutto once remarked in one of his characteristic postures of bellicosity: “India should not forget centuries of her history.”

Why did India lose? Firstly, there was a lot of infighting which did not enable it to put up a united front against the invader. Secondly, Indian military leadership was always outwitted by the invader’s superior tactics and ability to manoeuvre. The Indians were committed to orthodoxy, while the invaders always brought about the unexpected in battle, and this swayed the fortunes of war in their favour. Thirdly, the Indians lacked staying power, which often turns apparently lost battles into victories. The invaders lasted a little longer to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Since independence, India has seen three conflicts with Pakistan and one with China. Against Pakistan all three wars ended in stalemate, while India was humiliated by China. Within our short span as a free nation the Indian military leadership failed to bring these wars to a successful conclusion. Inconclusive wars have led to others, and will go on doing so till some decision is reached in battle with Pakistan.

Indian military leadership was always outwitted by the invaders superior tactics and ability to manoeuvre. It must be realised that if our political and economic leadership fails it can be replaced by the processes of democracy. But if our military leadership fails this results in defeat and humiliation. The difference between defeat and victory in battle is that between honour and insufferable dishonour, and there is no middle meeting ground between the two. It becomes imperative therefore for a nation to seek such military leadership as brings victory in battle.

In old wars of the type of World Wars I and II there was sufficient time for the problem of military leadership to sort itself out. It was found that the hierarchy created by the unsatisfactory peacetime selection system proved incapable of handling problems of any magnitude that arose in the crisis of war. Its members were generally replaced by more progressive leaders as the war progressed. In the end, the fittest survived and brought about the much-sought-after victory.

The outmoded selection system was thrown overboard in war as performance in battle became the sole criterion for advancement. When things went wrong, heads rolled ruthlessly. As a result, by the end of the war, the adversaries had the best available leaders in battle. Unfortunately, in the context of present-day short wars, it cannot be left to war to sort out the leadership problem.

In view of the intensity of war and the tight time schedules, usually those in the saddle ride the horse all the way. So if our initial placing is poor the result is disaster. No country, much less India, can afford to take this risk. It therefore becomes necessary for the very best available military talent to be kept at the top all the time to be ready instantly for coping with short wars. But where and how do we find such leaders?

In a talk Manekshaw once said: “You can import the very best of weaponry and equipment, but you cannot import leadership.” What he meant was that the conduct of war is a serious business and needed dedicated professional soldiers at all levels to run it. This business cannot be left to a collection of incompetent and servile individuals who find their way to the top for considerations other than professional and genuine national interests. It is essential that avenues for higher command for such incompetent individuals should be barred by foolprocf systems of elimination and judicious means of selection.

Within our short span as a free nation the Indian military leadership failed to bring these wars to a successful conclusion. The services require three distinct levels of leadership. The first is the level of execution, which is confined to the unit command level. This is really a functional level, where platoon, company and unit commanders are in close touch with men and equipment, and it is on their performance in battle that the fate of an operational plan depends. This level calls for a sound-professional knowledge of weapons and skill in handling them, use of tactical ground and battle drills.

On the leadership side, a personal style which motivates a group to follow their commander in the face of death is required. Precept and example in facing the stresses and strains of crises, especially in physical courage and manpower management, assume great importance. The will to stick it out when things go wrong is necessary, and so is initiative, but at this level it is more essential to obey implicitly than to think for oneself.

Promotion up to this level is by a selection board based on annual confidential reports. Unless there are some disciplinary grounds, every officer should hope to make a unit commander or at least gain a lieutenant colonel’s rank. Most gallantry awards are won up to this level. But excellence in performance or winning awards does not automatically entitle an officer to aspire for higher rank. In World Wars I and II some of the best commanding officers never made brigadier ran. Promotion depends on potential and not just demonstrated performance. In the Indian Army decorations have paved the way for quite a few to attain higher command. Kaul suddenly called for replacement of the divisional and brigade commanders in NEFA after the initial debacle against the Chinese in the battle of Namka Chu. He bid for highly decorated soldiers, and the result was equally disastrous. The Indian formations ran helter skelter without giving the enemy a fight.

Little did Kaul realise that these officers were decorated as company or battalion commanders, and their level of competence ended there. As formation commanders, they had no concept of battle and amply proved that the qualities of leadership required at a higher level are quite different from those at the execution or functional level. The level between subaltern and lieutenant colonel is a nursery for higher command. At this stage, the officer is professionally educated and given an opportunity to handle responsibility appropriate to his rank and experience, and even beyond if found suitable. The young officer must go through a series of career courses of his own arm in his first five years of service so as to enhance his utility in handling subunits of the arm. More promising ones graduate to all arms courses, where an officer is made aware how his own arms, functions dovetail with others in battle. This knowledge enables him to seek the support of other arms and to assess the quantity and mode of such support in a particular situation.

It therefore becomes necessary for the very best available military talent to be kept at the top all the time to be ready instantly for coping with short wars. In the first ten years of his service, an officer has in addition to pass promotion examinations at various stages to entitle him to rise to the rank of captain or major. In the process of an officer’s professional education, the Defence Services Staff College course assumes great importance as it is there that he gains knowledge of inter-service cooperation besides learning staff duties and the logistic aspect of handling formations in war. Vacancies in each course are limited, and to give a chance only to the deserving a yearly competitive examination is held in which the first 20 or so vacancies are allotted on merit and the remainder by nomination from among qualified candidates. The system is a copy of that followed in most Western armies.

This method was satisfactory so long as the Indian Army followed it in letter and spirit. It gave a fair chance to candidates, in that the deserving secured a place through merit and there was no heart-burning in any quarter. It also gave the right to the authorities to nominate trainees on the basis of any criteria they deemed fit. Since these criteria were not made public, it gave leverage to the authorities and some room for manipulation. This was however accepted as a fair system as nomination had to be made from only those candidates who had qualified fully in-the competitive examination.

Sometime in 1963, Bewoor, on taking over as Director of Military Training, realised that by this method a greater percentage of officers belonging to other arms were securing vacancies in fair competition compared with infantry officers. He wanted to control the entry of other arms to the Staff College and make it easier for infantry officers to do so, albeit with artificial propping. He argued that if the avenues for qualifying for higher command were not blocked at this stage, a predominant number of non-infantry officers would in the. long run command infantry formations. He felt this should not be allowed in an army in which infantry predominated.

Since these criteria were not made public, it gave leverage to the authorities and some room for manipulation. This was however accepted as a fair system as nomination had to be made from only those candidates who had qualified fully in-the competitive examination.

To achieve this, he argued that the poor infantry officer remained on picquets perched on hilltops for two or three years in inhospitable areas without electricity and facilities for serious studies. As such, the infantry officer deserved consideration for his inherent inability to compete with officers of other arms in open competition. But the real problem lay elsewhere. Other arms officers, to learn their job of supporting infantry and armour, had to know the detailed characteristics of infantry weapons and their employment. For instance, an artillery battery commander, a major, has to deal with infantry problems at the battalion level with his OC, a lieutenant colonel, while a regimental commander has to deal with a commander at the brigade level, that is one level higher at each rank.

Thus the vision of an officer of another arm stretches beyond his own sub-unit to a higher plane of larger units and formations. By virtue of constantly working with infantry, the officers of other arms understand the handling of combined combat groups, comprising all arms, better than an infantry officer, whose vision never stretches beyond his immediate surroundings and thinking not beyond the range of small arms, which is very little. Not lack of facilities but just lack of comparative competence marred an infantry officer’s chances.

Unfortunately, Bewoor carried the Chief and some overzealous Army commanders with him, and it was decided ill advisedly that opportunities would be afforded to infantry officers by reserving Staff College vacancies on the basis of the overall numerical strength of the infantry. This virtually equated the infantry with the backward classes needing protection under the Indian Constitution.

This gained cheap popularity for self-appointed protagonists of the infantry, but it eventually did great harm to the service. It denied the Army and the nation the services of the best talent they could throw up. By giving unfair advantage to the infantry it blocked the career prospects of brighter officers of other arms.

This was gross injustice both to these officers and to the nation. The article of the Constitution promising “equal opportunities for all” was killed by Bewoor and his kind so far as the Army was concerned without the so-called custodians of our fundamental rights, the politicians, knowing anything about it. This was the start of professional parochialism in the Army.

In a talk Manekshaw once said: “You can import the very best of weaponry and equipment, but you cannot import leadership.” In the first 18 years or so of service, up to the rank of lieutenant colonel, an officer is required to undertake tenures away from regimental duties on staff and extra-regimental employment. This practice allows him to have a balanced experience of both regimental and staff duties, widens his outlook in tackling the problems of all arms and services much above the level of his normal spheres in units, and provides firsthand contact with officers outside his regiment.

This system is based on British Army practice and is on the whole better than the erstwhile German general staff system under which officers specialised in staff duties and, being brighter than the normal run of regimental officers, became pundits, an elite, but with a difference in that in the German Army the general staff shared in decision-making and as such also in the results of such decisions.

In the British Army, as also in our services, the staff helped the commanders in details, advised when asked, and issued orders for implementation of a commander’s plans and kept in touch with its execution. But the resultant output is entirely the responsibility of the commander. There are generally three graded staff appointments : Grade 3 for captains, Grade 2 for majors, and Grade 1 for lieutenant colonels.

These appointments embrace every branch of staff. For example, G Branch deals with intelligence, operations, training, weapons and equipment and staff duties, A branch deals with personnel problems, including welfare and discipline, Q Branch with quartering, supplies, movement of troops and equipment as also repair services. G Branch is considered superior as it comprises planners, while A and Q Branches implement their plans in matters relating to logistics administration and personnel.

It is customary to find the best brains for G and fit others in A and Q Branches in accordance with individual merit. The prize jobs in Grade 2 are brigade major, GSO 2 (Ops) of a division, and GSO 2 (Ops) in a corps or command headquaters, or in the Military Operations Directorate at Army Headquarters. This is so because at major’s rank an officer holding one of these appointments is able to handle problems firsthand at the level of a brigade, division, corps, command or army. This is a valuable experience, but the closer to troops the better. As such, the best staff job for a major would be that of brigade major. Little did Kaul realise that these officers were decorated as company or battalion commanders, and their level of competence ended there.

Similarly, in the rank of lieutenant colonel, the best staff appointment would be CSO 1 of a division. In various situations, a staff officer sees the impact of personalities and has an opportunity to observe varied styles of personal command. But once he has completed these staff tenures successfully, no senior has the right to say that such an officer has no concept of handling a brigade or a division in the field. He may not be able to do so in practice, but he cannot be said to lack knowledge of the concept.

Since these jobs are stepping stones to higher command, there should be a great degree of selectivity in this regard. The criterion for efficiency both in the present and future should be individual merit alone, without dragging in personal prejudice or arms discrimination. This has not been the case in our Army. There has been a deliberate attempt to tilt selection in favour of the infantry officer, thus restricting the entry to such promising appointments of officers belonging to other arms, especially in Grade 1.

So far as processing for higher command is concerned, this has led to “garbage in garbage out.” If low-grade officers fill criteria appointments it is inevitable that the higher command will necessarily belong to mediocrity. Here, unknown to the politician, the Army brass has harmed the interests of posterity for selfish motives.

Up to the rank of lieutenant colonel each officer reveals an individual style of leadership. In the Indian environment, this style is three-cornered. The first is popularity-oriented, in that the main concern is to win the goodwill of seniors, equals and subordinates, in that order. The second is mission-oriented, in that the successful execution of allotted tasks becomes the first concern and anything else comes later. The third is personal-interest-oriented, in that effort is directed to seeing that the maximum personal benefit is derived from the job in hand. In the Indian Army, which is essentially career-oriented, the style of leadership has gravitated towards personal interest and popularity rather than towards mission accomplishment.

There is a valid reason for this. In their selections, the powers that be have resorted to subjective than objective assessment in that the question selection boards commonly ask is: “Is there anything against him?” The Indian Army never excuses a mistake. Anybody with anything against him is professionally slaughtered, mercilessly, not caring that if anybody undertakes to do 20 things a couple of them are bound to go wrong. As for the one who does not attempt anything, how can he make a mistake? So long as mistakes are in genuine good faith and do not involve moral turpitude, credit should go to the person who tries rather than to the one who shies away from the problem in hand.

I remember three brigadiers who were of the same seniority. One was brilliant and upright, and as DWE Army Headquarters brought to the notice of Government, over the heads of his incompetent bosses, the need for an immediate look at long–term reequipping policy. The second was an honest but average worker who commanded his formation well and undertook difficult logistic tasks set by the administrative staff. The third took pains to leave problems pending and sought to meet the higher brass on the social plane rather than in the course of his work. Of the three the indecisive one became a divisional commander and the first and forward-looking officer was sent on premature retirement. The third was sacked when the Chinese struck in 1962. But wars do not come every day to find people out. Imagine a stream of such negative personalities finding places at the top.

The next crucial rank is brigadier, because generals are made out of brigadiers. A brigadier is supposed to handle formations of his or other arms in conjunction with a combination of units and formations of arms other than his own. An infantry brigade commander has to coordinate the employment of supporting arms like armour and artillery and administrative services to accomplish his mission. The armoured brigade commander has to do likewise with infantry and artillery. An artillery brigade commander, it may be safely said, cannot function unless he understands and coordinates his effort with infantry and armour. As for Signals and Engineers, they function hand in hand, although not to the same extent. In the British Army, when an officer was promoted full colonel or above he was brought on the general list and at the same time taken off his regimental list. He was not allowed to wear his regimental buttons, badges or lanyard. He wore the general service insignia instead. The aim was to bring home the fact that in the higher ranks an individual rises above parochial barriers and belongs to the Army as a whole. As such, his interests and actions should embrace the Army and not be confined to his parent regiment. Unfortunately, this did not happen in the Indian Army. Instead, petty regimentalism grew enormously, abetted or contrived by those in power. A vulgar display of regimental loyalties became the fashion among our general officers.

Even Gen Kaul, who had served in the Rajputana Rifles only a few months on commissioning, displayed his loyalty to his regiment blatantly. Then the various colonels of regiment, mostly general officers, started openly patronising their respective units. Since at the time of Indianisation most KCIOs, who inherited power, were either infantry or cavalry officers, they sowed the seed of divisive tendencies by creating infantry and armour lobbies for sharing power. Since in peace power lay in dispensing favours and promotions, a higher rank became something to be shared on the basis of groupism.

It is ironical that an armour officer could command infantry formations, but not so an artillery officer. Even officers who had been successful brigade majors of infantry units and GSO I of infantry divisions in war were denied the command of infantry formations in the first instance.

Since Artillery, Engineers and Signals had officers of comparatively lower seniority, these arms did not count, to the extent that Artillery and Signals had to appoint armour and infantry generals as their colonel commandants only to seek a share of their patronage. Divisive tendencies are part of our national character and, taking a cue from history, these flourish in the Indian Army down to regimental groups. Unfortunately, taking a cue from political trends, an undercurrent of prejudice relating to state and community affinities also developed. But more about this later.

When the time came to select commanders of formations, involving promotions from the rank of lieutenant colonel to brigadier, higher brass, dominated by infantry and armour, again favoured their own arms and insisted that artillery officers should command artillery brigades first before becoming eligible for infantry brigades. It is ironical that an armour officer could command infantry formations, but not so an artillery officer. Even officers who had been successful brigade majors of infantry units and GSO I of infantry divisions in war were denied the command of infantry formations in the first instance.

This was contrary to all criteria observed in any army. The only regular division in the British Army at the time was commanded by a signals officer. This procedure was introduced in the Indian Army although it was grossly unfair to other arms officers as by the time they finished two years tenure with their artillery or engineer brigades to qualify for infantry formations their infantry colleagues had already completed their command to go over to staff appointments. The other arms officers were thus retarded two years by this bias on the part of the authorities towards infantry officers.

At the rank of brigadier, an officer handles assigned tasks at the directional level, coordinating the activities of the various agencies involved, controlling their execution, carrying out periodical reviews of progress, and making changes to eliminate problems. This mainly involves handling resources in terms of manpower, material and time at close quarters. In peace, this training for war and general upkeep of cantonment facilities, including future planning, and in war it is achieving tactical aims fitting overall strategy.

This gained cheap popularity for self-appointed protagonists of the infantry, but it eventually did great harm to the service. At this level, the leadership qualities of knowledge, initiative, will power and courage, both physical and moral, come into play, and the officer’s performance becomes achievement-oriented to a noticeable degree. Results start showing and objective assessment may be made of his performance in tangible form. Besides man management and barrack routine, he must at this level be able to look ahead, diagnose problems and seek a solution for them without undue guidance and supervision. Since the next war is never like the last looking forward, both in planning and execution, becomes imperative, and paucity of resources in Indian conditions makes innovation compulsory. He should be able to look ahead, innovate and be goal-oriented.

A brigadier has to function under superiors much older than himself, for the age differential between him and his army commander and divisional commander may be anything between ten and six years. There is a gap, not only in age, but also in thinking. Age is cautious, conventional and clings desperately to the past, while youth dares and seeks an opportunity to shed the past to find a new future. Generally, a brigadier has to function under these constraints and has to chart his own course. He may be a conformist so as not to rock the boat and to aspire for promotion, or on the other hand he may adopt a stance of respectful independence, speaking his mind, following the dictates of conscience and yet amenable to sensible suggestions from all quarters. Or he may show outright defiance within the limits of service discipline norms. Career-conscious as Indians are, the majority seek security in going along with the current.

To assess the suitability of brigadiers for the rank of major general, it is incumbent to get three-tiered favourable recommendations. Divisional, corps and army commanders have to approve even before the name of an officer is put on the panel for consideration by the selection board, consisting of Army commanders and principal staff officers. Under the stringent criteria for selection a poor brigadier, even if he has any spirit to resist conformity, has to become a yesman to please his three successive superiors, at times of different natures, if he wishes to prosper.

A search starts to find ways of pleasing the boss, and at times his wife even more. Much research goes into analysing the boss’s weaknesses, the brand of whisky he drinks, his food habits, his taste in clothes, his social likes and dislikes, and his views on matters professional and non-professional. And this the poor brigadier has to do in respect of three or four bosses, and by the time this experience ends he has become a polished sycophant and has lost his personality, if he had any. It is well known that careers are made in the Indian Army with free drinks and dinners and not in the field.

In the Indian Army, which is essentially career-oriented, the style of leadership has gravitated towards personal interest and popularity rather than towards mission accomplishment. There are a few exceptions, when an honest worker with merit comes up, but by the time he reaches the top he is so bruised by knocks that the fight in him is dissipated. This is sad but true, as evidenced by the performance of brigadiers in the 1965 conflict. Of some 24 brigadiers in contact, about ten were sacked for inept handling of battle by the same superiors who had reported favourably on them in peace. Manekshaw forbade outright sacking in the 1971 conflict as a policy so as not to cause demoralisation. Otherwise, there would have been quite a few dismissals. Our one-sided and subjective systems have failed to throw up the right sort of leaders, and very few are confident that these systems are satisfactory.

As the pyramid approaches the top, cut-throat competition gets into swing at top speed, particularly when it comes to promotion to major general and above. Horse trading starts among members of the selection board based on personal likings, regimental, arms and ethnic loyalties, and merit is thrown overboard on some excuse or other. An Army Commander, who because of political expediency later rose to be Chief of Army Staff, once noted about a deserving officer that he had no concept of handling a division, only to do him down through personal prejudice. The officer had by then 28 years of service only with units and formations up to divisional level. He had been a battery commander, second in command, unit commander, commander of an artillery brigade and of an infantry brigade, a brigade major, and a GSO I of a division in battle.

On the other hand, the Army commander had only commanded a sector, a brigade in a static role on the ceasefire line, and a division in peace location. Yet our systems made him the arbiter of that officer’s career. According to the existing rules, it was incumbent on him to communicate these adverse remarks to the officer. But he was so afraid of facing the truth that he deliberately did not carry out this obligation simply because every time he visited the officer’s brigade he praised his training, adding that he was “not only interested but educated.” After stabbing this officer in the back he was so lacking in character that he did not have the moral courage to face him squarely.

Although the Chief only presides over the board and has no vote, this collection of principal staff officers and Army commanders generally toe the line, and in the end it becomes a one-man show. Whatever the Chief desires goes, with minor accommodation here and there.

In actuality, the bureaucrat who carries out the scrutiny on behalf of the ministry acts more as an auditor rather than an impartial assessor of merit.

In principle, the Ministry of Defence checks the recommendations of selection boards, and the Raksha Mantralaya is supposed to approve promotions and appointments of senior ranks after due scrutiny so as to ensure fairplay. In actuality, the bureaucrat who carries out the scrutiny on behalf of the ministry acts more as an auditor rather than an impartial assessor of merit. The reasons are twofold: firstly, by virtue of the background from which they are drawn for their jobs they have no knowledge of an officer’s professional reputation in the service, and for them the assessment is entirely impersonal, and more to see that the norms laid down are technically adhered to.

For instance, in that particular officer’s case, the only thing that worried the bureaucrat concerned was that he should have been recommended by his superiors at all levels in a row. Since there was a technical no from the Army commander, this also meant no from the audit angle. Usually, these technical objections are met at the time of preparing the board’s proceedings, leaving very little for the bureaucrat to detect. Secondly, the bureaucrat carries out his work in addition to routine and other forward planning. For him, it is only an additional load, and as long as the people in whom he or his political bosses are interested are not affected he could not care less.

Selection is subjective, and this can only be remedied if it becomes more performance-oriented and opens avenues for men of achievement. This achievement may be in the form of success in battle, in the evolution of military thought, economy achieved in logistics, successful conclusion of projects, raising and training new formations, and the introduction of new ideas and equipment which may have helped in the overall enhancement of the Army’s battle efficiency. On the other hand, our systems have penalised the leaders of crisis on some flimsy excuse or the other.

Gen Kalwant Singh organised the Jammu and Kashmir operational theatre from scratch with no, or minimal, infrastructure and conducted operations there with such great energy and dispatch that the Pakistani raiders were hurled back from sensitive areas. He set the theatre on such a firm footing that its transformation later into a corps zone was easy. Yet, when his turn for promotion came he was passed over by juniors who had nothing to show except some “sergeant majoring” in otherwise peaceful cantonments.

Since in peace power lay in dispensing favours and promotions, a higher rank became something to be shared on the basis of groupism.

Another case in point is that of Brig Pritam Singh, commonly known as and virtually worshipped by the local populace as the saviour of Poonch. That indomitable spirit defied its capture against heavy odds with a surrounded garrison with minimal resources. Even for food, he had to raid Pakistani-held territory to harvest grain. Instead of being honoured by the nation, he was court-martialled on a trivial charge of theft of a carpet from the Poonch palace.

Baba Mehar Singh, the best combat pilot of his times, enterprisingly used Dakotas as bombers, flew the first aircraft to Leh, and supplied the Poonch garrison under fire at night without adequate navigational aids. He personally led each mission and won the esteem of the ground force. In fact, his name became a legend, yet he had to resign his commission under unpalatable pressures.

In short, it appears there has been a deliberate attempt to destroy the image of crisis leadership. Much nearer in time, the nation bestowed a signal honour on Manekshaw by elevating him to the rank of field marshal and retaining him in active service to bring about victory, our first in a thousand years. The nation praised him sky high, and then the politician fouled his image by mudslinging in government-controlled propaganda media. He has been sent to oblivion and the services of this remarkable man remain unused even today. Of the three the indecisive one became a divisional commander and the first and forward-looking officer was sent on premature retirement. The third was sacked when the Chinese struck in 1962.

Perhaps this treatment was induced by the dormant fear of a military takeover in the minds of those in political power, but the net outcome was that this stifled ambition in the minds of thousands of young Indians. Ironically, achievement in the field became a hurdle in promoting one’s military career, infighting and jealousy among generals may have strengthened the politician’s hands, but this was a grave injustice to posterity. It was amply evidenced in the debacle at Thagla when the Chinese struck in 1962. Non-entities like Niranjan Prasad, Umrao Singh and Kaul, brought to the fore by our inept systems, compounded an ineffaceable humiliation for the nation. Nehru died trying to live it down.

The Henderson Brooks Enquiry, referring to the capacity of our commanders, says by and large that the general standard of junior officers was fair, but at the higher level shortcomings became more apparent. Although only a comparatively small number of troops–about 24,000—were actually involved in fighting the Chinese, the standard of leadership was no better elsewhere. To compound it further, we inducted two old performers at the time of the Chinese invasion to perform once again in the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1965.

Niranjan Prasad, then in command of 15 Infantry Division, led the advance to Lahore and proved so inept in battle that he was removed from command a day or two after the start of operations.

His replacement was Maj Gen Mohinder Singh, whom the pundits had relegated to a desk job in Army Headquarters on the ground that he was unfit to command a division. In battle, Mohinder Singh already holder of the Military Cross, won the much-merited Maha Vir Chakra and proved himself a leader in crisis. But our systems had denied him a divisional command in peace.

On a rough analysis, it appears that out of 24 brigadiers committed in battle in the 1965 war ten were sacked for incompetence in battle and only four of the rest earned command of a division. One of those four was exposed in the conflict of 1971, another left the service at his own request, a third retired, and the fourth was approved for promotion only on review despite his good performance in Bangladesh. One became an Army commander after meeting initial difficulties with the authorities, but he was exceptionally brilliant and patriotic and rose despite prevailing prejudices. Perhaps he was lucky to serve close to Manekshaw, who valued his worth. The next crucial rank is brigadier, because generals are made out of brigadiers.

Out of 11 divisional commanders committed in battle in 1965, only three became corps commanders, and out of these, two did comparatively poorly and were the only ones not decorated. This is indicative of their performance. And those who were decorated and made much of by our nation were unceremoniously wasted out. Such was the efficiency of our systems.

In 1971, out of 21 divisional commanders committed in battle, eight were brigadiers in 1965. Of them only four were committed in battle against Pakistan and two won distinction with MVC. The remaining 13 were lieutenant colonels in 1965, and none of them was committed in battle either as an officer commanding a unit or operational staff of a division. They were a collection of untried officers, and those who had acquitted themselves well in the earlier conflict had fallen victim to our systems.

After the 1971 conflict, when the time came for appointments, two corps commanders who had lost the vital territories of Chhamb and the Hussainiwala enclave and a third with nothing to show in his favour were elevated as Army commanders, while the best field corps commander and the man mainly responsible for the fall of Dacca was sidetracked in promotion and finally retired. Let us hope history will not ignore this man and his contribution to making it possible for India to find a place as a military power of consequence. Divisive tendencies are part of our national character and, taking a cue from history, these flourish in the Indian Army down to regimental groups.

The five corps commanders appointed after the conflict of 1971 were staff officers. None of them had commanded a division or brigade in war. Pcrhaps they did not get the opportunity and one or two may be good even in a crisis, but they were never put to the test. Where was our leadership, which had proved itself in crisis sometime or the other?

Has anybody in our military hierarchy contributed to modern military thought with the exception of Gen Bhagat? He wrote two books which brought out the military aspect of the problems faced by developing countries in Asia and elsewhere. In service, he was the only soldier of any stature who questioned the efficacy of World War II concepts in the context of short, intense wars and advocated tailoring plans and concepts to meet political requirements.

He stood for increasing military capability by streamlining infantry, heavy and defence-oriented organisations to achieve hard hitting power. He challenged the existing systems of promotions and appointments and advocated meeting halfway the aspirations of the rank and file in the way of accommodation and other amenities of life. He changed the entire old koi hai concept of man management and gave it a humane approach. Our systems and political expediency wasted him out, and this was a national loss.

Another officer who made a significant contribution to military literature was Maj Gen D.K. Palit. He started writing as a major and kept up his output of military literature throughout. Even today, he adds every year to some compilation or other, and as military correspondent of the Hindustan Times, New Delhi, keeps public opinion well informed. Gen Chaudhuri wrote a book or two, and still writes as a military correspondent, but his contributions are still wedded to Western thought and have no bearing on the realities of the times.

How is it that for the last 27 years we have not been able to find solutions to our military problems? The reasons are simple: first, we have not encouraged new thought; secondly, whenever a new thought raised its head we have stifled it with a heavy hand; and thirdly, our generals have been busy promoting their own interests rather than those of the nation. Intoxicated with the power to bestow favours in the way of postings and promotions, the military higher command has instilled a sense of insecurity among honest, genuine officers and paved the way for sycophancy to flourish. The moral courage of our officers has been destroyed and buried deep by the system.

So what do we do to remedy this situation? Put simply, the serious business of making war cannot be left to soldiers. But this business cannot also be left to the politician or the bureaucrat. All three have made a mess of it. This is reflected in the selection of service chiefs, especially in the Army. The predominant service, the Army, can secure decisions in wars on the Indian sub-continent and sets the pace. As such this discussion has been confined to it.

The other arms officers were thus retarded two years by this bias on the part of the authorities towards infantry officers.

From the selection of chiefs, it is apparent that former governments had no intention of increasing the country’s military capability. They systematically thwarted its development by denial of timely funds and good leadership.

From the time Ayub Khan seized power in Pakistan in a military coup in October 1958, our politicians have feared such an eventuality in India. To safeguard his hold on power, the politician, abetted by the civil servant, has been deliberately inflicting ineffective chiefs on the Army and interrupting continuity at the apex by cutting short their tenure. The world’s third largest standing army deserves the leadership of men of stature, vision, patriotic zeal and courage — stature to command the professional respect of 850,000 officers and men, vision to forecast Army requirements for the next decade or so, patriotic zeal to serve the interests of the nation and not merely of government, and the courage to stand up to all and sundry who obstruct the way to progress. And a father figure and big man who rises above the petty politics of groupism in whatever shape it raises its head.

At the time of Indianisation, the appointment of Gen Cariappa, the seniormost serving officer, as the first Chief and that of Gen Maharaj Rajendra Sinhji as his successor was understandable. These appointments were made to establish stability. But bringing in Srinagesh for a short tenure of two years was uncalled for and resulted in perpetuating stagnation. Then Nehru brought in the popular Thimayya, a big man with a charismatic personality who evoked admiration all around. But in the wake of the military coup in Pakistan Nehru soon realised he had made a mistake. Advisers close to the political power soon forced him to redress the mistake by placing a political general, B.M. Kaul, in a position of power. Between them, Kaul and Krishna Menon hoped to neutralise Thimayya and his following in the Army.

Infighting in the higher command led to Thimayya’s resignation, which he later withdrew at Nehru’s bidding. The rest of his tenure was totally ineffective, and the crucial time required to meet the emerging Chinese threat was frittered away. Thimayya’s replacement by the puppet Thapar is a well-known story which ended in the debacle at Thagla. Thapar resigned, ostensibly for reasons of personal health, but actually it was the ill health of the services which worried the nation in its humiliation. The government turned to Gen Chaudhuri as a saviour. Ironically, it had earlier decided to dispense with his services in a few weeks. Nehru had to eat humble pie by calling on him to take over from Thapar.

War with China had suddenly changed the criteria for selecting a Chief. Making use of military aid and the awareness of the nation that military power is necessary to further a country’s political aims, Chaudhuri got a free hand to organise the planned growth of India’s military capability. The re-organisation, re-equipping and general revamping of wornout systems went ahead rapidly, and the Army was barely ready when Pakistan made an armed intrusion in the Rann of Kutch, which culminated in the conflict of 1965. Although the conflict was not conclusive, India was able to achieve moral ascendancy at the end of it.

Since the next war is never like the last looking forward, both in planning and execution, becomes imperative, and paucity of resources in Indian conditions makes innovation compulsory. Chaudhuri was able to sell the line that his strategy aimed at attrition and not capture of territory. Pleased with a little easing of pressure on the diplomatic front, the politician decided to cut the tenure of office of the service chiefs from four to three years and brought Kumaramangalam to succeed Chaudhuri. This decision appears to have been made to appease the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government in Madras and to repay Kumaramangalam’s father, Dr P. Subbaroyan, for his services to the Congress Party. Kumaramangalam was a weak man and idled away his time as Chief. Unfortunately, in that period, he did much harm through his backward policies. His retirement saw the last of the KCIOs and this augured well for the Army, which was breaking away from the slavish British past. These gentlemen had tried to cling with a convert’s zeal to this past.

Selection of Kumaramangalam’s successor was a ticklish issue as much political wrangling went on behind the scenes. But eventually Mrs Gandhi, emboldened by her triumph in the power tussle in the Congress Party, made the wise decision of bringing in Manekshaw as the next Chief despite advice to the contrary. A strong and popular figure, he set out at his characteristic fast pace to reshape the Army to face the potential threats to the country’s security with enhanced capability. He concentrated on improving the living conditions of his men with almost a crusader’s zeal to make up for almost two decades of neglect with a series of crash programmes.

He insisted on getting finances to give the jawans and their families accommodation befitting the sacrifices they made in service to the nation. His methods proved irksome to the political bosses, the bureaucracy and his colleagues, who were not used to lightning decisions and tenacious insistence on their implementation. They were not mentally attuned to a Chief who dictated rather than acquiesced like most of his predecessors.

The gathering storm which culminated in the 1971 conflict also helped him get what he wanted. It is to his credit that the Indian Army won a decisive victory in Bangladesh. The conduct of the campaign won admiration both internationally as well as at home. In fact, his tenure may be termed a second landmark in the Army’s history after that of Auchinleck. Yet the politicians were reluctant to extend his tenure for the period needed to conduct the conflict and the postwar negotiations. Indeterminate tenure at the pleasure of the President was an abnormal way of retaining his services, but it smacked of the political indecision in vital areas embracing national defence. Manekshaw was rightfully given a signal honour by a grateful nation when he received the rank of Field Marshal.

Backed by a powerful political lobby, Bewoor took over as the great man’s successor. His appointment was the reaction of politicians to the retiring chief’s strong and effective term. Bewoor’s promotion was arranged in a very shabby manner. Arbitrarily, he was given successive extensions so that he could outlast Manekshaw’s tenure. Normally Bewoor would have been wasted out long before the vacancy arose. As Chief he did more for himself than for the Army. Through a clever manoeuvre, he sought an extension of his tenure and saw a good man in Bhagat kept out. This was treachery to the Army, and the worst part of it was that the politician and the bureaucrat were partners in this. The credibility of the politician in taking decisions in the interest of the service sagged, and also of the soldier’s playing a fair game. Beworshad definitely let down his colleagues. Age is cautious, conventional and clings desperately to the past, while youth dares and seeks an opportunity to shed the past to find a new future.

It was not the right of the next seniormost officer, Bewoor, to claim to succeed Manekshaw, and once he had succeeded there was no pressing emergency to perpetuate his infliction as Chief beyond superannuation in the national interest. This was anti-national and an imprudent waste of an ideal leader with positive achievements to his credit to overlook Bhagat, a jawans’ hero, and show preference to Bewoor. In his tenure Bewoor backtracked on the road to progress so painstakingly paved by Manekshaw. The main reason for such politically expedient selection by the party in power is the smug attitude of the nation towards defence matters in peace. So long as hostile armies are on their side of the border and God’s in his heaven, it is commonly believed that all is right with the world as the average citizen does not know that defence preparations are a continuous process which need zealous nourishing in peace. In India, the only concerned parties seem to be the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, whose economy is harmed in each conflict through loss of territory, disturbance of population and the resultant upheaval. As they are also the states which provide most of the manpower for the Army, families suffer through losing their bread winters and/or their maiming in the wake of war.

Against the Chinese along the Indo-Tibet border, the territory was inhospitably difficult and the population involved so small that this does not apply in any appreciable degree to the northern border. Like the British, the Government of free India has kept defence carefully outside the public gaze on the pretext of secrecy. The British had their own understandable reasons as a colonial power, but this hush-hush attitude of the Indian Government is hardly tenable as modern wars tower total in nature and involve every sphere of national life. Defence matters are much too vital to be entrusted to a single vested interest like that of a one-party government.

How is it that the Henderson Brooks report still remains buried in government archives? Only some extracts were made available to the public…

How is it that the Henderson Brooks report still remains buried in government archives? Only some extracts were made available to the public, indicating the remedial action proposed to be carried out, by the then Defence Minister, Y.B. Chavan. Over 15 years have elapsed since then and the context in which the report was prepared has changed considerably, and yet it continues in cold storage. Although excerpts from it have appeared in Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War it remains a well-guarded secret in India.

How is it that no critical analysis of the wars of 1965 and 1971, diagnosing the shortcomings in command, organisation, equipment, strategy and tactics has come out? All the books which flooded the market immediately after these wars have been written in laudatory terms of our achievements. They have been one-sided and meant more to cash in on the nation’s newly aroused enthusiasm to effect larger sales than to learn lessons objectively. It appears that the report was more desired to cool the nation’s temper at that time rather than to derive any benefit in revamping our war machine. The cloak of secrecy perpetually draped around defence matters is not understood as foreign strategic studies both in Europe and the US contain more information than our Government tries to conceal.

The main reason for this is Government’s monopoly of the propaganda media, and through this its ability to tell the public what suits its policies. The only mass medium with some semblance of freedom to voice independent opinion is the Indian press, at least so far. But our writers and correspondents generally lack a defence background and cannot therefore comprehend the serious implications of official policies and a review of their implementation. A few writers like Inder Malhotra and Dilip Mukherjee give prominence to defence matters, but, alas, their observations and analyses have perforce to depend upon tutored briefing, as was evidenced in G.K. Reddy’s advocacy of an extension for Bewoor. It is well known in Army circles that a senior officer and a close relative of Reddy inspired the item in the hope of winning favour with his Chief.

In this regard, our retired and some forward-looking officers have failed the nation. None of them has made a significant contribution to this end. One or two found their way to membership of Parliament, but being the wrong choice they could achieve very little. One or two who turned military correspondents wasted their talent on the affairs of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) instead of looking nearer home. In the prevailing ignorance, the Government has from time to time been able to dish out doctored doses of defence information, as much as suited its interests. The most recent case in point is the justification for extending Bewoor’s tenure against all precedents. And not an eyelid batted at this wrong decision with serious long-term implications. Under the stringent criteria for selection a poor brigadier, even if he has any spirit to resist conformity, has to become a yesman to please his three successive superiors, at times of different natures, if he wishes to prosper.

The criteria for selection of a chief should be an aspirant’s integrity, both material and moral, achievement in times of crisis the nation faced in his period of service both in war and peace, his contribution towards military thought, reputed stature with the rank and file, sense of patriotism, and bigness of mind to rise above petty groupism in any form. It is not necessary to look for such men in seniority lists. In fact, it would be preferable to dig down low so as to ensure the selected person a reasonably long tenure, say four years, to execute policies with reasonable continuity.

Since the choice of such men cannot be left to the expedients of a single-party government, a cross-section of national opinion must actively participate in his selection. In the US, the appointment of Chief is confirmed by the senate, and party representatives get a chance to question and ascertain the credibility of the nominee in person. If such a step were introduced in India, it would be futile in view of the overwhelming majority of the ruling party.

To circumvent this snag, I suggest that a national defence council should be constituted with leading citizens from various walks of life and holding opposing points of view as members. But steps should be taken to make certain that the choice of members does not give an edge to the ruling party in one garb or another. Confirmation of the Chief and the appointment of commanders of field formations and Army commanders of general’s rank should be approved by subcommittees of the National Defence Council. Membership should be based on the nomination of representatives by political parties, commerce and industry, education, ex-servicemen, the press and other social sectors embracing all walks of national life. This broadbased representation would ensure the right men coming up to handle vital matters like defence. The argument offered against the proposal by stereotyped bureaucrats would probably be that this would encourage service officers to hobnob with civilians, including politicians. Since modern warfare is waged only to further political and economic ends, it would be beneficial to get the military to assimilate the essentials of these aims. The wars of today cannot be fought in isolation.

Postings and promotions of officers, subject to approval by Government in the higher ranks, is handled by the military secretary or equivalent under the service chief. This is too much power to place in the hands of one individual as it has been the experience in the past that dispensing favours based on personal likes and dislikes has led to all-round frustration, instilling a chilling sense of insecurity. The military secretary is supposed to look after the interests of officers and be the custodian of fairplay. In the last few years however, the trend among military secretaries has been to look after only their own interests. Two military secretaries were approved for promotion to the next higher rank despite their indifferent service record in command of troops. Obviously, they toed the line.

It would be preferable to bring the military secretary’s branch directly under the Defence Ministry, and such officers should be appointed to the job as do not have to revert to serve under the Chief. Either they retire from the appointment, or they get promoted after the Chief’s tenure is over. So browbeating by the Chief would be eliminated. The recommendations of the Chief will thus be considered on merit and not subjectively as at present.

The present system of assessment, based on annual confidential reports by an officer’s immediate superior and review by his superiors in the line, is one-sided as viewed from the top. This leads to conformism and subjectivity. To make the assessment more broadbased, the individual should at the same time be assessed by nominated juniors and equals with whom he has to deal in the course of his duties. The average which emerges from this three-cornered assessment would be as equal to an officer’s real value as humanly possible. Reporting by juniors and equals need not be made known to the candidate. It would be fun to confront some higher commanders in our services with the opinions their juniors hold about them.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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One thought on “Indian Military Leadership needs a relook?

  1. “…It would be fun to confront some higher commanders in our services about opinion about them….”
    Are you for real, Major General???
    - So are you in this for some sort of impish fun (very unbecoming of your rank) or was this article written in genuine inquisitive and critical spirit??
    – As a senior officer, you will be well aware that the Armed Forces do not exactly function in the principles of a country club management that you seem to be so vociferously espousing.
    - Very disappointed with this article – definitely not worthy of being hosted in this otherwise distinguished forum.

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