The National Defense Academy (NDA in short) at Khadakwasla is celebrating its Platinum Jubilee this year. The Academy is justifiably proud of its achievement of last 70 years when it has given several service chiefs and its alumni has gone on to serve with distinction during war and peace. The credit for creating this tri-service institution goes to the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his vision. It is amongst the very few such institutions giving joint training to future leaders of Army, Navy and the Airforce under one roof. But all institutions need introspection and rejuvenation, periodically, else hubris sets in and institutions deteriorate. There is a need to re-invent and reform to keep up with the changing times and fresh challenges.
The twin pillars of military leadership are physical fitness/ mental robustness and intellectual ability to take right decision in a complex situation with limited inputs. Decisions are time critical. Resilience to face hardship, deprivation and yet function at peak mental efficiency is the requirement of military leader.
On a cold December morning in December 1971, I found myself stranded across Ravi river in Pakistani territory while leading a recce patrol of six. In the thick and tall sarkanda grass terrain of Kasowal bulge, we found ourselves in midst of a tank harbour. My patrol was captured by the Pakistanis and I became a prisoner of war. As my hands were tied behind and I was led to a jeep to take me to Gujranwala where the Pakistani divisional headquarter was located, a Lieutenant of 34 Cavalry (ex Kharian) my escort asked me if I was a regular commissioned officer, on my answer in the affirmative he remarked that this is going to be like first term at the Academy! My instant reply was hope not that bad. After one year in Pak prison, facing interrogation, solitary confinement and worse, I can vouch today that the experience was nothing compared to what I (and many others) faced as a first termer in NDA. The first term ragging and brutal academy routine had prepared me well for this ordeal. Does anyone ever remember that newly coined American acronym PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)ever being used in Indian context!
It is thanks to my alma mater, NDA, that I could withstand the rigours and remain unaffected by the trauma.
Sadly, under some mistaken notion of ‘modernisation’ and greater emphasis on mental and less on physical, it seems that the Academy has diluted its standards. While the Staff must keep a watchful eye that no excesses are committed, ragging or toughening of cadets must not be ditched under mistaken notion of being politically correct. Nationwide there is this clamour against ragging in civil institutions and intervention of courts, this must not be blindly aped by the Academy. The purpose of toughening a cadet, mentally and physically, is a necessity of military profession. One hopes we strike a golden mean on this issue.
At no cost should academy lower its standards of physical fitness, both official and unofficial.
As a Cadet in NDA in the 1960s, one can vouch for the fact that the academy was one of the finest educational institutes in the country. The credit for this goes to the top-class faculty of civilian instructors. The first principal, Mr. Gibson, (was given a carte blanche by Nehru) who invited the best talent available in the country at that time. Lured by great service conditions (pay much above the then prevailing norms) and great living conditions, brilliant teachers educated in top universities joined the Academy. The newly independent country had very limited avenues at that time, the IITs were just being established, making the NDA a very attractive destination.
Over a period of time, NDA stopped attracting this kind of talent as more opportunities opened up elsewhere. Being basically an institute teaching undergrads, there was a problem of stagnation. In an ill thought move, the academy affiliated itself with a university. The earlier need-based course, that was a blend of natural and social sciences and arts, a division was created between arts and science (BA and BSc). The folly was compounded when the faculty recruitment was put at par with the other universities and placed under UGC (University Grants Commission) and UPSC. While there is no ‘reservation’ at the level of Cadet, this was brought in for the faculty. Soon, the NDA began to resemble other universities. The academic excellence took a back seat. As a resident of Pune and observer of NDA since 1986, I have noted the fall of standards. Most independent observers of the Academy will agree with this assessment.
The answer to this dilemma is to look for a solution in guest faculty. NDA should retain a core of permanent staff but engage the best teachers to take self-contained packages of various courses. Semester system, in vogue in many institutes of learning offer a model.
Pune, where the NDA is located, is a virtual educational hub or the Oxford of the East. There are numerous institutes of higher learning within Pune. Indian Institute of Science Education (ISSER) and research, is one such. Here selected 12th standard students, like at the NDA, are given grounding in basic sciences. A collaboration with ISSER as well as nearby IIT Mumbai, will enhance the academic excellence at NDA. Even if visiting faculty is instituted there would need to be greater study before implementation. As a starter, lectures on frontiers of science subjects like artificial intelligence, nano tech, quantum computing , biological sciences can be introduced during the ‘lame duck ‘ period of end of term for 6th termers.
This author has been trying to get this off the ground for last 15 years talking with multiple commandants, but to no avail.
It is time, in the Platinum Jubilee of the Republic, NDA takes a serious look at the issue of retaining the old practice that is necessary and innovate to broaden the horizons of future leaders of the armed forces.