Nurturing Radical Professionalism
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 08 May , 2016

With the conduct of the first Lt Gen Hanut Memorial Lecture, the Center for Joint Warfare Studies has taken on annual yeoman’s task. While the lecture topics will over coming years no doubt reflect the key themes of professional interest of the times, they would hopefully also serve to highlight the significance of radical professionalism, associated with the likes of Hanut Singh.

India’s martial history is replete with instances reflecting and personalities imbued with radical professionalism, ranging from epic heroes to medieval soldier-saints. The two – episodes and personalities – can hardly be separated. Indeed, only leaders and warriors with radical professionalism can pull of feats of radical professionalism.

Rather than defining the term, illustrations serve the purpose better. Episodes of display of radical professionalism are easy to spot: Saragarhi; Rezangla; capture of Haji Pir; the first step on the Saltoro ridgeline; the battle for Quaid post are some such. Others do not readily spring to mind, but are of no less a category: Dewan Ranjit Rai’s stand at Pattan; the occupation of Namka Chu; the miscued heliborne operation in Jaffna; and the unshod assault with a prayer on the lip into the holy precincts of Golden Temple.

Equally, figures embodying the phrase are easy to identify, more so in retrospect. For instance, the figure immortalized by the words ‘dil maange more’, Capt Batra, was distinct from the more modest but equally inspired and inspiring, Manoj Pandey. Charismatic leaders also fit the bill: Manekshaw, Bhagat, Hanut are among those reaching higher echelons. However, that is not a necessary condition for qualifying as a radical professional. While ‘NJ’ Nair’s Ashok Chakra and Kirti Chakra attest to his radical professionalism, those who knew him recount that they were aware of it even when he was not decorated.

Also, it does not require rendering conspicuous service to qualify. For instance, anyone in the National Defence Academy in the early eighties could spot the colossus Subedar Major Darbara Singh striding across the parade ground as personifying the traits. Only apparently prosaic, another example is of the redoubtable Gorkha soldier with his Khukri single handedly fighting off bandits on a train. All have acquaintances meriting inclusion in the category. All have been privy to mess conversations in awe of such feats, such as professional stands taken and personal sacrifices made.

This recounting is necessary to highlight that radical professionalism remains ticking, testifying to its good health when challenges arise. However, complacency on that account is unwarranted. The bureaucratization of the service; the eclipse of amateurs; the impersonalisation of processes and procedures; the substitution of the man behind the machine with a dazzling array of acquisitions; the assembly line system in place for ingestion and turning out of soldiers and officers; the inexorable expansion; organization innovation suggestive of dilution in rank and status; displacement of the leadership ethic by management etc., all conspire to degrade radical professionalism.

In face of such onslaught, either at a minimum alertness is required and at a maximum concerted action protective of radical professionalism. Since alarmism is undesirable, this article merely serves to alert. Being article length, its discussion is confined to the officer cadre.

Moments in the life of the officer corps that did prompt introspection, such as the more visible one in the shadow of defeat of 1962 and the less obvious long interregnum after the end of 1971 War till the tests of Operations Blue Star and Pawan. The 1962 defeat did energise the army through the sixties, resulting in its good showing in the 1965 War, brought home to contemporary attention during the observation of its fiftieth anniversary, and culminating in the 1971 victory. However, relative peace thereafter was jolted by onset of irregular conflict in the mid eighties. The jolt was best expressed in the famous Sundarji DO to all officers.

However, there has been no cataclysm such as the Vietnam War was for the US officer corps. That debacle inspired the junior who served there, enabling a makeover of the US army in its turning out leaders such as Colin Powell, Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf and later, David Petraeus. The latter’s doctoral dissertation was on the effect of Vietnam on the US military.

It is apparent that among other measures, in its recovery the US military nurtured and preserved radical professionals. The commander of the Hail Mary manoeuvre that truncated the Gulf War I to only 100 hours was an amputee from the Vietnam war, General Franks heading VII Corps. Take Petraeus himself. When shot accidentally in a battle inoculation, he arranged a premature discharge from the hospital for himself by knocking off fifty push-ups.

Learning from others implies recognizing and valuing radical professionalism. This is not unknown to the army. This author’s research into the battle histories surrounding the 1965 War at its anniversary enabled insight into such traits and testimony of their in-service value. Research turned up a citation, written largely by the Field Observation Officer that accompanied the company in action that reads:

Major A (to remain unnamed here) was van guard company commander. The enemy consisted of a coy plus of 7 BALUCH with detachments of 5 HORSE…. When the van guard was practically taken by surprise and came under heavy small arms fire, mortar and artillery fire, Major A appreciated the situation and put in a lightening attack with his company… Major A led the attack personally and with the (regimental) war cry…. over ran the enemy defences. In the close dog fight… he was himself severely wounded in the left arm but continued the assault 600 yards deep till the objective was captured. Profusely bleeding and growing with pain (sic), he led his coy and ‘reorganized’ beyond the objective. He refused to be evacuated till another company was sent up…Throughout this fighting battle he was up and in the assault line encouraging and leading his coy…

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The officer decorated for gallantry as company commander in the war went on to three star rank in command in an operational area. His ADC there recounts that once, the general officer once under fire led his QRT in a house clearing drill and suffered a head injury when lobbing a grenade through a window. Berated by the then Chief for the potentially dangerous action, the general officer replied that so long as he was the senior on the ground, it would remain his privilege to be first to put his life on line.

This remains the case. An officer who stood up for what is right while at MS Branch went on to be army commander. Another officer who reputedly did so too only to be packed off to Siachen, nevertheless today continues on the ladder. When the army was held up momentarily by LTTE in its assault on Jaffna, General Sundarji handpicked a few rough and tough officers and sped them off southwards to do their thing. An army commander known for moral courage reportedly warded off pressures for attack at the onset of Op Parakram, citing preparedness. The current day army chief, known for being no mean runner of 10k even today, forewent staff course selection in order to be alongside his Gorkhas in Sri Lanka.

Clearly, the army continues to be cognizant of the indispensability of radical professionals in its ranks. The conclusion here is that it must continue doing so irrespective of inevitable technology upgrades, managerial compulsions and profusion of equipment.


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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.

About the Author

Ali Ahmed

 is a retired infantryman, blogs on security issues at He is author of India's Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). 

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