Sunday, September 24, 2017

India needs to punch according to its own weight

Swarajya magazine interviewed me on eve of the publication of my book Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical strikes and more, to be released on 29 September. Here are some excerpts

Rishabh (Swarajya magazine): So, my first question to you is that your book is rather curiously titled ‘Securing India the Modi Way’, what the title implies to me is that there has been a clear departure from the management of India’s security apparatus, pre- and post Modi, how radical has this departure been?
Nitin Gokhale (NG): Well, yes, certainly your assessment is right that the title implies that there has been a major change in the way the national security is handled by the Modi Govt. and the difference is: In many ways it is more robust, more muscular, it is predicated on the fact that India being the rising power needs to punch according to its weight. There are instances that have happened in the last three, three and half years now, in forty months which bear testimony to what the Modi government has done as far as the national security is concerned. Therefore the title. The book includes not just various operations but the fundamental changes that have been brought in to management of national security.

Rishabh: Okay, could you give any examples of certain incidents that have struck your eye?
NG: Yes, in fact they all feature--at least two or three of those examples--in the book but the prominent one, the biggest one is India’s approach towards China and I’ve called that chapter ‘Standing up to China’, because if you look at some of the incidents that have happened at the border, be it in Chumar in 2014, when President Xi Jinping was in fact in India and the way India handled the stand-off at the border, then at Dolam, which is popularly being called as Doklam, which is the Chinese name, the Dolam plateau crisis in recent months, in which the underlying theory or the underlying principle in handling that crisis was that India will be resolute on the border but reasonable in diplomacy. Now that is something which is a major departure, which I think the world over people have come to recognize as far as dealing with China is concerned that you’re looking at Chinese which is as a nation, China as a military power, as an economic power is much bigger than India but Modi as Prime Minister and his security team led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval have decided that you can’t let China bully India, you have to stand firm at various places and at the same time do not treat China as the enemy. It is a challenger, it is an adversary but India is not exactly pining for a fight, is what India’s response has been as far as China is concerned and that to me is a major departure from past.

Rishabh: You refer to Mr. Modi’s robustness in terms of the security apparatus. Last year saw the much touted cross border strikes which were heralded as the great personal triumph of the PM, was this option open to previous governments too?
NG: Oh well yes, if you speak to military commanders which I often do, these options were always on the table, that the military, the army especially has always looked at it as one of the options and you speak to former chiefs or former army commanders in Northern Command which looks after the Pakistan border, they’ll tell you that there were some shallow raids, some cross-border raids in the past. Nobody is denying that. The difference between those raids and what happened on 29th September 2016 is the fact that it was the first time such a raid was owned by the PM, it was authorized personally by the PM in consultation with his security team which included the Defence Minister, the National Security Advisor and the Army Chief and which was then not only publicly announced but authorized as I said by the PM but owned. So, there was big gamble, both political and military gamble with this because if something had gone wrong in the raid, India would’ve been shamed. It is this gamble that previous PMs did not want to take. Their approach was: if you want to raid, do a cross-border raid in Pakistan or POK, go ahead, but don’t tell us.

Rishabh: Okay, so, speaking of this personal political gamble what reaction would PM Modi would’ve expected from the world and Pakistan after the strike, what were the different types of reactions do you recon would’ve played-out in his head?
NG: Well, you know I detail that in the book. India factored in a kind of escalation even if it seemed remote at that time, they had factored in, India’s security managers had factored in a likely escalation or retaliation from Pakistan and had sort of prepared for any eventuality including a wider conflict but that didn’t happen and Pakistan went completely quiet and in a denial mode was because it was stunned in to silence because they did not expect, the Pakistan establishment and the Pakistanis Army did not expect this to happen. Going by the reactions and the radio chatter and the kind of movements that happened in the PoK, one can very firmly surmise that tactical raids and they were tactical raids--they were seven points in which the raids took place but across the wide frontier of about 250 KM from Uri north of Pir Panjal to Naushera, South of Pir Panjal-- simultaneous raids actually had a strategic impact.

Rishabh: Mr Doval has been known as the point person for Mr. Modi on security aspects, what has been your assessment of him in the role of NSA? His role in Pathankot for instance.
NG: Pathankot forms a major chapter in my book, in which I bust many myths that were built, many misconceptions that were built around that attack and the role or no role that Ajit Doval as the NSA had played in preventing the attack. If you go through what I’ve written I have said that it was because of a proactive approach adopted under the leadership of the NSA, that India did not lose any of the vital strategic assets i.e. aircraft, the missiles, the ammunition dump  and neither was any hostage situation allowed to be developed on that big campus which is the Pathankot Airbase which has about 2000 Acres of area and had 10,000 civilians living on that campus., you should compare that kind of an attack in our neighbourhood, in Afghanistan where the US airbase was attacked or in Pakistan twice or in Sri Lanka there were huge damages to aircraft, missiles and the infrastructure. In this case, yes, India did lose seven brave men but those were because of circumstances or lack of information on ground at that point in time but there was only one combat fatality really in chasing the terrorists. So, it was proactive intelligence wise and proactive combat wise. Because of this I think Pathankot is a bigger success, contrary to what people believe or say.

Rishabh: Could you briefly outline how the overall decision making within the security establishment works, like what are our strong points or the chinks in our armour?
NG: See, there’s nothing as good which can’t bettered in any circumstances but what has happened in last three, three and half years is that there’s a lot of proactive measures, there’s a lot of coordination and synergy between different agencies. Gone is the bickering of the old where there were turf battles between different agencies, intelligence as well as the security forces that’s because the NSA is an experienced and a respected man and the PM gives a very clear directive in what needs to be done and once he takes a decision he does not waiver no matter what the political consequences, when it comes to securing India’s national interest. That is what underlines his national security policy. It is India first and not anything else, so therefore, that is the big change, there’s no compromise on the core interests of India. However I think we need urgent police reforms in India. The law enforcers need to be better equipped and better trained and the military needs to overcome its critical shortages which have historically been there for past 20 years or so. I’m not expecting them to be made up quickly but they’re moving towards it. So, I think there has been no major terror attacks in any of the states other than J&K and parts of Punjab bordering Pakistan in the past 40 months in prevailing circumstances the world over, I think is a major achievement.

Rishabh: What are views on how government manages the military procurement in the country, the strategic partnership model and a lot of other ideas being meted out, are these helping yet in your opinion?
NG: Well, it’s a start and as I’ve said many fundamental policy changes have taken place in defence procurement, in policy but no policy is perfect and the Strategic Partnership Model I think needs a bit of tweaking, it needs further discussion between all the stake holders but the Defence Procurement Policy 2016 which was unveiled during the Defence Expo is a path braking initiative because it gives primacy to IDDM product, the indigenously designed developed and manufactured product in defence, so, that gives top most preference to Indian products in the military segments. That said, India has a long way to go to become self sufficient and self reliant, self reliant in defence but it’s a start and of course the Modi Govt needs to do more than what they’ve done or what they’ve managed to do so far but I’m hopeful, given that the focus is on the national security in a big way, those wrinkles will be ironed out very soon.

Rishabh: You’re someone who’s deeply interested in the north-east, the Myanmar border raid on the NSCN terrorists was an Indian cross-border operation, was it the first time that such an operation had taken place?
NG: Well again as I said, owning-up of the operation was the first time, certainly to my mind. I’ve lived in and reported from the north-east for 23 years between 1983 and 2006. In my mind there have been raids on as I said the headquarters of militant groups or camps of militant groups, all that has happened in the past. There was one operation that comes to mind, Operation Golden Bird, which happened in 1995, where the Indian and the Myanmarese army acted in concert to prevent huge influx and huge consignment of arms coming into northeast, that was there but in this case, it was an immediate raid that took place and certainly the Indian army Special Forces went into Myanmar and decimated a big camp of all the North-East militants living together, a large camp and therefore I think that was the first. And again let me tell you that it was because of the success of the Myanmarese operation that the army and the security establishment at the highest level thought of doing similar cross border raids across the LoC in the PoK, so in a way it can be said that it was a start of the proactive policy in terms of tackling militants and terrorists on both western and eastern fronts.

Rishabh: Do you envision more such operations taking place across the border?
NG: Well, let me say this or paraphrase Lt Gen DS Hooda, who has been all over the media for past 2-3 days, “Can India do a similar raid again? Yes it can, because it broke the glass ceiling” as he says in the interviews, it actually unshackled the fetters that were in the minds of the Indian military planners because they were never given the political clearance to do this. Because it was seen escalatory, a raid across the LOC in PoK. You ask me if they can be repeated, yes, they can be but no two raids of special forces are similar. Therefore, there are other options now that India can exercise when it needed but what it has done is that it has created an uncertainty in the minds of the Pakistani military establishment where they no know how India will react. Earlier, the reaction or retaliation used to be very predictable.

Rishabh: Going back to the north-east, what has been your estimation of PM Modi handling of the Naga talks and the other insurgencies in the north-east?
NG: Well, the insurgencies have I won’t say petered out or come under manageable control but about the Naga talks I’m slightly disappointed in the sense that it’s been more than two years now that the framework accord were signed but there has been no final conclusion to the accord. But I’m not surprised because the history of Naga Insurgency in India, remember it’s the oldest insurgency at least in Asia started in 1956 and it has a very chequered history of failed accords, hopes and optimism rising. Remember it has been almost 20 years when the ceasefire was ordered with the NSCN (IM) in August 1997. I would think that the government is working towards a solution, where, when will it come, whether it’ll come in this tenure of the government, I’m not sure but it’ll come, if you ask me what is my desire or what is my wish, it should come very soon.

Rishabh: That was it for us, Nitin. Thank you for talking to us.     

Monday, September 11, 2017

The story behind making of a new book

Finally the book is ready to print!
Sometime in early 2017, I was on my annual visit to one of the military training establishments to deliver a talk. Over tea, after the usual lively interactive session, a young, smartly turned out officer popped a question that stumped me for a moment. He asked, "Why do the media always doubt our military's ability? Why can't it believe the forces when they say Indian soldiers went across the LoC to carry out surgical strikes?"  My counter to him was, “Don't generalise.”  “There are many (including me in my earlier avatar as a media practitioner) who report factually but in absence of official accounts of what actually happened in the raids that took place in 2015 and 2016, it is difficult for the media too, to give the audience the full picture,” I pointed out to him.

While the officer did not go away entirely convinced the exchange with him set me thinking. On the return flight to Delhi, I tried to recall what I exactly knew about many of the recent actions taken by the military and other security forces; or for that matter how decision-making evolves at say, the Prime Minister’s level or in the top echelons of the government. As I scribbled some points, realisation dawned: I may have known enough to write a quick news story or a longer analysis, but clearly, the details have always been elusive in respect of crucial events in the realm of national security.

How easy or hard it would be then to attempt a book on the insider accounts of some the recent decisions taken by the Indian government, I asked myself. As I began looking for unknown details—and more importantly authentic accounts--one realised that it was going to be an uphill task getting genuine information for all the events that I had in mind. By mid-February however, the idea to write a book had been firmly embedded in my mind. Starting bottom up, some of the preliminary information was gathered; old notes were reviewed; some documentaries were revisited but I was still not able to put a finger on the time period that I wanted to concentrate on.

So choosing a time period was the first step. As the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was about to complete three years in May 2017, a spate of books were hitting the stores focusing on Prime Minister Modi and the BJP which appeared unstoppable in winning elections.

None of them however looked in-depth at one domain I am familiar with: Security and strategic affairs.  That is the time the central idea of this book—unveiling the three years of Modi government’s security policies--finally crystallised in my mind. I was aware of some of the path breaking policy initiatives the defence ministry and the bold decisions taken by the Prime Minister but the details were missing. We didn’t know for instance what led to the decision to authorise surgical strikes both in Myanmar and in PoK? Or what drives India’s new found resolve in tackling China? I was curious to know how the Prime Minister arrives at a particularly tough decision? What drives his national security policies? Why does he lay stress on personal equations with world leaders? 

All these question needed clear answers.

The first task therefore was to make a list of possible events to concentrate on and then go looking for information about them. The content and the time period were set. Now came the hard part. Extracting information in the domain that I work in is as it is not easy; to get people to talk about what normally remains secret was doubly difficult. That’s when old associations and friendships came in handy. Information started trickling in in bits and pieces; authenticating and fleshing out bare minimum facts was the next step. Slowly, the chapters started taking shape. In most other sectors, people would have gladly spoken about their role and contribution but those in uniform and in the secretive world of intelligence have an in-built resistance in sharing even innocuous information.

Nevertheless, I have tried to put together a book based on several insider accounts and hitherto unknown facts about some of the unprecedented steps taken by the Modi government in the past 40 months. 

This is by no means an analytical document. In fact, it is mostly factual and narrated from the point of view of those involved—and more importantly those whom I could get access to. I had to also keep security of information and protagonists who have shared it with me, in mind. In that respect, I have followed what my guru MV Kamath told me ages ago: ‘It is more important what you don’t write than what you write.’ But as readers you would understand why this is so.

Some would view this book as an incomplete account. It’s a start nevertheless. 

Till then, read the book for what it is: a journalistic record of some of the bold and unconventional decisions taken by the Modi government since 2014.
There is no denying the fact that this book has gained immensely by the trust reposed in me by people in very sensitive appointments. Many who spoke to me cannot be named because they continue to serve in the military and our intelligence agencies. Many details have come from people at the apex of decision-making structure in this country. Some details have been revealed for the first time ever. I am therefore hoping, many readers would be interested in reading this book.

It is set to be launched on 29 September in Delhi. The day is significant: It is the first anniversary of the surgical strikes by Indian Special Forces inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). 

It will be available in stores and online just before that day. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Assam Regiment and Brig. T. Sailo

Last month, the Salute magazine published a special issue on the Assam Regiment, one of Indian Army's well-know infantry units. I wrote a small tribute to one its illustrious officers, Brig. T. Sailo, who also later became the Chief Minister of Mizoram. Here's the account of my first encounter with him more than 33 years ago.

It was January 1984. Barely, seven months into the profession of journalism, my Editor at The Sentinel, the Guwahati-based newspaper, decided to send me to Mizoram. The idea was to do a comprehensive coverage on the Union Territory (Mizoram was to become a state three years later) and the state of insurgency there.

Although it was a big break for me at that age (I was not even 22), the assignment was not going to be easy. First there was the physical journey.

Travelling to Aizawl from Guwahati meant taking a ‘night super’ bus, a 17-18 hour journey via Meghalaya and southern Assam’s Barak Valley. 

For another, Mizoram was still in the grip of insurgency launched by the Mizo National Army, the armed outfit of the Mizo National Front (MNF). The rebels (or militants or insurgents as they were described in popular lexicon but never terrorists) had been fighting the mighty Indian state since February 1966. So there was always the fear in the minds of the ‘outsider’ about being targted in Mizoram.

Excited and apprehensive at the same time, I prepared to make my first ‘outstation’ trip on assignment. The mandatory Inner-Line permit was obtained (all non-Mizos entering the state still need the permit), the bus ticket was bought, the bag was packed with woollens since Aizawl I was told by senior is in the mountains and therefore much colder than Guwahati which is on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

Luckily, I had some support in Aizawl even before I arrived there. The newspaper owner’s brother-in-law was posted there in the State Bank of India as the Branch Manager. I was in fact supposed to stay with him.

So one fine morning, after the grueling 18 hour journey, I arrived at Aizawl. It was misty and cold. I went to SBI officer’s house, slept immediately. After three-four hours of sleep and early lunch, I went to the Chief Minister’s office.

Before going there, all that I knew was that a retired Brigadier named T. Sailo was the Chief Minister of Mizoram. At the office I was met by a pleasant, extremely courteous officer named LR Sailo. He was the Chief Minister’s PRO. Although he has never told me what his memories of our first meeting are, one look at me, and LR (we have been friends since that first meeting 31 years ago) would surely have thought ‘is this skinny little boy really a journalist?’ But he kept a straight face and took me to Brig. Sailo.

After the formal introduction, I handed over some copies of The Sentinel to the Chief Minister and in a typical soldierly bluntness he asked me: “What do you know about Mizoram? About its history, its people?”
Sheepishly, but with all honesty at my command, I blurted out, “not much sir!” Brig. Sailo glared at LR conveying his annoyance in just one look and told him something in Mizo before turning to me and saying: “Son, let me arrange for you to read some history and some details about us and our state. Spend a couple of days here and then come and meet me again.”

I was dismissed with a flourish. My heart sank. What will I tell my bosses back in Guwahati? Does this mean, I am going to fail in my first-ever outstation assignment? All kinds of negative thoughts raced through my mind. But LR was helpfulness personified. He arranged for several books, including one called the Dagger Brigade by Nirmal Nibedon, the first journalist to get access to the MNF/MNA leadership and bring to life the story of Mizo insurgency.

For the next 48 hours, I read feverishly, trying to absorb as much as possible. KN Hazarika, my newspaper owner’s brother-in-law, who had also spent time in Mizoram, was a great help too.

So, after 48 hours of nearly non-stop reading books on Mizoram, I went to see Brig. Sailo again. Uncertain about his reaction, I was tentative initially but the old man put me at ease and answered all my seemingly silly questions. I met several other people in order understand the state of affairs in Mizoram that time and made the long journey back home to Guwahati. A week later, I had a full-page cover story in the Sunday edition on The Sentinel and my first ever interview with a Chief Minister was published too.

In three decades since, numerous interviews have been done, some I am proud of, some I am not happy with but no matter how many interviews I do in the future, I will always remember the first one fondly. And therefore will never ever forget Brig. T. Sailo. He taught me the importance of background check, domain awareness and triggered a habit of advance reading about a place or a personality that I am visiting or interviewing.

​Later, I met him a couple of times when he was not Chief Minister. In th​ose meetings, I ventured away from politics and asked the Brigadier about his Army life. In his slow, deliberate style, he recounted how as a young 20-year old man he was commissioned into the Assam Regiment in 1942 in the middle of World War II. "I was the first Mizo to become a commissioned officer. The Army took me to different places including overseas and made me what I am," he reminisced.

The apogee of  
​his military career was to command the 190 'Korea' Brigade of the Indian Army. Now headquartered at Tawang along the China border, the 190 Brigade is called Korea Brigade because it was deployed in Indo-China in the 1950s. ​Brig Sailo was proud to have been part of the Indian Army and particularly the Assam Regiment. 

​As I started gaining better insight into the Army and learning about its structure, ethos and traditions, it was not difficult to see why ​the Brigadier was so fiercely possessive about the Assam Regiment, a unique experiment
​ in integration of disparate tribes in the north-east. There was no common language that these boys, from different tribes spread over the region, could speak or understand so they have, over the years evolved a lingo of their own: a mix of multiple languages, a language that only they can understand! More than the language however, it is remarkable that the Assam regiment has  emerged as one of Indian Army's finest regiments, thanks to early work by its leadership, both British and Indian officers.

Brig Sailo passed away in 2015 but I will always remember him as someone who was kind to me in early days as a journalist.

I haven’t had the chance to visit Mizoram for almost a decade now but the people, the state and friends one has made there over the years, continue to be close to my heart.

All thanks to a man called Brig. T. Sailo.

(The writer lived and reported from the north-east between 1983 and 2006)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hold it: Army Chief is not seeking impunity

Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat's tough statement warning trouble makers in Kashmir to desist from obstructing operations by his troops or else face the consequences has evoked expected reactions. 

There was one section--and I don't want to call them intellectuals--which pays lip service to the fauj but in reality stands against everything that the army seeks to protect and defend. This group has variously dubbed the Army Chief's remark as 'intemperate statement,' 'belligerent stand,' and 'declaration of war against Kashmiri youth.' This group of people have sought to create an impression that the Army Chief has ordered his troops to kill and maim indiscriminately. This is nothing but deliberate  distortion of an emphatic assertion by a professional entrusted with the security of the country. But more of that a little later. 

However, Gen Rawat's unambiguous stand has acted as a much needed confidence booster to the troops--young officers and soldiers at the cutting edge--who were often left wondering if they were doing the right and necessary thing in combating the terrorists, many times paying with their own lives. 

In the wake of elimination of Burhan Wani, a local youth-turned terrorist leader last year and the subsequent turmoil in the Kashmir valley, abetted in no small measure by the Pakistani deep state through the selfish and  self-centred separatist leaders, politics had dominated the discourse on J&K. It was conveniently forgotten that irrespective of his origin (as a Kashmiri youth), Burhan Wani was after all a terrorist whose days were numbered once he took up arms against the Indian state. His killing in an encounter with security forces should have been treated as just that--neutralisation of a terrorist. Instead, a narrative was sought to be built blaming the security forces for doing their job and doing it professionally. 

Months of unrest following Burhan Wani's death often hampered the movement of security forces, disrupted their logistics chain and disturbed a well laid out security grid. The successful surgical strikes by Indian Army's special forces against terrorist launch pads located in Pak-Occupied Kashmir was preceded and followed by two setbacks for the Indian Army at Uri and Nagrota respectively. 

The Army can take the setbacks in its stride and learn lessons from them but what demoralises the soldiers are the barely concealed barbs by ill-informed critics who do not have the faintest idea about the difficulties and constraints under which the troops have been operating in the unending war in J&k for over a quarter century now. Now Army in the world has maintained the relentless tempo of operations as the Indian Army has done since 1990. 

It is to the credit of Indian Army leadership over the years that troops have retained the highest degree of motivation despite mounting odds. 

However, the unwarranted criticism about strategy and tactics and the contempt that some of our prominent opinion makers hold against the Army had begun to affect the soldiers on the ground. A slight hesitation had started to creep in in their approach to counter-insurgency and counter-terrorists operations. Fortunately,  the Army Chief's statement would have removed any lingering doubts the soldiers may have had about the necessity of their job and their role. 

At another level, the warning by the Army Chief to those hindering operations and the support extended to him by the political leadership over his stand should send the right message to those fishing in Kashmir's troubled waters. 

The separatists cannot use the unsuspecting young men and women as cannon fodder for their own agenda and get away with it. The Kashmiri awam must question the separatists: How long are you going to fire from the shoulders of ordinary Kashmiris? 

There have been suggestions that the Centre must reach out to the youth of Kashmir. Perhaps the time has come to do just that and ignore the usual suspects but before that the youth must begin to understand the difference between mindless protests and legitimate demands. 

Politics apart, Kashmiri parents must also begin to ask the question to themselves: Why allow the young to be used as a smoke screen for political objectives? 

Perhaps the stern warning that those who hamper legitimate army operations will not be spared should spur families in Kashmir to ask that question sooner than later. 

So for all those who outrage against the Army Chief's statement: hold your thoughts. He is not seeking any impunity for his troops. All that he is asking for is the right of the Army to exercise its legitimate powers given under the very constitution by which you claim to swear. 

(First published on my website

Monday, January 16, 2017

Military competent to do self-correction; leave it alone

Last week saw a spate of video messages by soldiers across Army, BSF and CRPF complaining and highlighting what they felt was supply of bad food, lack of good facilities and demeaning treatment because the leadership in these forces—according to them—is involved in corruption and has feudal attitude towards the men they command.

While the men may have genuine grievances and perhaps felt that existing channels of redress are not sufficient, I am aghast at the extrapolation done by a section of the Indian media portraying these complaints as catastrophe that has overtaken the Indian security forces and that the time-tested officer-men relationship—especially in the Army—is no longer as robust as it used to be.

As someone who’s had an opportunity to be a media practitioner across web, print and broadcast mediums for over three decades, I am aware of the pressures of ratings and compulsion to be ‘first with the news,’ that often overtakes sound judgement. And that is what has happened over the past week. In the mad race to boost circulation and viewer ratings, a section of the ignorant media has, in one go, sought to tarnish and destroy one of the last institutions that has stood rock solid in defence of India.
Ill-informed—I would in fact go the extent of saying ‘uneducated’ (in military matters)-- star anchors and reporters are out to create divide within the army where none exists. The officer-soldier relationship has certainly undergone a change over the past couple of decades thanks to the churn in the Indian society at large but it is still the bedrock of the Indian Army’s day to day functioning. The bonding between officers and men is evident in the hundreds of daily counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations carried out by the Indian Army. Indeed, without that bonding officers will not be able to lead--and men will not willingly go into--operations that can lead to death of brothers-in-arms.
It is easy to sit and pontificate from the confines of the studio and reduce the issues to binaries of good and ugly but the reality is more complex. Yes, there is a problem. But the problem is not as disastrous as made out to be. In fact these issues are an outcome of a combination of factors: erosion in the soldiers’ status in the society; prolonged deployment in monotonous and thankless counter-insurgency jobs; crippling shortage of officers in combat units; and, ironically, easier communication between families and soldiers!

A psychiatric study by Army doctors some years ago on ‘Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts’ revealed the huge range of issues soldiers in such situations have to confront, contradictions between war and low-intensity conflict situations, and, particularly, the concepts of ‘enemy’, ‘objective’ and ‘minimum force’. Some other findings were:
• In general war, the nation looks upon the soldier as a saviour, but here he is at the receiving end of public hostility.
• A hostile vernacular press keeps badgering the security forces, projecting them as perpetrators of oppression.
• Continuous operations affect rest, sleep and body clocks, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.
• Monotony, the lure of the number game, and low manning strength of units lead to overuse and fast burnout. 

Operating in a tension-ridden counter-insurgency environment does lead to certain stress among the jawans, but that is only one of the factors. The main worries are the problems back home: land disputes; tensions within the family; rising aspirations.
During my travels in counter-insurgency areas, I have often come across company commanders telling me how, for many soldiers, tensions at home create unbearable stress. Often, a land dispute back home or a family feud weighs heavily on the soldier’s mind. For the ordinary soldier, the smallest patch of land back home is the most precious property. Again, I have frequently come across a common thread where soldiers say there is no tension in the actual work of counter-insurgency. The main problem for the fauji comes from his domestic situation.

Add to it the fact that the society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. A local politician, a thanedar, etc., seem to command more clout in the society today. This has often led to loss of self-esteem among ordinary soldiers. A recent movie—Paan Singh Tomar—depicted, in some measure, the humiliation that a soldier faces in the civilian environment, both while serving and after retirement from the armed forces.

Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from a spot of leave. And yet, the Army must look within too. Fortunately the leadership in the Army is as acutely aware of the need to change with time and adapt new practices in daily functioning.

Reforming the Organization

Soldiers these days are better educated and, consequently, better aware of their rights.
As the armed forces are in themselves a microcosm of India, the rising education and awareness levels in recruits is easily perceived. A sea change from yesteryears is now visible in the hordes of young men who crowd recruitment rallies across the country. Most hopefuls are the educated unemployed youth who turn towards the military for acquiring early financial and social security. Their educational qualification is Class XII on the average, many being graduates too. The stereotype of an innocent, less educated but hardy soldier is now a thing of the past. The officer base has also shifted predominantly to the middle class. This has further narrowed the gap between the ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’.

An acute shortage of officers at the cutting-edge level is the other big factor contributing to an limited bonding between soldiers and officers. Against an authorized strength of over 22 officers for a combat battalion, there are at best eight or nine officers available to the commanding officer these days.

Very often, young officers with less than two years of service are commanding companies! Even in the battalion headquarters, one officer ends up doing the job of three, given the shortage. There is no time to interact with soldiers. In the old days, a game of football or hockey was the best way to get to know each other. Not any longer.

What, then, is the way forward?

Embracing Change

The average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before but he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. It is here that the leaders—the officers—will have to adapt themselves to the new reality. The age-old system of regimental traditions and values is robust, and serves to develop camaraderie and loyalty between the led and the leader even now. The new fashion to dismiss them as outdated ideas must be arrested. Military ethos is not developed overnight and is certainly not imbibed by pandering blindly to the changes in society.

However the leadership needs to take cognizance of a new challenge: Proliferation of social media. Access to improved technology and means of communication has meant that soldiers are now tempted take a short cut to air their grievances—genuine or otherwise. The new Army chief has done well to issue a legitimate warning that misuse of social media will lead to consequences while at the same time, providing a new avenue of grievance redress through his office. However, the top leadership will have to be careful in not short-circuiting the traditional chain of command. 

The change must come from the top.

A former Army Commander, Lt. Gen. C.S.K. Sabu, had encapsulated the desired change in view of altered socio-economic conditions at a seminar on ‘Leadership Challenges in an Era of Turbulence’ at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi, in June 2010. He said: ‘Such a change needs to be top-down, and be backed by the force of institutional ethics, tradition, peer pressure and group dynamics. While the Chetwode motto of the Army is everlasting, it loses focus once a soldier is beyond his CO—it lacks the guiderail required for a codified, value-based ethical conduct on the part of senior officers, which must be set right.’
Certain changes which can be considered and deliberated are:
• 360 degree assessments in the context of Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs).
• Inculcate the warrior ethos in the Army.
• Embrace the soldier’s code—Veer Senani must be codified.
• Encourage scholar–warrior ethos for the officers.
• Promoting ethics and probity in military life.
• Norms for conducting welfare activities must change—it is a command function and must be restored to the same. 

Finally, if the led are to believe the leader, the leader must walk the talk. Officers must believe in themselves and the system that they work in. They must take pride in the fact that the military is essentially different in its work culture, ethos, traditions and values from any other entity. Soldiering is the only profession in which a man voluntarily chooses to enter into a contract that entails death if the occasion so demands.

The Indian military, despite its recent problems, remains a very fine institution. To be relevant and effective, it must, however, embrace change with discretion. Therein lies the trick in meeting the increasing challenge posed to the military leadership. However, let the change be driven by the military itself rather than pesky anchors and upstart reporters hectoring soldiers on a matter that they have very little idea about.

Monday, January 9, 2017

All you wanted to know about the Shekatkar Committee Report but didn't know where to look

Lt Gen DB Shekatkar (retd) presenting copy of the report
to Manohar Parrikar
The Lt Gen DB Shekatkar Committee—appointed by the government to enhance the combat potential of the armed forces and rebalancing defence expenditure—has recommended a number of measures to trim, redeploy and integrate manpower under the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in a gradual manner to meet the objective of an agile but effective military to meet current and future threats that India faces, BharatShakti has learnt after speaking to multiple sources including some members of the panel.

The Committee, which submitted the final report to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on 21 December 2016, has noted that if majority of its recommendations are implemented over the next five years, the government can save up to Rs 25,000 crore from its current expenditure. The Committee has however warned that the implementation cannot be selective. As the report has apparently noted: the redeployment of manpower from and downsizing of some of the organisations under the MoD will have to be across the board and ruthless to be effective. Moreover, the Shekatkar Committee has made it clear that the saving made as a result of its recommendations must be redeployed in enhancing the combat capabilities of the Indian armed forces and not be merged in the general budget.

After taking into account the nature threats that the country is likely to face in coming decades, the committee has in fact recommended that the defence budget should be in the range of 2.5 and three per cent of the GDP. This would however require a substantial change in approach and outlook of the government towards the armed forces. For the last five years for instance, defence budget has remained below two per cent of the GDP. 

One of the major recommendations of the committee is to review the definition of ‘Capital’ and ‘Revenue’ budget heads in the funds allocated to the three armed forces, particularly the Indian Army. The panel notes that the Indian Army—unlike the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force—will have to remain a manpower-intensive force because of its major deployment in the mountains against both its major adversaries, China and Pakistan. As a result the sustenance budget of the Indian Army will be higher than the other two services leaving very little money for capital acquisition. The panel has reportedly therefore recommended that a ‘roll on’ plan for fresh acquisitions be introduced so as to overcome the practice of ‘surrendering’ funds at the end of every financial year.

The panel has also suggested a review of the financial management system of the MoD in which the defence finance wing is seen to be more of an impediment in clearing projects and has recommended that the financial powers of all the three chiefs and vice chiefs be enhanced further to quicken the pace of acquisitions.
As for redeployment and rationalising of manpower, the Shekatkar Committee has recommended that the role of non-combat organisations paid for and sustained by the defence budget be subjected to a performance audit. Some of these organisations mentioned in the report are Defence Estates, Defence Accounts, DGQA, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), DRDO, and the National Cadet Corps (NCC). Once a professional and objective review is carried out, the committee said, substantial savings can be achieved by downsizing or rationalising the manpower in these organisations.

The committee has also suggested the establishment of a Joint Services War College for training for middle level officers (the higher command course for instance), even as the three separate War Colleges—currently at Mhow, Secunderabad and Goa—for Army, Air Force and Navy could continue to train younger officers for their respective service. Similarly it has recommended that the Military Intelligence School at Pune be converted to a tri-service Intelligence training establishment.

Another aspect highlighted by the committee is the increasing reluctance on part of the state governments to renew lease of land for crucial firing ranges for the troops. Increasing urbanisation and pressure on land has meant that the armed forces have to battle political and bureaucratic pressure to retain the existing firing ranges. The panel has therefore suggested better coordination between the MoD and state governments to overcome this problem.

However the Committee has also suggested that the armed forces ramp up the quantum of training on various simulators. The new recruits can do about 60 per cent of their firing training on simulators, resulting in substantial savings to the tune of Rs 20-25 crore per annum in expenditure of training ammunition, the committee has suggested.

There are several other suggestions to improve efficiency of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), re-orienting the training staff of NCC by utilising more ex-servicemen and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) to free young serving officers for more mainline jobs and even recommending the possibility of shifting NCC under the Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry.

Like the previous such reviews ordered by the government, notably the Naresh Chandra Committee, the Shekatkar Committee too has said a 4-star Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)—or a Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee—be appointed as a ‘chief coordinator’ between the military and the Ministry of Defence. It has however stressed on retaining the primacy of the three service chiefs in operational and administrative roles even while suggesting establishment of three or four integrated commands in medium to long term.  This aspect will however need further deliberation at the highest level, the committee has suggested.

The entire report, it appears is focussed on shedding the flab in the MoD and make India’s armed forces more agile and technology-oriented to meet current and future national security objectives.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The military needs professional audit, says a serving young officer. I agree

For the past 12 hours, I am being had (as they say in the fauj) for raising what I consider legitimate questions on why is the military taking a battering (from Uri to Nagrota via Pathankot) in J &K. While no one doubts the bravery, commitment and professionalism of our men in uniform, many civilians are asking the question: Why are military bases attacked with such regularity and with apparent success by terrorists?Why can't such attacks be minimised, if not prevented altogether? 

I am no fauji (as many key-board warriors remind me all the time on social media because I haven't served) but as someone who has operated in various insurgency theatres in north-east, J&K and Sri Lanka since 1983, I have a semblance of idea of what it means to be in a conflict zone. But don't take my word for it. 

Here's a serving young officer's take on what is happening vis-a-vis the military of late. For obvious reasons he will remain unnamed!

Well, We are at war. Look around if you doubt it. The situation in Kashmir and most of the north west border is volatile.

We knew that this WILL happen. The enemy is ready to hit and we are also doing the same. War does have its collaterals.


Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota. It's good to brand the dead as martyrs. But that does not take away the need to assess the why of the incident.

Systemic problems.

It's easy to identify and weed out individual failure. When it cancers out into the system, the instinct to survive ensures that ugly facts are brushed under the carpet.


No hierarchy was held accountable for failures at Nyoma, Samba, Nagrota, Machhal etc. The garb of collective blame took away the lessons needed to be learnt making the military as just another unaccountable bureaucracy of the Govt.

Inbred ideas.

Today we all like to be self audited. It's good not scientifically proven to be ineffective. E.g.  In Control Systems, if a system is only given positive feedback. It becomes unstable and collapses. Similarly a system without feedback has no control and self consumes.

The military needs professional audit by HR professionals, security experts and third party groups having no stake in the existing narrative. Self analysis will never reveal the actual fault lines.

Holy Cow

Only the nation is a holy cow. Everything else can and should be questioned for bringing out improvements. I feel that the government should take decisions through its collective wisdom and not let perceptions get in way of executive decisions that need to be timely.