he Indian Army, among the world’s most experienced, celebrates Army Day tomorrow (15 January). It was on this day in 1949 that India got its first Indian Army Chief in Lt General (later Field Marshal) Kodandera Madappa Cariappa. For the first year and five months after Independence, the Indian Army was headed by a British general in the absence of any Indian lieutenant general. In fact, while the Army got its first Indian service chief within a year-and-a-half of Independence, the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy continued to be led by British officers for longer periods and got their first Indian chiefs only in 1954 and 1958, respectively.
Lt General Cariappa was not the first choice of the Jawaharlal Nehru government. He was appointed only after Lt General Nathu Singh Rathore displayed the moral courage to decline the government’s offer for the top post and recommend instead Lt General Cariappa, who like him (Lt General Nathu Singh), had also been educated at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst (UK). Such display of professionalism, integrity and character of refusing the top post and placing a self-perceived better officer before oneself is simply unthinkable today.
For the Army, however, it has been a constant and continuous engagement post-Independence. Starting with facing the horrors of partition that left a million dead and another 10 million displaced on both sides of the hastily drawn Radcliffe Line, the Army spent the initial 14 years in nation consolidation operations. Within two months of Independence, a partition-induced truncated Indian Army found itself fighting its former colleagues, now under the banner of the Pakistani army in Jammu and Kashmir for a long period of a year and two months. On a lesser scale and for a far shorter duration, the Army was simultaneously also engaged against the Nawab of Junagadh and the Nizam of Hyderabad, who wanted to accede to Pakistan. Then, in December 1961, the Army engaged in its last nation consolidation operation by evicting the Portuguese from Goa.
But less than a year after the Goa operation ended, the Army in October 1962 was pushed into safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity. Within a subsequent span of just nine years, India ended up fighting three full scale wars—one with China (October-November 1962) and two with Pakistan (in April and September of 1965 and then December 1971), along with also a skirmish with the Chinese in 1967. But long before then, starting from the mid-1950s, the Army had got pushed into counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast. Indeed, the first 24 years of the post-Independent Indian Army was hectic and tough, to say the least.
Then followed 12 years (1972-1983) of relative lull, during which, however, the Army did stay intensely engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast and during which Pakistan, with Chinese support, clandestinely built its nuclear weapons capability. Thereafter began a new phase for the Army, which ended up undertaking some unprecedented operations, for which it was unprepared and untrained. The 1980s decade was the most eventful for the Army. In April 1984, the Army was given the short notice task to capture the high altitude Saltoro ridge located ahead of the Siachen glacier. The Army succeeded with aplomb. Two months later, in June 1984, an ill-prepared Army armed with bad assessment conducted a close quarter battle in the precincts of the Golden Temple complex against armed militants who had been trained and headed by a previously dismissed but an otherwise professionally competent major general, much to the shock and dismay of the Sikh community worldwide. Three years later, in 1987, the Army was pushed into its first unilateral overseas military expedition into Sri Lanka, which turned out to be India’s Vietnam. In the interim period, the Army along with the Navy and the Air Force successfully quelled a coup in Maldives. For the last 28 years, the Army remains engaged in counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir. It fought an unprecedented, limited high altitude war in Kargil (May-July 1999) and, unprecedented again, engaged in a futile ten-month military stand-off with Pakistan from December 2001 to 2002.
Excepting in 1971 when the Army sought and was given time to prepare for a war on its eastern front, a study of all other military engagements listed above occurred with little prior preparation and with either low quality or serious deficiencies in equipment. Military tasks such as, for example, Operation Blue Star (Golden Temple) and Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka), which led to considerable casualty of soldiers, bordered on abuse by the political executive of the day of an apolitical Army subservient to civilian supremacy.
The Army can ill-afford to continue this way. For the last three decades, the Army has been suffering a serious quantitative and qualitative manpower crisis—officer shortages; incidence of moral, financial and professional corruption; and politicisation, parochialism and groupism in the top hierarchy. Serious deficiencies in equipment and a steady erosion of the war wastage reserve are well documented and little has been done to reverse the situation, notwithstanding former Army Chief, General V.P. Malik’s famous remark in June 1999 during the height of the Kargil War that “if a war is thrust upon us, we will go with whatever we have”. For example, the Infantry continues to have insufficient basics, starting from a good rifle and thermal imagers. The Artillery has not added a single new piece of 155 mm Howitzers ever since the Bofors scandal of the late 1980s. The Cheetah and Chetak light helicopters are outdated. Moreover, the Indian Army’s conventional superiority ratio over the Pakistani Army of 1:3 has fallen to less than 1:2. The capability of fighting a two-front collusive war with Pakistan and China is a laugh. The Amy must address its weaknesses and shortcomings on a war footing, starting with its internal health. Like cricket, which has become a faster and higher scoring game where errors stand out conspicuously, the armed forces, in this case the Army, must always be in a high state of readiness. Unlike a cricket game, which one can afford to lose, an army cannot afford to be the second best in the event of a conflict. India’s security concerns are getting only more complex, difficult and dangerous.
India succeeded in playing poker with the Chinese in Doklam. The Army similarly carried out six simultaneous retaliatory strikes across the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. But more challenges await India and its armed forces. The Army needs to rethink some aspects of its training. It must train better for counter-insurgency operations. It does not make sense to be losing officers and soldiers so cheaply every time an encounter occurs. The Army must stop bleeding its precious soldiers. There is a lot more emphasis on individual officers and soldiers in today’s era of high technology. Each soldier is becoming more meaningful as a part of the whole. The government needs to be more mindful of the wide range of equipment deficiencies afflicting the Army and take necessary measures within a limited time frame. The Army is the final instrument of the country. It must always be in top gear.
Dinesh Kumar is a defence analyst