Sunday, 1 July 2012

Command Experience

The Indian Army gives due importance to Officers’ ‘Command performance’ – and rightly so - as in the final analysis, it is the ability to lead men in battle that is the decisive factor in winning, along with the commander’s professional competence and character values. Minimum periods of command tenures are laid down for various ranks. However, these days, the tenures in higher ranks for general officers from two-star ranks are getting reduced due to late promotions. This limits the exposure of officers in senior command, and also does not allow adequate time to train and interact with the lower formations. The Indian Army promotes officers to the rank of Brigadiers and Generals much later than most other armies.

To reduce stagnation and speed up promotion, cadre-reviews have been carried out through upgradation of appointments and creation of additional ranks. Though this has given definite growth opportunities but at the same time diluted the value of ranks. Our attempts to retain parity with civilian ranks has had mixed results, as unlike in the civilian setup, ranks in the defence forces are related to command authority and staff functions, and cannot be upgraded in the same assignment.
There are some in the defence forces who feel that instead of upgradation of ranks the forces should have been given pay promotions to maintain pay parity, but the MoD has declined to accept these proposals. The pay commissions do not have a representative from the defence forces to put across our point of view. Even today one rank-one pension concept applied elsewhere has not been fully applied to the defence forces. This puts the Armed Forces, particularly the Junior Ranks at a disadvantage as the soldiers retire at a much younger age than the civil officials who go up to the age of 60 years irrespective of the rank and thus earn full pension of the rank.

The real command in the Army begins with the Command of a unit, i.e. a battalion or a regiment which comes by selection. I have been fortunate in my command experience as in my time units were commanded by Lieutenant Colonels at the fairly young service of 15 years, and an average age of 35 years. I was able to command 2/4 GR, the unit I was commissioned into, by opting to wait for my turn to do so, even though this meant that I would get promoted one year later than my batch-mates. I was also offered command in the Rajput Regiment and the 3 GR, but I preferred to wait for my own unit.  My immediate predecessor, in the battalion was Lt Col (later Brig) R.P.S. Negi, who was my senior by one year and commanded the unit with distinction. 

COs 4 GR (Biennial Conference)
From left: Nripad Gurung, Self, Hem Tewari, Ranjeet Rishi, Raja Ram
I was in command of the battalion for a full term of three years, unlike present day command tenures of just two years, that too, at an average age of 39 years. Such a short tenure, I feel, is inadequate to fully understand and train your command for battle. The command of a unit is something one especially aspires to as it provides the opportunity and the freedom to implement your ideas to shape and administer the unit. This is the first assignment by selection, and in the Infantry, and in most of the Arms, nearly 50% of the batch-mates get left out, on comparative merit and lack of vacancies. This non–selection naturally causes considerable pain to those who do not make it.

During the period of my command, the battalion performed well in all the professional events and sports, basically because of our strong traditions, good junior leadership, and effective team-work. We were part of 51 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier (later Major General) O.S. Bhandari and thereafter by Brigadier (later Lt General) K.S. Brar, VrC. An event still remembered in the battalion is our winning the hockey match against 5 Raj Rif, despite the fact that they had an Olympic player as the Commanding Officer! I was leading the battalion hockey team with six officers playing the match. Major Ram Naidu (later Major General) was the second-in-command and Captain Arvind Sharma was the Adjutant of the battalion (also my MA), who later attained the rank of an Army Commander, were part of the playing eleven, besides Captains F. J. Bahadur, V. P. Singh, P. S. Nijjer and Satish Upreti.

With the Commander 51 Infantry Brigade, Brigadier (later Lt. General) K.S. Brar

The battalion was stationed at Mirthal, a semi-peace station, earlier used as a camping ground by the army units while in transit. We managed to make ourselves reasonably comfortable. The total assets at the location were the nine disused cook-houses, some barracks, and 91 acres of camping ground land with lots of elephant grass on it. We accommodated the battalion by obtaining the entire depot stocks of tents on loan and constructing self-help thatch-huts. In six months time the families joined us in our improvised ‘town-ship’ to live happily. We had abundant land to create play grounds and the training facilities, which are essentially the main requisites for a Gorkha soldier to be completely happy.

Aruna (standing centre) with the Ladies of the Battalion
Mrs. Sarpodar and Mrs. Nijjar on the left, and Mrs.F.J. Bahadur and Mrs Pant on the right

During my command I was able to implement some of my ideas on improving the basic infantry training skills, leadership traits and team-building. I encouraged competitiveness in sports, and was strict on discipline and observance of regimental traditions. I felt that delegation and trusting your team always gets the best dividends, provided you set an example. Major Ram Naidu, my deputy and the young officers in the battalion were highly dedicated professionals, who always delivered the goals they were entrusted with. I have always felt that a Gorkha is an excellent soldier. He is both devoted and talented, but wants to be treated with dignity. The families of the soldiers play an important role in the unit’s performance and are willing to put up with difficulties as long as they are assured of fair play and justice. They need to be treated as a part of the extended regimental family in the various activities and given due consideration when in difficulty.

At Mirthal with the Subedar Major of the Battalion, Rankeshwara Gurung

After my command of the battalion, from December 1975 to November 1978, I was selected to head the Indian Military Training Team at Nigeria and moved to Delhi for completion of the necessary formalities, which were completed in two weeks time. However, there was a change of the government in Nigeria, in the meanwhile and the new Nigerian government for political reasons decided to terminate the mission.  The disappointment to the team members was obvious as most us of had already sold off our few and therefore doubly precious house-hold collections! We were diverted to different assignments; I landed at the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, as an instructor.

The tenure at the Staff College was a very satisfying professional education as well as an enriching Inter-Service experience. Although my wife and young children were eagerly looking forward to the experience abroad, the move to DSSC Wellington was some compensation. It was also an excellent opportunity for good schooling, and social interaction, not only with a vast cross section of families from the Indian Armed Forces but also with those of the foreign defence forces. General S. F. Rodrigues, then Major General, was the Chief Instructor (CI) Army at the DSSC. While at the DSSC, within four months of my arrival, I was nominated to go on an assignment to Iraq, but I declined, having just experienced the Nigerian episode. However after some time, I was selected to undergo a training course with the US Marine Forces in their Amphibious Warfare School at the Naval base at San Diego, where we were able to interact with officers from many foreign countries, mostly US allies. I was also able to visit a few places of interest. I saw the famous Grand Canyon and the pleasure town of Las Vegas. On my return to India, I re-joined the DSSC to get back to teaching.

In 1981, I along with a few others from the DSSC got selected for the Higher Command Course at the Army War College MHOW. The course is considered professionally important and since it was of twelve months duration, involved moving on permanent transfer. The constant moves in the Army are both a challenge as well an opportunity, for Army families to see new places, and adapt to new schools and environment. General K Sundarji was the Commandant at the college at Mhow and he made the Higher Command Course extremely interesting and instructive. As part of the course we got opportunities of carrying out battle studies and field tours of the Western as well as the Eastern front, as also to interact with the Air Force and the Navy. The course prepares selected officers of all arms and services after the successful unit command, for higher command and future senior leadership.

On a field trip to the East while on Higher Command Course

On completion of the Higher Command Course, I was posted as the General Staff Officer (GSO) I/Col. General Staff[1] of an Infantry Division at Meerut, which had its operational tasks on the western borders. The GOC of the Division initially was Major General I. J. Khanna, who was succeeded by Major General P.S. Vadhera (known as ‘Stiffy’), a very hard trainer. Having served earlier in J&K, Sikkim and Nagaland, this was my first professional experience in the plains and riverine sectors. In less than two years as the Col GS, I received my orders to take over command of 120 Infantry Brigade on the Line of Control (LOC) in the ‘Rajouri –Poonch’ sector under the 25 Infantry Division, then commanded by Major General V. Badhwar. Col V Raja Ram of the Regiment was the Col GS of the Division. Two years of active command in the field resulted in shifting my children to the separated officers’ family accommodation in New Delhi and a change of schools for the 11th and 9th time respectively for my son and daughter.

As GSO I with the GOC Major General I.J.Khanna

As the Commander 120 Infantry Brigade (standing second from left) with the GOC Major General Badhwar (standing third from left) and COs of the battalions of the Brigade 

The command of 120 Infantry Brigade was active and challenging, as there was constant firing across the LOC, and one had to exercise considerable ingenuity to maintain moral ascendancy. However, there were always the perpetual shortages of the Medium Machine Guns, night vision devices and the bunker bursting rifles, which could partially be overcome by creating alternative positions and timely re-location. In the brigade sector, there were a few villages on the border who had relatives residing across the LoC, and these constituted problems of surveillance and security.
With the Brigade Officers in the winter snow 

The Brigade had four battalions and an extensive sector with a total of 93 posts to defend. The gaps were inevitable and could only be plugged with intensive patrolling, and, occasionally enabled infiltration, in bad weather. In fact, it took me a little over six months to visit all the posts as most of these involved walking, despite the fact that I was physically tough and was on familiar environment the LoC earlier. I would be honest to admit that command of the brigade on the LoC does give some advantage to those who have served in the infantry as the problems encountered can be similar and therefore, better visualized. The stream of visiting VIPs included the then RM (Shri Venkatraman), the COAS, General A S. Vaidya, and the Army Commander, Lt. General M.L. Chhibber, besides delegates from training institutes.

As the Commander120 Infantry Brigade (standing fifth from left) briefing the COAS General A.S.Vaidya (standing with back to the camera) 
 The command of the 120 Infantry Brigade was interesting from the point view of training as well. The Army Commander had scheduled the battle-study tours and my brigade was asked to conduct the battle of the OP hill of 1965, which had been fought in my brigade sector. The war veterans, both serving and retired were invited to personally narrate the events to the audience on the actual ground of the battle as they perceived it. The spectators were made to walk the area of operations and analyse the operation so as to learn relevant lessons. The audience was representative of the entire command and was very appreciative of the effort, particularly the narration by the actual participants. In the meanwhile, there was a change in the command and we got a new GOC, in Major General R. Sharma of 8 CAV. He was the deputy at the HQ, already placed to take over the command on promotion. This is a good practice, as it allows the new incumbent to understand the issues well and should be followed. I was also due for change and was hoping to move on some comfortable staff assignment. However, this was not to be! While I was visiting 15 Punjab, on the LoC, my staff informed me of my transfer orders as Commander 50 (I) Para Brigade, which was rather strange and I asked the GOC to have it checked with the Army HQ. The GOC was also equally surprised, as I was not a Paratrooper, but he said there was no error in the orders. So, I proceeded to take over command of the 50 (I) Para Brigade, in a hitherto unprecedented situation in the Indian Army. 

[1] The General Staff Officer I post which was a post for the rank of Lt Colonel, was upgraded to the rank of Colonel, and termed Colonel General Staff, during my term at the Division. 


  1. Good rewind into the past especially Mirthal. My football training started here

  2. All I seem to remember of Mirthal is sliding down tents, trying my best to swing Tarzan style across the pits in the soldiers' training course, and following Vivek around as we investigated the orange trees in the farmers' fields next to the Unit. The only other children our age in the vicinity were two sisters who seemed to study far more than us! And the nearest town, where we started going to school, was twenty kilometers away.