Thursday, 20 March 2014

Command of ‘The Battle-Axe’ – the 12th Infantry Division

As the GoC 12 Inf Div, Jaisalmer 1989,
with Lt. Gen V K Sood (VCoAS) and Cdr 45 Inf Bde, Brig Pritam SIngh

In January 1988, after my one year course at the National Defence College (NDC), I was appointed the Deputy Military Secretary (A) and given additional charge of the Deputy Military Secretary (Brig) at the Army HQ. I had also been selected for promotion to the next rank. I opted for the command of a Division in any Field–Station so that the education of my children would not get disturbed, since the family could move into the separated officers’ accommodation at Delhi. In the normal course, this would have been possible without any problem, since Field Station postings do not really occupy the top spot in the wish list for postings.

However, I was destined to command a Division not in a Field Station, but in the deserts of Rajasthan. This, after the initial turbulence of putting my children in suitable accommodation at Delhi, turned out to be a unique experience. The command of a Division in the desert terrain was a new experience for me, as most of my earlier service was in the mountainous and riverine terrain. Professionally, there were many new experiences for me to learn from. Additionally, since the area of my command included the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, my wife and I had the opportunity to see and imbibe the spectacular historical grandeur and varied cultural heritage of this part of our country.

The command of a Division is something special, as components of ‘All Arms and Services’ are integral to this Formation. This is the first opportunity in the Army where the Formation Commander gets to train, administer and plan the concerted application of all arms and services in the battlefield. Our Division had the integral Armour Regiment and the better part of the 4(1) Armoured Brigade allotted for operations. This added greatly to my professional learning and understanding of mechanised force and concepts of operations in the deserts, with their vast spaces, open flanks and sand dunes as part of the terrain.

The Division was entrusted with the operational responsibility of the Rajasthan desert sector, which is commonly known in the military as a tactician's dream but a logistician’s nightmare. Navigation in a terrain devoid of land-marks, water management, and the need for detailed administrative planning, were some of the imperatives of this region. The Division was dispersed in the peace-time locations of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Nasirabad and Udaipur, with some units at Jaislamer and Barmer. This large spread entailed frequent visits to these stations, both by road and helicopter. It also involved refining our battle drills to cut down the longer turn-round time for move and deployment to the borders, and the administrative responsibilities of the spread-out cantonments. It took me some time and effort to acquaint myself with the peculiarities of desert terrain, to understand the ‘mechanics’ of mechanised warfare, and the employment of armour. The Commander of the Armoured Brigade, co-located with us at Jodhpur, Brig ‘Maggu’ Nair, a very fine and forthright professional, was of great help in my education and orientation in this aspect.

Driving along the border in a cross-country mode was an interesting experience in more ways than one. As the sifting sand-dunes deposit considerable sand on the border pillars, the problem of navigation increases—and as we experienced, straying across the border occurs if we are not sufficiently careful and vigilant with the navigation drills. Once I experienced this even while travelling by a helicopter. The pilot lost radio contact and we failed to recognise the ground location as there was only a vast tract of desert, and no habitation in sight. Ultimately, we did a few circuits keeping in mind our fuel availability, and landed near a “dhani” (village) to get our bearings. During night marches, the problem gets further compounded. At these times the compass, and a knowledge of night navigation by stars, is of immense value. The camel patrols remain the most dependable allies in the desert not only because of the endurance of the camel, but also its remarkable stealthy gait and navigation skills, as it can retrace its path without guidance. Survival in the desert is not easy and takes considerable time to acquire. I was very impressed by the 10 Para Commando personnel in their ability to withstand the harsh desert climate, travel long distances, and perform special missions. One of the contributing factors in their performance was their expertise in the local terrain as they were recruited from the adjoining areas and were permanently stationed at Jodhpur. The present policy to shift them around various locations has resulted in the loss of this important asset.

HQ 12 Corps, our Corps HQ, was newly raised at Jodhpur and was still in the process of settling down during the tenure of my Command of the Division. Thus, the Division and the 4 (1) Armoured Brigade had to share assets with the Corps till such time as the permanent assets of 12 Corps were established. This was not the most comfortable of situations. It is a fact that each Formation has a distinct identity which requires some amount of independence to flourish. Being co-located together with superior headquarters means that the potential of generating misunderstandings is always latent, and my staff had to show considerable maturity and generosity in dealing with the occasional unreasonable demands emanating from above.

In the Army, due regard to seniors is an inherent and well-accepted part of our training. However, sometimes the Senior HQs tend to impose their authority even in matters regarding social activities. In particular, the demands of the senior ladies from the junior ladies in Ladies Club and Welfare Functions are often a test of patience. This creates avoidable friction. Fortunately for us, with some effort we had established a healthy mutual understanding with the senior HQs under the two Corps Commanders I had the privilege to work with—initially under the very competent and professional Lt. General Narasimhan, SC, AVSM, and later under Lt. General Y N Sharma, AVSM, SM.

My wife, Aruna Shekhar, with the ladies of the Div

General Sharma was a tough, no-nonsense and professional Corps Commander, who set us an example about personal and professional behaviour. He used to cycle to his office on the weekly maintenance day, when all transport was under maintenance. I also followed his example and took to using the bicycle to my office on the maintenance day. That senior officers should do so, is a fairly rare occurrence. Lt. General Y N Sharma also tasked me to write a ‘Desert Doctrine’ as a guide on operational concepts, and gave me a very competent team of ‘all arms’ to assist. He took considerable personal interest in its evolution, and we were able to produce a document as the ‘Bible’ for desert warfare. Many years later, it was satisfying to learn from Lt. General Panag, GoC-in-C Northern Command, that while he was the GoC 21 Corps and was searching for material on desert warfare, the only document he could obtain was the one produced by my team from HQ 12 Corps.

The kind of challenges this terrain generates, is still evident at the site of the famous ‘Battle of Longewala’ of the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The heroic action of the Punjab Regiment and in particular, that of Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, MVC, at Longewala continues to inspire the Indian Army, and other visitors too. Field-visits to the scene of the Battle still form part of the training of the Officer-students of the Higher Command Course of the Army. The deployment at Longewala sand-dunes was limited to one company of infantry supported by a section of mortars, and two detachments of 106 mm RCL guns. They beat back the assault on the location by steadfastly defending their positions and swiftly engaging the enemy, who was also handicapped by the difficult terrain and lack of logistics support. The company defences were well prepared, with a minefield and a field battery in support. The enemy column led by tanks was sighted by the patrols as soon as they crossed the border. The information was passed to the battalion HQ and through them to the IAF and the Army Air observation flight. The IAF responded quickly to this armour threat and engaged the advancing tank column by destroying the bulk of enemy tanks and the vehicular column. The timely engagement of the IAF on the Pakistani tanks, are still visible on the battle field with abandoned tell-tales of Pakistani armour. The few tanks that had closed in to the defences of Longewala were engaged by the RCL detachments of the Punjab Regiment and destroyed.

Today, the road network and tourist infrastructure in this region has been augmented considerably. The oil and natural gas finds in the region have also brought material prosperity and increased the density of this otherwise sparsely inhabited area. In the late eighties, when I was commanding the Division, although the quality of the roads was good, there was little infrastructure development; the population centres were few; and the Indira Gandhi Canal was still on the drawing board. I enjoyed travelling by road, and insisted on good maintenance standards so as to economise on vehicle-utilization. I also discontinued the system of the follow-up vehicles that were the norm for Commanders, although at times it meant delays in my schedule due to break-downs and no back-ups.

While on our road travels and frequent inspections in the Corps sector, my wife and I were able to squeeze in some time to see some of the justly famous historical monuments and sites, such as the Nathdwara Temple, Chittorgarh Fort, Udaipur Palace and the temples of Mount Abu. In the neighbouring 11 Inf Div sector, my visits to the temple at the historical site of Dwarka and the Rann of Kutch were most memorable. As the chairman of the Sainik Schools at Alwar and Chittorgarh, I was also required to visit and interact with the schools and their faculty. I was much impressed by the standards. However, I was surprised to learn of the low rate of selection of the Sainik School cadets to the NDA. Their communication skills in English were perhaps not good enough, and may have led to them not meeting the selection criteria. While it is true that knowledge of English is practically essential to communicate with the larger world today, we should be cautious in not ascribing too much importance to fluency in English. There are other criteria such as integrity, intelligence and courage which are of more importance in a military career than fluency in a particular language. In any case, most of the teaching in NDA is of such a high standard that any gaps in one’s knowledge are swiftly filled in, and any rough edges polished off.

While serving here, I also had the honour of a visit by the Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) Gen SF Rodrigues and the then Army Commander (later CoAS), General B C Joshi, to my Division and the forward posts. During my visits to Jaipur, I took the opportunity to meet Lt. General Sagat Singh, one of my predecessors in the 50 (I) Para Brigade and the illustrious Field Commander of the 4 Corps in the 1971 War, besides meeting Brig Bhavani Singh, MVC, another paratrooper and the Maharaja of Jaipur. However, my very satisfying command of the 12 Inf Div came to an end all too soon. Eighteen months after taking over the Command of the Division, I moved on to HQ 15 Corps as the Chief of Staff (CoS) in June 1991.
As GoC 12 Inf Div with General Roderigues (CoAS) 1989 

With General and Mrs.Roderigues 
Receiving General BC Joshi at Jodhpur (1990)