Tuesday, April 30, 2013

From Telegram to Twitter: 3 decades and more of fun

My first big purchase: the Brother portable
Two years ago, as I completed three decades in journalism, our children asked me how it all began and how I feel looking back? Here's what I had written then. Reproducing the piece here for many freinds and students of journalism who ask now how does it feel to be a 'semi-retired' journalist, as I call myself these days, after giving up active, day-to-day journalism last December! 

Two persons--MV Kamath and Vinod Mehta--who played a big part in my career have moved on to another world since I wrote the piece below. 

Can only say one thing: life has been extra-ordinarily kind to me. Can't be grateful enough. Here's the journey so far.

(From the archives: April 30, 2013)

In the mind's eye, I remember it as if it happened yesterday!

The 30 year long journey in journalism actually began with an accident! 

In the summer of 1983, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were concerned. I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30th and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold. I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of Combined Defense Services Exam that December. That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow.
The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for their sports pages. Having played all games—from kabaddi to squash and from kho kho to cricket—as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held. Five days later, they called me for an interview.
My first interview as a journalist--with Asha Parekh(Aug 1983); At my desk in 1984; with colleagues at The Sentinel in 1985;
And finally a historic picture:
With rebel-turned- Chief Minister of Mizoram--Laldenga (partially hidden), Aizawl 1986. 
Don't miss Vipin Pubby (Currently Resident Editor, Indian Express, Chandigarh, on extreme right in specs) and Nirmalya Banerjee, currently with TOI in Kolkatta, listening intently. Behind me is Seema Guha
With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 736 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday.
At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me: “When can you join?”
My answer was, “Whenever you want.”
Editor: “Can you join, tonight?”
Me: “Why not!” and I joined the newspaper that very evening!
And just like that I became a journalist. 
Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am.
Three decades into that journey, the first thought that comes to mind is how extra ordinarily lucky one has been. 
Blessed in fact.

To have a family that never ever questioned my decision to take up what was in those pre-liberalisation days, a suicidal career choice.

And fortunate to have met so many gifted, talented and brilliant peers, colleagues, seniors, sources and contacts. And benefited from their friendship, advice and support. Some have left this world, others have drifted away as it inevitably happens in life.

The exciting 1990s that took me and fellow photographers to mountains, rivers and jungles of the north-east. Clockwise from top left:
With then Outlook colleague Swapan Nayak at an NSCN camp; in the jungles of Manipur; On a ferry on the River Brahmaputra; at Walong with Swapan and at the Sela Pass with another Outlook photographer Jitendra Gupta

Some personalities however have left an indelible mark.

The first name that comes to mind is that of Ananda Dasgupta, my first Chief Sub-editor.

A quick-tempered but fair boss, an old desk hand from The Statesman and the then newly-launched The Telegraph, Ananda was the lynchpin for the newly launched paper. He took me, like all other newcomers, under his wings.

He would drive us hard. Night shift was mandatory. There was no rotation. So one went to office at 5 in the evening and never returned home before 4 am. Some times even 6 am when Ananda, who used to stay alone, away from family in Calcutta, wanted a morning cup of tea at the railway station. So we would go to Platform No 1 of Gauhati Railway station, grab a cup of tea, sometimes Ananda would eat fresh plain dosa and then we would go our respective homes!
A month after I joined The Sentinel, the local showpiece Gopinath Bordoloi Football tournament began its annual competition. I was told to go the Nehru stadium every afternoon by 2pm cover the two matches, come to office, write out the match report and then help out Ananda and others in putting the rest of the pages together. 

The big three from Calcutta--Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Mohammedan Sporting--were the big attractions. The biggest draw used to be Port Authority Bangkok team. The crowd favourites were of course local teams of Assam Police and Oil India.

I was not yet 21.

The thrill of being part of a small team that produced a newspaper was a big high for one so young.

The adrenaline was always high.

Then on June 25th, Kapil Dev's unheralded team won the Prudential Cricket World Cup. We didn't have a TV at home but being on the sports desk, I had the privilege of watching the match in the office.The whole nation erupted in joy. As the triumphant team returned home, the euphoria showed no signs of abating even a month later. The paper were full of articles, analysis and photographs of Kapil's Devils.

My first article
 Every day, industrialists and state governments were announcing rewards to the winning team members. As a former university cricketer, I was happy for the players but I was also alarmed at the way everyone was going overboard with praise. The thought remained with me though.

One evening in late June, Ananda was struggling to put together the paper and so was I in getting any sports news for the back page since the wires (PTI and UNI) were completely down. Despite enlarging photographs and using some feature articles, the page was short of enough material. Worried, I went to Ananda with my problem. Hassled as he was, he exploded: “Don't bother me, find anything to fill the pages.” Perplexed, I stood there, baffled. Then Ananda added: “You are such a vocal critic of the way Indian cricket team is being feted. Why don’t you put your thoughts on paper,” and walked away.

Furious with myself and angry with Ananda, I went to my table and wrote out in long hand and all capital letters whatever I felt. The result: My first article entitled: Are we overreacting? Around midnight, I walked up to Ananda and gave him the piece. He made a couple of corrections and said “send it for composing.” The paper used to be typeset on the newly acquired Apple Macintosh machines. Next morning the article was published. I was naturally elated to see my name in the paper for the first time.

Next evening, when I walked into the Newsroom, Ananda smiled but didn’t say anything. I got down to work. Then an hour later, he said “let’s grab a cup of tea.” Obediently, I walked out with him. As we sipped our tea, Ananda, put a hand on my shoulder and said: “You know buddy. I don’t see you joining the Air Force.” I was startled. But before I could say anything, he added: “You are destined to become a journalist. You know the speed and clarity with which you wrote that piece last night indicates the flair you have for writing and analysis. Don’t think of any other career, if my advice means anything to you.” We came back into the newsroom and I got busy with the day’s work again. Ananda’s words were still echoing in mind though.

Best Defence Reporter 2010
That night and the next day, my mind was a pot-pourri of emotions. Flattered by Ananda’s praise, one part of me said, “Boy you are one bright spark,” the other, more cautious part was sending a warning signalling: “Parents will be livid for throwing away the chance of a steady government job, have you thought of that?” A natural procrastinator that I am, I remember saying to myself: We will see what happens. For now enjoy the moment." 
With that in mind, I plunged
Outlook Days
wholeheartedly into any work that was assigned to me.

So over the next couple of months I just went with the flow. But work was slowly turning into passion. Then suddenly in October 1983, Ananda’s father suffered a stroke in Calcutta. So he rushed there never to come back. As he left the office, he took me aside and just said one sentence: Remember what I said to you kid.” And went away. Because of his father’s health Ananda never came back to Gauhati.

Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot. My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a Junior Commissioned Officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time: “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam and never regretted it.

In November 1983, I was confirmed as a permanent employee of The Sentinel on a monthly salary of Rs 736.20! I was 21 years and two months old! And I never went back to giving any competitive exam.

Gradually, I was assigned additional tasks apart from sports pages. I started reporting too. In December 1983, Clive Lloyd’s West Indian team beat Kapil Dev’s Indians 5-0 in a One-Day series. The last match was in Guwahati. And I had the privilege of covering that match! And interact with the legendary Clive Lloyd. What more could a 21-year old ask?

1984 was a tumultuous year for India.
With Neha in Kargil 2009

Operation Blue Star, mutiny among Sikh troops, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Delhi riots, Bhopal gas tragedy. There was never a dull moment on the desk.

When I look back, I realise that my long journey in journalism is marked by several lucky breaks. If Ananda was responsible to push me into the unknown and uncertain arena of journalism, it was MV Kamath, yes the doyen of journalists, who swept away any doubts I had of continuing in journalism. In late 1984, he was visiting Guwahati and during an interaction with him in his hotel, I asked him: “Sir how have you survived in journalism so long?” (He had already done nearly 35 years in the profession then).

In his typical avuncular way, Mr Kamath shared the secret. “Son, my guru had told me decades ago: follow three principles in journalism, and you will never go wrong. I have tried to follow them. I can only share those three points.” They are:

  • ·         Do serious work, never take yourself seriously
  • ·         It is more important what you don’t write than what you write
  • ·         You are as good as your last by-line

Sub-consciously or otherwise, having followed that advice, I realise now they were golden words.

By 1985, I had started reporting beyond Guwahati. On one occasion, I remember having rushed to a area called Merapani on the Assam-Nagaland border where a clash between Assam and Nagaland Police had left 30-odd policemen dead. It was like war.

The only means to send the news was through a Press Telegram. There used to be a credit card issued by the Posts and Telegraph Department to individual news organisations and correspondents/reporters could go to the near Telegraph office, give in their copy which used to be then transmitted through Morse code from place A to B. A Postal Department courier then used to deliver those telegrams to the respective offices, all sticky with the gum. The Telegram then used to be rewritten, sent for composing. It was a tedious and tiresome process. Sometimes telegrams used to take up to 12 hours to reach their destination!

Slowly we graduated to point-to-point telex machines, then to fax, followed by emails and finally in the second decade of the 21st century to twitter! After Sentinel, it was The North-East Times, The Telegraph, Outlook, Tehelka and now NDTV that have sustained the pursuit of journalism.
Lecturing at At Southern Naval Command

In this long journey from telegram to twitter, only one thing has been constant: Family support. First my parents and from 1988 onward  my life, Neha, who happens to be my wife. And the two boys Harsh and Utkarsh, who are now young men aged 24 and 19 respectively. They never complain about my sudden travel plans, long absence, uncertain hours, and many a holiday plans remaining just plans because some assignment came up suddenly. The assignments have ranged from the jungles in the north-east to the battlefields of Kargil and Sri Lanka and from Tsunami and earthquake hit areas to cricket stadiums and a train to Tibet! Absolutely a fun ride!

And how can one forget companions, friends and peers?

At a South Asia conference in Dubia
Samudra Gupta Kashyap, my closest friend in media; Ajith Pillai and Vinod Mehta of Outlook who gave me the biggest break in my career by sending me to Kargil from North-east in 1999;  Barkha who invited me to join NDTV in 2005; Prannoy and Radhika Roy, Sonia Singh and many camerapersons, editors, reporter colleagues like Sudhi Ranjan Sen of NDTV who facilitated my transition from print to television with great patience and understanding.

This is not a thank you speech but it certainly is a look back on a journey that continues. I still get excited to get the story right and ahead of others; I still feel nice to see my name in print; But age and experience has also brought in the realisation that you win some, you lose some! And that content, not packaging is important no matter where you work: in print, web or TV.

The boys and their mother
I am often asked many questions about the current state of journalism at different forums. Let me say only this: These are not the best of times for media for various reasons. The deterioration in many aspects is a topic for another article but at the moment I just want to say how grateful one feels for having found the strength, stamina and support to stay the course, no matter what the situation.

Rest as they say is secondary.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

India-China standoff: Journey to Tawang recalled

In the backdrop of the current face off between India and China in Ladakh, I thought it would be useful to recall my travel to the Eastern front--to the Kameng Sector--to commemorate half a century of the 1962 war. So here it: Still pictures, a half hour documentary, several articles. Its a longish post. Take a look for whatever it is worth.

September 2012 was a busy, educative and humbling experience for me. 

In trying to piece together the story of the 1962 border war between India and China, half a century later was not easy.

 In the end however, all the trouble--physical and mental--has been worth it. 

In the process, several discoveries were made: The biggest was that most of contents of the over-hyped Henderson Brookes Report on the military aspects of India's biggest and only defeat since 1947 was already in public domain courtesy the Official History of the 1962 war co-authored by Col (retd) Anil Athale. Col Athale had that report in his physical possession for two years! He has quoted extensively from that report! So much for secrecy, scoops and claims about the HB Report.

My travel to Tawang was a different experience altogether. Missed deadlines, half done work, shoddy planning on the infrastructure front was really saddening.

Another disheartening fact was the Indian Army's blockade of information and access to areas along the China border. Half a century later, the Army should have been proudly talking about the changes it has brought in terms of both preparedness as well as mindsets. It would have been appropriate for the Army to showcase the difference between 1962 and now. But the Brass told journalists that areas under Eastern Command and Eastern Ladakh are out of bounds for them. The logic was: Why up the ante against the Chinese? Still under confident? Afraid of the Chinese? Or pure and simple obduracy?

I have never been able to understand the logic.

Nevertheless, here's the sum total of my small effort to bring the 1962 war back in focus. The links below:


and the latest write up.


(details below)

Remembering the India-China border war

By Nitin Gokhale - 22 October 2012 12:33 PM

Nitin Gokhale is Security and Strategic Affairs Editor with India's leading broadcaster NDTV.
On Saturday, India observed the 50th anniversary of its comprehensive military defeat in the brief border war with China in the winter of 1962. It is important to look back at the events leading to the skirmish before attempting to assess what the future holds for the relationship between the two Asia giants.

In a way, the origins of the border war can be traced to two unrelated events in 1959. In March that year, Tibetan temporal and spiritual leader Dalai Lama fled to India through Arunachal Pradesh (then known as North-East Frontier Agency or NEFA) following a Chinese crackdown in Tibet. New Delhi's decision to grant the Dalai Lama political asylum did not go down well with China although Beijing did not make its annoyance too obvious.

The second event was India's discovery of a road, connecting China's mainland to the restive Sinkiang, built by China through the Indian held but unmanned Aksai Chin area in Ladakh. That discovery triggered the ill-thought 'Forward Policy', initiated by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in consultation with his cousin Lt. Gen BM Kaul, a non-combat officer.

Under that policy the army was ordered to establish posts with less than  dozen soldiers in areas that were neither connected by road nor had any strategic value just to show that the land belonged to India. The establishment of these 300-odd 'penny packets', as one general later described them, led China to believe that India was preparing for a showdown over the border. Nehru, under pressure from the opposition and the people, was goaded into ordering a reckless plan to 'evict' the Chinese from Aksai Chin and NEFA against the professional advice of his military brass.

The so-called Indian provocation apart, Mao Zedong by some accounts also wanted to teach India a lesson since India and China were both competing for leadership position in Asia of the time. Mao seized the opportunity by coinciding the attack with the Cuban missile crisis. Col (ret'd) Anil Athale, who co-authored the official history of the 1962 war for India's Ministry of Defence says Mao used the tension between the US and the USSR to launch the offensive against India.

'The Chinese were aware of the impending Cuban missile deployment and calculated that the US would be engaged in a major confrontation with the erstwhile USSR to come to India's aid. The Chinese methodically built up its supplies and troops in Tibet to wait for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis. That opportunity came on 20 October when the US decided to confront the USSR on Cuba,' Athale told me.
Fifty years after that bloody confrontation in which India lost over 4,000 soldiers, much has changed on the ground. Indian deployment all along the line of actual control, as the de facto boundary is called, is sufficiently strong although border infrastructure on the Indian side is still below par

A repeat of 1962 is unlikely but tension between the two countries over the unresolved border issue continues to simmer despite rising bilateral trade ($US73 billion last year).

The intense India-China geopolitical rivalry is playing out in both South and South East Asia. China is making big inroads into India's neighbourhood by increasing its presence in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. Beijing's long-standing relationship with Pakistan continues to be a constant threat to India; the increasing Chinese footprints in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan, abutting Ladakh, worries India no end.

The rivalry, in a way, also extends to South East Asia as New Delhi gets sucked into the South China Sea and East China Sea disputes Beijing is involved in. China is wary of India's rising defence and economic ties with Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and Australia. But the biggest irritant between New Delhi and Beijing in coming years will be in the form of growing bilateral ties between the United States and India. Strategists in Beijing think Washington is cosying up to New Delhi to balance China's preeminent position in Asia.

As India looks back at the 1962 border war, its leadership will do well to realise that an increasingly assertive power like China will strive to keep India 'off-balance' by what can rightly be described as 'creeping tactical belligerence' on all fronts even while it seeks to develop economic and cultural ties with New Delhi.

In the final analysis, New Delhi must learn to look after its own national interests even as it attempts to deal with its increasingly powerful China.

Photos courtesy DRP, Govt of India.

With Neten Tashi, a SIB spy in 1962 who escorted
the Dalai Lama from Khinzamane to Bomdilla in 1959

With my closest friend, travelling companion, fellow journalist
Samudra Gupta Kashyap at the Tawang War Memorial

Doing a Piece to Camera at Tawang War Memorial
Tezpur to Tawang--a pictorial journey
Pelting rain greets us

At Bhalukpong on the border of Assam and Arunachal

BRO labourers at work

Jimmy Jesibo, a local activist based in Bhalukpong, a town on the Assam-Arunachal Border  is  very angry. The reason: the abysmal condition of the road going right upto Tawang and beyond along the China border.

Bearing the brunt of resentment is the hardworking staff of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), entrusted with widening and improving the roads. Enraged residents, unable to bear the hardship any more, have attacked BRO officials, destroyed their vehicles and have thrown heavy tippers and bulldozers down the steep valleys in the past six months.

Half a century earlier, this was where the marauding Chinese routed the Indian army, pushed into a war it was not prepared for in a tough terrain it was not used to. 

Today the soldiers are definitely better looked after and unlike in 1962, they  are well-trained to fight in the high-altitude terrain of Arunachal Pradesh.

But five decades down the line, infrastructure, especially the main arterial road connecting Tawang to  the rest of India remains a major worry.

Jimmy Jibeso says, "Since the 1962 war, this route is very important for the north-east due to the Indo-china border. If the condition of the road is bad then how will Bofors reach the border in case of an attack. What will we do then? One needs good and big roads for Bofors. This is our main concern. Second concern is that medical help is not good up in Tawang and other places. If a patient has to be taken to Tezpur, Guwahati and other places, the road is so jerky and bad that the patient dies on the way. So we want good roads."

The Army, more than anyone else really requires this axis to be an all-weather road.  Since 2010, it has inducted a full new division - over 20,000 additional soldier -for  this sector.

Deteriorating roads

The majestic Kameng
The Border Roads Organisation, a quasi-military organization is entrusted with building and maintaining these strategic roads. Come rain or winter, labourers of Border Roads Organisation work to keep the only road link to Tawang open through the year but at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The fault lies not with them but with people higher up who planned  the widening of the only road without building an alternative.

Constant landslips, frequent blockades are a recurring challenge. But landslides apart , BRO officials tell us that they are plagued by a shortage of labour in this sector. Earlier, large groups from Jharkhand and Bihar made their way to these parts.  No longer, since now plenty of work is available in their home states. Excruciatingly slow environmental clearances both by the central and state governments add to the delays.

Many such waterfalls by the road. Koyla was not shot here though

Landslides are a common phenomenon

Once a journo, always a journo!

A BRO labourer

For most of the 300 km, the road is as rough as this

My colleague Nirmal hard at work

One of the lesser known war memorials

Clouds just before Sela

Sela behind me

At Sela--13700 feet

The lake after Sela
The War Memorial at Tawang

Archival pix at the War Memorial. Indian PsOW

A Monpa man

A young monk taking a break in the Tawang Monastery

School children at Jang

At Jaswantgarh--the most famous War Memorial in this sector

No matter what the condition of the road, Army vehicles continue to ply

Unusual site: BRO labourers taking a chess break!

Terribly slushy road

The difficult road

At the Sela zig-zag--doing a piece to camera

Chinese agression in 1962. Captured in a photo 

The Buddha statue inside Tawang monastery

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Changing Socio-economic Norms and its Impact on India’s Armed Forces


The Indian Army remains rooted in an outdated, British-inherited system that is struggling to cope with the combination of challenges posed by demands of modern warfare and a society that is undergoing a great
churn. The greatest challenge has been to the famous officer–men relationship in the Indian armed forces. In the past decade, the armed forces have faced a new problem: increasing incidents of indiscipline, suicides and fratricide. Are these incidents happening because the traditional bond between officers and men, the bedrock on which the military functions, is fraying at the edges? Are there other external factors impinging upon the armed forces’ functioning and eroding some of its admirable values? The article attempts to focus on these issues and provide some basic answers.


It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.1
The last time the Indian soldier featured prominently in the collective consciousness of the nation was when the Kargil skirmish broke out in the summer of 1999. As images of the conflict were beamed directly into our bedrooms for the first time, a patriotic fervour swept the nation.

As the body bags came home, a grateful nation paid rich tribute to the Indian Army and the ordinary soldier.2 For a while, names like Captain Vikram Batra, Havaldar Yogendra Yadav and Captain Anuj Nayyar became household names for their acts of bravery and ultimate sacrifice for the nation.3

Nearly 14 years after that skirmish, Kargil is but a distant memory, an annual ritual to be observed only by the Army at Drass. Since then, the nation has moved on. A generation has grown up in the new, prosperous India full of gleaming glass and chrome buildings that dot our burgeoning cities. New employment avenues have opened up.

There are more people involved in the service sector, working in malls, hospitality industry, restaurants, information technology (IT)-enabled services than ever before. Most of the jobs in India have been created in the service sector in the past decade. Economists say that the fastest employment creation has happened in sectors like financial intermediation, computer services, business services, communications and legal and technical services, followed by education, health and social work, hotels, restaurants, and other community, social and personal services.

With a visible shift in the nature of India’s economic activity has come the inevitable change in the composition of the society. While the size of the Indian middle class is variously estimated between 200 and 300 million, a new, ‘aspiring middle class’ is fast emerging on the periphery of the ‘Great Indian Middle Class’. This class of people (with an annual income in the range of Rs 90,000 to Rs 2 lakh) is now estimated to be roughly 34 per cent of the population, according to one study.

This rise in the aspiring middle class has brought about change in the age-old structure of the Indian rural and semi-urban society. Aspirations have undergone tremendous changes too. The youth, even from the rural areas, have higher ambitions, sometimes even way beyond their capacity. The hitherto underprivileged class has been politically empowered. Joint large families have mutated to become nuclear. Politics has become the new short cut to material success and power. The economic and political transformation of India over a decade-and-a-half has brought in its wake a much wider basket of career options. Soldiering as the first-choice career is being pushed down the priority list in many areas.

Although the numbers in Army recruitment rallies have not declined so far despite these alternate choices (on the contrary, the participation in the recruitment rallies in far-flung areas seems to have risen), the quality of intake is certainly deteriorating.
6 It is against this great ferment in Indian society, triggered by massive socio-economic upheaval, that this article attempts to focus on its impact on the Indian armed forces.

The Indian Soldier
Jawan as he is affectionately called, India’s soldier…represents all of India…he is a microcosmic model of India.
                                                                                                                General S. Padmanabhan, Former Army Chief

When the former Army Chief wrote this, the Indian Army was fresh out of the Kargil experience. Caught on the wrong foot by the intrusion by Pakistani forces disguised as irregulars in the Kargil–Batalik–Mushkoh sectors in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Indian Army troops fought valiantly and wrested the control of many heights occupied by the Pakistani Army. The victory came at a great cost though: 524 killed and 1,363 wounded.
8 But the fading pride in the armed forces was restored. Kargil helped cement the bond between the Indian public and the Indian soldier.

Traditionally, the Indian Army has never found itself facing a shortage of manpower in the lower ranks since many young men from agrarian societies took up the profession of arms as a means of self-actualization. The post-independence era offered very satisfactory terms and conditions of service to fulfil these needs. The monetary benefits were higher than most other professions. A military uniform guaranteed higher status in the largely feudal society. Social support for the soldier’s family was assured. The Indian soldier had the izzat that gave him more satisfaction than mere monetary benefits. Soldering meant the assurance of an early pension and long-term medical support which was unique to the military among other government services.

Even in the officer rank, the young men found recognition and approval. With proper training, the Services groomed them to become effective leaders. The pride of wearing the uniform, notions of chivalry, patriotism and national service attracted many young men from educated, well-to-do families to the officer cadre in the early years of independence. Since India was not industrialized, the band of career choices was narrow.

You either became a lawyer, a doctor, a professor or joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) or Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But all these professions demanded a long gestation period or higher academic qualifications. The military, on the other hand, promised early returns and decent social security by virtue of perks and pension. So, finding volunteers for India’s officer corps was never a big problem in the early years of independence.

General Padmanabhan has famously written a pen portrait of a satisfied, proud soldier. Describing a soldier’s journey from recruitment to his retirement and beyond, the former Army Chief writes through his fictional character Raj, who is now 75:
I joined the Army when I was 16 years of age. Since then, the Army has been my life and my soul. It gave me a full life, comradeship, action, adventurous life and a fair pay. It taught me all that I know and today, though I am retired and perhaps no use to my battalion, they still reach out to me…from the time I retired, till date, I have been given affection and respect by all sorts of people—government officials, politicians, fellow citizens—everyone. If a soldier serves his country and returns to this kind of affectionate warmth and enjoys it for nearly 37–38 years, what else can he possibly want? If the people remember their soldiers in normal days and are friendly with them, that is about all that I think we need…
The General was surely writing about the days gone by. More than a decade after that famous military triumph in Kargil, the Indian Army is once again at the crossroads.
Although from disaster relief in floods, tsunami and earthquakes to rescuing the infant ‘Prince’ from a deep tube well, and from quelling rioters in communal strife to being the last resort in internal counter-insurgency operations, the Indian Army is omnipresent, as an instrument of the state, the Army’s effectiveness is being blunted through a series of ill-advised and ill-thought out decisions.

Impact of Changing Society
The Army remains rooted in an outdated, British-inherited system that is struggling to cope with the combination of challenges posed by the demands of modern warfare and a society that is undergoing a great churn.

This has posed a great challenge to the famous officer–men relationship in the Indian armed forces. In the past decade, the armed forces have had to face a new problem: increasing incidents of indiscipline, suicides and fratricide. Are these incidents happening because the traditional bond between officers and men, the bedrock on which the military functions, is fraying at the edges? Are there other external factors impinging upon the armed forces functioning and eroding some of its admirable values?

Some studies have been initiated to get to the root of the problem after it was noticed that more than 90 soldiers were committing suicide every year since 2003, going up to an alarming 150 in 2008.10 Adding to the worry are the growing cases of indiscipline and intolerance. In 2012 alone, there were at least three cases of showdown between men and officers. At least 50–60 soldiers of an artillery unit clashed with a group of officers after a young officer allegedly beat up a jawan, leading to near mutiny among the soldiers.11 There were a couple of other instances where tension between jawans and officers boiled over, both the incidents happening in two different armoured regiments, one following suicide by a soldier. This set the alarm bells ringing in the Amy Headquarters, and although the top brass publicly maintained the issue was not as serious as it was made out to be, Defence Minister A.K. Antony in a written answer to the Lok Sabha said: ‘The incident of suicide by an army personnel on 8th August 2012 in the Samba sector of Jammu and Kashmir led to unrest.’12

A former Vice Chief of the Army Staff, Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, also says it is a matter of concern and it is time to take note. In a recent article, General Oberoi stated: ‘Three incidents of collective indiscipline by jawans in the last few months, reflecting a breakdown in the traditionally close officer–man relationship, are a cause for concern, especially as all three of them are related to combat units, where a stable and healthy officer–man relationship is an article of faith.’

Some others, however, maintain that these are isolated incidents and they should not be taken as an indication of a trend in as large an army as India’s with 1.1 million soldiers. But for a force that prides itself on its standards of training and discipline, these incidents should certainly serve as timely warnings. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of these acts of indiscipline: ‘It’s time to ask the question—Is the Indian Army feeling the heat of being in perpetual operations? Are our soldiers’ stress levels peaking dangerously? Making them prone to acts of indiscriminate violence?’

There are no straight answers.

                                                               Contributing Factors
Yes, there is a problem. But the problem is 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 a couple of 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’.15 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; lack of good pay and allowances; and also the falling standards of supervision from some officers. All these factors have led to major stress.

But there are many non-combat reasons that lead to stress. 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.

As a former army commander had once pointed out to me: ‘You see he (soldier [
sic]) comes from a society where he compares himself with others and when he realises that he is at a disadvantage since, acceptance wise, the kind of respect that his predecessors had, is no longer there.’16

Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from a spot of leave. It is precisely this concern that had prompted Defence Minister A.K. Antony to write to all chief ministers some years ago asking them to sensitize district administrations in their states to the needs of the soldiers. State governments were asked to set up a mechanism at district and state levels to address soldiers’ grievances.

And yet, the Army must look within too.

Reforming the Organization
Soldiers these days are better educated and, consequently, better aware of their rights. This, coupled with falling standards of command and control among some of the undeserving officers who have risen to command units, is becoming a major cause for worry.

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 increasing gap 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.

What, however, must be done is to eliminate the overwhelming trend to be a ‘careerist’. The desire to advance one’s career at any cost, to strive for promotion even by cutting corners, and crave for awards as a means to boost chances of attaining the next rank has become a rampant practice amongst the officer class. Preservation of self has exaggerated that tendency and the advancement of career at any cost seems to have become a sine qua non for most officers.

That must change. And that 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.
The Indian military, despite its recent problems, remains a very fine institution. To remain relevant and effective, it must, however, embrace change with discretion. Therein lies the trick in meeting the increasing challenge posed to the military leadership.

1. Father Dennis Edward O’Brien, United States Marine Corps, available at http://americanveteransmemorial.org/Military_Quotes.html, accessed on 24 January 2013.
2. Mehra, Sunil, ‘Last Journey Home’,
Outlook, 28 June 1999, available at http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?207679, accessed on 27 January 2013.
3. Gokhale, Nitin A. and Aniruddha Behl, ‘Leading from the Front’,
Outlook, 26 July 1999, available at http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?207810, accessed on 27 January 2013.
4. Eichengreen, Barry and Poonam Gupta, ‘The Service Sector as India’s Road to Economic Growth’, Working Paper 16757, National Bureau of Economic Research, February 2011, available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w16757, accessed on 26 January 2013.
5. Bhattacharyya, Pramit, ‘The Rise of India’s Middle Class’
, Mint, 31 December 2012, available at http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/ 1bdWFKo9ImvhFySfrCI3aJ/The-rise-of-Indias-neo-middle-class.html, accessed on 20 January 2013.
6. Interaction of the author with recruiting officers over the past three years. They will have to remain anonymous since they are serving officers.
7. Padmanabhan, S.,
A General Speaks, New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2005, p. 155.
8. See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/kargil-99.htm, accessed 26 February 2013.
9. Padmanabhan S.,
A General Speaks, n. 7. 94 Journal of Defence Studies
10. In 2003, 96 army men committed suicide; in 2004, this number was exactly 100; in 2005, 92 of them took their own lives; and in 2006, 131 army personnel committed suicide. In 2007 and 2008, the recorded figures were 142 and 150, respectively. Since then, the numbers have come down but still remain over 100: in 2009 it was 111; in 2010 it was 130; and in 2011 it was 102, according to the Ministry of Defence.
11. Ganai, Nasir and Gautam Dutt, ‘How Brawl between Army Officers, Jawans at Leh Started’,
Mail Today, 12 May 2012, available at http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/how-brawl-between-army-officers-jawans-at-nyoma-leh-started/1/188444.html, accessed on 28 January 2013.
12. ‘The incident of a suicide by an Army personnel on August 8 in Samba sector of Jammu and Kashmir led to unrest. A Court of Inquiry (CoI) has been convened by the Army to investigate the matter,’ Mr Antony said in a written reply to the Lok Sabha. PTI report quoted on NDTV website, available at http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/jawan-s-suicide-led-to-unrest-among-troops-in-samba-ak-antony-262943, accessed on 28 January 2013.
13. Oberoi, Vijay, ‘Take Turbulence in the Ranks Seriously’,
DNA, 23 August 2012, available at http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column_take-turbulence-in-the-ranks-seriously_1731500, accessed on 21 January 2013.
14. Gokhale, Nitin A., ‘Why is Officer–Men Relationship Declining in the Army?’,
rediff.com, 5 September 2012, available at http://www.rediff.com/news/column/why-is-officer-men-relationship-declining-in-the-army/20120905.htm, accessed on 18 January 2013.
15. Author’s interview with doctors in the Northern and Eastern Commands in 2007-08, and with scientists of the Defence Institute of Psychological Research for his NDTV documentary, ‘The Indian Army: The Battle Within’, broadcast on 12 January 2007. See http://www.ndtv.com/video/player/special-report/indian-army-the-battle-within/10690m, accessed on 22 January 2013.
16. Author’s interview with Lt. Gen. T.K. Sapru, who retired as Western Army Commander for NDTV in January 2007 (he was 16 Corps Commander that year).