Sunday, October 27, 2013

Half a step forward on border management with China

Signing BDCA
"China and India are willing to deepen our political mutual trust, practical cooperation, and also expand people-to-people and cultural exchanges. All of this requires a good media environment. I hope that the friends of the press will play your special role and magnify and spread afar the stories of China and India’s joint commitment to deepen cooperation, friendship and pursue development."

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Joint media statement session with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Beijing on 23October 2013.

That the Chinese Premier needed to specifically mention his expectation from the media in an official statement perhaps brings out clearly the apprehension that the Chinese have about what many Chinese leaders call "disruptive" influence of the Indian media on the Sino-India relations. Privately, Indian officials often cite a Chinese complaint which paints the media in India as the spoiler in the efforts to build better relations between New Delhi and Beijing. This is only half truth. Very often even Chinese media has belligerent and bellicose voices articulating warnings to India. It always takes two hands to clap, after all.

But the homily to media notwithstanding, Prime Minister Singh's two-day trip to China was well highlighted both in Indian and Chinese media.

As The Hindu's Ananth Krishnan reported from Beijing: "The outcome of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two-day visit to China, especially the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), has underlined both countries’ willingness to manage their differences and sent “a positive and powerful message” to the world, said Chinese officials and state media on Friday."
“There is a Chinese saying that a distant relative is not as good as a close neighbour,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying here. Beijing, she said, was “committed to building up strategic mutual trust” and “deepening practical cooperation across the board” with its neighbours.
In the Forbidden City
The BDCA, which expands and formalises additional confidence-building measures, was described as a “landmark legal document” in an article published in the State-run China Daily. “Beijing and New Delhi have successfully brought the border situation under control and properly handled the latest ups and downs,” said Qu Xing, a senior strategic affairs scholar and head of the China Institute of International Studies, affiliated to the Foreign Ministry.
The agreement, he told the newspaper, will “help eliminate potential misunderstanding and misjudgement”.
On 23 October, India and China signed what is now being called a 'landmark' Border Defence Cooperation Agreement or BDCA in the presence of the two Prime Ministers. 
Eight other pacts including one on sharing more data on trans-border rivers were also inked by the two sides but the centre piece undoubtedly was the border cooperation agreement which seeks to avoid an incident like the one along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in April this year when Chinese troops marched 19 km inside Indian territory in Ladakh and camped there for three weeks before withdrawing. 

That episode almost derailed the visit of the Chinese Premier--his first abroad--to India. It took at least half a dozen flag meetings and intervention at a much higher level to defuse the situation. The leadership in both countries therefore needed to put in place a new border management pact pending final settlement.

Given that background,  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was justifiably satisfied with the incremental progress that he managed to achieve during the two-day trip. 

On Board AI One
Speaking to the accompanying media persons on board his special aircraft Air India One, after concluding the visit Dr. Singh said: "In China, my visit was to follow up on the process of getting to know the new Chinese leadership better. China is our largest neighbour, a significant economic partner and a country with increasing global presence. While we have our differences, there are many areas, bilateral, regional and multilateral, where cooperation among us is to our mutual benefit. It is only through a process of intense engagement that we will be able to move forward in all areas. I am satisfied that my just concluded visit has served its purpose."

Not everyone will agree with the assertion but the centre piece of the Indian Prime Minister's trip was undoubtedly the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement or BDCA which laid down more communication between tactical and strategic commanders and even at higher level between representatives of defence ministries of both the countries, hinted at a proposed 'hotline' between military headquarters and formalised an understanding on "no tailing" of troops when they come face to face on the long border. 
On Board AI One

A closer scrutiny of the agreement however reveals that it has only managed to add layers to the already existing mechanisms to maintain peace and tranquility on the border. Many of the provisions were already discussed and included in earlier agreements. 

For instance, Article IV of the BDCA, 2013 states: "In implementing border defence cooperation and to facilitate contacts and meetings between relevant organizations, the two sides may establish Border Personnel Meeting sites in all sectors, as well as telephone contacts and telecommunication links at mutually agreed locations along the line of actual control. The two sides may also consider establishing a Hotline between the military headquarters of the two countries. Specific arrangements shall be decided upon through mutual consultations between the two sides."

Now read this from the November 1996 agreement (Article VII): 

In order to strengthen the cooperation between their military personnel and establishments in the border areas along the line of actual control, the two sides agree:
(1) To maintain and expand the regime of scheduled and flag meetings between their border representatives at designated places along the line of actual control;
(2) To maintain and expand telecommunication links between their border meeting points at designated places along the line of actual control:
(3) To establish step-by-step medium and high-level contacts between the border authorities of the two sides.

Indian officials acknowledged that the latest pact is a marginal improvement on the three earlier agreements but were at pains to explain that the BDCA would in no way impinge upon India's belated efforts to build and improve infrastructure all along the Line of Actual Control. India is building 75 strategic roads, laying important railway lines and constructing operational assets in the difficult terrain on the China frontier to support the raising of a new Mountain Strike Corps and improving airfields for the Indian Air Force.  None of these projects are likely to be completed earlier than 2018. 

In that context, Indian Military officers, not wanting to be identified, admitted that the BDCA may have bought them more time without compromising on basic security requirements. They had in fact feared a more "binding" BDCA that would have further restricted their right to handle the situation on ground as they deemed fit. The 'limit of patrolling' imposed on the Indian Army troops deployed along the more sensitive areas of the LAC has also thankfully remained unchanged, they added. "At least now we know that the higher leadership will immediately come into play if another crisis like Depsang arises," one of them remarked. So at best the agreement can be described as half a step forward.

The fine print of the BDCA notwithstanding Prime Minister Singh, perhaps on his last visit to China in the current tenure, was accorded special treatment by the Chinese leadership. President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Keqiang both hosted banquets for him. More markedly, former Premier Wen Jiabao who stepped down earlier this year hosted a lunch for his "old" friend Singh. This was a major change from established norms in China where retired leaders strictly keep off public appearances. Premier Li personally showed Dr. Singh around the historic Forbidden City. Dr. Singh also addressed the Central Party School, an honour rarely bestowed on visiting dignitary and outlined the future road map of Sino-India relationship.

At the party school
Dr. Singh, mindful of the domestic concerns that New Delhi repeatedly succumbs to Chinese pressure on various fronts repeatedly stressed the need for a peaceful border and eventually an honourable settlement. He also flagged India’s concerns on continuing Chinese assistance to India’s South Asia rival Pakistan and unfavourable trade balance.

As the Indian Prime Minister said: “We agreed that peace and tranquility on our borders must remain the foundation for growth in the India-China relationship, even as we move forward the negotiations towards a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the India-China Boundary Question. This will be our strategic benchmark… as large neighbours following independent foreign policies, the relationships pursued by India and China with other countries must not become a source of concern for each other. This will be our strategic reassurance.”

While Beijing did not react on oblique Indian references to its “all-weather” friendship with Pakistan, it was clear China wants to keep up continuous engagement with India lest New Delhi forms a closer compact with the US, Japan and Australia. If India is wise enough it will continue to strike the right balance in its relationship with Beijing and not succumb to its charm offensive even as it pursues an independent foreign policy.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Leave the Army alone and let it do its job

As I write this on a Saturday morning, can't help but look back on the past three months' development on the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and partly on the International Border with Pakistan. The 10-year old ceasefire that both the countries agreed in November 2003 is as good as dead. 

Nearly 200 violations in 2013 so far as compared to 117 in the whole of last year tell their own story. Over 140 of them have occurred since August 2013, mainly in the areas south of the Pir Panjal range of mountains. 

There is almost daily coverage of the ceasefire violations. After a while the numbers have become just statistics: "10 ceasefire violations in last 48 hours; heavy firing on the LoC, India retaliates with equal measure," are some of the oft-repeated headlines we all love to give. but in this rush to 'cover' the ceasefire violations and their fallout, I have realised that the narrative is often one-sided. Because, the Indian Army and the BSF/police share instant information about the development and casualties, I suddenly realised that an impression has gone around that only the Indian side is suffering casualties.

This is an erroneous projection. Since monitoring Pakistan media, especially the media outlets along the LoC is not easy, we hardly come to know of the losses suffered by the Pakistanis. One doesn't even know if as extensive coverage as the one that happens here takes place on the Pakistani side. So willy-nilly, we in India feel that the Indian Army and BSF is on the defensive. On the contrary, there are reports of Pakistanis suffering heavy casualties and abandoning villages in the face of intense Indian retaliation. This is more closer to the truth since I know of standing orders on Indian posts: "If Pakistanis fire 2 rounds, we will hit back with 10." Look at the sign painted on one of the posts in the accompanying photograph and those who haven't been on the LoC will understand what I mean!

When I travelled to the LoC in early September with Barkha Dutt and met officers and soldiers deployed right on the LoC fence in Krishna Ghati, BhimberGali, Hamirpur in Poonch sector, the josh and morale was exemplary. A befitting reply to Pakistani mischief was being given every day--and night. Constant ceasefire violations, firing, casualties have not deterred the soldier from doing his job to the best of his ability.

What many objected to however was the impression that they felt was being created about so-called laxity on part of the Indian Army and the soldiers guarding the LoC. During my interaction on the LoC an officer had promised to give his feedback on what the Indian soldier feels. Here's the written feedback sent to me by an officer posted on the LoC. For obvious reasons, he will remain unnamed.  Read on. 

I am an officer posted on the line of control. Yesterday was Sunday, and also Dussehra. Got to know it only from the newspapers that are spread before me- a day late by the time they reach my post. The nice part is that I receive a whole bundle after they have been pored over in the headquarters.

We went out on an ambush last night. There was information that an infiltration attempt could be made through our area. I have been receiving the same information daily since the last six months. Hopefully we will have a fire fight tonight.

Seven of us slipped out of our post, 300 m from the line of control, after last light. A half hour walk and we deployed in two groups. The weather gods were not happy (maybe because I didn’t know Navratras had begun). Light rain and mist descended and visibility was down to three metres. We try and peer through the white haze till the eyes hurt. I hear a soft snore on my left and give a hard nudge. Tomorrow, over a hot cup of tea after we return to the post, we will laugh and tease him.

It’s midnight, cold and miserable. I flex my index finger to make sure it slips into the trigger guard in time to shoot the terrorist who might suddenly appear three steps from me. Suddenly, the chatter of machine guns jolts us out of complacency. It is followed by the soft ‘thump, thump’ of mortars ejecting their bombs. I am glad for the distraction, as the whole ambush is now fully alert.

We wait for the mortar bombs to fall. Shit… they seem to be falling on my post. There are mixed feelings running through me. I am safe, but what about my soldiers on the post. The firing grows in intensity- rocket launchers and mortars open up from our side. It’s frustrating because we can’t see anything. I briefly think of returning to the post but have a job to do tonight, and there are good soldiers back on the post.

We return in the morning and thankfully all is well. One splinter injury-flesh wound only, and a living shelter damaged. We all sit around a breakfast of hot puris and bhindis, exchanging anecdotes, feeling proud about how we weathered one more day on the line of control.

A three hour nap and the first newspaper is spread before me. “Dropping guard at the LOC” is the headline of a Mail Today article. It says ‘Indian troops have been sitting ducks’ in the August incident and that the foiling of infiltration attempt in Keran ‘has been taken with a pinch of salt’. Harinder Baweja in Hindustan Times says that the Army has been ‘found wanting’. Tribune wanted to know ‘how porous is the security system’ on the LoC. Asian Age informs me that ‘Army is under attack from the MoD’. I always thought those attacking us were across the LoC. Should I now look over my shoulder?

A large number of journalists are now questioning our tactics along the Line of Control. It is easy to pass judgement when sitting in air-conditioned offices and speaking on the telephone to ‘well-informed sources’ who have an equally comfortable chair. It is also unfortunate that some of our retired officers have also jumped on the media bandwagon to slam our ‘defensive mindset’ and ‘lapses’. Did no soldiers die when they were commanders? Has the army suddenly forgotten its ethos because some of our officers have retired?

Let me not quote facts and figures because I have no access to them. My senior officers tell me that the security situation in J&K is improving. Violence, infiltration levels, civilian causalities are down, and there is less fear on the faces of people. I believe my seniors because I see it everyday.

Can I do more? Maybe I can eke a little more out of my aching muscles and sleep filled eyes. Will it help? I don’t think so, because the newspapers will not cover what I do, but look for the one who does not. I just hope I am not one of their victims.

I am an Indian Army officer- proud and confident. I know what I have to do. No other profession in the world demands that you lay down your life in the defence of people you do not even know. If you question my commitment, please be prepared to wear the Uniform and man the LoC in my place.

P.S. Can’t avoid the last dig at the media. Read Sebastian Junger ‘War’.

Eloquent, heartfelt and to the point. I think all of us in the media need to mull over this feedback. And take corrective measures.

 Perhaps we should leave the Army alone to let it do its job. And be discreet and responsible on what and how we report on the Indian military.

Lest many readers of this blog accuse me of not practicing what I preach, let me assure you we did our LoC reporting only after taking the necessary permissions from and with full cooperation of the Army. I am aware that there will be people who will say the Army has co opted us! You can't please all in any case. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Two track policy on China essential

Dr. Manmohan Singh will be in China next week on what appears to be his last visit to the Asian neighbour during the current tenure as Prime Minister. 

Apart from the possible exception of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Manmohan Singh has had more interaction with the Chinese leadership than any other Indian leader. History will judge Dr Singh's contribution to Sino-Indian leadership but for the moment he will have to concentrate on what New Delhi can achieve immediately in its topsy-turvey relationship with Beijing. 

An improved border management posture is on the cards in the form of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) to be possibly signed during Dr. Singh's 2-day visit next week. India will have other points to convey, notably on huge trade deficit, the continuing Chinese policy on issuing stapled visas to residents of Aruanachal Pradesh. The Chinese, apart from pushing for the early progress in border negotiation talks are sure to once more broach the subject of Indian media's belligerence and jingoism but at the moment policy makers on both sides will seek to look at the positives more than dwelling upon the irritants.

Following the Prime Ministerial visit, in the first week of November, Indian and Chinese infantry troops will hold a company level joint military drill--third in the series that began in 2007--after a gap of five years. After the last edition in India (at Belgaum), various flash points between the two countries prevented this important but largely symbolic exercise being held annually as originally envisaged. Now after considerable diplomatic effort, an Indian infantry unit will travel to Chengdu to resume the Exercise Hand in Hand next month.

This joint anti-terrorist drill notwithstanding, the two Asian neighbours are bound to remain strategic competitors in decades to come. Right now, China is way ahead in terms of economic and military muscle. Till four years ago, India was seen to be making a valiant effort in catching up with China.

poor roads in Arunachal Pradesh
BRO labourers in Arunachal Pradesh
Since 2012 however, India's economic woes has put a question mark on India's defence preparedness in keeping with its needs. 

And yet, both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh on the frontier with China, India's strategic planners have started to make amends for decades of lethargy and apathy. 

China watchers will recall that it was in  2006 that the Cabinet Committee on Security(CCS), which takes the final decision on India's security matters had decided to reverse the decades old policy of NOT building infrastructure in the border areas, lest the Chinese get easier access to Indian areas in the event of a skirmish!

The late realisation and start to improve infrastructure--both military and civil--in these remote areas however means that at least for decade, India's military preparedness there will remain tenuous.

Over the past one year, having travelled to both Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh, I am convinced that India has the right intention but somehow lacks the means to get its act together in building and improving infrastructure. There are multiple agencies involved in planning and giving clearances for border projects. Although the  Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is primarily responsible for road and bridge building in these areas, it is hampered by a number of shortcomings. Having told the BRO to construct 73 strategic Roads in 2006, it was expected that these roads will be ready by its original deadline of 2012. Unfortunately as Ajay Banerjee of The Tribune brought out in detail earlier this year only a fraction of the work has been completed (

On the road to Demchok
The double-laning of Upshi-Demchok road on fast track
As a quasi-military organization the BRO is entrusted with building and maintaining these strategic roads and come rain or winter, its labourers work to keep the only road link to Tawang in Arunachal Prdaesh open through the year but at the moment they are fighting a losing battle, as I saw during my travel there. 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 told me 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. In Arunachal Pradesh, nearly five months of Monsoon followed by a couple of months of intense cold and snowfall means, the working season is limited to less than six months. 

In Ladakh too, the situation is no different. Snow and severe winter leaves the road and infrastructure builders just about six months of work time through the year. But as state government officials in a remote sub-division like Nyoma in south eastern Ladakh told me last fortnight the clearances have started flowing in faster than before. The road from Upshi to Demchok for instance is currently witnessing intense broadening and improvement work. Demchok is the place where maximum face offs have occurred between Indian Army and Chinese PLA patrols. The Indus also enters India at this extreme south-east corner of Ladakh.
An ITBP post on the banks of the Tsomo Riri lake

India owes it to its own forces to put in place better infrastructurealong the China frontier  and provide border guarding forces like the ITBP better facilities than the current ones. Although there is clamour to entrust the India-China border fully to the Army or bring the ITBP fully under the Army's control, so long as the ITBP is deployed on the frontline, it deserves better treatment. 

The nomads can become eyes and ears
Beyond TsoMo RiRi, in the nomad land
Similarly, the Centre and the State government must go the extra distance to support the nomadic tribes that live along the remote Ladakh frontier. The further these grazers keep going in search of pasteur for their cattle, the better it is for Indian authorities to lay a claim on the undemarcated borders. These nomads should get full material help in their quest for a better life and access to more grazing land in the border areas. 
We all recognise that 2013 is not 1962.

India's military capability is far far better than it was then; And finally there is too much at stake for Beijing to launch any overt aggression.

But as I wrote earlier, what has not changed is the Chinese tendency of bullying weaker neighbours and its policy to keep redefining 'core' interests according to circumstances. Policy making in China is one continuous process. In India on the other hand, it varies according to personalities and political parties in power. While the military in India has overcome the trauma of the 1962 defeat, civilian policy makers appear to be still bogged down by the burdens of the past in dealing with China.

Of course, these mandarins get their act together only under pressure of a crisis like they did post-1986 Sumdorong Chu face off. The 2009 sanction for additional forces and speeding up of infrastructure development projects also came after increasing reports of Chinese belligerence along the LAC.

It is therefore essential to push for another round of capability-enhancing drive. Simultaneously, India must re-look and re-tweak its China policy. For instance:
  • Insist with Beijing the need for exchanging maps for all sectors immediately so that each side knows the other's claimed LAC and border negotiations can resume
  • Bring the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) under the operational control of the Army to ensure uniformity in border management
  • Ensure timely and effective information sharing mechanism with Indian media and through them the Indian people rather than let different stake holders speak in different and some times discordant voices during times of crisis
  • Educate and prepare the Indian people on the need for give and take on border negotiations in the future
Policy makers in India must be mindful of the fact that military preparedness and trying to improve diplomatic relations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

It is therefore in India's interest to keep talking to the Chinese on border issue and other irritants in the relationship but at the same time not concede on the fundamentals even as military and economic capabilities are enhanced manifold. In a way adopt Deng Xiaoping line he advocated in the late 1970s: "Hide Your Strength, Bide Your time." India must also be mindful that the US may prefer to remain neutral in the event of a India-China standoff.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Siachen: Untold stories from world's highest battlefield

 On the Road to the Siachen  Base camp
So I went to Siachen last week to revisit the Base camp, meet soldiers, officers, aviators, logisticians, porters to add to my earlier experiences and get a fresh perspective for my as yet untitled book on
3 decades of Operation Meghdoot.
Here's a glimpse of life on the Base Camp. I hope to release the Book in early April! It will contain known and unknown facts.
Did you know for instance Indian soldiers deployed on the glacier don't eat meat or drink alcohol; for that matter last year temperature went down to Minus 74!
Short of the snout

One of the 3 indisplensible factors at the Glacier

A young officer at the Base camp

Praying to OP Baba: Siachen's presiding diety

The harsh environmental reality

Training, the indespensable part of glacier deployment

Paying my respects to the fallen bravehearts

Walking around the Base camp

At the entrance of Base camp

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Indian Soldier and his struggle with change

On 10 October 2013, when soldiers of 10 Sikh Light Infantry beat up a couple of officers in the wake of an internal boxing competition, eyebrows were raised over the incident  across the Army. The incident acquired further salience because the current Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh also belongs to the same regiment, although to be fair to him it would be gross exaggaration and overreach to emboil him in the post-mortem of the event. Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what was done by a section of the media. 

But blaming the media is akin to shooting the messenger. The fact is: the Indian Army is going through a churn and there have been at least four incidents of gross indiscipline and mini revolt within different battalions in the past two years, an inconvenient truth that cannot and should not be brushed under the carpet.

As I wrote in a longish paper for the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses(IDSA) in March this year: "Although from disaster relief in floods, tsunami, and earthquakes to rescuing 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."

The 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. 

This has posed a great challenge to the famous officer-men relationship in the Indian Armed Forces. In the past decade, the armed forces are faced with 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 that are 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. Adding to the worry is the growing cases of indiscipline and intolerance. In 2012 alone, there were at least three cases 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. 

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 wasn’t as serious as made out to be, Defence minister AK Antony n 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.”

A former Vice-chief of the Army Staff, Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi also says it's a matter of concern and it's time to take note. In a recent article General Oberoi says: “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.

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'. 

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 over-use and fast burn-out.

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 worry 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 heavy 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 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 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) 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." 

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 sensitise 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.

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 are 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 Military for acquiring early financial and social security. 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 authorised strength of over 22 officers for a combat battalion, there are at best 8 or 9 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.

So what is the way forward?

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 ethoses are not developed overnight and are certainly not imbibed by pandering blindly to the changes in the society.

What however must be done is to eliminate the overwhelming trend to be a ‘careerist.’ The desire to advance 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 protection and advancement of career at all levels seems to have become a sine qua non for most officers. 

That must change. And that change must come from the top.

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.

(This is an abridged version of my earlier piece for IDSA in March 2013)