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Ladakh faceoff: Looking back for a way forward

Lt Gen GS Sihota (retired) / HINDUSTAN TIMES Share:
Indian police and paramilitary troopers stand guard after suspected militants hurled a grenade towards their bunker in Srinagar city, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, Jan. 18, 2019. (Xinhua/Javed Dar)

On Dec 11, 1917, General Edmund Allenby entered the holy city of Jerusalem bareheaded and on foot, a feat which even the greatest English warrior King, Richard the Lionheart, and the crusaders were unable to achieve. Lining the street from Jaffa Gate to the city centre were Indian soldiers who had made it possible. Today, a 250-year-old, proud, experienced and battle-hardened army with many achievements in war, counter-insurgency, internal disturbances and UN peacekeeping missions has been reduced to an unarmed, fist-fighting entity. With pain and anguish, the serving soldiers and veterans ask; where did it all go wrong? The obvious answer is that our policies over the years have come home to roost and haunt us.

A soldier is armed and trained to fight with his weapon. A police force is meant to police. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the northern and central sectors is managed by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). It reports directly to the home ministry. Somewhere down the line, a decision was taken to strengthen the ITBP patrols with regular soldiers. This allowed the local commanders to remain abreast with the happenings on the LAC. In a period of peace and tranquility, regular soldiers had to per force follow the protocol of patrolling without weapons, leading to push and shove tactics as seen in its magnified form in Doklam. Policing the borders and preventing intrusions are different matters. The role of the military is defined and it must work within those parameters. Unarmed troops must not be sent to remove an intrusion. Dual responsibility and accountability between the ITBP and the army has been fully exploited by the Chinese. We are in the process of improving infrastructure in the North-East and Ladakh for economic development and also to ward off the Chinese threat, but they have been ahead of us in this area. Heavy expenditure on these projects will go to waste if we are unable to protect these against aggression. Considering the length and breadth of our borders and the new insight into Chinese intentions, it will be difficult to ignore the requirement of sufficient boots on the ground.

Whenever economic constraints are felt, the defence forces become victims of the first surgery on funds and manpower. In national interest, we have tried to accommodate this phenomena and, at times, voluntarily applied cuts. Our past policy of making up shortfalls by raising and employing central police forces such as the Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force and the ITBP, in a military role for crisis management has many pitfalls and may not find a place in the future.

In real terms it may not lead to substantial savings, considering the expenditure on equipping and maintaining them. This joint manship also leads to command and control problems and turf wars. Prolonged employment and joint operations can affect the army culture and ethos, giving the go by to professional military orientation and imbibing some of the adverse traits associated with such employment.

Militaries all over the world are required to be structured in a hierarchy rapidly narrowing upwards. Career progression towards higher ranks cannot match other organisations. In an attempt to address individual aspirations over organisational interests, we have carried out a series of upgrades and added appointments. Over a period of time, command tenures at various levels have been reduced. It takes some time for a commander to comprehend the operational situation, establish rapport with his juniors and troops and gain their confidence. A short tenure does not allow this. In a war-like situation, a brief tenure may not allow the commander to exploit the full potential of his command. Connected with this is the selection policy for promotion to higher ranks. A tried and tested system of the army council assessing an individual for higher command appointments based on personal knowledge, spoken reputation, acceptance by peers and subordinates and evolving a consensus was replaced by a quantified point system. This system based on an anonymous merit list is most unsuitable for selecting military commanders. Finally, discipline precludes soldiers speaking out but they certainly think and have an opinion. They monitor policies that will affect their employment, emoluments, living conditions and the adequacy of personal equipment and weapons.


The writer is a former director general of military operations and GOC-in-C of Southern Command. HINDUSTAN TIMES

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