The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 1, 2002

A General holds out for his men in olive
Himmat Singh Gill

Officially At Peace
by Shankar Roychowdhury. Viking Penguin, India. Pages: 326. Rs 495.

Officially At PeaceGENERAL Roychowdhury, who became the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) in November 1994 after the sudden demise of Gen Bipin Joshi, has written a candidly honest account of the worrisome meanderings of the fourth largest army in the world in the political and bureaucratic corridors of New Delhi. Self-introspective and truthful to the hilt, this cavalry officer has admitted that in spite of his best efforts there was little that he could achieve in terms of bettering the moral, material and welfare concerns of the jawans and officers that he had had the honour to command. And though the country was officially at peace, the Army was in a perpetual state of war, trouble-shooting all over as has been the case ever since Independence.

The General has covered a wide canvas of the Indian Army in his very readable book. The improvement of the quality of life of the soldier was one of his primary objectives, with more accommodation for married jawans and officers, better educational and medical facilities for all ranks and their families, and better pay, allowances and service conditions for the Army, forever operating in field service from Ladakh to the North East. Called upon to man the defences against the ‘two and half fronts’ (China, Pakistan, and counter-terrorism and internal security tasks), the land forces deserve the best the country could give them. Did the troops get what they so handsomely deserved? The former Chief, who is at present a member of the Rajya Sabha, admits, "Some of these had been achieved, but I had failed in the case of most. There was still no money, procedures remained archaic, and there was general disinterest at all levels outside the Army. Was the overall achievement failure? Perhaps". This is a very damning indictment of the powers that be that govern the destiny of the country and its armed forces. One only hopes that as an MP from West Bengal, Roychowdhury will be able to cut through the red tape and achieve what he could not as COAS.


There is little doubt that the Army while fighting a proxy war in J&K, insurgency in the North-East, a continuous fire along the LoC and Siachen, and internal security operations in one state or the other, has its hands full the year round. So where is the time to send infantry personnel from field areas to peace areas after every two years, to execute essential training cycles, and for generals and commanders to put their heads together to do some strategic thinking. This serious situation is further aggravated when the para-military forces of the country (under the Home Ministry) are unable to be as supportive of the Army as they are expected to be in the operational mode, be it in the Kashmir valley or on the border. And as the Army struggles to catch up with its multifarious tasks, the financial crunch, so often stressed by the Finance Ministry, has often put the blocks on the Army’s modernisation programmes, and regretfully even barely met its daily maintenance requirements. The former Chief has written about all these pitfalls in the Army, but unfortunately has been unable to suggest any remedial measures, which at least this reviewer and many others who have also donned the uniform, would have expected him to do.

The only important, and primary, role of the Army is the defence of its international borders, and not to aid the civil authority. Gen Roychowdhury like the Chiefs before and after him, has failed to even get the primacy of the primary role of the Indian Army established in the civilian hierarchy and government, on the ground and in practice, where it matters the most to the jawan in the field.

Roychowdhury has covered the siege of Chrar-e-Sharif in some detail, but calling the chapter Blue Star over Chrar-e-Sharif is not in good taste, especially when the effort should be heal the wounds that this operation in the Golden Temple inflicted on the psyche of the Sikhs. He has highlighted and praised the role of the Rashtriya Rifles in the Valley, though many in the RR itself and also this reviewer feel that the formation of this force (composed by milking the regular Army itself, with the government not agreeing to any force increments), was never necessary, and being officered and manned by the Army needs to be amalgamated within its parent fold. This will aid in better command and control, and prevent too many power centres from coming up. Roychowdhury touches on the nuclear question in the region and the NBC environment, and I dare say, that we need to definitely pull up our socks in being able to effectively meet a ‘first strike’ of chemical and nuclear weaponry. I feel that we need to be better prepared.

One wishes that the General had suggested suitable remedies and incentives, like recruitment being based on merit, and not on the RMP (Recruitable Male Population) of a particular state, as is the case today, when he talks about the poor intake into the Services at the present times. Talking about the efforts of many highly placed officers to enlist the help of the Press to further their own interests, the General writes, "But as many amongst them have ruefully found out, the media is utterly and totally amoral. They will accept your whiskey and cut your throat as part of the same transaction."

Gen Roychowdhury is the first Army Chief to have written about the actual state of the Indian Army. He has not soft-pedaled any issue, including the non-cooperation of the Northern Command during his time, or the sorry state of the Indian armour fleet of the Vijayanta tanks, or about the shortage of essential equipment in the Army, and its ill effect during the Kargil war. The moot question is why he did not resign when he found out that he could not achieve what he had set out to?