Indian Army at fifty: Guarantor of the nation’s freedom


Throughout the fifty years since independence, the Indian Army has been at the forefront as the guarantor of the nation's freedom against external aggression and as the primary force engaged in keeping the nation together in the face of internal discord, communal disharmony and fissiparous tendencies. Looking ahead. Today, when the nation is at peace, the Army is at war-even though the Army is lighting only a proxy war and not a full blown conventional war.

Ever since Pakistani Razakars and regular troops pored across the borders of Kashmir in October 1947, with rape, torture and loot as their weapons of choice, India’s territorial integrity has never been free of threat and India’s security environment has been continually vitiated. Throughout the fifty years since independence, the Indian Army has been at the forefront as the guarantor of the nation’s freedom against external aggression and as the primary force engaged in keeping the nation together in the face of internal discord, communal disharmony and fissiparous tendencies.

Besides the inconclusive operations in Kashmir in 1947-48, in the early years after independence, the Army assisted Sardar Patel, India’s first Home Minister, to consolidate some of the recalcitrant Princely states with the Indian Union. In Junagadh a simple brigade-level demonstration of strength achieved the desired results. The Nizam of Hyderabad dallied for one year and an armoured division had to finally undertake a 100-hour operation to settle matters in September 1948. When the Government of Portugal had failed to see reason for 14 years, in a swift offensive in 1961, the Army liberated Goa, Daman and Diu and finally rid the nation of foreign colonisers.

A strife-torn decade

In the euphoria of a successful non-violent struggle for independence and carried away by its own rhetoric of Ahimsa and Panchsheel, the political leadership neglected the development and modernisation of the Army, secure in the belief that a politico-diplomatic response was adequate to meet threats and challenges to national security. Unprepared to execute Nehru’s ill-conceived “forward policy”, the Indian Army suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of China’s invading hordes in 1962. However, it is not so well known that individual units mostly fought with spirit and determination in the face of daunting odds. While the Army took the rap for the nation’s worst ever humiliation, with hindsight. a major share of the blame must be laid squarely on the political leadership’s inept higher direction of war (due to some phantom tears, the Air Force was not even allowed to take part in the war!), unpardonable inability to accept professional military advice and its myopic vision of the inter-play between national security and foreign policy. It is time the nation is told the truth by releasing the still classified Henderson Brooks-Prem Bhagat Report.

The post-1962 period was marked by rapid expansion of the Army, primarily for the defence of the Himalayan frontiers. However, the next major threat came from Pakistan in the west. Armed to the teeth with shining new US Patton tanks and Sabre jets, Pakistan launched a series of misadventures in the Rann of Kutch in April-May, Operation Gibraltar in Kashmir in August and Operation Grand Slam in the Akhnoor-Jammu area in September 1965. The Mujahids of Gibraltar Force were quickly rounded up in Kashmir, Grand Slam was checkmated and the Army’s three-pronged offensive into West Pakistan achieved major breakthroughs. In the largest tank-versus-tank battle since World War II, Pakistan’s famous Patton Tanks met fiery deaths in a border village of Punjab. Coincidentally but very appropriately named Assal Uttar, the wheat and paddy fields of this village are even today an eerie graveyard of the flaming metal coffins the fleeing Pakistani crews left behind. At the strategic level, the 1965 war was a stalemate as the Kashmir dispute was not settled.

Pakistan President General Yahya Khan’s refusal to install Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s legitimately elected Awami League Government in power and his Army’s brutal crackdown in East Pakistan, led to the exodus of almost ten million refugees to India and sowed the seeds of another war. The 14-day war, which Pakistan started on 3 December 1971, resulted in a grand Indian victory and the emergence of Bangladesh. Having decided to fight a holding action in West Pakistan, the Indian Army pulled out all the stops in its race for Dhaka. In a brilliantly planned and meticulously executed lightning campaign, in some of the most defensible riverine terrain in the world, Eastern Command’s multi-pronged offensive spear-heads contained and bypassed well-fortified defences and caused a mental paralysis by operating deep inside the enemy s rear areas and quickly broke the Pakistani commanders will to fight. On 17 December 1971, Lieutenant General J.S.Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief. Eastern Command, accepted one of history’s greatest surrenders. With this glorious victory. the Indian Army finally overcame the trauma of its defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962.

Overseas Interventions

The decades-old ethnic conflict between the Tamilians and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka finally sucked in India when, in response to a request from President Jayawerdena. the Army was deployed in Sn Lanka to implement the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987. The Indian Peace Keeping Force(IPKF) operated in Sri Lanka up to March 1990. Initially, the IPKF was successful in maintaining peace without the use of force. However, when the LTTE violated the terms of the Accord, there was no option but to resort to military action. The LTTE guerrillas proved to be a determined and well-motivated force and though they suffered many tactical defeats and numerous casualties, the jungles of Vavuniya and Trincomalee provided them safe Sanctuaries in which to rest, recoup and refit before launching still more raids and ambushes. At the insistence of President Premdasa. the IPKF returned home in March 1990. Whether or not the IPKF made a substantial contribution to the achievement of India’s foreign policy objectives, shall remain a debatable point. That individual soldiers and units performed heroically on-foreign soil under extremely unfavourable conditions, including restrictions on the use of force, shall never be in doubt.

India’s other overseas intervention in the 1980s was more successful. The legitimately elected Government of President Gayoom of Maldives was overthrown in a mercenary-led coup in November 1988. Flying in from over.2,500 kilometres away at Agra, Indian paratroopers secured the international airport at Hulale and the capital Male in a surgical strike which caught the coup leaders completely unawares and unprepared. With this one swift tri-service operation, India signaled the nation’s emergence as a pre-eminent power in the Southern Asian and Northern Indian Ocean region.

Border Management

Normally a nation’s international borders are managed by para-military and police forces during peace time; but, India’s disputed borders with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir(J&K) and with China along the Himalayas, are managed primarily by the Army. Along the Line of Control(LC) in J&K, there has been an eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off between the Indian and Pakistani armies since the 1947-48 conflict. Exchanges of small arms and medium machine gun(MMG) fire are an almost daily occurrence. On occasion, even artillery fire is exchanged with telling effect. Many of the posts are in high altitude areas above 3,000 metres height in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. The jawans live in bunkers under primitive conditions and usually without even the basic amenities. During heavy snowfalls and after avalanches, some of the pickets remain cut off for months. Casualties have to be carried on stretchers to the nearest helipads and then flown out when the weather conditions permit helicopter flights. To maintain a high state of morale under such trying conditions, superhuman skills of leadership and man-management are required to be developed in the officers.

The Actual Ground Position Line(AGPL) on the high mountain ridge west of the Siachen Glacier is an un-demarcated continuation of the LC beyond the famous map reference NJ 9842. For over a decade now, the Indian and Pakistani armies have been fighting on the icy wastes of Siachen which, at an average height of about 5,500 metres(18,000 feet) is the highest battlefield in the world. Unlike the LC where there is still some restraint. Siachen is an active battle zone. Artillery duels are commonplace; short range missiles and rocker launchers are employed frequently by both the sides and incidents of hand-to-hand fighting, though Infrequent, cannot be ruled out as attacks are still launched to gain tactical advantage. However, survival against the elements is a greater concern than anxiety of an enemy attack. Most of the casualties at Siachen are due to medical reasons. Besides advanced mountaineering skills, a stint at Siachen Glacier requires outstanding physical endurance, steely mental resolve an indomitable spirit and raw courage. If there is one bilateral problem between India and Pakistan that needs early resolution, it is that of the dispute over Siachen and the other glaciers of the Karakoram Range.

Counter-insurgency operations

The Army has been involved in counter-insurgency operations in the country almost throughout the fifty years since independence. The Army has exercised successful control over armed insurrection supported by various foreign powers in almost all the northeastern states since the early 1950s. Though various accords and cease-fire agreements were signed in the past, these interludes were used by the insurgent groups to regroup and re-arm themselves before getting back to the business of demanding either autonomy or independence. It remains to be seen whether the present cease-fire agreement with the militants in Nagaland will be a lasting one.

In Punjab, the Army was employed to flush out Bhindranwale’s armed followers from the holy precincts of the Golden Temple in June 1984. The decision to send the Army in was criticised by the Sikhs and the Army lost a great deal of the support it had traditionally enjoyed among the Punjab peasantry. With Pakistani help, the militants in Punjab soon re-grouped and unleashed a reign of terror on communal lines. The Army was once again called out in the early 1290s to assist the civil administration to effectively control the internal security situation in conjunction with the Punjab Police. The Army’s operations were limited mainly to counter-infiltration, domination of the countryside and patrolling at night and were eminently successful.

Even as the situation in Punjab was coming under control, the demand for azadi reared its ugly head in Kashmir Valley in 1989-90 and a new wave of Pakistan-sponsored militancy gathered momentum. The Army was deployed in large numbers to combat this new proxy-war from across the western borders and largely succeeded in restoring a semblance of normalcy. Seven years down the line, though the people are thoroughly tired of the militants’ campaign and an elected Government is in power, the hard-core militant groups are yet to throw in the towel as they are still being provided political, diplomatic, financial, military and material support by their foreign masters in Pakistan who are getting increasingly desperate to gain some ground quickly.

In all, approximately one-third the combat strength of the Army is engaged in counterinsurgency operations at present. This level of involvement must not be allowed to continue much longer so that the Army can get back to the cantonments to train for its primary role of safeguarding the nation’s borders against external aggression.

Peace-keeping operations

The Indian Army has been at the forefront of United Nations(UN) peace-keeping operations worldwide for over 40 years. The major missions with Indian participation have been In Korea, 1953-54; Vietnam, 1954-70; Gaza, 1956-67; Congo(Zaire), 1960-64: Cambodia, 1992-93; Mozambique, 1992-94; Somalia, 1993-94; Angola, 1994-97; and Rwanda, 1995-96. In addition to these brigade and battalion-sized contingents, the Army has contributed a large number of UN Military Observers to various UN missions in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Senior Indian Generals have served with distinction as UN Force Commanders in missions in Korea, Gaza, Congo(Zaire), Cyprus, Yemen, Namibia and Yugoslavia. The old peace-horse, Lieutenant General Dewan Prem Chand, served with distinction as the Force Commander in Cyprus, as a member of the Rhodesia Commission and again as the Force Commander in Namibia in 1989-90 when in his 70s.

Aid to civil authority

In addition to its employment in counter-insurgency and internal security duties, the Army is frequently called upon to render aid to civil authority. The assistance rendered on this account includes flood and famine relief. humanitarian aid during natural calamities such as the frequent cyclones on the Andhra coast and the Latur earthquake, building of bridges and roads during emergencies such as landslides and for occasions like the Kumbh Mela and the provision of essential services when these are disrupted by strikes and bandhs.

The large scale construction of border roads by the Army has led to the development of far-flung and remote under-developed parts of the country. Army outposts have often provided canteen services to the inhabitants of remote villages. Very often the unit Daria acts as the resident grocer for a cluster of villages which have no access to a market. Army medical teams have been providing medical assistance and treatment to the inhabitants of remote localities on an ongoing basis. Indeed, for numerous citizens of India residing in the country’s remote frontiers, the Indian Army is the only contact with the administration.

Nation Building

Dubbed “scrupulously apolitical”, the Indian Army’s greatest achievement since independence is undoubtedly its monumental contribution to keeping the Indian nation united, despite strong fissiparous tendencies. strident religious fundamentalism, ethnic dissonance and externally aided insurgencies. Called out to quell numerous political, ethnic and communal riots. to disarm a mutinying armed constabulary and for many other allied tasks when the civil administration had failed to stem the rot, the Army has always acted firmly but fairly and always employed the minimum possible force. The Army’s success in these endeavours has earned for it the trust and admiration of a grateful nation as a steadfast defender of the supremacy of the Constitution of India and as a champion of democracy.
With its diverse multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural composition the Indian Army is a shining example of the national goal of achieving “unity in diversity” and the strongest force for national integration. The Army is also an exemplary proponent of the power of positive secularism, as all ranks not only tolerate each other’s religion but also actively participate in all the rituals and celebrations in a spirit of genuine reverence. Hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen have spread the Army ethos of secularism, tolerance, moral uprightness and selfless discipline in all the corners of the country. The serving jawans proceeding to their villages on leave, also carry the same message with them.

Passionately patriotic, with an apolitical and secular ethos and untainted by corruption, the Indian Army is definitely the last bastion for national unity and integrity in the prevailing environment dominated by the politician-bureaucrat-police-criminal nexus which feeds on the festering sores of corruption and the pursuit of mammon.

Looking ahead

Today, when the nation is at peace, the Army is at war—even though the Army is lighting only a proxy war and not a full blown conventional war. In the vitiated security environment within the country and in the Southern Asian region, it is clear that the Army will continue to play a dominant part in the affairs of the nation. It is up to the present and future leaders of India to ensure that this great national institution remains in fine fettle. Armymen take pride in their calling and engage themselves seriously in the pursuit of professional excellence so that they can serve their country with honour. The day that cynicism creeps in about the futility of their efforts, will be the beginning of the end of this great nation and its glorious heritage.

From the blizzard-swept snows of Siachen, through the sharp escarpments of the Himalayan massif to the steaming hot and humid jungles of the northeast, the gallant men of the Indian Army have kept vigil over the nation’s frontiers for fifty long years. Thousands have made the supreme sacrifice and a few millions have given the best years of their youth for our tomorrows. It is for the present generation of Indians to ensure that those sacrifices shall not have been in vain.