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The news of two officers and two soldiers laying down their lives in a fierce encounter in Jammu's Rajouri exposed the sad reality of reckless terrorism, and the grit and mettle of those who fearlessly stand tall in the line of fire (by choice).
Yet again, the reportage had a familiar attribution of Indian Army officers 'leading from the front’ and paying the ultimate price.
It retriggered murmurs about the abnormally large number of officers perishing in combat operations, as opposed to other professional militaries in similar counterinsurgency ops.
English novelist, Edmund Candler (1874-1926), in his book The Sepoy, notes a peculiarity of the Indian Army’s Gorkha soldier, "The Gurkha does not love his officer because he is a Sahib, but because he is his Sahib, and the officer has to prove that he is his Sahib first and learn to speak his language and understand his ways. A strange officer coming into a Gurkha regiment is not adopted into the Pantheon at once. He has to qualify."
To ‘qualify’ his Gorkha soldier's undying fidelity, the officer has a literal rite of passage to undergo and earn his soldier’s undying fidelity. This rite, amongst other measures, gets burnished by the officer's conduct in combat.
An Age-Old Sacred Leadership Covenant Amongst Warriors
As an example, a by-birth Dogra Rajput like Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria, PVC, wore the rakishly angled Tirchi Topi of the Gorkha Regiment with much pride as a Gorkha Rifles officer. To earn that sacred trust and loyalty of his Gorkha troops, he had to lead from the from, literally and figuratively, always.
In a UN operation in Congo, Captain Salaria himself led a daring hand-to-hand Khukri assault screaming Ayo Gorkhali (Here comes the Gorkha!) – completely outnumbered and with a plausible opportunity to retreat, Captain Salaria chose instead to fight ahead and killed 40 belligerents, before getting shot twice and getting martyred in the battlefield.
Was such disregard to personal safety, foolhardy? Or was it misplaced bravado and braggadocio?
Purely from militaristic objectives, Capt Salaria’s small band of Gorkhas had not just routed, but completely demoralised the enemy, thereby saving the imminent encirclement of the UN Headquarters.
More importantly, it reiterated the ‘normalisation’ of a unique Indian Army culture of the officer-to-soldier bond that is nurtured by its officers ‘leading from the front’, first and foremost. An inevitable consequence (and determinant) of the officer ‘leading from the front’ is the disproportionate officer-to-soldier fatality ratio in combat.
An Institutionalised Culture That Has Withstood the Test of Time
Repeated instances of encounters validate the phenomenon of ‘leading with the front’ with not just the junior-level Officers (Lieutenants/Captains) but even Unit Commanding Officers at the ranks of Colonel ‘leading from the front’ physically, thereby, exposing themselves to the risk of life and limbs.
Just a couple of months back, Colonel Manpreet Singh, Major Aashish Dhonchak, and a Police Officer, DSP Humayun Bhatt, had gone down fighting in the Kashmir Valley. Even earlier, the long roll of honour for Commanding Officers who fought as only the Indian Military leadership included the likes of Col Babu, Col Ashutosh Sharma, Col MR Rai, Col Santosh Mahadik, and countless others.
Such tradition is unseen and unheard of in similarly insurgency-deployed militaries like those of the United States, Russia, Israel, or even neighbouring Pakistan. You only hear of Indian Army Officer fatalities reconfirming that only they lead from the front of the battle, and not from the rear.
The importance of the man/woman behind the machine is amongst the most underrated, but the most pertinent element, that determines the blunt and ‘kinetic’ efficacy of any military.
The standard template of an Indian Army Officer ie, one who ‘leads from the front’ is almost unprecedented and unmatched amongst all professional militaries of the world. Hard numbers, and not hagiographic brouhaha prove the same. The Officer-to-Soldier fatality ratio was 1:18 in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, 1:20 in the 1971 Indo-Pak War, and still, 1:17 in the 1999 Kargil War.
Despite the much-bandied and credible concerns of officer shortages, material obsoleteness, institutional diminishment et al – the guardrails of solid steel provided by the junior-middle officer cadre ensure the seemingly impossible tasks, routinely.
The victory in the ‘Kargil War’ against the backdrop of adverse topographic, situational, and other militaristic ratios is a testimony to junior-middle level Officers ‘leading from the front’ and defying all conventional logic, plainly and singularly. Institutional culture and not necessarily strategy won Kargil.
There are indeed, contrarian whispers of a supposedly unhealthy trend of ‘leading from the front’ owing to individual overambition, a ‘scorecard’ mentality, or even a momentary lapse of better sense. While it may be true in odd cases, but those who dare and ‘lead from the front’ do so, knowing that they are in the harm’s way (when they could avoid the same), but still persist.
Some derelictions aside, the Indian Military is certainly better for its culture of ‘leading from the front’, as opposed to, if it were to have officers directing the battle from the comfort and safety of distance, as applicable in almost all other militaries.
Leadership at the Forefront in the Rajouri Operation
While details of this specific operation in the Rajouri sector are yet to be out, the fact that it entails troops from 9 Para (Special Forces) and 63 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) suggests something of what could have beset the situation.
The Kashmir Valley dedicated RR troops are baptised/bloodied in combat like no other comparable force – incidentally, 63 RR is composed of soldiers from the Bihar Regiment, whose unit 16 Bihar under Col Santosh Babu MVC, had fought valiantly in a hand-to-hand duel with the Chinese PLA in the Galwan Valley. Col Babu too, had gone down fighting, as a Commanding Officer!
The other unit in the said operation, nine Para (Special Forces) or ‘Pirates’ are legendary warriors, sans pareil. In 2001, they were conferred the honour of the ‘bravest of the brave’ for their extraordinary performances.
The air within their ranks can only be imagined as it remains arguably, the most combat-decorated unit in modern times – an unbelievable four Ashok Chakra’s (Highest gallantry award in ‘Peace’ times, equivalent to the Param Vir Chakra in wartimes) ie, Captain Arun Singh Jasrotia (1995), Major Sudhir Kumar Walia (1999), Paratrooper Sanjog Chettri (2003), Paratrooper Mohan Nath Goswami (2016) exemplify its traditions and culture of these indefatigable warriors.
Folks from this unit stare death in the face as underpinned by their motto ‘Men apart, every Man an Emperor’. The hallowed badge of sacrifice is not just a differentiating insignia that only they have the privilege and honour to wear on their sleeves and chest but in their heart and soul.
It is to this institutional fount, culture, and ‘normalcy’ that young Captain Shubham (9 Para – Special Forces), Captain MV Pranjal (63 Rashtriya Rifles), Havildar Majid (9 Para – Special Forces), and Lance Naik Sanjay Bisht (9 Para – Special Forces) were inducted, trained, deployed and martyred.
The timeless adage that culture eats strategy for breakfast could not be more appropriate as by its very nature, such operations happen suddenly and intensely, and forces must react instinctively. Herein, the basic instinct of the Indian Army’s junior-middle leadership is to 'lead from the front’, and it is perhaps, only due to only such powerful impulse, that the nation sleeps peacefully, for at least there is one institutional leadership that does not do theatrical posturing or saber-rattling from bulletproof pulpits, but ‘leads from the front’.
As the US General Norman Schwarzkopf of the ‘Operation Desert Storm’ fame said, "It doesn't take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle."
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)