Locked Down At Seventeen

Lt Gen (Retd) Ike Singha reminisces his first quarantine at National Defence Academy in 1974 due to chicken pox and the bonding between the grounded batchmates

We were first time quarantined in May-June 1974, at National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, in Kilo Squadron, the reigning champion Squadron, towards the very end of our first term. One flank of the ground floor consisting of freshers was segregated for three weeks because one of us had been detected with chicken pox. Life at the academy starts early at 5 AM and is so hectic that by lights-out time at 10.30 PM, we used to fall flat on the bed; off to sleep within a minute, and were dead to the world till 5 AM.

Our quarantine meant that we were confined to our rooms, called cabins in NDA, based on the Naval tradition; and did not have to attend drill, physical training, riding, swimming, academic classes and sports activities. We were served meals in our flank itself. Unlike the present lockdown, we did not have to sweep our rooms and wash our clothes. All facilities were extended to us after taking due precautions. In fact, it was one great holiday during which twelve of us bonded exceedingly well. Till now, when we are all grandfathers, we are closer to each other than the other batchmates.

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As first termers, it was a blessing in disguise, as we could rest and recoup while no seniors could punish or rag us. We got a sadistic pleasure in staying up in the bed while listening to announcements for morning muster followed by the NDA prayer before the entire squadron, but for the dirty dozen, marched off on their bicycles for a long, gruelling and treacherous day ahead.

We generally missed our bed tea and only surfaced in our pyjamas for breakfast. It seemed that the term break which was a month away, had already started for us! We played dumb charades and also did jamming as there were one or two good singers amongst us. Three of us had cleared the first tier of drill square test taken by the Subedar Major of the Academy. The second stage was more stringent as the Adjutant in his test dropped half the candidates who had cleared stage one. We were thrilled to see our name in the pass list in spite of missing the Adjutant’s test!

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There was the flip side to the lockdown as well. The seniors would quietly sneak into our corridor and give us their set of eleven brass buttons each, which needed to be polished for the white patrol to be worn on Passing Out Parade. Each one of us landed up with four to five sets of these brass buttons. Some seniors also borrowed our rain capes and cycles and we were not sure in what shape they would be returned. Some academically weak seniors gave us notes to be copied from their brighter course mates. Seniors ensured all these encounters were done in a clandestine manner as special operations!

There were occasional fist fights when some early birds had taken more than their share of food especially the tipsy pudding. We missed some of our academic and physical tests which were mandatory to clear before going home on term break. Those who had not cleared their tests or had failed them once the lockdown was lifted, had to come one week earlier from home for practice, preparation and retests. Memories of those lovely three weeks, nearly half a century ago came back vividly during the ongoing lockdown when one had to help in the daily chores!

Manohar Parrikar: Destiny Ends A Brilliant Career

Manohar Parrikar was the most stable, effective, amiable and intelligent Raksha Mantri (RM) from the NDA 1 and 2 so far. He has been one of the few forward looking Raksha Mantris (RMs) of India who was pragmatic, hardworking, clear headed and open to suggestions. He always gave us an out of box solution to certain vexed issues. Shortly after taking over as RM he proclaimed that he would give the services a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) provided all three services were on the same platform.

Passing away of Manohar Parrikar is a loss not to the BJP alone but the whole political community of modern India. Tributes have been received cutting across party lines because essentially he was a cultured and amicable person who generally maintained the dignity of his office. A young IIT graduate, Manohar Parrikar became the Chief Minister of Goa in 2000 at the age of 45. Prior to that he had been an RSS worker from school days and leader of the opposition in Goa assembly. In one of the election conclaves of BJP in Goa in 2013, he was the first one to suggest that Modi should lead a united BJP campaign at national level. Modi was grateful to him and as a goodwill gesture got him to the Centre as a full time RM in November 2014. Prior to him the significantly important portfolio of defence was given as additional charge to an ailing finance minister.

The defence budget being limited in resources, Parrikar was able to clearly and pragmatically prioritise procurements for the three services. While he understood the need for modernisation of all the three services, he was also able to devise a time bound procurement plan. He tried to streamline and simplify procurement procedures and ushered in a new procurement policy. He had a very analytical mind and his being an IIT graduate helped him in coherently finding the way forward. A patient listener, he was quite quick on the uptake and was able to suggest workable but sometime naive, out of the box solutions to the defence forces.

Although he had excellent managerial abilities at the highest levels, his understanding about the actual conduct of operations was limited due to lakh of actual combat experience. However, he was a quick learner and during his short stint as the RM, the Army conducted surgical strikes across the international border with Myanmar and across line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

As a first he ordered some high level studies to be conducted by a group of retired and serving officers to streamline efficient functioning of the armed forces. As a result of these studies, outdated organisations were pruned or closed down to spare manpower and equipment for newly desired capabilities and capacity building.

The man had a flip side of his personality. He had no penchant for customs and time tested traditions of the armed forces and tried to bring in contemporary business practices which were not always well received by the veterans community. He was seen taking salute at ceremonies like guard of honour, a very solemn affair, in Chappals and crumpled bush shirt. At the same time, he was immaculately dressed in suit and Oxford shoes when he attended similar ceremonies abroad especially in the western countries. This did not go well with maintaining the traditions, ethos and elan of our proud armed forces and the veteran community.

Although he promised institution of the post of CDS and exhibited a will to resolve the One Rank One Pay issue, the bureaucrats salvaged his efforts and did not let these resolutions go through. He took credit for surgical strikes stating that he told the army what to do and how to do disregarding and downplaying the immaculate planning by senior officers and bold and audacious execution by junior leaders and troops on the ground. He did shake the bureaucrats a bit in a bid to make them more accountable and efficient but could not change their moral fibre and archaic ways of functioning.

He deviated from the proven tradition of martial music on beating the retreat after Republic Day celebrations to contemporary Bollywood style music with band players swaying in a manner not conforming to the values and traditions of the services. He was highly criticised for this act by the veterans and he confessed that he should take advice from the senior serving and retired officers before introducing radical changes. Inspite of his lack of strategic and operational depth in matters purely military, as a senior level manager he always gave suggestions some of which were workable and deserved to be given a chance.

Parrikar gave a fillip to all stalled defence projects because prior to him the services were not able to approach and convince the part time RM the necessity and urgency. Once he got the complete picture, which took about three months of detailed briefings from November 2014 to February 2015, he was able to prioritise logically and suggest to us how to stagger big ticket projects over the years in order to fit into the allotted defence budget. 

The much debated Rafael deal also exhibited his pragmatic approach wherein he agreed with PMO that at least two squadrons required urgently for strategic reasons should be procured through the fast government to government lane. Once the PMO took full charge of the Rafael deal he told the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to maintain a standoff distance and stayed out of the controversy inspite of opposition trying to rope him in.

In one of our meetings on enhancing the capacity of defence industries, I suggested to him that these units only worked during day light hours and if we had three continuous shifts around the clock like the heavy steel plants, then we could triple our production. He quite liked the idea but unfortunately, continuity was not maintained as he was sent back to Goa to cobble a minority coalition BJP government, which non other than him could have managed to stitch ; since one to one, congress had 25 percent more number of legislators than BJP in the state.

Parrikar would be remembered for what he achieved in his short life. Goa will always remain indebted to him for all the development he carried out in the state. The armed forces would always wish he had a longer tenure with them.

(The writer worked closely with Manohar Parrikar during the latter’s tenure as Defence Minister)


Balakot Attack: Time To End Bilateral Diplomacy

The decision to go up the spiral ladder by NDA 2 Government and use Indian Air Force (IAF) against terrorism is a new normal. The bold air attack in the wee hours of the morning of 26 February at Balakot, on mainland Pakistan was a non-military, preemptive strike against an established training camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and was not likely to be a one off attack. India has made it clear that it may resort to such attacks if Pakistan does not rein in the terrorist organisations. It showed the resolve of the elected government in India to take action against terrorists to avert future Pulwama type attacks in Jammu and Kashmir or rest of India. The retaliatory attack by Pakistan was on expected lines and was successfully averted.

Pakistan was caught off guard and in the existing hostility matrix had not factored in an air attack on its mainland or in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Initially, in denial of any damage due to the Indian insertion, Pakistan Director General Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR) stated that Indian aircrafts had violated their air space and had been chased away by the alert Pakistan Air Force planes. Once India claimed they had destroyed a JeM camp and killed between 250-300 terrorists; Pakistani authorities took a u turn and announced that this aggression on part of India would be avenged. As a riposte, ten Pakistani aircrafts including F-16s tried to violate the Indian airspace in broad day light o. 27 February but were challenged by IAF air defence aircraft ex-Awantipur. In the ensuing dog fight one Paki F-16 was brought down by the Indians and the Pakis destroyed one MIG -21 and captured Wing Commander Abhinandan who had bailed out.

In the three days from 26 to 28 February the Indian and Pakistani media went berserk and created a war hysteria. They were ably helped by retired defence officers, bureaucrats and academic defence analysts. Both the countries were stressing on their standard narratives with India insisting that Pakistan should bring to book all terrorist organisations and United Nations should put Masood Azhar on international terrorist list like Hafiz Muhammad Saeed; while Pakistan remained in a constant denial of assisting the terrorist groups. Even the gesture of releasing Wing Commander Abhinandan by Pakistan was viewed by India with suspicion and the Indian media declared that Pakistan was brought to its knees due to pressure by the international community.

I think time has come for India to consider dumping this outdated diplomatic tool of bilateralism. Bilateralism had a relevance during the Cold War when India was not part of either US or USSR alliances but was part of the non-aligned nations group. We dealt with member nations on bilateral basis inspite of the fact to which group, NATO or Warsaw Pact; was that nation belonging to. The Panchsheel Doctrine based on five tenets of bilateralism which we tried with China in late fifties failed miserably when China attacked India in 1962. During Kargil crisis and after the Balakot incidence we have sought the intervention of USA, UN, France, UK and Germany.

It is felt in some quarters that Pakistan has been totally isolated by the international community and most Indians would like to believe it. The truth is far from it and all those nations who have exhorted Pakistan to take action against terrorists have engaged Pakistan as parts of alliances in solving the Afghanistan problem whether it is US- Afghan Government-Taliban-Pakistan or Russia-Taliban-Pakistan-China group. However, Pakistan is taking symbolic actions by arresting large number of known terrorists including brother and son of Masood Azhar and restricting the moves of other terrorist groups. How sincere are the efforts of Pakistan in roping in of all terrorist groups, only time will tell.

The situation has been diffused for the time being by timely return of our pilot by Pakistan and Indian politicians are back to work for electioneering and mud-slinging onto each other. Where do we go from here? While India will be pre occupied in elections for the next three months, Pakistan will do well in showing its genuine intent by ensuring that no major terrorist incidence takes place during this period. By carrying out aerial surgical strikes deep into hinterland of Pakistan and obtaining unconditional release of its captured pilot, India has exhibited its resolve to fight terrorism fiercely. It also reserves the right to repeat the attacks as and when felt deemed.

While India has won this round on moral grounds and pressure from international community, there are yawning gaps in the capability building of the three forces. The defence acquisitions in the pipeline have to be speeded up. Whereas, we certainly need big ticket aircraft and warships, the bureaucrats and the army brass need to lower their eyes and address the needs of the infantry man on the ground who is largely deployed in insurgency areas. The infantry does not have a state of the art rifle, Sten gun, hand grenade, water bottle and modified vehicles for specialist weapons. To effectively take out terrorist leaders and minimise own casualties, infantry needs latest version of sniper rifles. Pakistan has already acquired them and is inflicting casualties to own troops on the Line of Control (LC).

With the entire Balakot incident coming as a shot in the arm, the Modi Government is likely to return to power after the elections. Regardless of which so ever party comes to power, the new government should make an attempt to engage Pakistan in talks and also work wholeheartedly to get normalcy back in the Kashmir Valley. This has been the hottest winter in the last decade as far as insurgency and violence levels are concerned in the sub-zero temperatures. The levels of alienation have gone back to 1987 levels. We should not be in a hurry to impose an elected government on people until security forces have brought in levels of insurgency under manageable limits.