By Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd)
Most appraisals of the Indian Army’s strength revolve around modernization, technological advances and firepower. Beyond these criteria lies another that, arguably, is the Army’s foremost strength – its robust culture.
Every organization – company, political party, club, school and college, NGO and government department – has a culture. Indeed, so has every family. It doesn’t matter whether that culture has come about as a result of thoughtful reflection and action or has grown like untamed wild grass. There will always be culture. And the quality of that culture will largely sift the wheat from the chaff.
Culture is the prime mover of our collective behaviour. The silent stream that ripples just below the surface – visible here, invisible there – but powerfully guides the behaviour of every group. It is often the sole difference between winning and losing, yet many leaders are oblivious to it beyond trite cliches.
The Indian Army inherited culture from its British lineage. Over the past eight-plus decades, that culture has evolved to fit indigenous inclinations and changing battlefield needs. And yet, several core attributes have thankfully remained intact.
One of the central precepts of the Army’s culture is the primacy of the unit – the battalion or the regiment. An outsider often asks how the million-strong Army ensures that even the nameless soldier is intrinsically attached to the organization’s identity. How does the Army make its countless members feel so wanted and cared for that their identities are subsumed into the organization’s identity? The Army’s culture of celebrating the importance of the unit as the powerful cementing force provides a clue to that phenomenon. Soldiers fight to uphold the prestige of their units. And collectively, this phenomenon has accorded a distinguished record of victories to the Army.
Not every battle can be won, of course. The Army lost a war to China in 1962. The Army fought the battles triggered by a delusional foreign policy, political fecklessness and abysmal logistics. Soldiers, ill-equipped and sometimes scantily clothed for the extreme vagaries of weather, fought to the last man. In his seminal eye-sight account, the Commander of 7 Infantry Brigade John Dalvi described the preparedness as “without basic winter clothing; with only three days rations on the man; no reserves; without mortars and ammunition; without rocket launchers and ammunition; without defence stores and with only personal items of kit.”
Despite the heavily loaded dice against Indian troops, it was not a one-sided match. The Army lost it after a stupendous fight. Indian sources put its fatalities at nearly 3000; the exponentially better equipped Chinese, who had attacked from dominating heights with far greater strength, admitted losing 722 of their troops.
Similarly, despite the heroism of countless soldiers, the Sri Lanka campaign’s outcome was not a clear victory. The slogging matches in Siachen and several insurgencies, too, remain battles in progress.
Notably, the setbacks in 1962 and Sri Lanka did not leave a permanent imprint on the collective psyche of the Army. The culture acted as a bulwark, and a mere three years after the 1962 debacle, the Army fought a successful war against Pakistan. In 1971, it scored a famous victory, dismembering its arch-enemy to create a new country.
Secondly, every leadership training manual extols the virtues of leading by example and from the front as the supreme attribute of leadership. After all, people do what you do, not what the leader says. Yet, few organizations follow it. The Army’s culture inscribes this into the mindset of its leaders. Since the organization is mainly officer-led, it is the officer who carries the torch of example. These words are not a mere expression of good sentiment. For example, one look at the proportion of casualties suffered by officers vis a vis the other rank will illuminate the fact that officers tend to lead from the front – even literally.
Officers, especially young Lieutenants and Captains, instinctively feel that they must not put the soldiers in greater jeopardy than themselves. The culture of the Army makes them feel protective of the men they command – no matter that the officer may be several years younger than his team members.
In 2021, while researching for my book on culture, I checked the ratio of casualties incurred by officers and all other ranks in the conflict-ridden Valley of Kashmir. The total strength of the Army in the Kashmir region comprised 700 plus officers and approximately 44,000 other rank, a ratio of 1:60. The casualties reflect a vastly different equation. One officer loses his life for every 14 soldiers that perish in operations. The story of non-fatal casualties – that could easily have been fatal but for providence and the wayward aim of the militants – is even more instructive. An officer is among every 11 soldiers that are wounded.
A similar picture emerges when we cast our attention on the previous operations. Statistics tell us that the ratio of officers to men of other ranks killed in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan was 1:9.3 and 1:9.8, respectively. In Sri Lanka, it was higher – 1:7.5. The Kargil conflict ratio is equally skewed.
Is this a good thing? I suppose that question is open to argument. But does it cast a precise beam of understanding why wave after wave of Indian Army soldiers was willing to face certain death while attacking the bare slopes of Kargil because the officers were with them every step of the bloody journey? One of the prime reasons for implicit obedience in the Army is because the soldiers respect the officers – and that is not a mere treacle-like statement. It is the bedrock of the Army’s culture.
Perhaps it is best understood in the words of Edmond Chandler, who, writing in 1919 in The Sepoy, said that ‘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….A strange officer…..is not adopted into the Pantheon at once. He has to qualify….but once accepted, he is served with fidelity and devotion that are human and dog-like at the same time.’
Thirdly, if there is a three-word phrase that an outsider is likely to hear most from the soldiers of the Indian Army, it is naam, namak, nishan. Together these constitute a powerful theme song – indeed, the most potent of ideas that run like a silent stream through the Army’s culture. It is a construct unique to the Indian Army, an unwritten yet clearly understood set of ideals that guide and motivate the conduct of soldiers during war and peace.
Naam means name; for the adherents of this culture, it denotes reputation and esteem. Namak is salt, and the connotation here is unflinching loyalty. Nishan or sign is the flag and all the symbolism that belongs to a regiment. Naam, Namak and Nishan are not nebulous concepts adorning a Vision Statement on the walls. These represent ideas that are sharply etched into the psyche of the soldiers. Officers and soldiers associate these with their battalions and regiments. And collectively, the dividends are passed on to the Army as an organization.
But what sustains this ‘potion’ in a million-strong Army, a vast and diverse pool of human beings drawn from every demographic of the country? Traditions. Adherence to norms. Deference to ethos
Fourthly, the Army’s culture benefits from another unique source – its families. The families support their spouses and children by stoically bearing extended periods of separation. But what is remarkable is that members of countless families choose the Army as a career even though they have lost a loved one while in service. In the recent past, several ladies have signed up after their husbands were killed in action.
Not every fallen soldier’s family sends someone to join the Army, of course. But it is remarkable how many do join the footsteps of their fallen family members. That would hardly be the case if the families did not feel a special bond with the organization. It is also a pleasant surprise that most such families stay attached to the units and join causes that advocate others joining the organization. Such a trend must stand in stark contrast to many other professions where losing a life on duty would be considered too tragic to follow in the footsteps of a family member who has died in service, let alone display abiding loyalty towards the organization. When you look at this phenomenon through the lens of ‘culture’, the pieces start to fall in place.
There are, of course, many other strengths of the Army’s culture. It is obvious that the preservation of that culture will need conscious efforts. Culture always flows from the top – in the Army’s context, that mainly implies its officership, particularly at the senior ranks. Many people, including the veterans, have voiced concerns over the long-term impact of the Agniveer scheme. The jury will remain out on this subject for a few years. But the Army leadership must watch the evolving consequences with a razor-sharp focus. Equally, since the Army draws its human resources from society, the leadership must remain vigilant against diluting its values.
The Army has a winning culture – with a few infirmities but a large swathe of strengths. It must continue to nourish it. As Peter Drucker famously told us, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Even as we pursue modernization and the honing of our strategies, we must never lose sight of the fact that without the continued platform of a strong culture, every other effort may fall short.
Author is a veteran and a corporate professional. He is the author of an upcoming book on culture – Inside A Winning Culture.
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