By Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd)
Upon gaining independence, the Indian Army inherited a robust culture. In the aftermath of the 1962 border war with China, that culture ensured that the Army’s morale remained intact. The rank and file recognised that the debacle along the Namkha Chu river and elsewhere was substantially attributable to the politico-military structure at the very apex. As for the officers and soldiers at large, everyone had stood and fought, inflicting heavy casualties. For example, Neville Maxwell reported in his seminal work ‘India’s China War’ that “at Thembang, Indian Intelligence later concluded that the Chinese had suffered between three and four hundred killed. Evidence of substantial Chinese casualties was found when the Indians returned to the Walongbattlefield and Rezang La in the western sector.”
Whatever might have been the injury to the collective psyche of the Army, none was in evidence in the subsequent wars that followed, notably the watershed conflict of 1971 that led to the hiving off of one part of Pakistan. Even in subsequent conflicts, where victory was not entirely evident as in Sri Lanka or was secured at significant cost, as in Kargil, the self-belief of the Army has never been in short supply.
Indeed, even if anecdotal, another piece of evidence of the immensely heightened confidence is found in how the narratives of the Army’s wargames and exercises are now being crafted. Gone are the days when every ‘war’ as per those scripts was a defensive response to the adversary, undertaken as the last measure after the provocation had crossed all acceptable limits. That is no longer the case. These fictitious training narratives are now often built on proactive scenarios where the Indian Army acts first to nip mischief in the bud. There is every sign that, backed by a far stronger economy and industrial complex than was available to the nation in 1947, the Army has grown immensely in confidence – and aggressive intent.
Internally, the Army has experienced a quiet revolution. The rank and file have become more aspirational. Accordingly, the officer leadership’s approach has also discarded some of the stiff formality of the British days and become more egalitarian. The soldier is far better educated, financially secure and ambitious to scale the ladder of social mobility. The proportion of children of other ranks in the National Defence Academy has risen exponentially. With the dissolution of feudalism in society, there is an attendant rise in the egalitarian dynamic between the officer and the soldiers. This does not imply that there was ever a vast chasm between the Indian Army officer and those he led. But norms and traditions have shifted with the times, and there is greater equality now than ever.
Some things, of course, never change – and should not change either. The officer-soldier bond, built on leading by example and from the front and deep-seated regimental mores, has always been intrinsic to the Army’s culture. That long-standing tradition has remained unchanged since Edmond Chandler, 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.’
The entry of women into the Army has, of course, raised its inclusivity quotient. Even though women nurses had always been a part of the Army (over 350 perished during the Second World War), women were first inducted into non-medical roles in 1992. Ever since then, the mandate and tenures have expanded. In 2020, a woman officer of the Army Medical Corps reached the rank of Lieutenant General. In May 2021, 83 Women were inducted as jawans for the first time in the Corps of Military Police. Lady cadets have now been permitted into the National Defence Academy, arguably the most elite training academy in the country. The debate on inducting women into combat roles is still on, and going by the recent trends, the glass ceiling too will be shattered soon.
The ceremonials, lifestyles and social conduct of the Indian Army – which is an intrinsic part of the Army’s life and culture – have increasingly shown a transition from British traditions to their more Indianised versions. That should not surprise anyone. The country’s growing confidence in itself has resulted in a dilution of the awe of the ‘White Man’s ways’. Indian music, traditions and greetings (Jai Hind replaced the anglicised greetings a decade ago) have made their presence among the older traditions. That is not to say that the pre-independence practices have been entirely jettisoned. Armies thrive on tradition, and it is neither necessary nor desirable to pivot away from history. But there is a growing acceptance of indigenous mores than before.
I have purposely stayed away from inventorying the changes in weapons and equipment. The shifts in that area have been nothing short of revolutionary. But there are two aspects in which the Indian Army has made remarkable progress –adaptation to technology and proficiency in asymmetric warfare. Decades of fighting militancy within the country and exposure to peace-keeping operations elsewhere in the world have created a wealth of experience within the Army. The creation and success of Rashtriya Rifles, for example, is an example of how the Army has restructured itself to meet the challenge of combatting asymmetry.
In the end, it is also time to note and celebrate what hasn’t changed: Focus on leadership, regimental culture, the ethos of naam-namak-nishan (honour, loyalty and identity), the primacy of the ‘unit’, the weaving of families into the fabric of the Army, its robust culture, and, above all, the Army’s secular and apolitical character.
That is the bedrock on which the Army continues to build itself in the 75thyear of our nation’s independence.
The author is a Veteran of the Bihar Regiment.
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