Few Indian Army Chiefs have been known to be strategic thinkers. General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, Chief of the Army Staff from 1986 to ’88, was one of the rare few. When he took over as the Chief, his appointment was not entirely welcomed as the memories of ‘Op Blue Star’ was still fresh, when his gross underestimation of the will and capabilities of the Sikh separatists in the Golden Temple, had led him to abandon several, time tested lessons, from the use of minimum acceptable force to never reinforce failure.
The messy operation that followed, many felt, could have been executed better. And as Chief during ‘Op Pawan’ when India sent troops to Sri Lanka, his dismissal of realistic assessments of the LTTE’s capabilities and his exaggerated claims, led to a botched up military intervention. But his lesser-known accomplishment was of how he used force for ‘coercive diplomacy.’
He was in many ways a ‘General’s General’. While India’s generals were still carrying the hangover of the legacy of the 1971 war on the western front – where the Armoured Division had barely moved 10 kms against heavy Pakistani opposition despite its enormous capabilities – Sundarji continued to insist that a target of ‘100 kms in 72 hours against light opposition’ should be the minimum aim for an Armoured Division once launched into Pakistan.
Apparently, this was one of his aims in flogging India’s mechanised forces relentlessly during Operation Brasstacks; a message that did not go unnoticed by General Zia (himself a tank man) and the Pakistani military brass, that responded in a manner which leads the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, to panic and eventually seek a conciliatory compromise with the Pakistanis.
Meeting General Sundarji
I had the opportunity of one long interaction with General Sundarji in the spring of 1995 in Washington DC, where I was a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center. The General had known me since my days as a GC at the IMA (when my father had served as his Brig Admin 33 Corps) and later as my Colonel of the Regiment when I was transferred from The Grenadiers to the Mechanised Infantry.
But it was in Washington DC, that we were both out of the Army, him with a legendary reputation and me as a young nobody – and despite my strong criticism of how he had handled Op Blue-Star and Op Pawan, in my first book on India’s ‘Low-Intensity Conflicts’ – we got along famously over dinner. And when all the guests but the hosts had left, General Sunderji sat down to give us his views on his dealings with India’s political leadership.
Brasstacks was planned as an exercise to test India’s ability to move troops to the borders in the event of a war-like situation. Sundarji, some say, was keen to do one better than the regular NATO exercise, ‘Autumn Forge’ which moved about a 1,25,000 troops across Europe during the exercise. Sundarji wanted to move over 5,00,000 troops across India in one go, four times the NATO numbers!
To achieve that, he had moved out a substantial part of our forces from Punjab into Rajasthan. Our troops were on exercise along the Rajasthan main canal (now IGC) and in full operational readiness with ammunition. But his aim, as the General told me, was not to attack Pakistan, as portrayed in the media and perceived by General Zia and his team! Even today Pakistanis do believe that had the Indian army been launched into Sindh, it could’ve broken Pakistan into two.
So taking no chances, Zia alerted his forces, and Rajiv Gandhi was told by India’s intelligence agencies that Pakistan was ready to attack. Being unable to comprehend what a ‘mobilisation’ entailed, and without detailed interaction with Sundarji and his team, South Block officials panicked.
And when Rajiv’s sent a plane to pick up some of his cabinet ministers who were away from Delhi elsewhere in India, for a cabinet meeting on what should be done, General Zia assumed that the Indian cabinet had been summoned to take a decision on when to go to war, since Indian troops were already on Pakistan’s border. Pakistan thus moved the bulk of its mechanised columns towards a thinly defended Indian Punjab, appearing ready to launch troops into India to cut off Punjab and thus Kashmir. The exercise was called off as Rajiv waved the white flag, and Sunderji was projected as the maverick General who had gone beyond his brief.
Making India count
However, Sundarji’s bigger achievement was that he had put the fear of India’s military capability into Pakistan’s Brass hats. This was confirmed to me by a serving Pakistani Colonel who was my counterpart at the Stimson Centre. Considering how, our political leadership is often on the back foot with Pakistan’s aggressive intent, here is a lesson that they would do well to be reminded of, by our own Generals.
To stretch a point it might be assumed that one of the reasons for putting together our current ‘Cold Start’ doctrine – since the deployment of forces during OP-Parakram, following the attack on the Indian parliament by Pakistani militants – could have possibly be inspired by the message sent out during Brasstacks, as the Cold Start doctrine is designed to launch a number of mechanized and infantry formations within a few hours into Pakistan, a la Brasstacks. Pakistan is yet to come up with a conventional doctrine to counter this and remains extremely wary of what the Indian Army could do.
General Sundarji’s other big achievement, in strategic terms, was to show that India needn’t get brow beaten by the Chinese on the Sino-Indian border, as has been the case in the past years. In 1986-87 Chinese troops had made incursions at Somdorong Chu, (near Namka chu which was the scene of fierce battles in 1962).
Frustrated with the lack of a political and diplomatic direction, Sundarji ordered the heli-lift of the Indian troops from a Brigade in the Arunachal and placed them on hilltops surrounding the Chinese with orders that the Chinese should be pushed out if it so required. He was thus summoned by the PM, Rajiv Gandhi to a cabinet meeting, as alarm bells were sounded in South Block, about India’s China policy being derailed by his adventurism.
PM Rajiv apparently asked Gen. Sundarji why he had done what he had (as the General told me that night in Washington DC) and he said I have reacted to a military threat as a military commander should have. And in a lighter vein, he added that Indian troops were in a position to wet the Chinese! But still uncertain, Rajiv looked around and asked his cabinet what was our policy on China. And as per Sundarji’s account ( narrated to me), a rather Bengali accented response of a cabinet member was that: “Madaam’s policy (referring to Indira Gandhi) on the Chinese was the same as Panditji’s.”
Brilliant and controversial, Sundarji rose to prominence as the first Infantry officer of the Indian Army to command the prestigious 1 Armoured Division, that led him to be sometimes referred to as India’s Rommel.
A perplexed Rajiv then asked ‘and what was Panditji’s policy?’ So the same voice then said it was “not to upset the status quo on the Sino-Indian border.” So then Rajiv Gandhi looked at Sundarji and said: “then that shall continue to be our policy.” However, records show (as confirmed on the internet) that General Sundarji apparently refused to pull back troops and said that if what I have done is unacceptable then you find my replacement who will do as you say, and he took leave and walked out after saluting the politicians. The Chinese knowing that they were cornered then withdrew.
Brilliant and controversial, Sundarji rose to prominence as the first Infantry officer of the Indian Army to command the prestigious 1 Armoured Division, that led him to be sometimes referred to as India’s Rommel. And even though his legacy is a mixed one, because of his mishandling of Operation Blue-Star in Amritsar and Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, nobody has ever questioned the oratory skills that led him to alter policy ‘by the sheer force of his personality’ as one commentator remarked, and his ability to think beyond the time tested operational approach of the Indian Army.
General Sundarji was certainly a thinking man’s general. On retirement, he wrote a much-read weekly column in India for a while, called Brasstacks, and even authored a book, ‘Blind Men of Hindoostan’, a dig at our politico-bureaucratic setup, who know so little but hold all the strings of our defence establishment.
This essay was first published in FAUJI INDIA in July-August 2014 issue, but as we face the Chinese forces along the LAC, General Sundarji’s legacy still holds lessons for our commanders today.