The sacred culture of ‘leading from the front’ by army officers has survived despite challenges and other institutional concerns
Three recent losses of precious lives i.e., Colonel Manpreet Singh, Major Aashish Donchak, and DSP Humayun Bhatt, seem to be a timely reminder of the civilisational and constitutional values in some of us, that guarantee our freedom. Distracted, as the nation was in peddling phoney controversies, fake outrage, meaningless rhetoric, or sheer bombast – these men simply gave their all for the nation. They did not unleash hate or anger amongst us internally, instead, they chose to ‘lead from the front’ by letting their work (and lives) do the talking, not words. To reiterate, they didn’t incite or order from the comfort and safety of distance, but put themselves in harm’s way, fully knowing the possible consequences, as only true leaders do.
The saga of the Indian Armed Forces is not necessarily etched by the better-known Generals, Admirals or Air Marshals, in as much, if not more, by the unmatched steel, fire, and ramrod-straight posture of its junior-middle leadership (from Junior Commissioned Officers to Unit Commanding Officers and their equivalents), who hold the fort, literally. Beyond the hagiographies of victory, the Kargil War is a grim reminder of doing the impossible with the hearts, legs, arms, and sharp minds of the junior-middle leadership, and not so much on account of any strategic brilliance by senior leadership, be it Military or Political. Many international Military historians marvel at the surreal conditions of impossibilities (in terms of topography, weather conditions, battlelines et al) that were neither matched, before or after, in modern battle accounts. Yet, the Indian Armed Forces had triumphed, against all odds and disproven all militaristic ratios and assumptions.
However, there was one vital and unique element that differentiated the Indian Armed Forces from all other global Militaries, which made Kargil possible, despite its counterintuitive draw of unfavourable militaristic ratios and assumptions i.e., cliched as it sounds, ‘leading from the front’! Put simply, the Officer-to-Soldier fatality/wounded ratio of the Indian Army is by far the highest as compared to any other professional Military in the world. In the thick of battle, the reality of leadership matters more than anything else, ever does. Kargil, India is believed to have lost 26 Officers out of a total casualty of 527. Considering that there are approximately 18-20 officers per Infantry battalion of about 800 odd soldiers, the value of ‘leading from the front’, can never be overstated.
Even in the unforgiving conditions of Galwan Valley, the heroics of Col BS Babu (Commanding Officer, 16 Bihar Regiment) who was killed in action is a testimony. There is never a similar reportage of a leadership-level officer getting killed in action, amongst Militaries of neighbouring China or Pakistan (occasionally in ambush or IED blast, but never in combat). This culture of ‘leading from the front’ is borne out of an inexplicable admixture of regimentation, normalised-expectation and esprit-de-corps that has withstood the test of time, civilian morass, regression, and polarisations.
Some lazily attribute ‘leading from the front’ to overambition, misplaced bravado or momentary lapse of better sense – it may be some shades of all of the above, and the likes of Kargil were only possible thanks to that unique josh that is still fires and cranks up performance. Never forget, those who dare, do so knowing that they are in the line of fire (when they needn’t be) but still choose to do so.
The irrepressible and probably the boldest Military General of the Indian Army ‘led from the front’ and never lost a battle in his life i.e., Lt Gen Sagat Singh. Legend of him liberating Goa, inflicting a bloody nose on the Chinese at Nathu La and Cho La (by 1967 itself), or dashing to Dhaka to liberate Bangladesh by repeatedly overflying enemy territory in a helicopter (which took bullets) to control battle, is a fact not fiction. You may never hear of such leadership conduct in Ukraine, the Middle East, or any other conflict zone, anywhere in the world.
Before Colonel Manpreet, Major Dhonchak and DSP Humayun had answered their calling in life, it was a well-beaten path that had been carved by the likes of Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Colonel MR Rai, Colonel Santosh Mahadik etc., all Commanding Officers of the various Rashtriya Rifles battalions, like the 19th Rashtriya Rifles, Commanded by the gallant Colonel Manpreet Singh. As ‘Commanding Officers’ they could have avoided literal ‘leading from the front’, but still did so – while they and their families paid an irreplaceable price for the same, the Indian Army and the nation at large, remain eternally grateful for their ultimate sacrifices.
This sacred culture of ‘leading from the front’ by officers, especially by the junior-middle leadership has survived so many other institutional concerns that undeniably stare. The Officer-to-Soldier ratio was 1:18 in the 1965 War, 1:20 in the 1971 War and still, 1:17 in Kargil 1999. While die-hard Infantry folks like to flex ‘When it was a victory, the cavalier claimed it outright, the Gunner boasted of his guns, Signalman publicised his worth, but the Infantryman remained silent with victory at his feet’. Beyond the lighthearted intra-services banter, the Indian Armed Forces have thankfully retained traditions, regimentation and culture at the junior-middle level of the forces, and perhaps owing only to the same, it still bashes on regardless.
(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are personal)