Historical Highlights of the Indian Army

The final shape and professional restructuring of the Indian Army was carried out prior to World War I under General Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief in India from 1902. During this period, due to a clash between him and Viceroy George Curzon over the perceived organisational duality of control of the military in India, Curzon resigned. This issue has had a significantly negative effect on the higher defence control mechanism in India.

Issue: 6 / 2014 By Lt General V.K. Kapoor (Retd)Photo(s): By army.mod.uk, Indian Army

The British era of the Indian Army lasted for nearly 200 years. Major Stringer Lawrence was the first army officer appointed Commander-in-Chief of all the East India Company’s forces in 1752. He can thus be deemed as the Father of the Indian Army. The forces then comprised Europeans recruited from England or locally and Indian auxiliaries. These Indians were armed with their own weapons, wore their own dress and were commanded by their own officers.

After the reorganisation in 1796, the major changes were: Increase in the number of British officers in Indian units and consequent diminishing of the importance and responsibility of Indian officers (subedars and jemadars); artillery units were created with European gunners and Indian helpers (lascars and syces); infantry battalions were grouped into regiments with each regiment having two battalions; Indian cavalry was formed into a cavalry brigade and declared a distinct service.

The events of 1857 are too well known to be recounted in any detail in this brief focus on the Indian Army. Following the First War of Independence in 1857 (called the Indian Mutiny by the British Government), the British Queen issued a proclamation in 1858 taking over the Government of India from the East India Company. A Royal Commission appointed in July 1858 suggested that the army in India be composed mainly of Indian troops with a proportion of Indian to British being 2:1. By 1863 the actual numbers were 3,15,500 Indian and 38,000 British troops. Step by step the three Presidency Armies were amalgamated which was completed by 1895.

With the overall control of the Indian Empire being vested in the Crown, the imperial strategy for the defence of India envisaged a wide cordon sanitaire to give depth to this jewel in the crown. Afghanistan, Tibet and Burma were the immediate buffers while the global dominance of the British Navy of the time allowed them even further outposts like Hong Kong, Singapore, Aden and Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Pax Britannica was at its zenith and the core was centred on India.

The Era of the World Wars

The final shape and professional restructuring of the Indian Army was carried out prior to World War I under General Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief in India from 1902. During this period, due to a clash between him and Viceroy George Curzon over the perceived organisational duality of control of the military in India Curzon resigned. This issue has had a significantly negative effect on the higher defence control mechanism that evolved after independence which leaves the service chiefs outside the governmental decision-making forums. To this day this aspect remains an Indian weakness.

In World War I, more than one million Indian soldiers served overseas. The army expanded from 2,39,511 in 1914 to 14,40,428 personnel by 1919. While there were no commissioned Indian officers in the army. The Indian Army fought in all major theatres including France Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine.

The period between World War I and II, the 20 years separating the two wars saw the emergence of the Indian Officer Corps and the first batch was commissioned on December 1, 1919, when 33 Indian cadets were granted Kings Commission with effect from July 17, 1920. Field Marshal Cariappa was a member of the first batch. The British made an effort to ensure that no British officers would ever have to serve under any Indian, however the rapid expansion in World War II put paid to this scheme and by the end of the war there were a number of units where British officers and troops were serving under Indian officers.

When Poland was attacked by Germany on September 1, 1939, Britain declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939. The Viceroy declared India at war on the same day. World War II had started. Congress governments in power in eight provinces resigned as they had not been consulted at all and declared that they would not cooperate with the government. This was not due to any love for Nazi Germany but as a matter of principle. At the start of World War II, the Indian Army had a strength of 1,94,373 personnel which was a little more than the strength available at the start of World War I. The Army had 96 Infantry Battalions and 18 Cavalry Regiments. The cavalry had no tanks and was mounted on trucks. The infantry had no mortars or anti-tank weapons. Radio equipment was available at brigade level and above. The modernisation planned in 1938 had yet to start. Indian Army was not intended to fight overseas but only protect India’s borders and nearby areas. However, before the war ended, the Indian Army had expanded to a strength of over 20,00,000 men and engaged in operations stretching from Hong Kong to Italy. In the re-conquest of Burma, it provided the bulk of forces and played important roles in the campaigns in North Africa and Italy. Nearly 6,300 awards were earned by Indian Army in World War II. Awards for gallantry alone totalled approximately 4,800. They included 31 Victoria Crosses, 4 George Crosses, 252 Distinguished Service Orders, 347 Indian Orders of Merit, and 1,311 Military Crosses.

Independence and Partition

While the Indian Army did not fight a war of independence, it contributed to it. Among the factors that led to the independence, a major factor was the formation of Indian National Army (INA) by the Indian prisoners of war. Nearly 20,000 officers and men joined the INA. The British were stunned at the defection of officers. They realised that they could not rely on the Indian Army to put down a movement for independence. This was reinforced by the mutinies in the Royal Indian Air Force in January 1946 and an even more widespread one in February 1946, in the Royal India Navy. It was acknowledged that India could not be held by force of arms and this was a major factor in the British decision to grant independence. Great Britain, fearing a revolution, decided to quit India on February 20, 1947. His Majesty’s Government announced its intention to transfer power to Indians. Lord Mountbatten replaced Wavell as the Viceroy. Based on the views of two main political parties the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, it was decided to partition India into the Dominions of India and Pakistan on August 15, 1947. No planning had been done to work out the administrative consequences of the partition and its allied problems of law and order and many other vital issues such as the boundary alignment, division of armed forces and defence assets, economic assets, status of princely states and numerous other aspects of partition which had to be resolved under a frenetic timetable.

It was agreed that by August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan should have effective forces mainly non-Muslims and Muslims under their respective control. A large part of the army had mixed classes and involved a major reorganisation of practically all units. The Navy and the Air Force did not pose a serious problem due to their small size. An Armed Forces Reconstitution Committee under Field Marshal Auchinleck was set to divide the units and stores in the ratio of two to one between India and Pakistan respectively. Muslims from India and non-Muslims from Pakistan could elect which dominion they would serve.

The tragedy of partition is a story which deserves separate coverage. The misery of partition and Punjab migration could have been lessened had Mountbatten been a wiser man and not rushed independence and delayed the announcement of the boundary award. Out of about 14 million people involved in migration, it is estimated that more than half a million died in the violence that erupted on both sides.

The strain on the troops of the old Indian Army with the emotional stress of communal differences, personal tragedies and daily exposure to heartrending scenes of murders, rapes and other brutalities, brought their discipline to a breaking point but its hard crust did not break. It was the greatest test of the old Indian Army which it passed with flying colours under the most adverse circumstances.

Operation Gulmarg

‘Operation Gulmarg’, which was a deliberately planned operation by Pakistan, aimed at the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir. According to its leader Colonel Akbar Khan of Pakistan Army, its planning was done in August 1947. Indian Army’s operations in J&K and the achievement of the Indian Army under its own officers despite logistics constraints, daunting terrain and severity of climate is a proud tribute to its leadership, fighting spirit and patriotic fervour of all ranks. They undertook a task allotted to them as a sacred mission to be fulfilled whatever the cost.

Post-Independendent Indian Army

Strength of the Indian Army in August 1947 was 4,00,000 but the political leadership was keen to reduce the strength to save defence expenditure and hence it was decided to bring down the strength of the army to 2,00,000 after the J&K Operations which would involve the disbandment of many units. A new Territorial Army Act was passed in 1948 and infantry and artillery units with a nucleus of regular officers were raised in 1949. Many other changes occurred during the period from 1948 to 1960. The designation of Commander-in-Chief ceased to be in use from 1955 and the three chiefs (Army, Navy and Air Force) were made equal and independently responsible for their respective service. Every function of the defence services was duplicated in the Ministry of Defence where civilian bureaucrats not only ensured financial and administrative control but also gradually took over the decision making powers of the defence services. One of the first steps after independence was the introduction of a new pay code for Indian Commissioned Officers (ICOs) and a reduced warrant of precedence to downgrade the status of defence services officers. The standing of the military reached an all-time low during the time of Krishna Menon as Defence Minister when decisions concerning matters of major military importance were taken without consultation of the concerned service.

Nehru’s Bias against the Military and the National Humiliation of 1962

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s bias against the military was well known in the services. The clearest example of this is when General Cariappa outlined his plan for the security of NEFA, after China had occupied Tibet, Nehru flared up and thumping the table said: “It is not the business of the C-in-C to tell the Prime Minister who is going to attack us where. You mind only Kashmir and Pakistan.” Nehru continued to appease the Chinese and the untimely death of Home Minister Sardar Patel took away all opposition to Nehru’s views. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the national humiliation was the result of this policy and the bias against the military. The military also failed by acquiescing to a policy they knew to be militarily and politically unsound. One of the major reasons was the nexus established by Krishna Menon with General Kaul bypassing normal official channels and Nehru encouraged it says Maj General D.K. Palit, Vr C, in War in High Himalaya. Politicisation of the officer class led to the appointment of General P.N. Thapar as the COAS in May 1961 and Lt General B.N. Kaul as the Chief of General Staff (equivalent to the current Vice Chief of Army Staff). This team was suspect in the eyes of the officer corps who resented political appointees and questioned their bona fides and professional calibre.

The Period from 1961 to 1971

The period 1961 to 1971 was one of the most traumatic periods of the Indian Army. The defeat in 1962 shook the foundation of the nation and the armed forces. The army began to introspect to overcome its weaknesses. The 1965 war helped the army to redeem itself but revealed embarrassing weaknesses in its equipment and its training and even leadership at various levels. These two wars spurred the political leadership to modernise and expand the services. As 1970 came to a close, the Indian Army was now ready to face new challenges emerging on the horizon.

The 1971 war resulted in creation of a new nation—Bangladesh—and a decisive military victory in which 93,000 prisoners of war were taken. While many books have been written to describe each battle in detail, it is the spirit of the soldiery during this campaign that deserves mention. In the words of Sydney Schanberg of New York Times, who accompanied Indian troops in two sectors: ‘I don’t like sitting around praising armies. I don’t like armies because armies mean wars – and I don’t like wars. But this [the Indian] army was something….They were great all the way. There was never a black mark…. I lived with the officers and I walked, rode with the jawans – and they were all great. Sure some of them were scared at first – they couldn’t be human if they weren’t. But I never saw a man flinch because he was scared. There is a tremendous spirit [in the Indian Army] and it did one good to experience it…. And they were the most perfect gentlemen—I have never seen them do a wrong thing – not even when they just saw how bestial the enemy had been.”

The Period from 1971 to 1998

The period after 1971 war saw the steady modernisation of the Indian Army with new equipment for modern wars. The Experts Committee under the Chairmanship of Lt General K.V. Krishna Rao submitted its report in 1976. Some of its major recommendations started getting implemented in the 1980s. The expansion of mechanised forces was achieved as a result of this report.

On April 13, 1984, 34 soldiers of the Indian Army were landed by 17 sorties of helicopters at a point three kilometres short of Bilafond La, a pass on the Soltaro ridge, west of Siachen glacier. The soldiers occupied the pass. This was the opening move in what is referred to as the Siachen conflict between India and Pakistan which continues till date.

Operation Blue Star

This period also saw the army assault on the Golden Temple on night June 4, 1984, at Amritsar to clear the complex of the militants who had based themselves in the temple. The Operation was code named ‘Blue Star’ By the first light of June 7, 1984 the Golden Temple complex had been cleared of militants but it left, in its aftermath, a wave of anguish and anger among the Sikh community and the nation faced the assassination of the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards.

Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka

The period July 1987 to March 1990 saw the Indian Army fight Tamil militants in Sri Lanka with one hand tied behind their back. IPKF moved to Sri Lanka to carry out peacekeeping duties as generally assigned during UN operations and to separate the warring factions, i.e. LTTE and Sri Lankan armed forces but ended up enforcing peace and conducting military operations against LTTE. What the IA achieved is best described in the words of Rajan Wijeratrie, former Minister of State for Defence in Sri Lankan Government. He reported to have said, “The IPKF had virtually finished them off. They were gasping for breath in the jungles. It was we who provided that oxygen to them”. This summed up what IPKF had achieved before de-induction.

During the 1980s the Indian Army also conducted the operation in Maldives to prevent mercenaries from overthrowing the Government of Maldives and while it did not involve much fighting, it demonstrated to the world the speed and efficiency with which the Indian armed forces could react.

Terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir

This period also saw the start of terrorism and insurgency in Kashmir and the raising and deployment of Rashtriya Rifles and additional troops in J&K. India continues to face the challenge of dealing with an increasingly Talibanised Pakistan where all the institutions of governance are coming under the sway of Taliban ideology. Pakistan remains ambivalent in dealing with militant groups operating in PoK against India and their senior leadership, particularly the Lashkare-Toiba (LeT), which is the the most virulent of them all. The fight against state-sponsored terrorism launched by Pakistan which continues even today is a story involving the indomitable spirit of the Indian Army, a story which requires a separate chapter for recording the heroism of its soldiery.

Kargil War, May-July 1999

Kargil sector is 168 km along the line of control (LoC) stretching from Kaobal Gali in the west to Chorbat La in the east. The sector was vast in which the line of control runs along the watershed along heights 4,000 to 5,000 metres. The frontage and the nature of terrain ensured large gaps between defended areas. The deployment included one infantry battalion at Dras; two infantry battalions and a BSF battalion covering Kargil and Chorbat La was held by Ladakh Scouts. As indications of Pakistani intrusion came in starting from May 3, 1999, it became clear that armed intruders had occupied heights in the gaps between all defended areas in the sector. It became apparent that India was facing an attempt by the Pakistan to change the LoC using its regular troops. The complacency of the local army formations in not conducting even routine surveillance in the winter months stood out. Having been surprised the initial reactions were unsatisfactory leading to poorly planned patrols and attacks. While these did fix the enemy, success came their way only when the whole act was put together. Air and artillery (155-mm howitzers) was employed with devastating effect to allow the Indian soldier, the infantryman to live up to his reputation of fortitude under adversity and courage and determination in attack.

Operation Parakaram

Operation Parakram, which means “valour,” was a momentous event which could have unleashed a major war on the subcontinent. It involved a massive build-up Indian Army ordered in the wake of the December 13, 2001, terrorist attack on the Parliament House. This 10-month-long mobilisation from January to October 2002, along the border with Pakistan, generated high levels of tensions in the relations between the two South Asian neighbours, and raised the prospects of a major war. The operation was a major effort in coercive diplomacy by New Delhi, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, and while the government claims that their strategic objectives were met by mere posturing which avoided a war, military analysts are of the view that gains were not commensurate to the mammoth exercise in coercive diplomacy by India. However, it led to some positive changes in India’s military doctrine and it hastened military modernisation together with organisational changes.

The way ahead for Indian Army as it moves through the first quarter of the 21st century is likely to face many challenges and threats including traditional threats, contemporary challenges in the form of state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan, internal threats and contingency threats. In essence, India faces a far greater threat than any other country in the world because of a highly volatile strategic neighbourhood.

If India wants a vibrant economic growth which it is seeking, it would naturally have to assume additional responsibility as a stabilising force in the region. It is encouraging to note that India’s security concerns have, for the first time, converged with international security concerns which makes global community understand the need for India to develop and modernise its military capabilities. Defence of a nation and development are complementary. If India aspires for high economic growth and to be a regional/global economic power, its military power must reflect that desire through its ability to protect its interests. In this context, the transformation of the Indian military to face future challenges, through technological improvements coupled with innovative Operational Art will give India a distinct advantage over its potential adversaries, which is vital for preserving India’s sovereignty and furthering its national interests.