A Crisis in the Cradle - Redux

"I returned to Khadakvasla, after a lapse of 35 years, as Comdt, to find the NDA looking unchanged. However, I soon realised that appearances were deceptive, because actually the institution had undergone some radical changes."

A Crisis in the Cradle - Redux

India’s Cultural Heritage

If we hark back to the 3rd or 4th millennium BCE, the earliest records of Indian culture are the Vedas, a collection of profound wisdom, created when people in the West had not even learnt to write. A thousand years later came the Upanishads and the Puranas, containing philosophic thoughts regarding the creation of the universe and nature of God. The underlying theme of their philosophy was that one could attain salvation through devotion (Bhakti), by selfless performance of duties (Karma) and by acquiring knowledge (Gyan) so that one lived a moral life.

Then we have the two great epics of ancient India –Ramayana and Mahabharata – which deal with morality in conflicts, civil wars and conquests. The concept of dharma yuddha, or righteous war, forms the core of Lord Krishna’s epic battlefield sermon in the Bhagwad Gita. Urging the reluctant Prince Arjun to go forth into combat and perform his duty, Lord Krishna enjoins total commitment, without expectation of reward and tells him “You are bound to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action. Never seek credit for the results of your activities, and never contemplate not doing your duty.”

Lord Krishna guiding Arjun in battle

Turning from the spiritual to the temporal, we have the 4th century BCE Mauryan minister, Kautilya who has been termed a ‘combination of Machiavelli and Clausewitz.’ His comprehensive manual of statecraft, the Arthashastra, sets out with dispassionate clarity, a vision of how to establish and guard a state, while neutralizing, subverting and conquering its neighbours, using a “blend of geography, economics, military strength, diplomacy and espionage.”

The point that I seek to make here, is this contrary to the impression conveyed by western analysts, the ancient Indians did have a firm grasp over strategy, as well as the nuances of statecraft. A well-developed and sophisticated politico-military philosophy was also available to the strategic leaders of those times. We are, thus, heirs to an ancient cultural tradition which threw up great men like Emperors Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka, Emperor Akbar, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Peshwa Baji Rao and many more.  They were not only great rulers and military leaders, but also honourable men who lived by the warrior’s creed and waged ‘dharma yuddha’ or ‘just wars’.

Inherited Shortcomings

East India Company officials corrupting the Indian leadership

While recalling our glorious past, we must also take note of our shortcomings; so that we avoid them in future. At some point in history, India’s socio-cultural milieu seems to have undergone a huge transformation, and disunity as well as a leadership-deficit made us vulnerable to external threats. Foreign invaders were permitted to make incursions and fight battles on our soil; resulting in defeat for our armies. Subjugation by foreign invaders created a vicious circle of treachery, betrayal and more defeats. These traumas of our past, have engendered flaws in our national character, signs of which are still visible in the social scenario today.

A serious shortcoming, apparent in the past few hundred years of India’s history has been the absence of a strong central authority to hold the country together. We have also lacked men of strategic vision and resolute leaders who could think about nation-building or the strategic defence of India. Instead of uniting against foreign invaders, many Indian rulers joined the enemy to settle scores with local rivals.

Let us note that in the battles fought by the East India Company against native rulers, there were Indian sepoys; including Purabiyas, Jats, Kumaonis, Pathans, and Sikhs on both sides. No doubt, the sepoys fought with equal courage and determination; and yet we lost every important battle; for two reasons. One was the better quality of British officers, who led from the front and suffered heavy casualties, as compared to the rajas and nawabs who rarely took to the field of battle. An equally important reason was the lack of moral fibre that led many Indians – ministers, generals and quilladars - to betray their leaders for money or position. Let us look at two famous examples.

A Leadership Deficit

Painting depicting the East India Company's army in battle

In June 1757, at Plassey, near Calcutta, a battle was fought between the army of Siraj-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Bengal and troops commanded by Robert Clive, a mere clerk of the East India Company. Clive’s force of 750 English soldiers, 2000 sepoys and 8 cannons, was faced by Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army of 35,000 infantrymen, 18,000 cavalry and 50 guns. The battle was won by Clive in a few hours, because the C-in-C, Mir Jafar betrayed his king and defected to the British. Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah had to flee for his life. This battle laid the foundation of British rule of India.

A hundred years later, Sepoy Mangal Pandey of the 34th Bengal Infantry shot his adjutant and the whole Army of Hindustan rose in rebellion. Thousands of Sepoys converged on Delhi, where Emperor Bahadur Shah ruled. But they could not find a single person with the calibre to command them in battle against the British. So, in spite of heroes like Nana Saheb, Tantya Tope and Rani Laxmibai, Indians lost the first War of Independence for lack of leadership.

If all this sounds familiar today, it is because during the 73-years of independence our society has been steadily reverting to the traditional Indian archetype; with sycophancy, hypocrisy, duplicity and corruption becoming rampant in many walks of life. While the common man is becoming increasingly conscious and resentful of these deep flaws, he is aware that any societal reform will require a fundamental transformation in our polity; not an easy proposition.

A Fall in Standards?

The Indian Armed Forces, on the other hand, are fortunate to have always made their own special code of conduct to live by. Traditionally perceived as an entity which stood tall above civil society, the Armed Forces were seen as setting unique standards of integrity, professionalism and excellence. Apart from being guardians of the nation’s security, they were looked upon as an embodiment of order and discipline, and held, by their compatriots, in respect and admiration.

Today we find, to our dismay, that due to an erosion of values and occasional displays of venality, the Armed Forces, are slipping in the estimation of their countrymen. For the Armed Forces to blame this decay on our polity and our society is not an acceptable excuse. After all, it is we who invented phrases such as “an officer and a gentleman” and “officer-like conduct”. It was these attributes, rather than any Warrant of Precedence, that earned us respect in society. Since the Armed Forces occupy a special place in the consciousness of our citizens, it becomes a matter of national interest to restore them to their earlier position as leaders and exemplars of honourable and ethical conduct for Indian society. For this, it is vital that we reinforce the moral fibre and professional calibre of our officer corps.

NDA Cadets standing in front of Sudan Block

The cradles of India’s leadership are its military academies. Here, a cadet’s basic character is given its final shape; by the instructors, as well as by senior cadets. Since the qualities and attributes cadets acquire in the academies are likely to stay for life, it is vital that they are provided the right guidance and have good examples to emulate, so that their minds and characters take shape in an ethical mould at this impressionable stage.

The Emerging Environment

One of the biggest challenges for our future military leaders, at all levels, is going to be management of the current and emerging environment. Let us pause here, and take note of three significant areas.

Firstly, man-management will assume new dimensions.  The present generation of soldiers, sailors and airmen possess the same entry qualifications and often emerge from the same schools and social background as their officers.  Today’s ‘Jawan’ is, tech-savvy, mindful of his rights and sensitive about self-esteem. Neither rank, nor fear of punishment will be enough to ensure respect and obedience from our troops.  Leaders will be required to demonstrate professional competence, firm but fair discipline and, above all, strong ethical moorings.

Secondly, the nature of modern communications and its speed have made traditional command and control obsolete. The ‘world-wide web’ of the Internet disregards rules, regulations and the military hierarchy. Anybody with a smart phone can post his story on the web and social media (SM) enables service personnel to register protest without fear of penalty.  Given the intrusiveness and speed of SM, and the environment of transparency, nothing will remain hidden for long. The conduct of the military leader must remain, steadfastly, ethical and above board in ‘word, deed and action’.

Thirdly, tomorrow’s battle-space will encompass the full spectrum of conflict; from sub-conventional to conventional warfare, and while massive information-flow may be an advantage, it will also add to complexity. While space and cyber-warfare promise total disruption, tactical nuclear weapons hold out threats, we may be ill-prepared for. Artificial-intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, and quantum-computing will add new dimensions to decision-making in combat.

Under these circumstances, we will need young leaders, who are not only intelligent, enterprising and versatile, but also mentally and physically agile and possess the confidence to accept risk and responsibility in combat.

The Cradles of Leadership

Panoramic view of NDA

Today’s young officer is not only mature and intelligent but, is also, acutely aware of the environment. In order to ensure that he/she develops into an ethical leader there is need for our entry-level institutions to provide a balanced, all-round training, which includes an unshakeable moral foundation. Otherwise there is every possibility that he/she will go astray once in a position of power and responsibility.

A question that is still asked in this context, is: are leaders born or made? This is a debate which is as timeless as the chicken-and-egg conundrum. People have been arguing for years whether it is destiny, dedication or indoctrination that makes a good leader? Are people fated to become leaders; or can you just pick up any promising soldier or sailor and hope to transform him into a Napoleon or Nelson?

The answer to this must be clear and unambiguous. The days when the profession of arms and military command were considered the privilege of aristocrats or a calling for mercenary soldiers, are long gone. Samuel Huntington has described the ‘vocation of officership’ as a full-fledged profession, just like law, medicine or politics, except that the special skill required is ‘management of violence’. Today’s military leaders are definitely ‘made’, and this exercise is carefully undertaken at great trouble and expense in institutions established for the specific purpose of training and grooming officers.

Most of our basic Service academies have a cadet body which remains ‘captive’ for anything from 1-4 years. Thereafter, the average Service Officer undergoes 2-4 years of further training and courses by the time he attains senior rank. Given proper selection processes, there is no reason why the Armed Forces should not be able to groom young entrants both physically and mentally, into highly motivated, upright and ethical military leaders in these time-frames. The unfortunate reality is, that not only are many graduates of our training academies turning out to be ‘sub-standard’ but it also seems that many of them actually ‘learn’ many undesirable traits from these institutions.

Surely, this constitutes a ‘double jeopardy’, because not only are the academies wasting a golden opportunity of moulding young and receptive minds through careful training and indoctrination, but they are also allowing them to be polluted by ‘un-officerlike’ qualities during training. Since a substantial number of higher ranks are filled by officers trained in the National Defence Academy (NDA), and it is they who provide examples for emulation, both good and bad, for juniors and contemporaries; it is on this institution that sharp focus needs to be brought, to start with.

What Ails the NDA?

Cadets undergoing unofficial punishments (Representational image)

The Good News

Having passed out of NDA in 1964, I returned to Khadakvasla, after a lapse of 35 years, as Commandant, to find the NDA looking unchanged. However, I soon realised that appearances were deceptive, because actually the institution had undergone some radical changes - for better as well as for worse.

The good news was that the 600 or so teenagers, who entered the NDA annually, now came from a much broader spectrum of social and economic backgrounds, and with a higher motivation level than what I had witnessed before. The academic curriculum, which was a superficial hotch-potch of science and humanities in our day, had become a far more intensive and focused Degree-course. Similarly, the syllabus for outdoor activities - PT, swimming and drill - had been expanded and become much tougher. However, I was surprised and impressed to note that apart from an increase in instances of stress fracture (very rare in our days); the boys seemed to cope quite well with the enhanced, all-round, training standards in the Academy.

Deterioration in Standards

Panoramic view of Chetwode building, IMA

But, within a few weeks, I realised that wherever one scratched the shiny surface, there was also much bad news. Firstly; beneath the impressive exterior facade, the Academy infrastructure was crumbling and decrepit. The cadets’ accommodation and bathrooms were in need of repair, the mess kitchens and catering facilities had declined; the dhobi system was in disarray and general standards seemed to have deteriorated.

The most appalling lacuna was the huge shortfall in academic staff, made up by hiring temporary substitutes from Pune. While cumulative neglect, locally, may have been responsible for much of the problems, the main reason for this situation was the detached approach, disinterest and inadequate financial support from the Military Training Directorate of Army HQ. This was, indeed distressing and incomprehensible, given that this unique tri-Service Academy was (supposedly) the pride and joy of the Armed Forces. (Ironically, a few years later, when as the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, I attempted to intervene on behalf of the NDA in certain matters, an invisible barrier seemed to come up from Army HQ.)

Secondly; many of what I had considered ‘Academy Traditions’ had been forgotten or arbitrarily changed; to the detriment of the system. To take just two examples; during a few random checks I found that the cadets were locking their cabins when they left the squadron. When opened, the cabins were found in shambles; with beds unmade and clothes strewn all over. It emerged that over the years, since cadets had been allowed to keep music systems, it had become customary to lock the doors, and the immaculate cabin layout of our days was no longer enforced.

When the weapon-training staff complained that army cadets were often late for their classes, I enquired from the Academy Adjutant why they were not marched off from the squadron fall-in on time. The Adjutant looked surprised, because he had not even heard of the morning squadron fall-in, which used to be a daily ritual, where turn-out was inspected and the squadron marched-off on time. Obviously, a Commandant or Deputy Commandant had considered it unnecessary and done away with it.

Cadet training with INSAS 5.56 mm rifle

Thirdly; while the quantum increase in academic syllabi was inevitable due to adoption of a degree-course, the significant enhancements in PT, swimming and drill standards, appeared whimsical and, added tremendously to the cadets’ burden. To take just one example, the passing-out parade with rifles and swords (in our days, only canes were carried by appointments) needlessly added many hours to the training load as well as passing-out parade practices. A more serious consequence was that the onus of responsibility for a great deal of training had been transferred from the Academy staff to the senior cadets.

One night while driving back home after at night, I was horrified to see a whole squadron by the roadside, practicing on the wooden horse and rope under the ‘supervision’ of senior cadets. I was told that they were ‘preparing for the PT competition’. It seemed that to the traditional drill and cross-country competitions, successive Commandants had added PT and even academics as ‘competitions’! The responsibility for preparation for these competitions had thus devolved from the Academy staff to senior cadets.

The Moral Vacuum

My most disturbing discovery was the range and scale of misdemeanours in which the cadets indulged on a regular basis: stealing (known as ‘management’) was rampant, while man-handling of juniors, and cheating and impersonation in examinations were common. Those who were caught received punishment, but it seemed to have little deterrent effect, and the offences continued unabated. To me it was obvious that since many of these young men had received no inputs about a value system, nor were they provided a moral foundation at home or in school; it was up to the Academy to do something.

After a great deal of deliberation and debate, an Honour Code System was instituted, but during this process, I was astonished to find that while this proposal was supported by the cadets, it was stiffly opposed by the military staff - many of them just a few years out of the NDA. The logic offered to me by some officers was as follows: within a few months these cadets would be posted in counter-insurgency areas, and if they were not resourceful enough to ‘manage’ a few things, or tough enough to give and take a little man-handling, they would be quite useless to the army.

The Moral Traps

There is obviously a deep subliminal urge, among the Indian officer corps, now emerging increasingly from the lower end of the middle classes, to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ in other sections of India’s rapidly prospering civil-society. This has led some in the senior hierarchy of the Armed Forces to adopt ostentatious customs and lifestyles; either by blatantly misusing official funds and facilities; or by adopting other unethical means.

The preposterous and unstated message seems to be that rules, regulations and moral obligations apply only up to a certain rank. Once you pass that stage (corresponding to 2-star rank) everything in life is assumed to be complimentary; so much so that for a senior officer to be presented an authentic mess/bar bill is considered an insult. There is no shortage of ‘yes-men’ and pliant staff officers who applaud and abet such conduct in their seniors.

Recent trespasses, by our fellow-officers, as reported openly in the media, include ‘medal-hunting’ fake-encounters, involvement in land scams, sexual-misconduct, malfeasance in purchases, venality in contracts and recruitment, and even ‘cash for good ACRs.’  All these occurrences, which have brought a bad name to the Services, boil down to one fundamental cause; the lack of a ‘moral compass’ amongst our senior officers and their consequent inability to distinguish between the ‘easier wrong’ and the ‘harder right’.

Rashtriya Rifles troopers in Kashmir

At the risk of annoying some readers, I would suggest that the bad habits and attributes learnt in the NDA (and other basic academies) by a young cadet, and considered ‘minor’ at that stage often mutate in later years into serious ‘character flaws’ and manifest themselves as lack of moral fibre and serious misconduct. Therefore, a ‘smart’ NDA cadet could well turn out after 30-35 years into a crooked two or three-star officer.

Once the thin line between right and wrong gets blurred in the human mind, it becomes easier and easier to justify progressively bigger transgressions. I would therefore say that the roots of all  our ethical problems originate in the ‘cradles of leadership’ - our basic training institutions - where our unwillingness to eliminate serious flaws in the training-system and failure to provide a sound moral foundation to young trainees have left them without a ‘moral compass’ to guide them as officers in later life.  It was for this reason that the 1998 Academy Order promulgating the Honour Code, contained a paragraph which said, “It is my hope and expectation that this Honour Code will remain with an NDA Cadet as his creed and guiding light throughout his service career and perhaps the rest of his life.”

Selection Process

SSB recommended candidates are often found physically unfit

There is clear evidence that the current selection process does not ensure a minimum standard of physical fitness for entrants into Service academies. Consequently, many trainees suffer physical injuries soon after commencement of training. Considerable time and effort is required to bring such laggards up to the mark, causing disruption in training. There is also evidence that the current selection-methodology is inadequate to pinpoint and eliminate candidates who are psychologically or temperamentally unsuited for the Armed Forces.

There is a section of strong opinion which feels that the UPSC/SSB selection processes are outdated, and therefore fail to identify the right material for induction into the Academies. An objective evaluation of our current selection methodology in comparison with Armed Forces of other countries may throw up some useful pointers. It may also be worthwhile linking up the service records of those who excel or falter in higher ranks, with their NDA records. SSB evaluations may be useful to find out whether there were early indications of a flaw which the system overlooked.


It is not just the NDA facing issues

I conclude this essay with a list of five recommendations, which I consider essential to improve the quality of NDA training. Presumably some of these could be read across for the Service academies too.

Selection and Tenure of Commandants

To do full justice to the prestigious appointment of Commandant NDA, it must be filled by a senior officer of good professional reputation and standing, who brings vision and zeal to the job, and serves for a reasonable tenure. Currently, this appointment is often seen by the Services as a convenient parking-slot or a pre-retirement sinecure. Moreover, a two-year tenure, rotated between the three Services (often split between two incumbents) is too short and totally inappropriate for this onerous responsibility.

In order to ensure continuity of tenure, the rules should be changed to make the appointment tenable by a senior Maj-Gen/Lt-Gen (and equivalent). A two-star Commandant, if promoted can remain in situ to enable a 3 to 4-year tenure. Rather than insisting on strict inter-Service rotation, the CDS and COSC should agree to nominate the most suitable candidate available in any Service.

Ethics and Leadership

Gentlemen and Lady Cadets Passing Out of OTA Chennai

The laying of a sound moral foundation and inculcation of leadership qualities should be made a key result area in the Academy’s training curriculum, and a suitable Honour Code should be instilled into each cadet. Training effort as well as faculty should be dedicated for this endeavour so that systematic indoctrination can be undertaken.

The Service HQs should be persuaded to evolve a comprehensive Professional Military Education (PME) programme for the officer corps of the three services. The start of the PME should be anchored in the basic training academies and it should run as a continuum throughout an officer’s career till 2-star rank.

Academy Blue Book

The traditions, standards, rules, regulations and SOPs by which the Commandant is to run the Academy should be laid down in a Blue Book, to be promulgated under the authority of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and no change or amendment should be permitted without their approval. The Commandant should be made accountable, directly, to the COSC for the correct and proper functioning of the Academy and the maintenance of laid down training standards. At the same time the IDS HQ should be made responsible for providing adequate support to NDA in areas like budget, works and staff recruitment.

Syllabus Review

Given the changing demands of tomorrow’s battlefield environment, and keeping in view, the navy’s up-gradation of its basic training to B. Tech level, there is a need for an all-encompassing review of NDA curriculum. An important aspect, that would call for expert evaluation, is the right balance between physical and intellectual standards to be attained on completion of training, and the correct proportion of training effort to be dedicated to each.

Selection & Training Methodology

Col. Vinay Dalvi, Air Mshl TS Randhawa with ex CAS Air Chief Mshl NAK Browne

In this context, the ‘Victory India’ campaign launched by Col Vinay Dalvi (Retd) has generated a wealth of ideas, suggestions and recommendations for improvement of the selection (and training) methodologies in our basic academies. Coming from an array of experienced and distinguished Veteran officers of the three Services, these proposals are worthy of examination at the highest levels of the Service HQ staff and could become an excellent launch-pad for reform and restructuring.

(Admiral Arun Prakash, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VSM, ADC is a former Flag Officer of the Indian Navy, who served as the Chief of the Naval Staff from 31 July 2004 to 31 October 2006 and as the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee from 31 January 2005 to 31 October 2006. He is one of India's most decorated naval officers and a pioneering member of Mission Victory India. He regularly writes for leading news publications and strategic journals. He can be reached at [email protected] )

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')


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