Remembering a Visionary Admiral

"For a few of us who had the opportunity to serve under his leadership, it was not surprising to see that he had left an indelible impression on a large cross section of the strategic community too and that is evidenced in the tributes to him forwarded by eminent people from different fields."

Remembering a Visionary Admiral

A person holding a high rank in the armed forces is always remembered by a grateful nation. When he not only distinguishes himself while in active service but brings his experiential knowledge and razor sharp intellect to bear on key questions of national security after retirement, then his field of recognition extends beyond the armed forces community too; be it in the academia, scholars who have read his books or the students who have benefited from his work and lectures. Adm Koithara was one such.

Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara (Retd) a former Controller of Logistics (COL) of the Indian Navy, an author, a thinker, and a strategic analyst passed away in the Military Hospital, Wellington, Nilgiris on 22nd May. No wonder, on learning of his demise, Shashi Tharoor penned a tribute thus, “Sometimes one gets news of the passing of a great Indian whom very few Indians know about, and who deserves to be better appreciated. The sense of loss I felt…was augmented by regret that so few knew enough about him to mourn with me.” [Open magazine on 19 Jun 20].

Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, [12 Jul 1940 – 22 May 2020]

For a few of us who had the opportunity to serve under his leadership, it was not surprising to see that he had left an indelible impression on a large cross section of the strategic community too and that is evidenced in the tributes to him forwarded by eminent people from different fields.

Admiral Vijai Singh Shekhawat (Retd) [Former Chief of Naval Staff of India]    

Verghese Koithara who passed away a few days ago, was my valued colleague in 1988-89 in the Defence Planning Staff, a think-tank and support staff for the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The integrated staff consisted of civilian and military officers, chosen for their high calibre, and Verghese stood out for his grasp of any subject, which could be strategic, nuclear, technological, organisational, administrative and so on, involving not only the three services, but other agencies of government having linkages with national security.

Most work in DPS consists of voluminous reading on complex subjects, obtaining information from usually reluctant Service headquarters, collating inputs, followed by evaluation and animated, often heated discussions to arrive at a workable consensus leading to position papers. There could be a tendency for officers to protect the interests of their service rather than subscribe to the larger objective of the common good.

Verghese proved a master of diplomacy and tact, with his penetrating intellect and good humour, to guide the processes towards the desired outcome. Having worked as Naval Assistant to the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral JG Nadkarni, who thought very highly of his intellectual capacity, Verghese was familiar with senior staff of all the three Service headquarters, and on friendly terms with them. That made our work in DPS easier, as good personal relations are an important factor in working with diverse civil and military agencies, across the full range of government activities.

It was after retirement that Verghese’s other talents came into play and he acquired a role in discreet negotiations with political and dissident elements in J&K, and also went on to publish books on strategic and nuclear issues. I ran into him at an airport some years ago, to be informed that he and his wife, Indira, had just spent three months in a Japanese home on a cultural exchange basis. I marvelled at his range of interests and his enthusiasm to pursue them.  

It is sad that Verghese Koithara passed away at an age when he still had much to contribute in the academic field, and surely much to live for.

Dr. Ashley J. Tellis, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC

I had the privilege of meeting him only a couple of times, but I had known of him and his work long before I had ever met him in person. I remember our discussion at Carnegie very vividly: he was researching his India nuclear book then and we spent over an hour talking about the challenges facing India as it built up its deterrent.

His concern about India’s quandaries was palpable: these arose both from his deep patriotism (but without ANY jingoism) and his interests as a scholar. He was wonderful and deeply thoughtful person. I remember reading his book on Kashmir previously and was struck by his sheer humanity and his desire for a lasting peace that would serve both the people in that troubled state as well as India and Pakistan well. He will be dearly missed.”

Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd), Former Chief of Naval Staff (CNS)

Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara was some years older, and a few NDA courses senior to me. While we were not close friends, over the years, as our paths crossed a number of times, and I came to know his huge intellectual ability and grasp, my respect for him grew enormously.

My first encounter with him was in the mid-1960s, when we served together on an anti-submarine frigate where he was the Supply Officer (now re-designated Logistics Officer) and I, a raw Midshipman. Unusually for a Supply Officer, Verghese would spend a great deal of time on the bridge, especially during exercises and manoeuvres.

One day, when the Captain stumped me with a tricky question regarding navigation, Verghese took me aside and patiently explained it at length. It was then, that I realized that his interests and grasp extended far beyond the Logistic domain of pay, accounts, stores, victualling and clothing etc.

I next met him in 1981, when my ship touched Singapore and he received me as the Indian Naval Attaché. Given its strategic location, Singapore is considered a vital ‘listening-cum-observation post’ and the appointment of Naval Attaché, in the High Commission, is reserved for the ‘best and the brightest.’ Varghese’s outstanding performance, in Singapore fully justified the faith that the navy had reposed in him.

A few years later, I was pleasantly surprised to see him accompanying the CNS, Admiral JG Nadkarni, who embarked my ship for a few hours at sea. Admiral Nadkarni, a shrewd judge of men, had hand-picked Verghese as his Naval Assistant, overlooking many other aspirants, and was not disappointed in his choice.

Over the years, Verghese Koithara’s intellectual depth, maturity and professional acumen saw him being selected for coveted key senior positions in NHQ, where he brought about a transformation in the naval logistics system. He distinguished himself as the Director General, Defence Planning Staff and the navy’s Chief of Logistics,  from where he retired.

I first became aware of his literary abilities when he wrote a book titled, ‘Crafting Peace in Kashmir,’ in 2004 when I was CNS. Possibly recalling my Kashmiri origins, he sent me a complementary copy and asked for comments. It was an outstanding piece of work, and must have come to the attention of the PMO and NSA.

A bigger surprise was, yet to follow. Five years into my retirement, in 2011, Verghese asked me to vet the draft of his new book, titled; ‘Managing India’s Nuclear Forces.’ As a former Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, it was a revelation,  for me, to see how far and deep the mind of an outsider like Varghese Koithara had been able to visualize the intricacies of our strategic domain, using only open-source information.

His sharp intellect had been able to accurately pinpoint flaws and offer sound and constructive recommendations. One hopes that his book was widely read by India’s strategic community and his suggestions implemented.

The passing of VAdm Verghese Koithara is a sad loss for India and the Indian Navy, as well as for the many institutions and think-tanks, in India and abroad, that he was associated with.

“In Managing India’s Nuclear Forces, Verghese Koithara casts a laser-sharp beam to illuminate the Stygian dark of India’s strategic domain. With an unerring instinct he not only picks out the debilitating infirmities which afflict the management control and operationalisation of our nuclear forces by a scientist-dominated enclave, but also zeroes-in on the flawed thought-processes that guide India’s national security decision-making.

Koithara’s spotlight on the “barren” and mistrustful relationship between India’s political leadership and the armed forces, and the total exclusion of the latter from national security planning could not have been better timed. His compelling exploration of India’s nuclear deterrent mercilessly holds up a mirror before the Emperor.”

The visionary Admiral's seminal work

Ambassador KP Fabian

I had the privilege of being friends with Admiral Verghese Koithara for two decades. What struck me most about him is that he combined an intellect of exceptional value with a good heart abundant with the milk of human kindness. Verghese had the rare ability to master a huge quantity of facts with Teutonic thoroughness, organize them methodically, and at the same time see the big picture.

He had a clear worldview and his books are of enduring value. In discussions, he presented and defended his case without getting perturbed even when others raised their voice. He held that a logical argument would prevail ultimately. As the country faces the Covid-19 and aggression at the border, I often ask myself, what Varghese would have said.

Varghese cared for his fellow human beings finding themselves in poverty, ill health, or otherwise disadvantaged. He gave his full support to Indira in her NGO activities and together they have, with singular dedication, lifted above the poverty line and empowered many a family in  the Nilgiris and elsewhere. Verghese left indelible footprints on the sands of time.

Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar (Retd), Former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

I am indeed sorry to hear that my good friend and colleague, Admiral Verghese Koithara is no more with us. I got to know him briefly only towards my closing years in uniform. But it was after my retirement (and his), as the Director United Service Institution of India, and on the seminar/conference/strategic analysis circuit, that I got to inter-act with him and came to know him well.

Particularly when he was working on his many publications, because he considered it appropriate to seek my views and thoughts. Needless to say, I was deeply impressed with the scope and depth of his knowledge on matters military, statecraft and international relations; without doubt acquired over the years through reading, study and application. I was always impressed by the intensity and dedication with which he approached the subject he chose to write or speak on.

Not that we agreed on everything, but it was always a joy to engage with him. He had no airs about him, or pretensions; but his analyses were well researched and painstakingly compiled. Though he had not been active in recent years, the strategic community in our country will miss his wisdom and capacity for analysis.”

The late Admiral's life work lives on in book stands across the globe 

Lieutenant General Chandra Shekhar (Retd), Former Vice Chief of Army Staff

I am 15 NDA, have known him from that time. He was heading a study on streamlining Defence procurement, while I was the VCOAS… He has done considerable work on modernizing naval, supply chain, computer generated maintenance system, from shore to ships. He was a very fine human being, able professional and gentleman. The Services are running by people who are committed and devoted.

Air Marshal VG Kumar (Retd), Former Commandant National Defence College, New Delhi

He was President Defence Service Officers’ Institute, New DelhiI and I was member of the Managing Committee as AOC 3 Wg Palam. At that time a wholesale renovation of DSOI was undertaken and we had a lot of interaction as I was in the Subcommittee overseeing the projects.

In the process we developed a personal rapport that I fondly remember...He was understanding and compassionate almost to a fault. Always kept his cool during the stormy MC meetings. I looked up to him as my own anchor amidst the vicissitudes of project management…

Major General Dipankar Banerjee (Retd), Former Director Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

We first met in Singapore in 1983, where as a Commodore, he was the Defence Attache of India. A coveted assignment for a brilliant naval officer, which opened up for his wife and him a window to the world. I was on a visit to the Island visiting my brother and shared many pleasant evenings together discussing global strategic affairs… About a decade later we met again in Delhi.

He was a Rear Admiral and heading the Defence Planning staff, the apex strategic planning body of the Ministry of Defence. I was the Deputy Head of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses and he often invited me to interact with the DPS on various global strategic issues.

His sharp intellect, wide interests and humanistic approach always left a mark on me. Whether it was discussing the Indian nuclear doctrine, international issues such as the emerging China challenge or domestic conditions such as Jammu & Kashmir; his views were inquisitive, sharp and deeply analytical.

I was particularly struck by his humanistic approach to the Kashmir question. At his invitation I wrote a short introduction to his Kashmir book, which I found to be deeply thoughtful and constructive. Much later we were to find common cause in the “Global Zero” project for the elimination of nuclear weapons.”

(Cdr K Ashok Menon (Retd), a former Indian Naval Officer whose key assignments in the Navy included, Joint Director of Personnel (Information Systems) and Logistic Officer INS Delhi. He also held different positions in the ILMS (Integrated Logistics Management System) Centres.

Having sought premature retirement in 2006, he moved to the private sector where he served in IT/Cyber Security Roles in different MNCs. He currently runs his own software technology and consulting company. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')


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