To Lead or not to Lead From the Front: Long Live the Breed of (Rajwar) Tigers

"One day a terrorist can get the better of you and may be that's what may have happened...The battle is all about being smarter than your adversary and you will have bad days sometimes. That is part of this game. This does not dictate the need to change our leadership ethos."

To Lead or not to Lead From the Front: Long Live the Breed of (Rajwar) Tigers

Whenever there is a commanding officer casualty in the Valley a debate rages all over the country, picking faults on the conduct of operations by the unit. Whether the COs should be leading from the front or how close to the scene of action should they be.

No different than that the same thing happened when the gallant commanding officer of 21 RR (Rajwar Tigers), one Major, two NCOs and a police Sub Inspector died in Handwara.

For sure when we have such casualties and the ratio of own losses to terrorists is two to five, and that includes a CO and a company commander that operation by any classification is  a disastrous failure.

I write with some experience having served in the most difficult places in the valley as a company commander and  RR Sector Commander.

We did exactly what this fine commanding officer did  so often and we succeeded every time. For, if you do not surprise them and deny them time to hide and escape, you will kill no terrorists. In built up area, any operation is risky, planned or unplanned.

In fact unplanned operation is less risky, for the movement of army troops is reported by the over ground workers the moment troops leave the company base. Number game is not correct, but killing terrorists is a necessity for obvious reasons.

The casualty ratio of own and terrorists is disturbing especially in the last few months where it is almost one to one. When this figure includes commanding officers, it is very painful. It is also a shot in the arm of the terrorist organization and ISI across the border.

Yet a few of these bad days such as this one and the death of four SF soldiers who died a few weeks ago killing four terrorists are not the long term pattern. Neither could have those SF soldiers done anything more or better or anything different in that situation. With hindsight, sitting thousand miles away, it is a different story.

Some facts about 21 RR (The Guards)

  • This is an all Guards Unit, where all companies are manned from one regiment. They are a highly proud, integrated and a cohesive unit with a high standard of operational drills being from the same regiment and same ethos. They are the most successful RR unit in the valley for decades.
  • Col Ashutosh, the commanding officer  was no  novice Commanding Officer. He had already been in command for twenty months and decorated twice.
  • The unit was short of company commanders who had  got stuck due to corona and unable to join the unit. Thus, the commanding officer had to be more hands on in the absence of some company commanders who would otherwise be there.
  • He is the second commanding officer of 21 RR to die in two decades. This proves something that the unit has a great culture of  leadership by example. That is an asset and not a liability.

The Regimental Pride

After the loss of CO 21 RR , the Colonel of the Regiment, Brigade of The Guards contacted seven experienced colonels exploring to post a commanding officer to 21RR. Some of them were commanding units and others in staff after command and Higher Command course.

Seven officers were spoken to and given one hour to consider and decide. Not one took one minute, all seven confirmed affirmative on the same call. That is the ethos of  The GUARDS. I am sure any other regiment would have done the same. And that is the ethos of the Indian Army.

Now to the operation

We all have a twenty-twenty sight with hindsight. So you can question anything- ten whys and twenty hows. I will attempt to paint a picture of how things seemed to have happened from some inputs that I got. Now, put yourself in the shoes of CO 21 RR.

You are on an operation that has been on during the night in thick forests in some part of unit AOR. Some companies are committed to that operation. You get information about a terrorist/terrorists in a village in a specific house a few kilometers away. These information are rarely accurate and actionable. A lot can change when you get there.

You have two options- one, do nothing because you are in one operation and ready to launch troops are not available. Two, respond to the information. To respond, either you wait for some troops to fetch up from other company locations that could take long because they have no prior warning. The terrorist/terrorists could move on by that time.

Taking the first option is not the default choice of a good commander in the  Valley who makes a difference. Terrorists can happily take their resupply or whatever, rape, molest, kill, harass locals etc.

The army will be seen as incapable of responding to terrorists and protecting civilians. If he takes the second option and waits for other companies to come, it may be too late. An opportunity lost and they do not come often and easily.

So, the other option is for the CO to respond with his protection or Quick Reaction team (QRT) of normally about eight to ten men, the immediate uncommitted element available and wait for others to build up. This is the best team of men in the unit. No experienced CO would have intended to conclude the operation with just five men with him.

Now, in such operations, the most dangerous time is the time till you locate a terrorist. The only confirmation is when he fires or when someone sees him with a weapon. If he does not, you are intelligently guessing based on inputs. You could actually walk into a place, a house, or an orchard, or take position behind a cover where he could be hiding and surprise you.

These are all possibilities. We do not know what exactly happened, whether they walked into a trap or entered a house where a terrorist happened to be hiding.

Leadership: Does it need a Review?

Does this incident dictate a major overhaul of leadership ethos in the valley. Some aspects about the dynamics of these operations:

  • You are in battle with a highly motivated individual who is prepared to die.
  • Soldiers die, when they make mistakes. Quite often a soldier who makes mistakes does not die but someone else dies because of his mistakes. Soldiers also die sometime even when they do  not make  mistakes. This is no chess game, a terrorist has many advantages. He is one or  a few hidden and you are so many in close vicinity, someone or the other gets exposed. You cannot see him, he can see you. He has night vision equipment too these days.
  • One day you can get away with ten blunders. On another just one can be disastrous. Go by the text book no soldier should have ever died in Kashmir.
  • Terrorists have to succeed once in a year to make news, you have to succeed every day and that is not news. When you fail once in a year, it is big news.

Leadership Aspects

After this operation, people are questioning whether CO should lead from the front or in another way. There is simply no other way. There is no such thing as leading from behind a desk or leading from the rear. Leading from the front does not mean being the first in line of fire. It means doing what you should be doing appropriate to your position and being prepared to share the same risks and hardships and living by the values that one preaches. So, in my opinion, that question is settled.

Every situation is unique and the commander takes the best decision at the point, and his decision cannot be questioned just because something went wrong. The company commander will have to be at the scene of action, the CO must be around too  to assist with his experience and a ready reinforcement of ten best men available at hand to manage contingencies.

However, house clearance is neither the job of a CO, nor does any CO do it. In the valley, house clearance is a rarity if ever. Once the terrorist is located the house is brought down and rightly so for house clearance is a definite death sentence for someone in the team.

Even when troops enter a house when the terrorist is presumed dead, well trained units never barge in for the danger is not over even if the terrorist is dead- IED, strapped grenades etc. These are more a matter of training and not leadership. What exactly happened in this case, we have no definite idea.

Were they wrong?

  • During Operation Blue Star, PM Indira Gandhi refused to change her guard after the Golden temple operation. Those guards shot her. As a leader, she took the right decision, because that action would have sent a terrible message to the Sikh community, already under stress. It is her security and intelligence establishment that failed her.
  • Alexander the Great should have died in his very first campaign at the age of twenty because of his courage and propensity to lead from the front unlike most kings. Providence that  another Greek soldier was  right there as he intercepted the man at the last moment as he was about to strike. Alexander was injured as part of his helmet sheared off because of the blow. His inclination to launch himself into the most critical place of battle always turned the fortunes in his favour. He did not go back to leading from the rear because he almost died in his first campaign. In every operation, he was heavily outnumbered but won. If he had lived as some are suggesting , he would have been another Mr. Alexander and not Alexander the Great.
  • Nearer in time, out of 660 Generals in the German army in the Second World War, one third died in battle on the front lines. Were they wrong? It is such inspiring and risk sharing leadership, based on character that made the German army so successful.

Co, Ashutosh personified that spirit that inspires officers and men. One bad day or a mistake should not bring into question the leadership ethos.

As a sector commander, in one case I was within 30 yards of action in a built up area. In another I was within fifty yards of action in a mountainous jungle. By all teachings, I should not have been there. I was there because I decided that the situation demanded that I be there. My presence in both incidents prevented a definite blue on blue because of my experience. If I was dead, there would have been a similar debate.

Thus, no template can be stated what a CO should do or not do, for every operation is unique in every dimension and every CO takes a decision that he thinks is workable. To suggest that the CO should not lead from the front is against the very ethos of military leadership. Leading from the front varies at different levels. It will be a fig leaf for many who in any case command from the comforts of their rooms.

Command gives you the authority to issue orders. It does not sow the seeds of loyalty and commitment, Leadership does.

What needs deliberation is what must be done to reduce the chances of own casualties.

Casualty Ratios: We cannot afford to lose a CO  and this casualty ratio is simply unacceptable. But how do we change it? This aspect needs to be addressed at a number of levels. Some suggestions:

Strategic Level: Strategic perspective is conspicuous by absence. Why don’t we have the technology based weapons in the valley when they are there in the market after three decades of experience.

At the national level there is a complete lack of strategic understanding and complexity of national security. Home Ministry and Defense Ministry working at cross purpose. India which has serious interlinked internal and external security challenges has the most disjointed structure to deal with it. Recently there was a move to take the Assam Rifles under Home Ministry.

What happens when you  have a skirmish with China? Some of these forces responsible for the border hardly ever go there, and they cannot even get to the border without local guides. How will you fight and what help can the army expect from them.

Coming to the valley. Like multiple agencies manning the border with no accountability to the army. In the Valley there are CAPF with no accountability to the Army even though they have some kind of joint working mechanism which does not meet the requirement.

The recent controversy of IG Police J&K blaming the CRPF for poor contribution is a case in point. Unless there is a centralized control of the security agencies, there will be no synergy of operation and intelligence.

The army itself does not seem to have a long term perspective of how to deal with this conflict  and how it is changing. Stone pelting, targeting police and families, social media war etc comes as a surprise.

The corps commanders come and go,  operating at the tactical level, making assessment of security situations by the number of infiltrations, comparative figures of terrorists killed month wise or in relation to the previous years. It can change in a week.

I fail to see any long term perspective from the military point of view to empower their troops to fight better, both in terms of doctrine or equipment. We are still doing what we were doing two decades back. Wonder if the army has made any effort to learn lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.

We need to review the restrictions we place on the army. A terrorist supporter is a terrorist and has to be dealt with accordingly. Collateral damage when operating against a terrorist, despite best efforts, is just a bad day, like it was for 21RR. Anyone who defies the military has to be dealt with strictly.

The Theory of Indirect Approach

The tactical battle with terrorists will have to be fought as long as the problem exists. Like acupressure the pain in the shoulder is treated by applying pressure on the toes or finger tips.

The pressure point is POK and Baluchistan. We need a dedicated department to prosecute a mirror image operation of the Valley to target the Pakistani military by the soldiers of the soil within 72 hours.

Tactical Level

No pressure for kills- direct or indirect. It happens. Even GOCs get pressurized if there is an extended period of no kill. The units will still go for the kill, pressure or no pressure, and they must.

  • Operations must proceed at the pace at which the commander on ground feels comfortable. Higher commanders must avoid coming into vicinity of the operations unless the commander on the ground wants him too. His presence invariably places more security and logistics demands and is an unavoidable distraction.
  • Principle- I will not trade one man for twenty terrorists.  I do my best, If he gets away we will get him another day.
  • No hurry in the operations. The phase till location of terrorist is most risky and must be handled with extra care. Use every means that does not expose troops.
  • Every house is seen as if a terrorist is in there.
  • Trust no one- verify every aspect before you act.


RR units under good commanding officers and good commanders are well trained. Or else they are simply jungle bashing. Good training and drills saves lives.

  • Introspect- Train- Operate. Meaningful training that increases the conversion of contacts to kills is important. Every company must take three days off in a month for the purpose of introspection, AAR of their operations and  train to overcome those shortcomings.
  • Sect commanders must add value in their training. It is desirable that unless an officer has commanded a company or a battalion in the operations in the valley, they should not be posted as commanders
  • Purposeful training is- Good shooting and fire control- shoot only when you see the terrorist, Field craft and use of cover saves from both enemy and own fire.
  • Practical wisdom. Train to deal with ten most common situations that troops face when they contact terrorists in BUA and in forests.


The most dangerous phase as I said is till you locate the terrorist, whether in BUA or forests. The units have to be equipped with high technology equipment that enables surveillance in BUA, inside houses and in forests without exposing soldiers.

  • Surveillance/armed robots that can be operated in the kind of houses that exist in Kashmir.
  • Heartbeat locators.
  • Small surveillance drone.
  • Weaponized drones and robots appropriate to the operational environment.
  • Other equipment like corner shot weapons and periscopes.(can be made by units) .


Best commanders could sometimes make mistakes. Even the smartest guys get conned sometime. The Eiffel Tower was sold by a con man to a rich business man in France. In hindsight it looks foolish, but it happened. Junior leaders are our pride because they operate the way they do.

There are risks involved and sometimes we pay the price. The need for getting more out of JCOs and NCOs is paramount but that is another subject and must be dealt with.

One day a terrorist can get the better of you and may be that may have happened, we do not know. The battle is all about being smarter than your adversary and you will have a bad day sometime. That is part of this game.

This does not dictate the need to change our leadership ethos. They have withstood the test of ages and cannot be questioned. What we need to do is to equip and empower them to do the same job with best safety.

(Maj Gen Anil Sengar, 5 GUARDS has served in most varied environment as  an Infantry and a Mechanised officer. Commanded battalion and brigade in Counter Insurgency Operations, division in a strike corps, raised a division in the North East as Deputy GOC and retired from the DGMF. He has written four popular books and is into his fifth. Served as Defence Attache in Turkey and has a reputation of holding no punches when it comes to professional views. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')


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