A recent article by Nixon Fernando on NDA has once again sparked a debate as the issues raised consequently impacts the quality of our military leadership at all levels. As amply and elaborately revealed through 4 volumes of Victory India Campaign books (with over 175 articles, essays, papers and reviews) and several articles of Fauji India magazine during past 25 issues, holistic coverage has been given to all aspects of training at NDA.
One of the main conclusions drawn on which consensus was reached was/is the inescapable need for reforms at NDA to meet leadership challenges of 21st century.
Lt Gen Ashok Joshi, (ex-9th Course NDA) and former DGMT had aptly said, “If the Gangotri of military leadership (NDA) itself has been polluted, the leadership at all levels is bound to be negatively impacted!" Maj Gen VK Madhok, 1st Course NDA/JSW, said in his ‘Foreword’ to Victory India-1 (2013), “Thousands of Military Officers and Veterans who passed out from NDA, have failed to fulfill their responsibility to keep their alma mater relevant and contemporary to the times for past 70 years (despite occupying the highest posts of the three services) leading to present urgency for review and reform for 21st century challenges.”
A few relevant extracts from the article titled ‘Reforming NDA for leadership challenges of 21st century’ by Nixon Fernando are highlighted below.
“The National Defence Academy (NDA) was conceived as one of the temples of modern India. Military skills were to be imparted to the cadets by military men…A lot has happened over the decades and today, seven decades after independence it makes immense sense to ask some very basic questions. Is NDA a temple of modern India anymore? Is a temple of that kind required anymore? If yes, is it doing that job, if no then why spend all that money?
“Giving due honour to the remarkable leaders who have passed through NDA’s portals, without hesitating to salute the brave young alumni who have (offered) the ultimate sacrifice for the nation, one must still critically assess the ‘delta factor’ that the institution stands for; ‘delta factor’ meaning the transformation that happens in a cadet which can be directly credited to the NDA.
“In lay man’s terms we can say that the real delta factor can be estimated if we know how much the NDA cadet has transformed in those three years in comparison to his twelfth standard classmates.
Alarmingly, given the bullying that happens in the academies, given the burnout that happens, the man handling by instructors and senior cadets, the shamming that is required for some to survive at the NDA, given the hypocrisy that is practiced in saying one thing officially and doing something else unofficially, the reckless physical training supervised by un-trained cadets, one can cast serious doubts as to whether the delta factor of the NDA is even positive in certain areas.”
“The ground reality is that there is no vision operating in the NDA anymore. Why does NDA exist? Each instructor, cadet, staff member will have a unique answer to this question. And most of the times he would think that the others ‘don’t know anything’. Everything has been reduced to routines and traditions.
The best of the best come here alright but eventually most of them pass through the motions doing the best they can (or what is humanely possible) and avoiding getting into any form of trouble for the sake of surviving.
Lt Gen Harbhajan Singh (Retd,) ex-SO-in-C, 1st Course JSW/NDA
Educational Training: The original concept of education training at NDA was formulated by renowned but ‘civil educationalists’. The education curriculum of NDA has been revised many times but those reviewing have again been civil educationalists, following age old system of learning by rote! Also the powers that be have been obsessed with cadets getting BSc degree from JNU, which over shadows the planning of whole training curriculum at NDA.
The Indian education system is in a mess and way behind that in the West. It does not prepare students for any vocation. The emphasis there is on doing reading and thinking about various topics of current and futuristic value, applied projects and not cramming facts and figures. The Indian system of education percolates to our bones and even as commissioned officers our thinking by and large is so conventional and narrow. Status quo is the passing time Mantra.
We should prepare NDA cadets for degree in military science, with former uniformed officers guiding preparation of the curriculum. Inputs from all the Arms and Services and training institutions should be taken and studied. Serving officers are denied foreign interaction and experience while in service, which some of us, who do not wear uniform any more have had the opportunity to experience/observe.
We can also examine curriculum of military academies of USA, Russia & China. The emphasis should be on studying geography and history, particularly of India and neighbouring countries, military history, psychology of religions, nations, terrorism, combatants and foreign affairs/diplomacy and so on.
Knowledge about electronics, applied mathematics, some physics and chemistry would also need to be imparted. Information Technology would be a core subject. Above is a first list which would need to be gone into in detail and deliberated upon.
Physical Training: Future wars are going to be driven by technology but physical combat will remain important basic component. None the less, the debate about ‘brain and brawn’ is important. I often still think, did all my physical prowess make me a better Young Officer, Field Officer and later a General?
What if I was not so physically endowed? The answer that comes to my mind is that it did make me a better Young Officer when I rubbed shoulders with men, but in later years, it was more of brain than physical prowess that mattered.
Should the PT be conducted as taught by the British even before WW-2 and Western countries or new subjects like Yoga, Karate and so on brought in? Should cadets going to Services like ASC, Ordnance (Material Management), EME be expected to have similar standards as those joining arms like Infantry and if so why?
Family Background: Personality of a person is about 70% or so based on his genes. Any training can hence have effect on about 30% of qualities/performance. What a child learns/experiences as a child has profound effect on his thinking, values and actions throughout his life. When people buy horses for racing, they go back 6-7 generations!
Here we are selecting and training leaders for a contest which is bloody, most dangerous and where there are no runners up! Should we not look at the family background of cadets we select for training? This may be a very unpopular suggestion particularly in a democracy but it has scientific basis.
Adverse Effects of Prolonged Regimented Schooling: If you ask non-NDA officers about NDA Officers, oft heard remark is that they are “shirkers”, “clever” and know “how and when to be seen performing!” I am convinced that 4 years pre-commission training is too long. It should be reduced to 3 years. Imagine the state of mind of cadets coming from Sainik and other Military schools.
The adverse effects of a school child growing up in regimented and uniformed environment need to be studied. Some of the ills that are being highlighted in NDA may be having their base in cadets growing up in military type schools.
Maj Gen Anil Sengar (Retd), ex-Offg DGMF
There is no denying, every institution needs a review of its purpose of existence in the context of the changing environment. So much has changed in the RMA, human factor, weaponry that the needs of leadership too have changed, even though the basics do not change. NDA undoubtedly needs a review. Unfortunately, the senior serving hierarchy lacks the commitment, as it involves extra work with no immediate short term gains.
The approach has to be top down and on the lines suggested by many learned Veterans. Lack of intellectualism is a major weakness of the Indian officers which goes right to the top. The foundation must be laid in the academy. NDA and all other training academies need a review due to this major shortcoming and many other reasons too.
In the selection process, we need to understand, it is the officer like qualities and trainability that we are looking at. For the foreseeable future, the intake will come from middle and lower middle class and therefore, there is greater need to review what the academies are doing.
The army is partly about technology and mainly about humanities and leadership of people who have aspirations, challenges and obligations. Thus, too much emphasis on technology at the expense of sociological and human aspect of personality may not be in order, where your battle winning element is the man and not the machine. Three years in NDA is too long, but then one will have to look at the issue of graduation. Is that a necessity? It was not till 1975 and yet they made excellent commanders.
The need is to change the culture of NDA from physical driven to intellectual and ethics driven. How many cadets ever go to the NDA library? How many read anything beyond the academic syllabus? Majority only read enough to get through! I think the services training as is being done in the two terms – 4th and 6t – is adequate at this stage.
The sole purpose of the NDA should be to produce a cadet of character and integrity driven by intellectual pursuits. Physical fitness has its place, and the training must take care that no weak cadets go through. Practices that encourage telling lies, cheating or so called smart acts to survive must be curbed.
Cdr Ravindra Pathak (Retd), 33rd Course NDA
I doubt teaching military strategy, leadership theory and military history could be achieved in the last two terms of the NDA since the first four terms were actually used to break the civil attitude of the boy who came and take him up to the inter-science level in academics.
Yes, it did give him a glimpse of some military history and geography in the last two terms but that certainly did not make him a Gentlemen Cadet with profuse knowledge of either Military Strategy, leadership theory and military history. I do feel that after 70 years there is a need to relook at the aims and purpose of NDA and to study if it has achieved its original aims.
Col CM Chavan (Retd), ex-AAD
There is no doubt that there is an urgent need to review the entire curriculum at NDA, keeping in mind the present day requirement of an Officer. The students in Sainik and military schools are from the lower middle and lower class, as also the intake in the academies. But most of them are not fluent in English language which is also our official language and is our medium of instruction at NDA.
However there is no denying the fact that they are driven by noble aspirations. It has been seen that the Sainik and Military schools have not been able to feed the academy as expected which also needs to be looked into.
Talking about the present day requirement of an officer, he should be technically well versed; as he is to handle highly advanced weapon systems. So, he has to be given technical education and for that purpose the mandate for NDA should be XII class with science subjects, so that he does not face hardship while being further trained at NDA.
There is also a necessity of grooming the cadets in nobility, chivalry and gentle-manliness. It is also necessary that when our intake is from class XII, that we give them a degree of plus three i.e. graduation, as it is the basic qualification expected of an individual for any job, be it government or in the market.
The basic fault of training at NDA and other academies is the bullying and burn out happening at the hands of instructors and senior cadets, which needs to be controlled. The training should be tough to make a street smart youth to a man in uniform with obedience to being inculcated, but not by demeaning or bullying a cadet.
Talking about the delta factor, I think the performance of our officers and troops has never been wanting as seen, from their participation in international exercises. For that matter, the performance in IS duties in J&K and NE sectors has been commendable. However, the same can be fine-tuned further. If we compare the ‘delta factor’ of the cadets to those who have graduated side by side outside, I think the cadets stand out.
The negative delta factors must not be probed in the NDA alone; other academies suffer from it too. There was for instance this video of one cadet being thrashed with a hockey stick that became viral in 2017. It was from one of the premier academies but not from the NDA. I would recommend that a team of eminent psychologists and psychiatrists, at least some of whom have association with military service, should make a comprehensive study of how these practices impact the cadet.
Worst part is people develop nostalgia for the bad things they meted out and faced when they were at the academy and start gloating about it later! They go back as Divisional Officers and think this is normal.
The other related point is that I do not think that the status of the military officer has dropped substantially due to external factors. I would say the military fraternity itself is primarily responsible. Providence will conspire to give parity and justice to the armed forces officer and a rightful status.
The question therefore is whether a fresh NDA alumnus can hold his own in a rational one-on-one conversation with a youngster who has passed his Civil Services exams.
The youngsters joining the NDA are smart kids. One can count on them to ‘perform’ when a challenge is thrown at them. But they are to spend most of their three years running around from pillar to post with hardly any time to develop personal interests and their intellects. If the average aptitude of the tribe goes up then it will be increasingly difficult to look down upon military officers.
The debate on selection and training of military officers has been going on seriously amongst military Veterans for the past 15 years. NDA has been in the centre of this debate and maximum time and effort has been dedicated towards reviewing, refining and reforming NDA.
The preparation of NDA Vision Paper during 2002/03 by Vice Admiral SCS Bangara, the then Commandant, was the main trigger for the start of long and endless debates, which continue till date without any real solution being accepted.
In fact, things have only gone from bad to worse! Maj Gen Raj Mehta, ex-Instructor NDA, was the first ‘General’ ranking military officer who dedicatedly analysed the vast subject and covered all the intricate and complex issues of selection, training and education of military officers with the main thrust being on NDA. For the past two years, Fauji India magazine has provided a stable platform for ample and sustained coverage.
Sadly and surprisingly, the military hierarchy remains unmoved or pays only lip service. We are unable to get our own house (NDA) in order, despite heaps of evidence by our own. How and why should we complain about our politicians or bureaucrats?
Have the three service academies and their respective services been content with the quality of products received by them from NDA? Ask the NAVAC, AFA and IMA and the Navy, Air Force and Army! The answers lie to a great extent in the individual services ‘taking charge’ of their cadets at the NDA itself.
Jointmanship requirement/tri-service integration should be a second priority and not be at the cost of the individual service imperatives. There is also an imperative need for the three services to clearly define what they want in the cadets and be directly be involved in meeting it.
The Army too should clearly define what they need in their cadets for all Arms and Services and be directly/indirectly involved to get it. The selection of suitable cadets for different Arms and Services could possibly be decided at NDA itself, based on aptitude and interest.
The Way Forward (by Brig LC Patnaik, ex-President SSB & Current Chairman Odisha Public Service Commission)
My views on the imperative need for transformation of NDA stems from the desire to restore it’s fame and glory. NDA, like many other civil and military organizations in the country has fallen behind to evolve itself for many reasons, of which some are emotional, while many are organizational and directional in nature. Despite many limitations, NDA continues to remain a pride of the nation and is of one of the preferred destinations for visit of foreign political/military dignitaries.
The lessons learnt from ‘62, ‘65 and ‘71, did not raise any shortcomings on the young leadership of the Armed Forces. On the contrary, many of our war heroes like Arun Khetrapal, Amarjit Singh Shekhon etc who were alumnus of NDA, became the symbols of leadership and bravery. In the last five decades since the ‘71 ops, the nature of warfare has shifted exponentially to hybrid, non-conventional and technological platforms.
The education sector underwent major reforms towards privatization. Many government organizations restructured themselves to meet the new liberalization era. The civil services undertook four cadre reviews while the Armed Forces remained committed in unconventional warfare, aid to civil authorities and border management.
The Kargil war was short and didn’t utilize the full potential of the Armed Forces. Due to economic crunch, modernization remained marginal. In the process, the Armed Forces as a whole missed many opportunities to evolve themselves except for two cadre reviews and few operational raisings like the Rashtriya Rifles and development of ship building. Despite the changing dynamics of threat perception, RMA, technological prowess, cyber and space war, our basic training philosophies remained of the pre and post-Independence era.
For any training institute to excel, it must have the best quality students, trainers, professors and administrative staff. To ensure quality students, my article ‘Transformative Approach to Selection Process’, earlier published in Fauji India, deals extensively on the subject. For quality trainers, the Service HQs have stream lined procedures to select the best Divisional Officers and Squadron Commanders. However, selection criteria gets diluted in the upper ranks.
Service HQs intervention is essential to restore the anomaly. Our dependence on UPSC to provide civilian teaching faculty must shift to the affiliated University which also must shift from JNU to some reputed University in Pune/Mumbai. We also need to have a balanced composition of qualified serving/retired officers and civilian faculty.
The Service element of training must commence early, preferably in the 2nd term. The syllabus must have a combination of compulsory and optional elective subjects having relevance for all three services like strategy, intelligence, military history, cyber warfare etc.
The basic military training consisting of physical training, drill and orientation must get over in first two terms, with roll over for weak cadets only to maximum fourth term; beyond which cadets not meeting basic QRs being withdrawn. This aspect needs to be included in the statutory rules to avoid legal complications. The modern scientific physical training must replace the archaic methods.
Sports should be optional and available for cadets in all terms and must form part of the overall assessment. Swimming and equestrian training can be shifted to co-curricular activities. The academic training needs to focus on International Relations, Constitution, relevant military and civil laws, military psychology, geography, military history, cyber security with both compulsory and elective options. The division of science and arts stream must cease forthwith to avoid repetition of class XII science subjects (presently 40%), and not overload the curriculum.
The academic wing must excel in a few chosen subjects like military strategy, military psychology and military history etc with world class research facilities. The infrastructure at NDA needs to be improved with bulk grants in similar lines as being done for the IITs and IIMs.
It is recommended that a National Committee duly approved by the Cabinet to be established with members from Services, MoD, MHA, MHRD, MoD and few retired officers with domain knowledge, to prepare a blue print for transformation of NDA. Such an initiative can be undertaken by the Study Team of Victory India to present it to COSC and the RM for considering the above proposals.
(This debate was published in the Nov '18 issue of the Fauji India Magazine and compiled by Mission Victory India Founder & Director Col. Vinay B Dalvi. He can be reached on Twitter: @vinaybaliram, Email ID: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.Views expressed are the respondents own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)