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General K Sundarji, soldier of the mind & still the most talked-about chief since Manekshaw

On his death anniversary, a tribute to a visionary military leader who was ahead of his time — mostly brilliant, sometimes reckless, but never a bore.

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Soon after retiring as India’s most talked-about soldier since Sam Manekshaw (a status he enjoys to date, three decades later), General Krishnaswamy Sundarji decided to become a columnist for us, then at India Today magazine.

His first few attempts were disastrous and we had a problem. How do you tell the general, with an ego larger than any of his strike corps, that he could not write to save his life? That he had to teach himself a new skill?

I was assigned to carry the bad news to him.

He was then recuperating from heart surgery at Delhi’s military hospital. “So, doc,” he asked, “is there still some hope, or is the patient a write-off?” Before I could figure out a diplomatic answer, he asked more directly, “I believe you think my writing is all bullshit. So where does that leave us?”

“I think, General sahab,” I said, “you need to be a bit more direct in your writing — just as you are when you speak.” I then added as a smug afterthought, “Just come to the brasstacks quickly.”

His eyes lit up. “That’s it, my friend, that is the name for my column.” His next piece was a great improvement. The column ran for a long time under the title ‘Brasstacks’.

Retiring in the controversial aftermath of Operation Blue Star, Operation Brasstacks, the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s Sri Lanka deployment, and the Bofors scam, this general tried his best not to just fade away like some others. 

He wrote columns, straddled the strategic and Track-2 seminar circuit, was painted larger-than-life on the chatterati radar screen, and generally emerged as the most articulate military spokesman for India’s military nuclearisation.

We sparred a great deal on the circuit. He never could resist the temptation of pulling my leg over one military detail I got so embarrassingly wrong in my coverage of Operation Blue Star. I had confused line-of-sight 25-pounders for larger artillery. 

For “Sundar” (as he insisted we all call him, although I never could), it was an outrage. “You hacks can’t tell the difference between bore and calibre, but can still be such big bores with low calibre,” he would rub it in.

He himself had plenty to be defensive about. Both Blue Star and Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka) were tactical disasters. It may be unfair to suggest that you could spin a sequel to Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence around these two operations, but you could possibly pen a ‘Psychology of Military Arrogance’.

Sundarji was a grand strategist, a visionary who was better off moving mechanised divisions and field armies in wide open deserts, or better still, on Ops Room maps and sand models. But not leading actual operations. He did himself injustice by getting directly involved in these. 

That is why it is so tragic that the legacy of India’s most brilliant military commander will forever be marred by his record in leading, as the chief, what were at best brigade-sized operations.

Students of Indian military history will quibble over whether Sundarji was ahead of his time, or behind it. The truth, perhaps, is both. In his approach to technology, mechanisation, mobile warfare, he was way ahead of his time. He did sometimes admit he had over-reached himself with Operation Brasstacks. But, he argued, that was the only way he could get his field commanders to think big. Most of them had no experience of seeing a formation larger than a division move. Brasstacks had an entire field army in manoeuvre — with live ammunition — and so what if it brought India to the brink of an unwanted, unplanned war with Pakistan? That was his outlook.

“You have this typical f…..g cowardly Indian thinking,” he would say. But was he so impatient because, politically, he was a couple of decades behind his time? This was the beginning of the post-conventional (industrial scale) warfare world, where nations preserved or enhanced their national interest by waging or resisting low-intensity conflict rather than Patton/Rommelesque set pieces. Where diplomacy, politics, and then economics became the crucial prongs in strategic thinking. 

For Sundarji, low-intensity conflict was a bore — he dreamed of a heliborne assault division and even designated one (54th, at Hyderabad) to be trained for the role. Almost immediately, he had to endure the embarrassment of seeing this same division’s fighting units trapped under the LTTE’s deadly sniper fire and improvised explosive devices in the jungles of Jaffna.

He had his critics within and outside the Army. The friendlier ones dismissed him as a well-meaning romantic with little relevance to his time. For them, Brasstacks was his nostalgia for great old days of set-piece “destiny-of-nations” battles, probably even an effort to create one to test his pet theories on the battlefield, in the genuine Clausewitzian fog of war. For the more vicious, he nurtured a grand political ambition and Brasstacks, with a resultant war and victory against Pakistan, was to be his shortcut to political power. They do the general disservice. 

A person with such dispositions and careeristic outlook does not question the prime minister of the day on the acquisition of his favourite toy — Bofors in this case — nor does he follow it up with a kiss-and-tell not long after.

Sundarji hated the “dirty little wars” — the Golden Temple, Jaffna, Brahmaputra Valley, and so on. But that is all he was fated to fight, and not very successfully. 

It was probably a combination of this failure and the belated realisation that the days of conventional warfare were over that brought him in close touch with nuclear warfare. Soon, he became its leading voice.

We spent a week together in the summer of 1994 in Salzburg, with the usual suspects from India and Pakistan on the conflict resolution circuit. I got a chance to get back at Sundarji. Why, I asked, was it so that the most prominent nuclear hawks in India were from the South? Was it a diabolical Tam-Brahm conspiracy to get Punjabis on both sides of the border to incinerate each other so that the kings of Kumbakonam could rule the subcontinent forever? We had a good laugh.

To be fair to him, however, even on the nuclear issue, Sundarji was by now evolving a doctrine of his own — “more is not needed when less is enough”.

He wanted India to develop a limited nuclear deterrent, without entering into any nuclear race. It does not matter if the Pakistanis have a hundred weapons and we have 10. This is more than enough to finish Pakistan, or deter China, so why waste money on building a Stalinist arsenal, was his argument. 

Later, he would have been happy to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), engage in proliferation controls, and develop confidence-building measures and mutual restraint with Pakistan. He would have also wanted a nuclear India to cut conventional force levels, mechanise, computerise, and embrace Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).

If he had lived long enough, who knows, he may have written the strategist’s obituary of the main battle tank, or the concept of a mechanised division, his most visible contribution to his Army.

Sundarji had a cutting tongue and little discretion when provoked. At another India-Pakistan seminar, he fidgeted uneasily, visibly irritated, as Pakistani participants took turns at giving vastly exaggerated numbers for Indian troops in Kashmir. Then, a former Pakistani Army chief put the number at 7 lakh, and Sundarji intervened. “The only way you get to that number, general, is if you count the limbs, multiply by four and divide by two,” he said, deadpan. We took some time decoding this, but his Pakistani counterpart was quiet through the rest of the session. Imran Khan, by the way, has taken the count to 9 lakh now.

Much has been said of his peculiar equation with Rajiv Gandhi and Arun Singh, his de facto defence minister. It is possible that one day Arun Singh would throw more light on this, give it a perspective that he owes to the memory and legacy of his favourite general. In one way, however, the general had his timing right. He took over the reins of the Army under the political leadership of two young, tech-loving political leaders. He did the rest. His domineering personality kept the civil servants at bay. He certainly would not have survived a Mulayam Singh Yadav, a George Fernandes, or an A.K. Antony. Or vice-versa.

Sundarji died at just 69, an age when great marshals were leading great armies into battle in the Great Wars. Unfortunately, his death did not merit more than a single column mention — below the fold on many front pages — the next morning. His life and work will be analysed by future generations of soldiers and military historians. 

One question they will ask — or answer — is, what do we remember General Krishnaswamy Sundarji for? Hopefully, the answer would be Brasstacks, rather than Blue Star or Pawan.

Postscript: This takes me to 14 August 1990, Pakistan’s Independence Day, in Islamabad, just a week after the encounter with Sundarji at Delhi’s military hospital. At the official reception, I buttonholed General Mirza Aslam Beg, the controversial Pakistani Army chief who had just held Exercise Zarb-e-Momin (the strike of the faithful). Or, more accurately, his counterstrike to Brasstacks.

With Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, Islamabad, August 14, 1990
With Pakistan’s then Army chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, Islamabad, 14 August 1990 | ThePrint

The basic premise of the exercise was that, in the next war, Foxland (as India is referred to in Pakistani war games) breaks through initially, and Pakistan then counterattacks and envelopes the invader. It was the first major Pakistani exercise that was so defensive in nature, where survival, rather than an all-out victory, or the “liberation” of Kashmir, was the main objective.

Surely, Brasstacks and the scary and somewhat fictional vision of 3,000 Indian tanks rolling down the desert, threatening to bisect Pakistan, had changed a military mindset rooted in medieval history and the thrust-and-parry purposelessness of India’s armoured strike forces in 1965 and 1971.

“So does your publication write a lot about defence and security?” Beg asked, making polite conversation.

“Yes,” I said, “and we are now running a column by Gen Sundarji.”

“What is it called?” Beg asked.

“Brasstacks,” I said.

(A version of this obituary was first published on 8 February 2018)


Also read: Sam Manekshaw, the general who told Indira when Indian Army wasn’t ready for a war


 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Many thanks for this excellent column, far from the madding crowd of silly politics. If Sunderji had been the general under Mulla Singh Yadav, probably, he would have met the same fate as Gen.K.S.Thimmayya under Nehru and Krishna Menon. We should be glad that it did not happen.

    • THAT NEHRU AND MENON TREATED THIMMAYYA IS A FIGMENT OF IMAGINATION OF AN UNEDUCATED AND PAGAN AND SUBALTERN MAN DISHED OUT FOR ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN IN KARNATAKA. THE BLUFF WAS CALLED DURING THAT CAMPAIGN ITSELF . GEN THIMMAYYA WAS NOT A MAN WITHOUT HIS BLEMISHES AND FOIBLES

  2. One detail that has been carefully omitted (And perhaps deliberately) is that Ex Brasstacks was run by Gen Sunderji strictly under the rules of the game laid down then.

    Rajiv Gandhi had worked out with Pakistan that no major military exercises were to be held within 50 kms of the International Border. If it were to be done the other side had to be told about it in advance. Brasstacks did not violate this rule.

    When Brasstacks happened, Gandhi panicked on learning Pak army was also deploying on the border in their battle positions. Sunderji held his ground and refused to be browbeaten by Gandhi for not taking his permission. Permissions were not required for exercising in own country well away from the border.

    Blind Men of Hindoostan is a result of this spat.

    I happened to be intelligence head at formation HQ in Jullandhar, Punjab then and used to get daily reports of Pakistani build up opposite us. Pakistan had no intention to attack us because of our Brasstacks. It was my job to give a daily intelligence briefing everyday and their deployment did not suggest an imminent threat.

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