General Manoj Pande took over as India’s 29th Chief of Army Staff on 1 May 2022, becoming the first Corps of Engineers officer to hold the top post in the Army. So far, only officers from the Infantry, Armoured Corps and Artillery have occupied the Army Chief’s position.
The Army is divided into two prime categories, namely Fighting Arms and Supporting Arms. Infantry and Armoured Corps are the main combat or Fighting Arms, whereas the Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Air Defence Corps, and Aviation Corps constitute the Supporting Arms—they are called Supporting Arms as they back the Fighting Arms during battle. Therefore, Infantry and Armoured Corps officers command the formations but certain vacancies are reserved for officers of Supporting Arms based on merit in general cadres at Brigadier’s rank.
Troops providing logistical support to fellow troops are called Services, and include Army Service Corps (ASC), Army Ordnance Corps (AOC), Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (EME), Army Medical Corps (AMC) etc. This is the second time since Independence that an engineers’ officer has come up in seniority for the COAS post. In January 1972, Lt Gen PS Bhagat, the only officer to be awarded the Victoria Cross, was recommended for this post by Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, who was retiring at the time. However, by extending Lt Gen GG Bewoor’s tenure by nine months, a deliberate manipulation, Bhagat, a strong and popular general, was denied the top post.
An unassuming, down-to-earth officer
When I was the Deputy Brigade Commander in 1995, Manoj Pande was posted as the Brigade Major (BM) of 66 Mountain Brigade after completing his staff college course at Camberley in the UK. For attending the staff course, armed forces officers (9-13 years’ service range) appear in a competitive exam and those scoring top grades are generally nominated for attending the courses in foreign countries. I, being his immediate boss, was the initiating officer (IO) for the annual confidential report (ACR). ACRs carry maximum weightage for promotions and rank officers on 22 qualities such as situation response, problem-solving capabilities and include personal qualities and demonstrated performance variables.
The box grade was the average of the points obtained in the 22 parameters. The officers were assessed on a 9-point scale– 9 points for ‘outstanding’, 5 points for ‘average’ and 1 point for extremely ‘poor’ performance. Depending on his assessment of the officer’s performance during the preceding year, the IO awarded the officer the points he deserved. The immediate boss of the IO was called the Reviewing Officer (RO). The RO reviewed the ACR initiated by the IO and forwarded the ‘Reviewed ACR’ up the hierarchical chain to his boss – the Senior Reviewing Officer (SRO). The RO and SRO could either endorse the ACR or moderate it. Points awarded by the SRO were final.
I found Major Manoj Pande an unassuming, down to earth, versatile and professionally competent officer who spoke only when necessary. I graded him outstanding and handed the ACR to Brigadier Harinder Singh, the Brigade Commander who after endorsing his remarks forwarded it to the General officer commanding (GOC) of the division. A few days later, I got a call from the GOC Major General Tarlochan Singh’s office, asking me to see him. The General had known me for over 25 years—when he was a Major and I a Second Lieutenant. He asked me to justify the outstanding grading to the Brigade Major (BM). I counted Pande’s attributes before the General, but he remained unconvinced. He could have moderated the report but said that he would like to see it once again. Subsequently, a sand model discussion (SMD) was scheduled in 66 Mountain Brigade, which I was conducting. The topic of this discussion was ‘Counter Heli-borne Operations in High Altitude’. The Corps commander and all three divisional commanders along with other senior officers attended this discussion. During the SMD, I asked tricky questions to Major Pande. He displayed his competence, which satisfied the GOC.
He continued to prove his credibility
Towards the end of 1995, I was posted as Colonel Military Secretary (MS) at HQ 33 Corps—66 Mountain Brigade was under its command. The Corps Commander, late Lt Gen HRS Kalkat, was my company commander when I was commissioned in 1969 and later commanding officer in 1978-1979 in J&K. As the Colonel MS, I handled the ACRs of the officers of the corps besides other confidential matters and was answerable to him. Kalkat was a very smart and sharp General with eidetic ability and photographic memory. He ordered that he would endorse the ACRs as the Next Senior Reviewing Officer (NSRO) of all officers graded as outstanding. Every unit and formation HQ forwarded the names of such officers to corps HQ. Since I accompanied Gen Kalkat on his official visits, operation alerts, war games, SMD etc., I used to make notes of his interactions with officers. When reviewing the ACRs, he made me sit with him and give a brief about each officer. In his second report as BM, Major Pande was again graded outstanding.
For getting the General’s endorsement on his ACR, I handed over the file to him and said, “Sir he is Major Manoj Pande.” Before I could speak further, General Kalkat said “BM 66 Brigade.” Looking at me he smiled and continued, ‘’…I know him… a competent lad.” As a matter of interest, none of us (IO, RO, SRO and NSRO) knew Manoj Pande before—neither of us was from Maharashtra, nor from Engineers and all of us, barring the RO, were from the Infantry. Moreover, even though I was clean shaven, all of us were Sikhs. That depicted the fairness of a system where a hard-working person will get his due. I lost track of Manoj Pande thereafter until January 2022, when I learnt he is going to be the next COAS.
Brigadier RP Singh (Retd) is a war veteran, columnist and author. He played a key role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war, and is a frequent contributor to Indian and Bangladeshi Press. He tweets @rpsingh2008. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)