It is empirical wisdom that leaders are not born, they are made. For the armed forces, the foundation of leadership is laid at the military academies.
The Chiefs of Staff Committee has given a clear directive to the Commandant of the National Defence Academy – the cradle of military leadership in India – to develop leadership qualities in the cadets and in doing so, impart foundation military education and training, and make them graduates with a BSc/BA degree.
But has the National Defence Academy delivered on this?
From ragging to suicide
Disturbing reports from the National Defence Academy (NDA) have emerged over the years. In 2014, a video of a junior cadet being beaten with a hockey stick went viral. Much earlier in 1975, a senior cadet was lynched to death by his juniors. There is a dropout rate of 16-20 per cent annually, primarily due to ragging and use of ‘illegal’ ways to punish cadets in the barracks on the pretext of ‘toughening’ and leadership development. Two years ago, a cadet committed suicide allegedly after ragging. A Commandant of the NDA was removed from his post for alleged corruption.
The defence academy is in desperate need of reforms. The issue is relative as in matters of leadership, ‘good is not good enough’.
Who becomes a Commandant?
The executive, administrative and instructional staff in the NDA are selected from the armed forces on the basis of a flawed and inflated appraisal system instead of their aptitude. The first available, and not the best, Lieutenant General or equivalent is appointed as the Commandant. There is a tendency among the younger officer instructors, themselves ‘groomed’ by the flawed leadership development programme of the NDA, to replicate their own experience with respect to their cadets. This not only condones and encourages the unethical ragging and illegal punishments, but also scuttles the reforms attempted by the system.
This selection system needs a review. Only the best must be selected after an aptitude test and training, which is how it’s done to pick officers for the Services Selection Board. Instead of appointing just any Lt Gen, who retires after his tenure, it would be prudent to appoint the best role model Major General with 6-7 years residual service and who is likely to be selected for higher ranks, as the NDA Commandant. Imagine the impact of a corrupt Commandant’s sacking on 1,800 young minds.
The quality of the academic civilian staff also leaves much to be desired. In the 1950s, the best in the country were part of the faculty. The UPSC selection system needs to focus both on character and academic qualifications. The civilian officers also must be role models for the cadets as 70 % of time is devoted to academics.
Like the armies of developed nations, role model retired military officers could be employed to teach military subjects at the NDA.
Outdated academic curriculum
In the 21st century, making future leaders earn a basic BSc or a BA degree serves no useful military purpose. The focus should shift to teaching subjects relevant to the military, and cadets should graduate in theory of war, military history, military psychology, aeronautical/naval science, space science, weapon technology, nuclear physics, management, and so on. The system of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ subjects must be ensured.
A cursory look at the curriculum of the United States Military Academy at West Point, considered one of the best, should prove the point.
The mandatory Foundation Course that covers military history and geography, weapon systems and armaments, geopolitics, human rights, laws of armed conflict, and environmental sciences is too cryptic. A lot of time is wasted during courses of instruction after commissioning to learn the same in a graduated manner linked to years of service.
How can theoretical knowledge be linked to length of service? After three years at NDA and one year at one of the service academies of choice, an officer’s theoretical military education must be complete and s/he should be focusing on refining and applying the theoretical knowledge, and not on learning fundamentals.
Bullying & killing individual creativity
The practical aspects of leadership are covered through mentoring by ‘role model’ instructors and senior cadets, and by giving leadership positions to cadets (both for day-to-day functions and during military training camps).
The leadership development programme is inspired by the outdated traditional military culture of breaking the will through subjugation to ensure discipline, uniformity and adherence. A large part of this is done in the barracks by senior cadets who are products of the same flawed system. Bullying and illegal ways of punishments amounting to physical abuse are rampant. Junior officer instructors too become complicit in upholding the flawed ‘traditions’.
‘Ends justify means’ , ‘survival of the fittest’ , ‘beg borrow or steal’, ‘never volunteer’, ‘never own up or report a wrong’, and ‘never snitch’, are part of the barrack culture. Integrity is given short shrift when senior cadets usurp the uniform/kits and bicycles ( a necessity in the vast campus) of juniors starting a chain reaction of theft codified as ‘maroing’, involving the entire academy as the juniors ‘maro’ the same from others.
Individual creativity and initiative are considered a taboo. An unusual form of initiative, which focuses on avoiding the draconian system, is developed. The NDA should be producing self-actualised and creative leaders driven by military ideals, but ends up producing “adherent under supervision” leaders whose ‘NDA traits’ remain latent and come to the fore when they get higher independent commands.
This seriously impinges on the organisational mission. In 1999, at an informal social gathering in Jodhpur, Major Jaswant Singh, cabinet minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government and an NDA alumni (1954-56), had told me that the academy “destroyed my soul and free spirit”, and that he somehow “retained sanity through reading and music”.
When the defence academy was established in 1954, it possibly had the best infrastructure and habitat in the world. Over the years, it has decayed and only maintains a façade, particularly with respect to the cadets’ living accommodation. The ‘NDA Cabin’, an eight-by-ten-feet small room, was a unique example of economy of space complete with sturdy teak wood bed, chest of drawers-cum-cupboard, a study table with a study chair and an old style easy chair.
Today, the cabin does not match even a good boarding school room. Teakwood furniture has been replaced by cheap steel furniture, apparently due to presence of bed bugs. This ridiculous excuse itself explains what is wrong with the NDA. World-class toilets and community bathing rooms have been replaced by sub-standard amenities.
The way forward
To say that our cradle of military leadership is not up to the mark is stating the obvious. The three Chiefs must look beyond the glitter of the passing-out parades that they review. An empowered panel of committed serving and retired officers must be set up to push holistic reforms in our military academies and subsequently act as a supervisory board. The matter is too important to be wished away.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.