• JSIA Bulletin


Devoting oneself to their nation and protecting it is one of the biggest responsibilities that a person can take. Although every child may dream of being in the army, it is a task that only the country’s best are recruited for. While the nation knows that our army protects us from external threats, this interview wishes to go beyond and explore the personal motivation and struggles of soldiers in the army, while also discussing the future of the Indian Army’s role in nation-building. The first half of the interview would entail the personal aspects of being in the army, while the second will discuss the Indian Army’s role in a broader context. The JSIA Bulletin is honoured to have interviewed Major General Sudhir Vombatkere (retd.) for this piece.

Q. How did the idea of joining the army occur to you and what was your motivation behind the choice?

I wanted to be a part of a system that was fair. A system that would look at merit and not take extraneous issues into account. Although I did not know much about the army when I joined the Indian Military Academy at eighteen years old, I was expecting that there would be some physical and moral challenges. That applies to anybody. Getting into any profession, one does not know anything about it until they are actually in it. Many people regret having joined a particular profession, but I do not. Given a choice, I would do it all over again if I had to relive my life.

Q. What are three of the biggest lessons that being in the Indian Army has taught you?

It is difficult to put it in three discreet lessons. The first thing I learnt is that it is teamwork and team spirit that are most important for battle-worthiness. An army exists for battle. They are at the top of the agenda in every unit for every person in the armed forces. There is leadership at every level from a Lance Naik up to the General at the top. They are leaders at every level required to perform their functions at their levels. So, team building and leadership are important. It is the training and motivation during our service which builds these characteristics.

Second, one learns to understand ‘fear’ and that it is natural. It is nothing to be ashamed of. A leader must ensure that they are not overcome by fear or show it in front of his subordinates. That goes for a negative emotion like anger or a positive emotion like love. Handling fear is a part of training, team-building, and motivation. I learnt how to deal with people in high-risk situations. After all, soldiers are just people with special training. There is a risk of death or loss of a limb. In any hierarchy, there is a subordinate and superior. But it does not necessarily affect interpersonal reality. It is not necessary that someone in a superior position of command is superior in everything. I understood that some of my subordinates were better than me at many things.

Third, The responsibilities of command, at any level, has to be seized with both hands and tasks have to be executed to the best of your ability. The army is one organization in which everybody has to start at the bottom. There is no lateral entry. Every soldier has to take an oath even at the risk of losing one’s own life, something that is not there in any other government service in the country. Oath of office is extremely important. The armed forces are very secular in practice.

Q. Could you tell us about some of the most challenging experiences during your time in the army? What role does mental strength play in the struggles that soldiers have to face?

Psychological strength is vital for an individual and a team in a battle situation. Strength comes from motivation, training, and teamwork. A soldier’s toughness includes physical fitness, but mental strength is far more important. There is training at three levels: (1) individual, (2) technical/small group, and (3) formation/large group training. Senior officers look after the macro issues concerning battle-worthiness. In all of this, discipline is an extremely important component that is also highlighted in the Army Act.

To think of events that have challenged me, I would start with one in September 1965, when I was less than three years into service. We went to war with Pakistan in the Sialkot sector, and a soldier named Padam Dutt was next to me when the Pakistani Air Force raided our position. We were sitting in the trench and a rocket of the Pakistani Sabre jet struck nearby, and shrapnel from it killed him. But there I was, virtually untouched. It challenged my perception of life and death. How did this soldier die and how did I live? Questions of life and death are so important but we do not think about them at a young age. This made me think at that age. Both of us were also newly married at the time.

The next incident was soon after, in November 1965. I was tasked to do a reconnaissance of a Pakistan minefield at night. That was a challenge that brought out the strength of the motivation I had received in the army, and the training I had in battle craft and handling explosives blindfolded. We joked that with an explosive, you can only make one mistake. There is no second time. This also brought about the importance of focus. As long as you have extreme focus, nothing else matters except for the task at hand. Full credit goes to my instructors and the army training system for that.

Another thing I learnt was that it is lonely at the top. Fast forward to 1982, there was a need to move military traffic over a high pass in Ladakh. Traffic could not move across because there was a slippery ice slope at the top. Vehicles would slip and we would lose men. I was wondering what to do and I finally proposed to build a bridge. It was against the expert opinion of scientists from the Glaciological Society of India. My superiors left the decision to me. I went ahead with the plan because of local compulsions to build it. We had operations in Siachen and had to pass vehicular traffic. Otherwise, everything would have to be airlifted, which would be expensive. I finally launched that bridge. The challenge here was the responsibility of command. Had something gone wrong, I would be responsible. It was the challenge of taking on a job that others thought was impossible.

Q. With revolutionary developments like drone warfare and cyber technology, what is the future and potential of the Indian Army to adapt to fast technological changes? What are some differences you can draw between the army during your service, and the one we see today?

This concerns the Navy and Air Force as well. Even decades ago, there was a concept of joint training between the armed forces. The sea forces are three dimensional: surface, submarine, and naval aviation. Jointness is an important part of war. When we talk about full-scale conflict, it is not just joint training but political and strategic vision that is important. Talking about cyber warfare and drones, there is a term called ‘RMA’ (Revolutions in Military Affairs). The first RMA was the discovery of gunpowder. Then came the crossbow, the musket, and breach loader. We then saw tanks, aircraft, and machine guns (machines of war). We see other revolutions: drones, cyber and information warfare. We talk not just about individual drones but drone swarms in offensive warfare. Drones as small as bumblebees can be used for reconnaissance. We then have the cyber capability and the Autonomous Fighting System (AFS) which will change the character of warfare. I am sure that wars tomorrow will be completely different from those yesterday.

I retired 25 years ago and a lot of things have changed. But there is also something that has not changed: the human being, not just in our military but in every other one. Junior leaders have not changed. They are still tough, physically capable, devoted, and matchless. Another thing that has not changed is that if there is anybody who fails the military, it is the senior officer. This is not new. Success is because of a good soldier and failure is because of the leadership, be it military or political. In this case, I would recommend a book that may interest you. It is titled ‘On The Psychology of Military Incompetence’ by Norman Dixon. It applies to every military in the world and makes for a great read.

Q. Being in the army means close contact with the government. But when there is a clear distinction between the army and politics, I am sure that there have been times when the army might not necessarily agree with the government’s policies. So at both a personal and wider level, how does a soldier not let their political views cloud their sense of duty towards the nation?

The armed forces in India have little or no contact with the government except for two instances: (1) interactions at the topmost levels and (2) when the army is called in aid to civil power. Again, aid to civil power is of two kinds: (1) internal security/counterinsurgency and (2) natural disasters. Here, even an officer at lower ranks like Major deals with the Deputy Commissioner of a District. There are Standard Operating Procedures as to what can be said and done. These SOPs are a part of training. The army is called even to rescue children trapped in borewells.

The idea of not mixing with politics is what makes the army unique. I have already mentioned the oath of office. The other thing is the code of conduct in the army. It states that the safety, honour, and welfare of your country comes first always, the comfort and welfare of the men you command come next, and your own ease and safety come last. You notice that the word ‘safety’ is used for the country but not the men you command. That is where leadership plays a role. One way of staying out of politics is that your country comes first. In 1932 when the Indian Military Academy (IMA) was founded in Dehradun, the general of the army was Philip Chetwode. Chetwode told the Indian cadets in the IMA that he knew that the Indian youth were interested in politics, but when one joins the army, there is no place for politics within. The moment there is politics, people lose trust in the army- and that is the way to civil war.

The Army Act denies two fundamental rights to a soldier: the freedom of expression, and that of association. One cannot form a union in the army and make demands. It is motivation and training which ensures that politics stays out of the military. Finally, it is important to remember that armed forces serve the nation, not the government. This is something that we make a clear distinction on. The government is not the nation.

Q. What are your final thoughts and advice to youngsters who wish to pursue a career in the defence/national security field?

In today’s armed forces, we need youngsters who have ‘moral courage.’ There is no question that they have physical courage. The motivation and training given by the army will only increase physical courage and self-confidence. All young men and women who have and value moral courage are, in my view, fit to join the armed forces. But of course, moral courage alone will not do because it is difficult to measure. The Services Selection Board (SSB) checks the candidate’s physical and psychological (both individual and group) status as well as a medical examination. A candidate who fits these standards are taken for training. I emphasize moral courage because the others are standards met by the SSB. Along with that, there is ‘integrity’ too. Finally, during service a subordinate discovers every officer’s level of moral courage, and whether they will stand up for what is right and carry out their duties. It is not just the armed forces, but our nation that needs more men and women with moral courage and ethical standards.

Cover Image: DNA

About the interviewer: Aakrith Harikumar is a second-year undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His research interests include International Security, Foreign Policy, and Diplomacy.

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