That Famous Letter from General K. Sundarji

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A few months after taking over as the Army Chief, General K Sundarji took time off for a short holiday at Goa. There, reportedly, he soaked in the sun and surf, drank lots of Feni and thought deeply about the STATE OF THE INDIAN ARMY. Various far reaching policy decisions and a letter addressed to each and every Army officer emerged out of that Goan holiday. I was then in the Indian Navy, heard about this letter and got a copy from a friend in the Army. I was very much impressed by this letter. I think this letter continues to be extremely relevant even today and I am reproducing it below for the benefit of every Service Officer of India.


General K Sundarji, PVSM, ADC

Army Headquarters, New Delhi-110 001                                        

1 Feb 86

Dear Brother Officer,

1. It is imperative that we have a totally combat effective Army to support the revitalised India of tomorrow in her rightful place in the world. This involves getting the ‘man-machine mix’ just right, improving the quality of both and placing them in a structure which will be effective in the battlefield milieu of the Nineties and the early decades of 2000. It is an exercise as exciting as it is challenging and I am fully confident that we will succeed.

2. Briefly mentioning the ‘machine’, we have thus far modernised only by discrete changes of weapons systems and equipment. We were also dependent mostly on imported equipment, which apart from not being designed to suit our exact requirements, were also not ‘state of the art’ and at least a generation behind those used by more modern armies. Much of this has changed and is fast changing. Our R & D has come of age and having had a close look at the scene for some years, I can assure you that we are on the verge of take-off. There are still some problems of translation of R & D into production, but these are also being solved fast. Therefore, the time has now come for us to take a total look at technology, threats, tactics and organisations in order to restructure our Army and develop doctrine for the future. This is in hand, and want each one of you to be involved in the process.

3. However, no amount of modernisation of arms, equipment, tactics and organisations can produce results unless we have the right kind of man in the right state of mind, manning the system. And that is what this letter of mine is about.

4. The fact that the Army is one of the national institutions which has, comparatively speaking, weathered the post-independence years and yet remains effective, should not make us complacent. Field Marshal Cariappa used to say, "Good officers - good Army; bad officers - bad Army". This is as true today as it was then. We should, therefore look at ourselves first and be not only frank but hypercritical. As a whole, the Corps of Officers has lost much of its self esteem, pride and elan; it is becoming increasingly careerist, opportunist and sycophantic; standards of integrity have fallen and honour and patriotism are becoming unfashionable. Paradoxically, all this is happening, while in the narrow sense, professional competence has been going up at all levels since 1947. Broad-based though our intake has become, our young officers have proved in every action which they have fought, that they are brave and lead from the front - our officer casualty ratio in every action testifies to this. Where then, are we going wrong?

5. First, let us look at ourselves -- the senior officers; most of us are senior to some of the others and so this includes almost all of us. We have obviously NOT set the right example. Many of us have not professionally kept ourselves uptodate, doctrinally or technologically; we have felt that that we have ‘got it made’, and rested on our oars; we do not read enough; we do not think enough, and some of course, have been promoted well beyond their capability! In the practise of our profession, we have not insisted on standards being maintained and turn our eyes away from irregularities (living in a glass house?); we have not been tolerant of dissent during discussion and encourage sycophancy (a result of our having ‘switched off’ professionally?) we have not been accepting any mistakes (due to hankering after personal advancement?), thus encouraging our juniors to either do nothing worthwhile or to oversupervise their juniors, who in turn are not allowed to develop professionally or mature as men. This leads to frustration. Finally, some have perhaps unthinkingly developed a yen for 5-star culture and ostentation which flows from new-rich values in our society, where money is the prime indicator of success and social position. This adoption of mercenary values in an organisation like the Army which depends for its elan on values like honour, duty and country above self, is disastrous for its elan and for the self-esteem of the individual in it. And once we start thinking of ourselves as third class citizens, it is not long before our civilian brethren take us at our own valuation, and some of them perhaps not without a touch of glee!

6. I am not suggesting that woefully inadequate pay and poor compensation packages for hard and turbulent service conditions, and being forced to live slummily with a poor quality of life do not prevent the development of elan and self-esteem. They do. It is also a fact that the overall compensation package of the servicemen is poor and has deteriorated rapidly over the years. So is it a fact that the present dispensation is inequitable as far as the armed forces are concerned as compared to their peers in other government services. These facts have been brought forcefully to the notice of the Pay Commission and the Government and I will continue to press hard for a fair and equitable deal. I would also like to add that all my contacts with the authorities so far, have convinced me that they are sympathetically aware of our problems. The Prime Minister himself is aware of the psychological problems caused by the unwarranted and continued degradation of service officers in the Warrant of Precedence. He has ordered that this problem be analysed and put up to him. But to tell you all this is not the purpose of this letter; I want to dwell on what we can do, in-house, to increase the elan and self-esteem of the Officer Corps.

7. The bed-rock of elan is the professional competence of individuals and leaders, and the faith, confidence and pride in the effectiveness of the group - the section upwards, to the Army as a whole. In developing professional competence, I would like to emphasise developing an active technological curiosity without which one cannot cope with the battlefield of tomorrow. I want that we read more and seriously, think more and seriously, discuss more and seriously and write more and seriously about professional matters. This last, has been inhibited by our exaggerated and self-defeating system of security classifications and centralised clearance requirements. I intend putting this right speedily. As regards developing group effectiveness, we have to do much more towards making our training mission-oriented, interesting, competitive and effective inspite of the various constraints of which we are well aware. We should certainly avoid training for training’s sake which not only gets to be boring but moves further and further away from the realities of battle conditions. Let us not get to the mentality of the British Colonel of the regular army who is said to have remarked on 11 Nov 1918, "Thank God the war is over; now we can get back to some serious soldiering"!

8. All of us talk about ‘Officer Like Qualities’ and about being officers and gentlemen. I am not sure whether to many of us these terms means the same thing. Being a gentlemen does not mean Westernisation and becoming a poor imitation of a ‘White Sahib’; it does not mean a tie and a jacket or the ability to handle a knife and fork just so! It refers to the ‘Sharafat’ that is ingrained in the best of Indian culture; of honour and integrity; of putting the interests of the county, the Army, the unit and one’s subordinates before one’s own; of doggedness in defeat; of magnanimity in victory; of sympathy for the underdog; of a certain standard of behaviour and personal conduct in all circumstances; of behaving correctly towards one’s seniors, juniors and equals. I am very concerned about the increasing sycophancy towards seniors which unless checked will corrode the entire system. Much of this, I realise, is due to the pernicious system of recompense and financial advancement being totally linked to higher ranks. These are of necessity limited due to functional compulsions, and which notwithstanding cadre reviews, are microscopic compared to prospects of our peers in other Government services. And finally, prospects of promotion in rank, being totally dependent on the reports of the seniors. I am hopeful that the introduction of the ‘Running Pay Band’, which would offer equitable prospects without being fully tied to ranks, would break this vicious circle and help us to develop strong back-bones and guts. I would like to make a point regarding those officers who are unfortunate not to be cleared for promotion to various selection ranks. Barring a very small minority, the bulk of them have not been cleared, not because they are not good, but because the system functionally cannot absorb them in a higher rank, and generally it is a difficult choice. In any of the civil services, these officers would have passed through their respective selection grades with ease. The fact that they are retained in the Service upto the ages of 50, 52, 54 or 56 depending upon their rank, is not an act of philanthropy, but because the Army needs them for a vital function. They are not discards or deadwood; they are the salt of the earth and are required to lead companies, squadrons and batteries in war and it is at this level that actions are won or lost and fill equally vital positions in the various higher ranks at which they have got blocked. A running pay band will recompense them for the job they continue to do well and also restore their self-esteem.

9. On the symbolic and psychological plane, I would like to see much less of obsequious and compulsive ‘sirring’. A ‘Sir’ on the first meeting for the day ought to be adequate, followed up in later conversation by ‘Major’ or ‘Colonel’ or ‘General’ as the case may be. I am not suggesting familiarity or impertinence - seniors ought to be treated with due respect and courtesy but cringing must be avoided.

10. On the part of the seniors, there is an unfortunate tendency today of more or less sticking to one’s own rank level even in social intercourse and not mixing adequately with junior officers. This must be put right. We cannot afford to have a caste-system within the Officer Corps. In dealings with peers and juniors also, courtesy, consideration and good manners are equally essential. There is none so disgusting as a person who boot-licks the senior, boots the junior and cuts the throats of his peers. I also notice that of late there has been a regrettable communication gap developing between officers and men. I attribute this primarily to selfishness on the part of the officers and not caring enough about the men. This must be corrected. At all levels, we must insist that we live up to the Chetwodeian motto.

11. There is a lot that we can do to improve our quality of life. The standards of officers’ messes in all areas have deteriorated badly. Dust, dirt and grime, sloppily turned out mess staff, chipped and cracked crockery, unpolished furniture and silver etc, are more and more in evidence. A pseudo-plush decor is attempted, with expensive and garish curtains and upholstery, wall to wall carpeting and so on; these cannot compensate for lack of care, attention to detail and maintenance of standards; nor can aerosol room fresheners substitute for fresh air and cleanliness. Messes are generally run down and seedy on a daily basis and though special efforts are made to spruce them up for special occasions (generally following the aerosol route) the lack of standards still comes through. This must be put right by the painstaking method of insisting on standards. We must keep the messes traditional without opting for a 5-star decor. The standard of food is generally poor and lacking in variety, not because the ingredients are not available but because of lack of attention to organisation and poor training of cooks. With free rations, there is no reason as to why we cannot spend a little on training our cooks and modernising our kitchens. While on the quality of life, I must mention that by custom and usage of service, some privileges do go with added responsibility and senior rank, and I am sure that none would grudge these if used sensibly. However, in some cases senior officers tend to get delusions of grandeur and overdo their privileges on a Moghul style. This is bad and must stop. Otherwise privileges themselves might be withdrawn.

12. We must encourage our officers to make full use of the opportunities that the Service provides of developing a wide range of interests. We serve in all parts of the country, including inaccessible areas, to get where civilians have to invest in money and effort. We have the advantage of infrastructure available country-wide. Apart from opportunities for all kinds of adventure activities, interests in astronomy, photography, fishing, wild life, bird-watching, conservation and so on can be cultivated with little expense. There is a lot going for life in the Service and we must make the most of it.

13. Let us all resolve that we will :-

(a) Shed the dead weight of mediocrity and strive for excellence, each one in his own sphere.

(b) Hold fast to all that is best in our traditions and the finest in values, while doing away with the useless and meaningless.

(c) Avoid ostentation.

(d) Not sell our souls for a good ACR and promotion.

(e) Constantly enhance and update our professional competence.

(f) Sensibly decentralise authority and responsibility.

(g) Permit maximum initiative to our subordinates, and accept a fair quota of honest mistakes as necessary payment for their professional growth and maturity.

(h) Encourage dissent and new ideas at the policy formulation and discussion stage and insist on implicit obedience in the right spirit, post-decision, at the execution stage.

(j) Cultivate a justifiable pride in ourselves, our units, formations, the Army and the Country.

(k) And finally, live up to the motto:

"The safety, honour and welfare of your Country come first, always and everytime. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last always and everytime".

14. Before I close, a word to our professional cynics! I can almost hear some say, "Well, we have known all this for quite a while but what’s been done? I’ll believe that something is going to be done when I see something happening on the ground"! As a people, thus far, we have generally been waiting for initiatives from on top; for neatly gift-wrapped solutions from ‘authority’; we have waited for the ‘Sarkar’ or ‘Bhup Singh’ or whoever, to do it. I put it to you, that YOU have to do something about it too. We have everything -- the brains, the bravery, the technology, the skills, the ability -- all we have to do is to get YOU moving and ‘Get our Act together’ and there is no stopping us!

God Speed!

Yours sincerely,

General K Sundarji

General K Sundarji passed away in 1999. Reproduced below is an obituary that appeared in 'India Today', 22 Feb 1999 issue.

Warrior as Scholar

Shortly after Pokhran II, General (retd) Krishnaswami Sundarji had a visitor, a senior member of the team that carried out the Shakti tests. By this time the general was seriously ill, struck by a disease that deprived him of movement and speech. "He knew of the news, of course," says the official, "but when I recounted it, he gripped my hand strongly and then gave me a vigorous thumbs up." Behind the special gesture and the elation lay more than two decades of history in which Sundarji single-mindedly got the tradition-bound Indian Army to think about the consequences of nuclear weapons. His Combat Papers I and II, published when he was commandant of the college of Combat in Mhow in 1980-81, are considered a classic exposition of the army's thinking on the subject which he was to revisit in his novel Blind Men of Hindoostan -- a suggestively fictional account of his experiences -- in 1993 and in his columns in newspapers and magazines, including India Today.

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K Sundarji

This would have been achievement enough for a man, but not for Sundarji, the gregarious, fun-loving Tamil Brahmin -- or Tamil-Punjabi, as a friend described him. He packed so much into his life that it becomes difficult to decide where precisely his legacy to the armed forces lies. Chief of Army Staff Ved Prakash Malik puts it simply. "He introduced professionalism into the army," he says. "We're today no longer a ceremonial force, but an army ready for modern war, led by a thinking leadership."

Sundarji shot into prominence as the commander of the force responsible for Operation Bluestar in June 1984, an episode that both he and the country lived to regret. Less than two years later, he was appointed the chief of army staff and in his tenure, he led the army in a series of actions about which history's verdict has been varying -- Exercise Brasstacks, Operation Falcon in Sumdorong Chu, Arunachal Pradesh, and Operation Pawan -- the commitment of Indian Peace-keeping Forces in Sri Lanka.

Sundarji's place in history will probably rest on the lesser-known Operation Falcon. Spooked by the Chinese occupation of Sumdorong Chu in 1986, Sundarji used the air force's new air-lift capability to land a brigade in Zimithang, north of Tawang. Indian forces took up positions on the Hathung La ridge, across the Namka Chu river, the site of India's humiliating 1962 defeat and manned defences across the McMahon Line. Taken aback, the Chinese responded with a counter-build-up and in early 1987 Beijing's tone became ominously similar to that of 1962. Western diplomats predicted war and prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's advisers charged that Sundarji's recklessness was responsible for this. But the general stood firm, at one point telling a senior Rajiv aide, "Please make alternate arrangements if you think you are not getting adequate professional advice." The civilians backed off, so did the Chinese.

By then the baleful star of the Bofors scandal had arisen and taken its toll on Sundarji's strongest supporter in the government, minister of state for defence Arun Singh. For two years a cloud of suspicion hung over Sundarji as well. After all, he was the man who had revised the army's priority list and plumped for the Bofors gun. But the cloud dissipated when Sundarji revealed (India Today, September 15, 1989) that he had recommended that the deal be scrapped, if that was the only way to get Bofors to reveal the names of recipients of kickbacks. A man on the take would hardly have recommended that course.

Sundarji has been known as the "thinking general", a somewhat trite description of the man whose main contribution, according to vice-chief of army staff Lt-General (retd) K.K. Hazari, was to change the "traditional infantry-oriented mindset of the army." The comment underscores the sum of Sundarji's professional life.

Commissioned into an orthodox infantry regiment, Sundarji's innovative approach became a byword in the army. He became computer-savvy early in the silicon era. As a result, in the late '70s, General (retd) K.V. Krishna Rao, then deputy chief of the army staff, picked him to be part of a small team to study the reorganisation and modernisation of the army. This led to the creation of "machine-rich" divisions that became the mainstay of the army. Sundarji took this forward in the '80s to shape the army's perspective, the Army Plan 2000, which outlined a new mobile strategy based on tanks, firepower and enhanced communications. In the light of Pokhran and the dawn of the information-technology age, the army is now revising this plan.

Sundarji has passed away, but everyone in the army knows that his spirit resides in the living, working and thinking army that he has left behind.

--Manoj Joshi