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.
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.
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