Naravane Memoirs Fizzle: Loss to Ring Side View on Indian Strategic Decision Making

After the Chinese build-up report, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, in a pivotal moment on August 31, told Army Chief General Naravane, "Do whatever you deem appropriate," avoiding a major clash as Naravane succinctly outlines the decision-making process.

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India's former Army Chief General M M Naravane

Release of excerpts from the Memoirs,‘Four Stars of Destiny,’ by former Army Chief General M M Naravane in December last year had whetted the appetite of military analysts as these provided a ring side view of the critical decisions taken by the Indian strategic leadership during the period of his tenure which included Chinese intrusions on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh in April May 2020, the Galwan incident, the Kailash Range incident and the Agni path Scheme amongst others.

Never in the history of the Indian Armed Forces had a service chief published his memoirs so soon after retirement.  Thus, the issues contained were of contemporary interest and some which are being tackled by the Indian military even currently.

In just under 20 months General Naravane has managed to pen down events during his tenure as the Chief of the Army Staff amongst other notable incidents from his career which may be fresh in the memory of many.

The excerpts surprised many as these underlined some of the decisions taken by the Government contrary to the advise of the military commanders.

There were sceptics who had raised the possibility of the book been banned while sources seemed to indicate that the book will be reviewed by the Ministry of Defence.

That the book was published without such a review was in the first place quite surprising. For even though there are no specific rules on publication by retired officers, prudence demanded that these be cleared by the relevant authorities.

More over recently the Central Civil Services (Pension) Rules, 1972, were amended in June 2021 by the Department of Personnel and Training which has barred retired government servants, who have served in intelligence or security-related organisations, from publishing any information related to the organisation after retirement without prior permission.

Now it is believed that the Army has begun a review of the book which may finally be cleared by the Ministry of Defence.

In this process much of the content which can provide deeper insights into decision making at the highest strategic level may be subject to excision with ‘bureaucratic eye for detail.’ This would be a loss to the analytical community.

And the Memoirs may turn out to be a fizzle.

Based on the excerpts released three issues have generated interest.

First is the response of the Indian Higher Command political and military to developments on the Line of Actual Control [LAC] in Eastern Ladakh in the months from May to August 2020 and secondly the Agnipath Scheme reviewing the pattern of induction and service conditions of soldiers in the Indian Armed Forces.

LAC Developments 2020

General Naravane outlines two key developments on the LAC providing a bird’s eye view of consultations at the national command level during the standoff with China in eastern Ladakh in mid-2020 and provides an insight into the way India’s leadership continues given the lead in operational decisions to the Armed Forces brass.

Whether this is to fix military accountability or simply as a matter of principle remains unclear.

Two LAC decisions have been outlined in the excerpts.

Galwan Incident

On the Galwan incident on the night of June 15/16, Gen Naravane writes that Chinese President Xi Jinping will not forget June 16 any time soon as China’s People’s Liberation Army suffered “fatal casualties” for the first time in over two decades in the fighting.

“June 16 is (Chinese President) Xi Jinping’s birthday. This is not a day he will forget any time soon. For the first time in over two decades, the Chinese and the PLA had suffered fatal casualties,” Naravane writes.

He adds that the Galwan clash was “one of the saddest days” of his entire career.

Naravane says that despite China’s admission that only five of its soldiers were killed in the clash, it was evident that they “too suffered substantially”.

“Our men who were in Chinese hands had been kept out in the open and they had seen several bodies being fished out of the river. Whenever that happened, they were subjected to a fresh round of beatings,” Naravane writes.

“The sheer savagery of their response was in itself indicative of the losses they had suffered. Initially, they did not admit to any casualties at all; then many months later, admitted to four or five killed, including the CO on their side,” he says.

The clash appears to have occurred as both sides differed on pullback from PP 14 in the area with tents being pitch to assert the claims.

Occupation of the Kailash Range

On the night of August 30/31, the Indian Army occupied the Kailash Range a dominating mountain range in Eastern Ladakh, South of the Pangong Tso lake.

A Ministry of Defence Press release on August 31 cryptically outlined the occupation of the Range thus, “On the Night of 29/30 August 2020, PLA troops violated the previous consensus arrived at during military and diplomatic engagements during the ongoing standoff in Eastern Ladakh and carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo. Indian troops pre-empted this PLA activity on the Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake, undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions  to unilaterally change facts on ground”.

“The Indian Army is committed to maintaining peace and tranquility through dialogue, but is also equally determined to protect its territorial integrity,” ended the release.

General Naravane outlines the inner workings at the highest level which led to the occupation of the Kailash Range which could have been a flash point if not properly handled.

As per General Naravane’s version, as the Chinese build up was reported to the defence minister Mr Rajnath Singh.

After a series of up and down conversations he was told by the Defence Minister, , ‘Jo ucchit samjho woh karo’ (do whatever you deem appropriate) on the night of August 31, terming the situation as “nearing breaking point”.

With the Army Chief left to take the decision, Naravane has succinctly outlined what went into it and how he avoided a major clash of troops.

“I was in my den at Army House, with the map of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh on one wall, Eastern Command on another. They were unmarked maps, but as I looked at them, I could visualise the location of each and every unit and formation. We were ready in all respects, but did I really want to start a war?” he writes.

“The country was in bad shape, reeling under the Covid pandemic. The economy was faltering, global supply chains had broken down. Would we be able to ensure a steady supply of spares, etc., under these conditions, in case of a long-drawn-out action? … Who were our supporters in the global arena, and what about the collusive threat from China and Pakistan? A hundred different thoughts flashed through my mind,” the excerpts note.

The basic deduction of the Chief then was not to be the first to open fire because “it would provide the Chinese with an excuse, a casus belli, to escalate and paint us as the aggressors”.

“Instead, I told him to move a troop of our tanks right to the forward slopes of the Pass and depress their guns so that the PLA would be staring down the barrels of our guns,” he writes. “This was done forthwith and the PLA tanks, which had by then reached within a few hundred metres of the top, stopped in their tracks.”

“The PLA reaction was not long in coming. On the 30th evening itself, they moved forward some troops in the area of the Kailash Range, stopping about 500 metres short of our locations and started digging in.”

Agnipath Scheme

General M.M. Naravane indicates that the Agnipath scheme  surprised the Army while the Navy and the Air Force had been completely in the dark.

The ‘Tour of Duty’ scheme is reported to have been discussed in early 2020 to induct soldiers for short-term tenure.

As per media reports on the excerpts, Naravane writes in the book, “When I had first sounded out the PM about the Tour of Duty scheme, it was more on the lines of a short-service option at the soldier level, similar to the Short Service Commission scheme for officers that was already in vogue…. Just as a limited number of SSC officers are taken each year, likewise a limited number of jawans would be similarly enrolled and released after the completion of their ‘tour’ with the option of re-enlisting for another tour, if found to be fit.”

“We in the army were taken by surprise by this turn of events, but for the navy and air force, it came like a bolt from the blue,” General Naravane wrote. 

As per the former Army Chief, he explained to his Naval and Air Force counter parts that the proposal was only restricted to the Army and involved retention  of 75% of the personnel recruited as opposed to the proposal implemented where only 25%  are being retained.

The Agnipath Scheme has been now implemented in the three services despite heavy skepticism in the military and the veteran community and the outcome remains suspect.

There has been no explanation for the choices made by the government which as per Naravane’s book were against the recommendations of the Army Chief.

What Was Missed in Excerpts

Having whetted the appetite of the readers for more from the principal actor during this period – the Army Chief, there would be much interest in some of the critical decisions from response to Chinese PLA advances on the LAC in April May 2020  to pull back from the Kailash Range losing on a dominating height in the critical ranges.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia Security-Risks.com, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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