Around eight years ago, when he was Brigadier, Manoj Pande was posted in the headquarters of the Eastern Command as the Brigadier General Staff (Operations), one of the most important positions there. His immediate boss was the late General Bipin Rawat, who was the Major General General Staff. Rawat’s boss at that time was General Dalbir Suhag, as the Eastern Army Commander.
All three would go on to become Army Chief. While Suhag took over as the 26th Army Chief in July 2014, Rawat became the 27th Army Chief in December 2016 and the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff in January 2020, while General Pande took over this month as the 29th Army Chief.
The 28th Chief of the Army, General M M Naravane, was also posted in the Eastern Command in Assam Rifles at that time.
There was one thing though that put General Pande, 60, apart from the rest. He is the country’s first Army Chief to have risen to the top from the Corps of Engineers.
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Those aware of their military history tell you how the legendary US Army Chief of the early 1930s and Second World War, Douglas McArthur, once finished top of his class at Corps of Engineers. General Pande similarly stood first in the Young Officers’ Course of the Corps of Engineers, and has now broken a glass ceiling in the Indian Army to rise to the top. The Army so far has had Chiefs only from the Infantry, Armoured Corps or the Artillery.
Lt Gen (retd) Sanjay Kulkarni, who served as boss to both Generals Rawat and Pande as Chief of Staff of Eastern Army Command, says he saw Pande “at close quarters” as a Brigadier, and remembers him as one of the brightest officers at the command.
As the Brigadier General Staff, one of Pande’s most important tasks was to brief the command’s leadership about all operational aspects every morning. Kulkarni recalls: “His retentive memory was good. He wouldn’t just point a finger on the map without knowing where it was… Most us would be groping… He is extremely conscientious, very hard working, and puts things across in a very rational way. No emotional outbursts. Takes it very easy, and comes to a very logical conclusion.”
There was another thing about General Pande that struck Kulkarni. “He wasn’t a chap who would lie to cover up an incident. He would be honest that this is what has happened, this is where we are, and that is how it is. It was up to us seniors to go about it.”
From seniors to juniors to batchmates, others too vouch for Pande’s attention to detail and his keenness to know things, while also talking about his sincerity, humility, and soft-spoken, mild nature. In that, many say, he is closer to his immediate predecessor Naravane, than say the late Rawat, who was flamboyant and often found himself in a rough patch over his remarks.
General Pande’s batchmate from the National Defence Academy (NDA), Major Gen (retd) Ajay Seth says: “He is a quiet person, doesn’t talk much. But he talks sense when he speaks. He is not a showman.”
Seth says they really got to know each other well a few years after the NDA, and recalls the time the two of them prepared for their first promotion exam in the late 1980s. “Our centre was Yol in Himachal Pradesh… My Commanding Officer had not granted me leave, but I had managed some time and made notes. I asked him about his preparations. He said, ‘I have not prepared at all, Ajay. You have to help me’.”
Eventually they worked out a system where Seth would share his notes with Pande in the night, and Pande would return them for the latter to prepare early morning. “Both of us cleared all the papers in the first attempt,” Seth says, adding that the friendship endured. “I always tell him that you cleared that exam because of my notes. But with just that amount of study, he cleared it in one attempt!”
Colleagues profess equal “awe” over General Pande’s stint at Staff College, Camberley, England. Officers with at least nine years of service can sit for the entrance exam of the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, with those among the top getting the option to study abroad. That was how Pande got to Camberley, one of the most prestigious institutes for military studies in the world.
Lt Gen Raj Shukla, Pande’s batchmate who recently retired as the head of Army Training Command, says going to Camberley is a “unique benchmark in any soldier’s life”. Pandey is that rare officer, he says, “underpromises but overdelivers”.
Another NDA batchmate of General Pande, from the infantry, says the Camberley admission showed that “bhai, bande mein dumm hai (the man is solid)”. In their batch, about 20 cadets joined the Corps of Engineers. Pande was allotted the Bombay Engineer Group better known as Bombay Sappers. “The environment has changed… Now, more and more people are (joining). People have realised that if you are good, then which regiment you have gone to or which arm you belong to, does not stop… Pandey has been through the rut. He has commanded an infantry brigade, a corps on the Chinese border… If you are good, you are good,” says the NDA batchmate.
Born in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Pande did his schooling from the city. His father was an academic, while his mother worked in the All India Radio. Of his two younger brothers, one retired as Colonel from the Army while the other is settled abroad. His only son is in the Indian Air Force.
Upon completion of his Corps of Engineers course, he was allotted 110 Engineer Regiment, which was to come to Pune for the next two to three years. Many officers would have been thrilled at getting to stay at a pleasant military station. However, a young Manoj Pande was not happy and requested his seniors for posting in a regiment which was deployed in the field, where he could hone his skills as a soldier and officer. He hence got posted to 267 Engineer Regiment.
Similarly, Seth points out, after becoming a Brigadier, Pande had the choice to opt for the general cadre or remain in his corps. Pande opted for the general cadre, putting him in the run with other officers. “His capability, his qualities, everything stood out and got him to this rank and appointment.”
Officers expect his technical expertise to be good for the Army as it tries to modernise, especially amidst tensions with China. Pande has had important stints in the Southern Command, as the Chief of Staff and as Chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Tri-services Command, as well as spent years as a senior military officer along the northern borders with China, including heading 4 Corps and the Eastern Command.
He also commanded a regiment in Pallanwala, which falls under the volatile Akhnoor Sector in Jammu, along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, during Operation Parakram in the early 2000s. He was Colonel Q of a Mountain Division deployed in Kargil, where his General Officer Commanding was another future Army Chief, General Dalbir Singh. He has also commanded an Infantry Brigade deployed on the LoC, and as Major General, commanded the same Mountain Division in Kargil where he had served under General Dalbir Singh.
Kulkarni says that in the Eastern Command, he was part of almost all hosting parties for visiting Chinese delegations. “He knows exactly what the Chinese are looking at, how they communicate, and how we need to communicate with them.”
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Kulkarni says General Pande’s knowledge in infrastructure building as well as technology at a time when cyber warfare, artificial intelligence etc have become important weapons is good for the Army. “He knows how much time it takes to construct roads and infra in places that are difficult to access… He probably understands the tech part a shade better than what others would,” Kulkarni says.
The Lt General also points out that with General Pande, the Army would have continuity in the way of thinking at the top. Having come from the same command, the recent Army Chiefs have been familiar with each other’s working styles. “It was a team that gelled well, understood each other well.”
As the new Army Chief, he adds, Pande “is the right man at the right place, and placed very well”.
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