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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Long live the poor, bloody infantry

On the golden jubilee of our independence, it is heartening to notice the awakening in the national press about the special importance of t...

Written by Ashok K Mehta |
August 14, 1997

On the golden jubilee of our independence, it is heartening to notice the awakening in the national press about the special importance of the infantry arm of the army in the context of the prevailing security environment. Recent writings have stressed the pivotal role of infantry skills in combating insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East.

The Indian armed forces haven’t fought a war since 1971. But the army, especially the infantry, has not rested a day in fact, since independence. Seventy-two days after the Indian tricolour was unfurled for the first time from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the first planeload of foot soldiers landed in Srinagar.

The infantry’s long march continued. After saving J and K, between 1947 and 1961, it moved to incorporate the princely states of Junagadh and Hyderabad and the Portuguese colony of Goa. It bore the brunt of the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971. Of the nearly 60,000 battle casualties since independence, the infantry’s share is 90 per cent.

In addition, the infantry led aid to civil operations. During 1951 to 70 it was requisitioned approximately 476 times, 64 times during the 18-month period ending December 1980. Now that figure has multiplied several fold.

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In 1975, it was the infantry again which carried out a brief operation to integrate Sikkim into the Indian Union. And it was the `poor bloody infantry’ in 1984 which was saddled with the refusable task of clearing the Golden Temple. In the same year, the first infantryman set foot on Siachen.

It is therefore an insult that the Fifth Pay Commission should consider this soldier for all seasons “unskilled”.

One must commend journalists for linking the elevation of vice chief of army staff, Lt Gen V. P. Malik, the chief designate, with his infantry origins and rich experience in counterinsurgency. Newspapers have commented that the army has returned an infantry chief after ten years since Sundarji retired in 1988. However, this is only partly true. Sundarji’s heart belonged to the Armoured Corps.

In the present and foreseeable internal security scenario, it is vital for senior officers to have led a patrol in the jungles of the North East, lived on pickets in J and K, served in Nathu La, Chushul and Siachen, travelled in a three-tonne truck and transitted through camps in fact, lived a soldier’s life. One way to ensure this is to get every non-infantry officer to do at least six months’ service with a battalion and senior commanders returned to fighting units for a refresher course.

The sidelining of the infantry was no accident. It was a deliberate and graduated exercise, started in the mid-eighties by the generals who favoured rapid mechanised thrusts which were achieved more easily on map boards than in actual combat.

It is not generals alone who miss the point about infantry and its role in internal security. Defence analyst Brahma Chellaney’s suggestion to halt the large-scale use of infantry-dominated army for internal security and meet the demands of core deterrence — whatever this implies — in order to cut troop strengths, ignores basics. Which is: infantry and infantry alone can meet the growing threats to internal stability.

By April 1993, the higher command line-up was alarming and unprecedented. Out of the eight top slots in the army six army commanders, VCOAS and COAS none belonged to the infantry. The disequilibrium has been corrected and the higher command spread gives due weightage to the infantry.

Officers are hopeful that Malik will restore the dignity of the infantry. For starters, ensure that if they cannot be given a modern rifle, at least they’re provided charpoys to sleep on.

The present chief, who is a tank man, has acknowledged that “army is infantry”. When it was pointed out that the reverse was more appropriate, he said, “I accept that too”.

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