Braveheart : FAQR-E-FAUJ
A good leader is someone whom soldiers will follow through thick and thin because they have confidence in him as a person, in his ability and his knowledge of his job, perhaps because he looks the part, and also because his men know that they matter to him. `Brig Sir John Smyth, 15TH Ludhiana Sikhs (2 SIKH), VC, MC.
The real secret of leadership (aided by the magic of personal example) is the domination of the mass by a single personality. - Major General Baron Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven in “The Power of Personality in War”, 1911.
History records few instances of leaders who have successfully combined ace professionalism with soldierly compassion or Mai-Baap (Mother-Father) traits. This seemingly contradictory trait was present in the world’s greatest warrior; Alexander the Great. Returning from India in 325 BC, and famished for water in the murderous Gwadar desert heat, his devoted soldiers somehow managed a helmet full for him, but, realising that they were famished too, Alexander overturned the water on the scalding sands.
India has a civilizational edge here. Archetypal warrior Arjun was educated through astute battlefield mentoring to transpose deathless heroism over familial compassion; Emperor Ashoka learnt compassion post the killing fields of Kalinga; Akbar synergised empire-building with winning hearts as did Kashmiri Sultan Zain-Ul-Abidin before him. Shivaji and Maharaja Ranjit Singh were also co-practitioners. In modern times, the Indian Army has just bid adieu to Lt Gen Hanut Singh Rathore, PVSM, MVC; a remarkable soldier-General who preached and practiced Mai-Baap soldiering: This article offers vignettes of the Generals career to illustrate why he was our Faqr-e-Fauj.
Beginning from the End
Writers are tempted to start their articles chronologically so that nothing gets left out. But what if the person you write about can’t be slotted into a standard groove? Hanut was a non-standard-pattern soldier so let me begin his tale nearer his swan song than emphasise his remarkable but well known leadership of The Poona Horse in battle or his earlier years. The ‘swan song’ idiom here is indicative not just of his finest hour as a soldier-General as also his inexplicable nadir.
It was April 1986 in specific, when Hanut was appointed as GOC 2 (Strike) Corps by Gen K Sundarji after he took over as Army Chief in February 1986. No one has captured the exhilaration and despair of a specific period of time better than Charles Dickens in the opening (edited) lines of his classic: A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
While trauma and tragedy had intruded in the Indian political space, there was, nevertheless, magic and optimism in the military air during that heady period that reminded some of ‘Camelot’ as related to the Kennedy years. Headlined by the opinion–forming TIME and NEWSWEEK magazines, the world started discovering that India mattered. Its military certainly did. Flamboyant, articulate; personable; a credible ‘thinking General’; impatient; an ‘ideation’ man, Sundarji knew a thing or two about personality and power projection; about mechanized warfare and nuclear warfighting. His 820 day tenure focused on fighting and winning on the mechanized battlefield employing free-wheeling maneuver warfare even as we held our own in all other spheres of warfighting intra, inter-Service and jointly.
High Strategy, Brass Tacks - and Hanut
Importantly, the political authority heard his strategic thought with attention and some understanding. He mattered as did his well-articulated prognosis of high strategy Ends Ways and Means. Government approval of Ex Brass-Tacks - it went through several iterations - gave Sundarji’s out-of-the-box ideas on warfighting a publicly anticipated, perception changing platform for projecting comprehensive national power and capability. Observers wryly noted the dichotomy that while Sundarji was about emerging, all-encompassing strategic concepts; the Brass-Tacks at the critical delivery end was left to the ‘Master’; the iconic Gen Hanut who delivered in a manner that is now the stuff of legend.
A loner who was never alone, Hanut was, by then, a much revered, even feared light-house of soldiering skills for the Mechanized Arm in specific and others in general. His matchless professionalism underscored by clad-in-steel ethical values, personal deportment, feeling for his men and austere lifestyle habits were visible proof of Brand Hanut. His consistent run-ins with authority commencing with his unflattering review of the Shakargarh operations where he led his Regiment to unparalleled success; his confrontation-led command of 14 (Independent) Armoured Brigade, 27 Mountain Division; later 1 Armoured Division; his high-profile staff exposures and run-ins thereto led cynics to believe that he had peaked. It didn’t help matters that he publicly disagreed with his Army Commander refusing to relent even though Sundarji was being touted as the Chief-designate.
Because Sundarji was both fair-minded and prescient, he appreciated Hanut’s resolve and clairvoyant understanding of war and warfighting, inducting him to command his ‘test-bed’ formation for Brass-Tacks; 2 (Strike) Corps. Hanut had the calibre; intellectual grasp, hard-nosed battle experience. He also had the moral courage and conviction to disagree.
Why Brazen Chariots?
The much anticipated witching hour had arrived. Kharga Hall, the austere venue selected for Ex Brazen Chariots, the curiously termed operational discussion to be steered by Hanut was packed to the rafters with 200 odd keen officers from squadron commanders/equivalent to star ranks as also a horde of “observers”. On the distaff side, some officers on senior staff and Commanders/GOC’s making presentations on emerging concepts then trending such as RAPID’s and Air Assault Divisions were visibly tense and apprehensive because the no-nonsense, hands-on, German General Staff oriented soldier-General had to be convinced; an uphill task, they must have thought.
Few were aware as to why Hanut had termed his exercise so curiously. Brazen Chariots was, in reality, an irreverent, breathtaking firsthand 29 day account of cyclic tank-versus-tank encounters at tactical level during Operation Crusader from the perspective of Maj Robert Crisp, DSO, MC, a brave, bold, unorthodox South African officer and wannabe test cricketer who served with the Stuart tank armed 3 Royal Tank Regiment during World War Two. He had six tanks shot under him, was awarded his DSO at Sidi Rezegh, and his MC at Tobruk where he fought for 14 days continuously, sleeping 90 minutes each day. Recommended for a VC, the citation was rejected by martinet Gen Montgomery who approved only a MC because Crisp was anti-authority and ill-disciplined even if he was Mentioned-in-Dispatches four times and wounded thrice.
The book captures the excitement and adrenalin-pumping actions of Crisp as he juxtaposes the reader inside the turret; watching his desert operations unfold against superior German Panzer tanks. You experience the frustrations, taste, smells and fears of tank combat in North Africa as Crisp battles superior German Panzers with his under-armored and out-gunned Stuarts. Crisp also covers the humane, compassionate side of a tankers life and the ethics involved in coping with insecure and unprofessional commanders.
Clearly, Hanut was subtly putting across an operational philosophy he personally subscribed to but left the discovery of its significance to individual exploration rather than being brazen about it. Post Brass-Tacks and its dust and excitement laden ten non-stop days-and-nights of frenzied action, I remember the effort it took me as a sabre squadron commander who had ‘rolled with Huntie’ to proudly walk erect as he did…We all were Robert Crisp’s…
Purists who have read poet-laureate John Milton might crib and complain but Hanut had no doubt – neither did Robert Crisp – that the Brazen Chariots were in effect tanks firing ‘fiery flaming darts with a dismal hiss…’
Arms on armour clashing bray’d
Horrible discord, and the madding wheels
Of brazen chariots rag’d; dire was the noise
Of conflict; overhead the dismal hiss
Of fiery Darts in flaming volies flew.
- John Milton. Paradise Lost VI. 209-212
Uncompromising “Gurudev” Hanut
Tension levels were thus understandably high when Ex Brazen Chariots began. Hanut made it worse, sending a cold shiver down our spines when he started off the program; entering unannounced and spot on time. “Speak freely”, he said in his quiet, unobtrusive yet compelling voice. He wasn’t a great speaker but he was damningly effective, commanding one’s full attention what with his tall, spare, wiry personality and riveting gaze. “Speak to the point. Don’t waffle. Don’t waste your and the audiences time. Be brief. To tell you how serious I am, I must inform you that I have finished”.
He sat down and so did the hearts of some who would follow. His telegraphic, less-than-a-minute of introduction was enough to convert the flaccid, warm breeze from the legacy ceiling fans into an icy cold draft. The first speaker, a General Officer, collapsed at the rostrum ten minutes into his presentation on RAPIDS. Rushed to the MI Room, he was airlifted to Jullunder MH, having suffered a stroke. Hanut was concerned but not perturbed. Post a health-and-status inquiry he quietly asked the Col GS of that Division to complete the presentation, which, to his great credit, the officer admirably did. In the meanwhile, the awe-struck audience had learnt invaluable live lessons. Lessons about how the directive style of command worked; about subordinate empowerment; about the need to think-on-your-feet and remain cool, unflappable. Moltke and his dictum about war and operational decision-making not following a script had yet again been proved right.
A Well-Thought Through Follow up…
The operational discussion atmospherics understandably improved after that climacteric episode. On conclusion, three days later, we were enthused, empowered; raring to learn and unlearn. In reality, most of us weren’t stressed by Hanut. He was stern but surprisingly reasonable and unfailingly courteous. I still remember our shock when we arrived at the Corps Officers Mess for the “break-up” lunch to find Gen Hanut, never ever seen in social gatherings, standing at the entrance to welcome us. That he left minutes later is not material. What mattered to us were his powerful yet compassionate personality and the pedigreed ways in which he projected himself; his unflinching principles and his essential humanity.
He heard you out with respect; reasoned with you like a true Guru with knowledge, calm, firmness and conviction. Mostly serious and unsmiling, he nevertheless seemed kind, rock-solid and always there. The more you saw of him, the more you wanted him. You felt proud that you were being commanded by him and knew that it would be a blessing to go to war under him; fight for his cause which had now become your cause and, if needed, die cheerfully for it.
Pretty obviously Hanut wanted a follow up on ground after he spelt out his operational end state. Here, it would be appropriate to say that Brass-Tacks itself was a brilliantly thought through, carefully calibrated entity in which the Army hierarchy was put through apex level map driven threat assessments, followed by educating senior officers on operational possibilities; deriving lessons learnt and then entering the finale that was Exercise Brass-Tacks 4. Hanut, as had been his custom since his halcyon Unit command days, right through his Brigade and Division commands, gave uninterrupted time to his command to train on his operational specifications. He would then take his caravan, park unobtrusively in the Formation being tested and proceed to test its fitness for war minus fanfare and visibility. Failure, for him, was an incentive to show improvement and, in the months that followed, his Corps began walking tall because they had the time and opportunity to train for war as never before.
Brazen Chariots was like a Malcolm Gladwell Tipping Point after which the Mechanized fraternity rose astonishingly in their own esteem and in ace professionalism… So why was this period both Hanut’s acme and nadir? For the record, the Brass-Tacks debrief inexplicably declared that Hanut’s opponents were the winners; if only just. Why this happened is not germane. What is unforgettable is his grace and equanimity in accepting the sentence. With the establishment no longer rooting for him, he was not selected for command of an Army. Hanut bore this too with yogic detachment, riding into the sunset.
It is relevant to remind readers that Pakistani Brig Rao Abid, 13 Lancers; the Regiment that the Poona Horse mauled in 1971 said recently that “Hanut was exceptional and set a blaze of glory for Poona Horse and the Army.”
Readers will agree that for us he was indeed Faqr-e-Fauj.