By Chiran Jung Thapa, Kathmandu
19 December 2016
Almost a month after Pakistan appointed General Qamar Javed Bajwa to succeed General Raheel Sharif as its new Army Chief, India too has selected its own. Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat will be succeeding General Dalbir Singh Suhag on 1 January 2017 as the 26th Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) of the Indian Army.
Similar to Pakistan, the Indian government has also opted out from making the top hat appointment based on seniority. Lt. General Rawat is third in seniority after Lt. General Praveen Bakshi and Lt. General P M Hariz. Lt. General Rawat’s appointment is a marked departure from the traditional appointments in the Indian Army because (aside from one exception) the appointment of the COAS has always been based on seniority. This appointment is also unique because after General Gopal Gurunath Bewar succeeded General Sam Manekshaw in 1975 as COAS, there have been no two consecutive chiefs from the Gorkha regiment.
Several factors seem to have contributed to the selection of General Rawat over the other two senior Generals. The predominant variable appears to stem from the operational imperatives vis-à-vis Pakistan. Currently, tensions along the Indo-Pak border have escalated to a new high and the prospect of a full blown confrontation between these arch-rivals has increased significantly. In such circumstances, General Rawat’s appointment can be equated as India flexing its military-muscle against Pakistan. The Gorkha regiment in the Indian Army that mainly comprises of soldiers of Nepali origin is undoubtedly its most feared and decorated fighting force and is deployed heavily along the Indo-Pak border. The legend of the Gorkha regiment’s martial prowess is such that it is often said that the Pakistani military only frets having Gorkha soldiers as their adversary. The Pakistani outlook on Gorkha soldiers is epitomised by a Pakistani General’s saying – “if I had the Gorkhas on my side, I would be eating dinner in Delhi.” Thus, General Rawat’s appointment also has a subtle psychological dimension of warfare infused in it.
General Rawat’s appointment also indicates Indian government’s resolve in combating various insurgencies that have continued to plague India. It currently faces a raging Naxalite insurgency in several states. The Naxalite threat was actually pronounced as India’s gravest national security threat by the previous government. The insurgencies in the North-eastern states continue unabated. Recently, the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir has become more intense. The repeated assaults by militant groups on Indian Army’s military installations in Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota have not only humiliated the Indian Army but it has critically warranted a rethink on its perimeter security and its overall strategy against the militants. Recognizing the grave threats posed by insurgencies, the Indian government appears ready to tackle these insurgencies through multiple means. The recent ban on 500 and 1000 rupee notes in India has been widely reported as a momentous maneuver to cash-strap insurgent groups operating across India. These groups are reported to have stashed a huge cache of cash in big denominations. By banning the large denominations, the government apparently aims to dry out the coffers of these insurgent groups. And to lead its counter-insurgency operations, it selected General Rawat because he is known to have an extensive experience in combating counter-insurgencies in various theaters across India.
General Rawat’s selection is also being attributed to his deep knowledge of and experience in UN peacekeeping missions. General Rawat, as a Brigadier, is known to have displayed outstanding skills during his peacekeeping stint in Congo. While the Indian Army strives to become the world’s preeminent peacekeeping force, the establishment seeks to employ the Indian Army’s participation and performance in peacekeeping missions as a leverage to augment its chances for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
Another contributing variable could be his linkage with the United States. General Rawat is a graduate of the U.S Army’s prestigious Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) in Leavenworth, Kansas. From a military perspective, India needs good ties with the United States for strategic reasons. First, India is the world’s largest arms importer and given that United States is the world’s largest arms exporter, it is a supply and demand equation that warrants better ties. Second, India needs enhanced cooperation with the United States to counter the perennial threats posed by Pakistan and China separately and jointly. India in the past has fought wars with both the countries and recently has been exchanging gunfire with Pakistan. Thus, India seeks to employ General Rawat’s ties with the US to its strategic advantage to balance China in the region and counter Pakistan.
Another consideration that must have weighed in his favour has to do with his predecessor’s towering role in easing tensions with its closest neighbor – Nepal. General Dalbhir Singh Suhag, the current Chief of Army Staff who also hails from the Gorkha regiment is widely known to have played a pivotal role in persuading the civilian authorities in the Indian government to lift a crippling blockade it had imposed on Nepal. After Nepal promulgated its constitution against India’s desires, India halted all supplies (which included food, fuel and even life saving medicines) transiting through its territory. After all diplomatic efforts failed and the blockade had been imposed for five months, the Chief of Army Staff of Nepal – General Rajendra Chhettri and General Singh jointly made efforts to lift the blockade. The military diplomacy that prevailed in lifting the blockade is particularly attributed to the Gorkha regiment officers which included General Rawat.
The Indian establishment is also acutely aware that China has made a great headway in Nepal at India’s expense. Following the blockade, anti-India sentiments have peaked in Nepal and India direly needs to regain the lost ground because it can ill afford to lose its influence in Nepal to any other country. It has sought to regain the lost ground through its military diplomacy which was discernible even during General Singh’s time. The Indian Army and the Nepalese Army share an intimate bond. Both have a history of conferring honorary Generals to each other’s Army Chiefs. Both Armies jointly hold a battalion level military exercise every year. Additionally, since the Nepalese Army is emerging as the most powerful and influential entity in Nepal, India is greatly hoping to capitalise on its edge by selecting an officer from the Gorkha regiment who understands the Nepali attributes, speaks the language fluently and can better influence Nepali counterparts.
Further, the selection of COAS from the Gorkha regiment could also have something to do with uplifting the spirits of a large number of Nepali nationals in the regiment. There are above fifty thousand Nepali men serving in the Gorkha regiment of the Indian Army. Indian Army is the only Army in the world that recruits men from its neighboring country in such large numbers. The previous COAS Dalbir Singh was very concerned during the blockade India imposed on Nepal. He was aware that blockade was critically eroding at the morale of the Nepali men from his own unit, mainly because their families in hills of Nepal were suffering from the acute shortages of food and fuel. He knew the Indian Army could ill-afford to have disgruntled warriors fending off hostile forces along their frontiers. Had the blockade been prolonged, the regiment knew very well that it risked insubordination and even mutiny. General Singh also deeply understood another vulnerability the blockade had added on his units. In response to the blockade, the Nepali government could have erratically countered by making a clarion call for the return of all Nepalese nationals serving in the Indian Army. Had there been such a recall, it would have left a gaping hole in its defenses and also dealt a severe blow to the overall morale of the entire armed services. Nepali government could have also imposed a ban on the recruitment of Nepali nationals into the Indian Army. That would have deprived the regiment from recruiting the finest soldiers in the world. Therefore, selection of a Gorkha regiment officer is sure to boost the morale of those Nepali soldiers in the Gorkha regiment who were earlier disheartened by the Indian blockade.
The selection of the commanding General of the third largest Army in the world always holds great significance. Therefore, varying interpretations over General Rawat’s appointment are pouring in. While men of Gorkha Regiment and infantry units rejoice over General Rawat’s appointment, members of armored corps appear a bit apprehensive over continued domination of the Infantry officers in top posts. General Rawat’s appointment has also drawn the ire of the Indian opposition parties who allege that the government has meddled in the Army’s hierarchy and is thereby attempting to politicize the Armed services. By not selecting the senior-most General in command, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has conveyed a blaring message to internal as well as external constituencies. This appointment clearly signals that the civilian side reigns supreme in its civil-military affairs. It has also sought to demonstrate the appointment was an optimal choice intended to tackle several pressing security challenges simultaneously. At the same time, what can also be deciphered is that The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government is consolidating its grip across the country through surprise moves and such unconventional appointments.
Chiran Jung Thapa, a Kathmandu-based Security and Defense analyst, is an editorial associate of southasia.com.au.