30 - 11 - 2020

Embracing death in line of duty-- Colonel Sharma displayed the highest tradition of leadership in the Indian Army

The morning of May 3 started with the terrible news of the martyrdom of Col Ashutosh Sharma, Commanding Officer (CO) of 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR), Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh Kumar, Lance Naik Dinesh Singh, and Sub-Inspector Sageer Ahmad. These bravehearts lost their lives in an encounter with terrorists in the Handwara sector of Kashmir.

 

21 RR is deployed in a sensitive area of Kashmir that is a favoured route taken by terrorists after they infiltrate across the LoC. The unit has an excellent reputation and has conducted hugely successful operations in the past. Colonel Sharma was an experienced officer, twice decorated for gallantry. A month earlier, five soldiers of a Special Forces (SF) unit laid down their lives in a hand-to-hand fight with terrorists. The five soldiers were from the same SF unit that had carried out the ‘surgical strikes’ in 2016. That was a dangerous and challenging operation and had been successfully carried out in enemy territory without a single casualty.

While we mourn the loss of our brave soldiers, both instances show the fickle nature of combat. In battle, each situation is unique, decisions have to be taken instantly, and there is a foe who is fighting with his back to the wall. Sometimes things do not go as planned, but good units rebound from setbacks.

Some questions are being raised on social media, whether the CO of 21 RR needed to get personally involved in the firefight, and why the Army is suffering too many casualties. Bringing up these issues shows a lack of understanding about how the Army operates and its fundamental ethos.

Command of a unit is the most intimate interaction between an officer and his soldiers. A thousand men stand ready to do the CO’s bidding, including the laying down of their lives, but this relationship stands on an edifice of mutual trust and confidence. This trust is built up if the CO faces the same danger as his men and leads from the front.

In any operation, the CO is typically in a location where he can eyeball the emerging situation on the ground. Life-and-death decisions cannot be taken while sitting in the office with a telephone pressed to your ear. Colonel Sharma was exactly where he needed to be.

He is not the first CO to be martyred in the line of duty. In January 2015, Col MN Rai, decorated for bravery just 24 hours earlier, fell to terrorist bullets in South Kashmir. Later that year, Col Santosh Mahadik, CO, 41 RR, sacrificed his life while fighting terrorists in North Kashmir.

His wife, Swati Mahadik, decided to follow in her husband’s footsteps and joined the Army. All these COs displayed the highest traditions of leadership that are the hallmark of the Indian Army.

The death of every soldier is a body blow to the organisation. The Army is a very close-knit force and feels the pain not only of losing a comrade but also that of families who are an integral part of military life. Minimising casualties is, therefore, both a professional and moral compulsion for military leaders at all levels.

However, it is also a reality that sacrifice and death are an integral element of the military ethic. While General Patton famously said, ‘No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country’, it is equally true that no war can be won if soldiers are unwilling to die. The military is a noble profession not because it is a killing machine but because its members are willing to sacrifice their life.

William Pfaff, in his article, The Honorable Absurdity of a Soldier’s Role, writes: ‘The professional soldier’s role, one of the most ancient in human society, is like no other because it is inherently and voluntarily a tragic role, an undertaking to offer one’s life, and to assume the right to take the lives of others…The intelligent soldier recognizes that the two undertakings are connected. His warrant to kill is integrally related to his willingness to die.’

Sir John Hackett, in his classic work, The Profession of Arms, describes this component of the military ethic as ‘unlimited liability’. There are no limits to the extent to which a soldier will go in the performance of his duty. This sets soldiering apart from any other profession in the world.

The chapel of the French officer-cadet school at St Cyr, destroyed in World War II, housed memorial tablets of names of officers who had died in various wars. There was one tablet in the chapel that read ‘The Class of 1914’. Every officer commissioned in 1914 fell in World War I.

It is often believed that soldiers put themselves in harm’s way only because they are ordered to do so. This is a grave misunderstanding. The warrior ethos is fostered in the military until it becomes the only honourable thing to do. When facing grave danger, it is military values that drive a soldier, not merely orders. Major Sood summed this up in his social media post, ‘When you’re older, you will realise the only thing that matters, the only thing, is that you had courage and honour.’

Let us also take this moment of sacrifice by our soldiers to remember that the relationship between the soldier and the State is a two-way street. The State owes it to its soldiers to treat them with honour and dignity, instead of merely mouthing platitudes. If we can guarantee that soldiers get what they deserve, and ensure that our military professionalism is not diluted for extraneous considerations, it is the best tribute that we can pay to the martyrdom of Colonel Sharma and his team.

Lt Gen DS Hooda (retd)

Former Northern Army Commander