General Krishnaswamy Sundarrajan, Indian Army

General Krishnaswamy Sundarrajan


General Krishnaswamy "Sundarji" Sundarrajan was a brilliant, but controversial and flamboyant soldier who steered the Indian army from 1986 to 1988. His was a personality which either compelled admiration or fierce criticism. He will long be remembered for not just commanding Operation Bluestar, but also for introducing the mechanised division under Operation Brasstacks, his facing down the Chinese at Sumdorong Chu, his mistakes in the Indian Peace Keeping Force(IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka, his charges against the political leadership on the Bofors scandal and, above all, for his contributions to Indian nuclear strategic thinking.

Born in 1928 at Chengelput in Tamil Nadu, Sundarji had to drop out of Madras Christian College in 1945 when he was accepted into the Indian Army. Dr A.J. Boyd, who was then the highly distinguished principal of the college, was sorry to see him leave. He was looking forward to Sundarji later becoming a doctor though he reconciled himself to the country gaining a soldier.

In 1946 Sundarji was commissioned into the Mahar infantry regiment. Soon after in 1947-48, he fought against the Pakistani supported 'raiders' in Kargil. In 1963 he served in the UN mission in the Congo, where he was chief of staff of the Katanga command and was mentioned in dispatches for his gallantry. During 1965, as battalion commander in the Kutch, he was praised for his calm during continuous Pakistani shelling of his post. In 1971, he made valuable contributions to the planning and conduct of operations as Brigadier General Staff of corps in the Rangpur sector in Bangladesh.

Sundarji was a graduate of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, the Command and General Staff College, Fort Levenworth in the US and the National Defence College. He also held an MA degree in international studies from Allahabad university and an MSc degree in defence studies from Madras university.

General Sundarji showed a keen interest in the technical aspects of weaponry for his soldiers. His innovative approach became a by-word in the Indian Army. He became computer-savvy early in the silicon era. As a result, in the late '70s, General(retd) K.V. Krishna Rao, then deputy chief of the army staff, picked him to be part of a small team to study the reorganisation and modernisation of the army. This led to the creation of "machine-rich" divisions that became the mainstay of the Indian army. Sundarji shaped the Mechanised Infantry Regiment, an army division that he commanded as its first colonel after its formation in 1979.

Sundarji took this forward in the '80s to shape the army's perspective. As deputy chief of army staff, he was involved closely in the army's modernisation plan in 1982. The Army Plan 2000, outlined a new mobile strategy based on tanks, firepower and enhanced communications.

Sundarji shot into prominence as the commander of the force responsible for "Operation Bluestar" in June 1984. Operation Bluestar, launched to flush out Pakistan sponsored Sikh militants from the historic Golden Temple, had left Sundarji, who led it, a "changed" man, according to his wife Vani in his recently released book. (Operation Bluestar@Bharat-Rakshak)

Less than two years later, in 1986, he was appointed the chief of army staff and in his tenure, he led the army in a series of actions about which history's verdict has been varying -- Exercise Brasstacks, Operation Falcon in Sumdorong Chu, Arunachal Pradesh, and Operation Pawan -- the commitment of IPKF in Sri Lanka.

"Exercise Brasstacks", Asia's biggest ever combined armour, mechanised, artillery and air power war-game was undertaken in July 1986. It reached its crisis stage in December, when India had a total of nine divisions deployed in the Rajasthan adjacent to the Pakistani province of Sindh. Pakistan accordingly mobilized its own forces - sending Army Reserve North and Army Reserve South to locations close to India's border where they could strike at Punjab or Kashmir. The crises was eventually defused in February 1987 by a series of diplomatic manoeuvres.

Sundarji did sometimes admit he had over-reached himself with Brasstacks. But, he argued, that was the only way he could get his field commanders to think big. Most of them had no experience of seeing a formation larger than a division move. Brasstacks had the entire field in manoeuvre--with live ammunition to boot, and so what if it brought India to the brink of an unwanted, unplanned war with Pakistan? "You have this typical @*X@* cowardly Indian thinking,'' he would say.

Sundarji's place in history will probably rest on the lesser-known "Operation Falcon". Spooked by the Chinese occupation of Sumdorong Chu in 1986, Sundarji used the air force's new air-lift capability to land a brigade in Zimithang, north of Tawang. Indian forces took up positions on the Hathung La ridge, across the Namka Chu river, the site of India's humiliating 1962 defeat and manned defences across the McMahon Line. Taken aback, the Chinese responded with a counter-build-up and in early 1987 Beijing's tone became ominously similar to that of 1962. Western diplomats predicted war and prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's advisers charged that Sundarji's recklessness was responsible for this. But the general stood firm, at one point telling a senior Rajiv aide, "Please make alternate arrangements if you think you are not getting adequate professional advice." The civilians backed off, so did the Chinese.

By then the baleful star of the Bofors scandal had arisen and taken its toll on Sundarji's strongest supporter in the government, minister of state for defence Arun Singh. Although Sundarji was never involved in any direct confrontation with the bureaucracy or the politicians involved in procuring the weapon, it was well known that Sundarji was less than happy with that process. For two years a cloud of suspicion hung over Sundarji. After all, he was the man who had revised the army's priority list and plumped for the Bofors gun. But the cloud dissipated when Sundarji revealed(in a 1989 interview) that he had recommended the deal be scrapped, if that was the only way to get Bofors to reveal the names of recipients of kickbacks. A man on the take would hardly have recommended that course. In 1997, in an exclusive interview, Sundarji shed more light on the controversy.

For Sundarji, Low Intensity Conflict was such a bore -- he dreamed of a heliborne assault division and even designated one to be trained for the role. However, almost immediately after that, he had to endure the embarrassment of seeing his crack fighting units come unstuck. The Indian Peace Keeping Force(IPKF) sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 was totally unprepared for the unconventional guerrilla warfare it encountered in the jungles of Jaffna. The LTTE's deadly sniperfire and improvised explosive devices caused high casualties among the IPKF. When the Indian forces finally had the LTTE on the run, it was ordered into a humiliating withdrawl in 1990.

Retiring in the controversial aftermath of Bluestar, Brasstacks, IPKF and Bofors, the general tried his best not to just fade away like some others. He wrote columns, straddled the security seminar circuit and was painted larger than life on the chatterati radar screen.

The general had his critics too. While many of them gave him credit for many of his achievements, some labelled him as impulsive and a man in a hurry. "I have to aim for the moon'' was his reply to his critics. In one interview the general said he had the option of being non-controversial and not stepping on anybody's corns, ''but whatever I do, I do out of deep conviction.''

General Sundarji became a keen student of India's nuclear policy and emerged as the most articulate military spokesman for its nuclear programme. Even during his years in service, he had published a paper on the nuclear question, something unusual for a serviceman. His Combat Papers I and II, published when he was commandant of the college of Combat in Mhow in 1980-81, are considered a classic exposition of the army's thinking on the subject.

Frustrated by the total indifference of the political class to the nuclear security issue, he published a novel "Blind Men of Hindustan" in 1993. The novel, a treatise on the nuclear doctrine which he wanted India to adopt, exhorted India to test its nuclear powers. That said, he also advised that India should stick to a 'minimum nuclear deterrent' rather than trying to build a nuclear arsenal.

Shortly after Pokhran II in 1998, General Sundarji had a visitor, a senior member of the team that carried out the Shakti tests. By this time the general was seriously ill, struck by a disease that deprived him of movement and speech. "He knew of the news, of course," says the official, "but when I recounted it, he gripped my hand strongly and then gave me a vigorous thumbs up." Behind the special gesture and the elation lay more than two decades of history in which Sundarji single-mindedly got the tradition-bound Indian Army to think about the consequences of nuclear weapons.

On 8th February 1999, General Sundarji, 69, died at the army hospital in Delhi. Those who knew him closely agreed that nothing would have made him more unhappy than the prolonged manner of his illness and death. "He must have been praying that he would go quickly," said his niece Nainika.

Sundarji's body was kept in state at the General's residence at 6, Baird Place. Defence Minister George Fernandes, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Minister of State for External Affairs Vasundhara Raje Scindia were among the large number of people who paid their last respects to the late General at his residence.

Shri L.K. Advani laying a wreath on the body of General Sunderji on 9th February.

Tributes poured in from across the country, as people acknowledged the contribution of the "Thinking General''. Sundarji packed so much into his life that it was difficult to decide where precisely his legacy to the armed forces lied.

Former Jammu and Kashmir governor General K.V. Krishna Rao, a former Army Chief, said General Sundarji played an important role in the build up of the armoured and mechanised forces of the army. ``He always displayed an original and innovative approach. He was a trainer par excellence. In him, the country has lost a fine soldier and an able military leader,'' General Rao said.

"If there is to be just one thing that Sundarji will always be remembered for," said Admiral K.K. Nayyar, "it will be his contribution to updating the army to modern times. He always had a keen interest in ways to improve facilities and equipment for the armed forces." The admiral's wife, women's activist Veena Nayyar, knew the general personally as well as for his work for the welfare of families of the armed forces. As part of his mourners, she said, "In any situation, war or peace, it is the families of our soldiers that suffer the most, and General Sundarji understood that. No matter how busy he was, he spared a lot of time and thought for the wives and children of the armed services."

His main contribution, according to vice-chief of army staff Lt-General(retd) K.K. Hazari, was to change the "traditional infantry-oriented mindset of the army." Army Chief Ved Prakash Malik put it simply. "He introduced professionalism into the army. We're today no longer a ceremonial force, but an army ready for modern war, led by a thinking leadership."

Academics who attended his funeral said certain aspects to his character ensured that General Sundarji will always have a special place in the history of the Indian armed forces. "Sundarji belonged to a whole new breed of soldiers," said defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam. "In today's post-Cold War scenario, soldiers can no longer just be 'brawny'. They have to have an understanding of diplomacy and developing technologies as well. In that sense General Sundarji was truly a 'scholar warrior'." As testament to that, the mourners at his funeral comprised both scholars and warriors.

On 10th February, Sundarji's body was mounted on a gun carriage at his home in Delhi's cantonment area. His funeral cortege, numbering more than a hundred vehicles, made its way to the Brar Square crematorium(also in Delhi Cantonment). Servicemen and officers lined the route of the funeral procession, and it seemed evident to them that this was no ordinary soldier they were laying to rest. The body wrapped in the National tricolour was carried by pall bearers for about 500 yards to the pyre.

It was a farewell every soldier dreams of, and one that any chief would have been proud of. But Sundarji was no ordinary general, and that is why those that came to pay their respects included academics, journalists, politicians, and civil servants, all of whom had interacted with him. His mourners included representatives of every division of the armed forces, many former chiefs, and several veteran colleagues.

Besides the three service chiefs and a large number of service officers, the funeral was attended by Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Defence Secretary T.R. Prasad, former union minister Rajesh Pilot and a large number of admirers. Wreaths were laid on behalf of the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister.

General Sundarji was cremated with full military honours. An all-religion prayer was recited before the cremation. As a gun salute was given in tribute, the funeral pyre was lit by Gen Sundarji's 12 year old grandson Avram, who was helped by his mother Padma and the former Army Chief's widow, Vani.

Sundarji has passed away, but everyone in the army knows that his spirit resides in the living, working and thinking army that he has left behind.