General Nirmal Chand Vij took over on January 1 as the 22nd Chief of Army Staff to lead the fourth largest army in the world and one that nearly went to war last year. It has the kind of operational experience in wars, low intensity conflict and counterterrorism that no other army in the world has. Vij has a rich and varied command and staff experience during a 40 year-career.
He is now the last soldier to witness the trauma of the 1962 humiliation as he joined his battalion in Wallong soon after the unilateral ceasefire by the Chinese. He made a mark in counterinsurgency operations in the North East. It was during his command in 1996-97 that ULFA started surrendering in big numbers which rendered their movement ineffective. During Kargil, he was the key planner of operations (Director General, Military Operations) and was responsible for coordinating the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from Kargil after July 12, 1999. He was also instrumental in planning the breaking of the siege of the Indian peacekeeping contingent in Sierra Leone in 2000.
His last operational duty was coordinating the deployment and partial withdrawal of the Indian Army during Operation Parakram which was called off on October 16 last year. Vij is married to Rita and they both belong to Jammu and Kashmir. They have a son and a daughter. He has a tenure of two years and one month, one of the shortest for any Chief. Along with him there is also a change in the person of the Vice Chief as well as the Chief of Military Operations. So India has a brand new trio of military leaders at the helm.
After assuming charge as COAS in an exclusive conversation with this columnist, General Vij outlined his concerns and priorities for the army. His agenda is fourfold:
- Operational preparedness
- Modernisation of the army
- Welfare of soldiers and ex-servicemen
- Better understanding between the military and the media.
Vij is quite clear that despite the partial withdrawal of troops the army can be called up any time at short notice in the future as the score with Pakistan has not been settled as yet. He recalled General Musharraf's chilling disclosure on December 30 about his readiness to use nuclear weapons in the event Indian soldiers crossed the Line of Control or the International Border. Vij recounted Musharraf's statement not too long ago that only a madman could think of using a nuclear weapon. While deployed for Operational Parakram Vij says the troops have had the best and optimum training for war in the last 12 months. No one can now say, he asserted, that there is no time for training.
Contrary to media reports of deployment fatigue, the general said troop morale is very high; in fact, they have benefited by receiving nearly Rs 20,000 each as field service allowance while posted in the trenches. Vij is conscious of the need for consolidating the gains of Parakram as well as restabilising the army after the year-long dislocation caused by the deployment. He confided he would soon order a study to examine the lessons from Parakram, restructuring of the forces and enhancing their operational capability. He also wants to relocate forces so that there is minimum turbulence during mobilisation. Operational readiness is therefore his number one priority.
The continuing modernisation of the army -- especially the infantry, which is the cutting edge of counterterrorism -- is in full swing. Vij was recently in Israel to look at the methods adopted by the Israelis to foil suicide attacks and terrorism. He said no efforts and resources would be spared to ensure the jawans get the best equipment needed to raise the cost for Pakistan waging cross border terrorism. The infantry package of modernisation is remedying the deficiencies of Kargil and neglect of infantry capability in the past.
The welfare and morale of soldiers is another key priority. His idea is it must be more than lip service. These are the men who serve from Sikkim to Siachen. The welfare of ex-servicemen is also very close to Vij's heart and he is keen to see the pilot project on medical facilities being launched late this year.
Last, but not least, the Chief is keen to further build on the growing media-military relations so that both sides understand each other better.
One area where Vij will have to invent a strategy is to ensure the healing touch policy of the new government in Jammu and Kashmir does not embolden terrorists to target innocent civilians as they did for four consecutive days last month. The counterterrorism strategy must ensure that security forces kill more number of terrorists than those that can get in through infiltration. Another of his concerns must be to draw lessons from the most recent operational deployment, Operation Parakram, and to ensure that mobilisation is carried out even more swiftly and with fewer accidents than the last one.
Vij realises his plans can only fructify with good civil-military relations. He is a firm believer that the military and its political leadership are in touch and in tune for the cost-effective utilisation of military force. He needs and deserves all the goodwill and resources to meet the challenges ahead.