Agnipath: Infantry no longer Queen of Battle
The Infantry prides itself as the Queen of Battle. The Ukraine War reinforces this image. No amount of missile strikes and tank maneuvers could manage to force the Ukrainians out of their strongholds. In fact one of the lessons from the Russian showing outside Kiev has been that its coup de main was short on Infantry. Later, the Infantry, stolidly fighting from objective to objective, has delivered results in the Donbas; no doubt, with the support of ordnance thrown prior at the objective to soften it up. The other lesson has been that even this Infantry thrown into battle has been debilitated by its poor quality.
This only proves a commonplace with the Indian army: that a high quality Infantry is both indispensible and imperative. India was conquered by the British largely by drilling Indians into cohesive Infantry. They used the regimental system, initially based loosely on ethnic lines, only to be firmed up over time into a regimental system informed by the ‘martial race’ theory. The idea was that cohesive infantry units fought better and cohesion was an outcome of bonds between members of the unit, anchored on shared ethnicity and culture. Though the martial race theory under-grid the regimental system, the ‘martial race’ aspect was informed by the 1857 experience. Its political intent was to restrict regiments to ethnic groups that could be relied on to support the British. It was otherwise militarily useful in leveraging cohesion for military power. The resulting force multiplication for the British Indian Army helped the Allies win the Second World War.
Sociological theory from the two World Wars partially bore out the theory arrived at through a racist lens in India. Scholarship reckoned that a battle-winning factor was cohesion of primary groups. Cohesion sprung from inter-member affinity, which could of course be forged against the odds but was greatly facilitated by preexisting primordial affiliation. The organization facilitated the intended outcome, combat spirit. The outcome itself was a function of horizontal integration in subunits, which with vertical integration - added by the military leadership in the command chain – made for formidable fighting units and formations.
A prominent reading suggestion in any military sociology leg of an undergraduate degree in military studies makes this finding explicit. In her book on the Falklands War, Mates and Muchhachos, Nora Kinzer Stewart, contrasting the operational performance of the two sides, British and Argentinian, alights on cohesion as making the difference. To her, the regimental strengths of the British Infantry carried the day, while the Argentinian side was handicapped by their reliance on conscripts who proved uncertain of their mates at the crunch.
The Indian experience validates theory. Whats App forwards – though rightly denigrated as a source of information – provide a clue. Ostensibly written by a former officer of one of the units that vacated some of Kargil’s peaks off Pakistani occupiers, a post recently had it that the battalion had been launched into a conventional operation directly from the Valley floor where it was engaged in counter insurgency operations. Apparently, the commanding officer got together one of the battalion’s games teams – in this rendering, Basketball – and tasked it with dislodging the Pakistanis off a holdout. Likewise, another commanding officer once told me how he used the battalion’s towering Kabaddi team players in squaring off against the Chinese in the jostling characteristic of the game of one-up-manship on the Line of Actual Control, a game that had tragic results at Galwan. Basically, the two units unwarily relied on preexisting bonds between the members of groups tasked – in this case their games-imparted mutual regard for fellow teammates. This is in subconscious acknowledgement of cohesion as a combat-winning ingredient.
Post-Independence, the regimental system stood the army in good stead since it was often involved in operations at short notice. The 1947 operations, the Indian Peacekeeping experience in Sri Lanka, the Kargil War and the response to the Ladakh crisis are examples. In such instances, camaraderie presaged by the regimental system helped the army adapt to the emergent circumstance. At other instances, there was considerable preparedness through extensive training, as in the run up to the wars in 1965 and 1971. Tactical training enhanced cohesion, making for operational effectiveness. The 1962 War loss was from poor planning, leadership and neglect of training, while the regimental system-based cohesion can be credited with mitigating the rout somewhat.
The centrality of the regiment to the Infantry is evident from the formative experience of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR). Put together in short order in face of a severe proxy war challenge in Kashmir, the RR added fuel to the fire by its upping the suppressive template. Personnel turbulence lent anonymity to members of primary groups, enabling shirking. The difficult man management problem was bypassed by resort to questionable measures as pseudo-gang operations at the operational level and, at the tactical level, culling of high-caliber outfits from the mass into Ghatak platoons tasked with the role of the hammer, while the mass provided the anvil. Over time, when RR units were affiliated to a set of units within a regiment and contributing arms and supporting arms, the strengths of the regimental system became operative even in RR and helped bail it out. The RR has since taken charge of the counter insurgency grid and can credibly claim to have curtailed the proxy war. The take-away is that the regimental system can only be trifled at risk of a poor operational showing, while being conscious of what makes the Infantry tick might redeem ‘transformational reforms’ – as is touted the Agnipath scheme.
Agnipath’s implications for the regiment-based Infantry must be viewed in light of cohesion in the Infantry. The Infantry is critical for an army’s showing. Regiments by their provision cohesion for Infantry fighting units are consequential for what the Infantry delivers. The impact of Agnipath on the regimental system is thus the criteria to examine what the scheme means for the Army and its Infantry.
For now, the Agnipath’s roll out has been accompanied by the reassurance that the regiment system would not be trifled with. Regiments - presumably their ethnic-based intake - is to be kept out of the All India All Class (AIAC) turn that Agnipath promises. Even so, there are two internal contradictions in the scheme.
Firstly, pre-existing AIAC regiments (in the combat and support arms) have had an equally credible showing in India’s wars. This owes to cohesion in such units being instilled by elitism or role-based regimentation and enabled by personnel stability. Primary group bonding and wider horizontal integration in secondary groups comprising subunits and units does not necessarily need primordial affiliation, as obtain in ethnic-based regiments, but can be forged in the crucible of training, crisis environment and combat.
Take for instance the Galwan episode. Whereas 12 of the gallant men who died were from one battalion, the other 8 were from affiliated outfits. Yet their collective showing was remarkable, indicating the cohesion can be injected by the circumstance, but with a caveat that there has to be a preexisting cohesion-enabling factor such as cohesive groups: primary, secondary or tertiary making for organisational integration.
The reverse is also possible, as the American experience with cohesion in Vietnam – recounted in the must-read study by Paul Savage and Richard Gabriel - indicates. Shirking, irresolute and indisciplined behavior is also possible. Such an outcome owed to personnel turbulence within the ranks, preventing the forging of intimate bonds of friendship and camaraderie. Taking cue, the Americans in their wars that were part of their Global War on Terror resorted to sending in cohesive units that were to together stay the course through their tour of duty, restricted to one year on ground. Cohesion was sought through training prior to induction and by the threat environment compelling its regeneration on ground, enabled by the primary group knowing they have to stick it out together against the odds.
On the other hand, Agnipath compounds this problem by introducing alongside its promise of an AIAC shift, personnel turbulence at the spear tip – through a continuing turn-over with a vast majority of a cohort (75 per cent) leaving every four years. Since the intake is faced with a continuing necessity of being found worthy of retention among the 25 per cent slated to stay on, the competition engendered potentially places out of reach the primary group bonding based on mutual trust, love and confidence. The finding from Roger Little’s work on the Korean War - that the ‘buddy groups’ helped soldiers navigate the rigours of war – and of Charles Moskos from the Vietnam War on intra-squad relationships - appear to have been neglected.
The extreme administrative pressures this puts on junior leaders – who have to continuously evaluate their charge on their suitability for retention - has been dwelt on in the criticism of the scheme. Job security concerns might lead to a fratricide of sorts. Catching the eye of the commanders might end up the sole aim of Agniveers, leading to a crab-like melee. Absent training opportunities and an operational setting in which to gauge the wheat from the chaff, units might tend towards retaining gladiators for being better at games or other avoidably subjective criteria – in which the typically-Indian sifarish might play a role. (While there is a notion that ‘gamers’ – those with better mechanical coordination of the body that makes them better at games – make for better soldiers, this is just a fond peacetime notion. No study has underwritten it, though it is easy to prove or disprove just by finding out how many - if any - of the gallantry award winners were proficient at games.)
In short, not only primary groups but secondary group formation also suffers. Horizontal integration absent, the premium will be on vertical integration. Absent any role of the organization in aiding integration, there is every chance of the weak link giving way, and with untold operational consequence.
Though the scheme appears nonchalant on these counts, there are two features that argue in its favour. The first is a finding from studies in the aftermath of World War II. The famous Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz study on cohesion and disintegration in the German Army through its years of retreat had it that, counter-intuitively, the primary group sustained its fighting ability through the series of defeats. This is credited not only to the leadership capability of the junior leaders – its non-commissioned officers – but also to the youth conscripted into the ranks. The latter is significant. The youth grew up in the years Hitler rose to and held power in Nazi Germany. They were imbued with the Nazi spirit in varying degrees and bore the imprint of Hitler’s authoritative image. Some were from the Hitler-Jugend. They were partly instilled with Nazi-style nationalism. This, when positively articulated by the Wehrmacht professionalism embodied by their leaders, allowed them to stay the ranks and put up a spirited defence of the Fatherland on both fronts. That it was an existential fight, especially on the eastern front, helped. Cohesion could thus be output of both their showing on the line, while simultaneously - in a mutually reinforcing cycle - adding to their showing in combat. In any case, the psychological underpinnings cannot be elided.
So, does the Agnipath scheme rely on a Hitler-Jugend of sorts, Indian youth who have come of age as Narendra Modi and Hindutva have been ascendant and in power?
There have been apt comparisons elsewhere of the similarities between Hindutva – the philosophy that Modi and his support base is unapologetic about - and Nazism. It is no secret that at inception Hindutva was enamoured of fascism. Hindutva wishes Hindus to reemerge from a history in which they were eclipsed for a thousand years by militarily-adept Muslim invaders. This interpretation of history instills an inferiority complex, in Hindutva adherents, of a deficient masculinity, prompting their effort to breakout. Regaining military prowess is a way to reestablish virility. Agnipath is a scheme designed to put youth through their military paces, dispelling forever the myth of the effete – if not effeminate - Hindu. The latter traits are attributed to the corruption of Indic thought by insurgent Buddhism and similar subaltern philosophies. It is no wonder that a scowling Simha has replaced the benign set of Asokan lions India had once chosen as its national symbol.
Agniveers inducted into the Army would thus be imbued with the ardour Modi has infused into New India. That they rioted on receipt of news of Agnipath is discounted as born in ignorance. Modi, reacting to the protests that greeted the announcement of Agnipath, gave out the aim of the scheme as, 'Certain decisions look unfair but will help in nation-building in long run.' To what extent has this placated youth is uncertain, since simultaneously, the army asserted that it would not select any protestor, leading to dissipation of agitations. Therefore, even if the establishment is reliant on Hindutva and Modi’s larger-than-life image to energise Agniveers, and to thereby compensate for the deficiencies of the Agnipath, prospective Agniveers have - in their burning trains – let on that they are not quite the Hitler-Jugend. The regime could take course correctives, such as by in a subterranean manner having right wing formations sponsor Agniveers. It could over time compel the military to use Hindutva-inspired motivational gimmicks, if not use it to propagate Hindutva itself. This will help the regime with its nation-building objectives, voiced by Modi.
If the aim of the scheme is nation-building, then the regime must insure in the interim that the nation survives any national security challenge. This it has set about doing by a policy of appeasement, best evidenced by Modi, firstly, denying any intrusion had taken place in Ladakh, and, subsequently, when it is evident that there is intrusion, keeping mum. The vacation of the intrusions at places has been at India’s cost. This is appeasement, an acknowledgement that India is militarily overawed. The strategic logic given is that it buys India time, such as by allowing India to get its act together by building arteries as the Char Dham highway that will enable it to bring its military power – being upped alongside - to bear. Since the power trajectory is not in India’s favour, it is uncertain how this power asymmetry can ever be bridged. But the strategic narrative buys Modi time, allowing for kicking of the can down road when he might have passed into history as a much mythologised and sanitised figure. Since the military will not be tested when a policy of appeasement is operational, that the Agnipath scheme defies received scholarship on military sociology will remain under wraps. This will enable Hindutva to gain its political objectives sought from the scheme.
What does this political-level digression imply for India’s Infantry? The ‘digression’ is necessary to understand the wellsprings of Agnipath. Clausewitz’s understanding that politics supersedes military considerations is not only valid for war time, but perhaps more so in peacetime. The political look here makes clear that the good health of the Infantry is not what informs the scheme. Good health is not essential, since deft foreign policy footwork can compensate. Therefore, operational effectiveness is not the criteria to gauge Agnipath. Scholarship also shows that the regimental system is dispensable. Cohesion can be acquired by other means, with the challenge of combat itself being one such. In any case, some military strategists have it that war will not be manpower-heavy as much as technology and firepower-centric.
Therefore, the Infantry can expect another makeover sometime down the line, when the feedback will be leveraged to realign Agnipath a half-decade on. The AIAC system can permeate Infantry. This will put paid to the regimental system and consign to history regimental history and pride dating to the British era. The Indian Infantry will be nourished by an Indian – if not quite Hindutva - nationalism. It will remain untested since on the frontiers it would be reduced to a border-guarding role and would have disengaged from internal security, outsourcing it to central police organizations, as evidenced already in Kashmir. (The latter insight stems from the fact that Agnipath was not thought up for organizations reporting to the home ministry yet. Instead, a small proportion of Agniveers are to be discharged into those organizations, implying that these are to stay unscathed (dispelling the snide thought that Agnipath will be extended to these too at some point later). To elongate this sidelight: that home ministry has not be tapped for Agnipath also shows the political impulse behind the scheme; it being to defang the military lest it entertain notions of coming to the aid of the Constitution when it is twisted into that of Hindu Rashtra. Another perspective has it that it is not so much to keep the military out, but to make of the military an accomplice that Agnipath has been thought up. The jury will be out on this till New India is transited to Hindu Rashtra sooner than later.)
So, how should the Infantry navigate the impending? India’s 1962 debacle can be attributed to quaint notions of foreign policy deftness back then. Today, any overreliance on interpid Jaishankar’s footwork will only replicate the 1962 result. The Army therefore must take its own call.
It would require keeping its Infantry honed, irrespective of the nation building mandate it now has as against a hitherto national security one. It must accept and embrace Agniveers. It must resist Hindutva-centric motivational pitches. Seeing the writing on the wall for ethnic-based regiments, it must prepare for such a future. Such a future also owes to the suspicion some ethnicities inspire in a Gangetic-centric nationalism of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. Substitution of the regiment symbolism with national artifacts must proceed apace. Agniveers must be kept out of the Rashtriya Rifles, lest in their nationalist zeal they mistake the subnationalism intrinsic to India as ‘anti-national’. Agniveers must be indoctrinated with inclusive patriotism, as against the hard nationalism the regime expects. This is a tall order since there is no shortage of Hindutva-inclined officers, with the vast majority coming from Hindutva catchment areas.
Every generation of officership has its unique challenge. The post-War one looked at demobilization; the post-Independence one faced obsolescence; the post-1962 one, reinvention; the post-1971 one, lethargy as a regional power, rudely shaken up by the Tamil Tigers; the post-liberalisation one, an insurgent periphery; the post-nuclearisation one, a redefinition of conventional power; and the post-Modi one, a crisis in professional credibility. The forthcoming challenge of a military makeover can expect to keep the Infantry busy into the decade. Its current day ethos can tide it over the period. What emerges thereafter must not be allowed to be laid at Infantry’s door.