India’s Defense Services Staff College is behind times, says US researcher
The training imparted to army officers at India’s Defense Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington (South India) is behind times in several fundamental respects, says Colonel (Retd) David O. Smith, a Distinguished Fellow with the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan policy research center in Washington DC.
Col.Smith had interviewed several generations of Indian and American officers who had been through the portals of the DSSC between 1979 and 2017 for his book: The Wellington experience: A study of attitudes and values within the Indian army published by the Stimson Center in September 2020. The sample was representative as it included seniors (Lt.Generals and Brigadiers) as well as middle level (Lt.Colonels and Colonels) and junior level officers (Captains and Majors).
The key findings were as follows: On the positive side, Indian students at the DSSC were highly nationalistic, but did not display the divisive type of Hindu nationalist ideology “Hindutva”. A high level of social cohesion was evident within the Indian military establishment which seemed to limit the potential for factionalism based on religion, ethnicity, or social class in the DSSC. Indian students were also seen to be consistently “apolitical” though there was a growing frustration with successive governments’ unwillingness to reform the higher defense organization (the bureaucracy).
That said, the list on the downside is long. The DSSC’s approach to pedagogy sharply restricted useful learning and inhibited the development of critical thinking. The course material at the DSSC was outdated, and not conducive for meeting the demands of modern-day warfare. A 1979 batch student recalled that most operational procedures taught at the college reminded him of World War II techniques. The course seemed to be designed to prepare graduates “to fight the World War II way with a 1945-era British Army using the same tactics.”
The DSSC paid insufficient attention to combat support and combat service support functions, and failed to adequately address combined arms operations. More importantly, it failed to provide effective joint inter-services training, though the DSSC was a tri-services institution.
According to Smith a major reason for this is the fact that the Indian army had not fought a “high intensity” war since 1971. “By high-intensity combat, I mean large-scale manoeuvre warfare against a similarly equipped and capable foe that requires the routine application of combined arms operations by ground forces, systematic cooperation with at least one other service, and sustained logistics operations-precisely the kind of warfare the Indian Army would face in any future war with Pakistan or China,” he explained.
He further said that continually facing bullets from insurgents in Kashmir will not count in a conventional war. Addressing American readers he says that this lacuna has to factored in by US strategic planners. Smith points out that Washington’s strategic bet on India reflects a US perception of converging strategic interests in promoting global and regional security, to offsetChina’s growing military and economic power in Asia, and to protect the sea lanes running through the Indian Ocean. This requires a capable Indian military establishment. But that capability does not exist, he feels.
Essentially, the DSSC students were trained to fight a traditional “ditch cum bund” operation on the plains of Punjab against Pakistan, which most students and faculty saw as India’s main or even the only enemy. The DSSC paid insufficient attention and failed to provide effective joint inter-services training, though the DSSC was a tri-services institution.
The emphasis was on field level tactics at the expense of overall strategic planning and decision-making at higher levels. Col.Smith was told that at the DSSC even Corps or Regional Command chiefs discussed minute details such as the placement of a single artillery piece or whether an infantry squad should move up the north or south ridge of a mountain. “Senior officers would concentrate most of their intellectual energy on detail that would typically be handled by lower levels in the US military,” Smith comments.
Instructors expected blind acceptance of received wisdom instead of encouraging creative thinking. As a 2007-batch student put it: the aim was to keep the trainee “in the box” and to reinforce the army’s “party line.” Former Indian Foreign Service officer and scholar on Hinduism, Pavan K.Varma attributes this to the hierarchical nature of Indian society in which status maintenance is key for social survival. According to Varma one has to submit to the superior and not question him. At the same timeone has to subjugate the inferior, he says.
However, not all students at the DSSC were blind takers of what was doled out by the Instructors. There were “thinkers” among the students, who also spoke out, but these numbered between 10 and 20 percent, according to the students themselves. Eighty to 90 percent of the students were “coasters” for whom a stint at the DSSC was “just another hurdle to be surmounted”. These also parroted the lines given to them unquestioningly.
Traditional Social Hierarchy
The DSSC had a social structure in which some classes and ethnic groups had a greater chances of succeeding. They were the “anointed ones”, from privileged social backgrounds, including membership of a higher caste. Those with good communication skills in the English language were favored. Being able to give a good briefing was critically important at the DSSC. “Bravado and showmanship” characteristic of Indian upper castes and classes also counted a lot.
Too Few Muslims
Hindus and Sikhs had a better chance at the DSSC than Muslims, who were a minuscule minority in the college as well in the Indian army as a whole. “In the Indian army, Muslims likely constitute no more than 2 percent of the total force, and no statistics at all are available about the percentage in the officer corps. Muslim students generally constituted less than 1 percent (0.7 percent, to be precise) of the DSSC Army Wing, about one-twentieth of their representation in the general population.”
A 2008 student observed that the few Muslim officers he met knew that they would never be promoted beyond the rank of colonel because their loyalty to the state was suspect, and that “except for the Sikhs, you generally had to be Hindu to get ahead in the Indian Army.” This generalization was confirmed by former Minister of Defense George Fernandes in 1985 when he candidly admitted that “the Muslim is not wanted in the Armed Forces because he is always suspect-whether we want to admit it or not. Most Indians consider Muslims a fifth column for Pakistan.”Smith found that though the officer-students did not subscribe to Hindutva, they supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi seen as a strong opponent of Pakistan.
But Smith warns that the gross under-representation of Muslims in the Indian armed forces would have obvious adverse internal security implications.“Currently, the two longest-running insurgencies in India are in J&K, the only Muslim-majority state in India, and in northeastern India, where the state of Assam is 31 percent Muslim,” he points out.
Muslims cannot be ignored for long because their population is set to grow exponentially, he adds. According to estimates of population growth by the Pew Research Center, India currently ranks second to Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim state with 176 million Muslims, slightly more than Pakistan. Pew predicts that by 2050, India will become the most populous Muslim state in the world with more than 310 million Muslims.
Given the fact that the Modi regime is out to marginalize and weaken the Muslims, the consequences could be far reaching for India, Smith warns. “Since the Modi government was returned to office in 2019 it has begun a series of controversial actions that have roiled the Muslim community. These include tripping the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, beginning a national registry of citizens (NRC), and passing a citizenship amendment act (CAA) that provides a pathway to Indian citizenship for undocumented immigrants but does not include Muslims.”
“The example of neighboring Pakistan should be a warning of what might happen. There (in Pakistan), after two decades of political subordination to and economic domination by the Punjabi-dominated establishment, the Bengali population of East Pakistan became so alienated from the state that it eventually rose up (with Indian help) and threw off the yoke of its oppressor.”
Pakistan Over-rides China
The training was oriented to fighting a war with Pakistan on the plains of the Punjab rather than China in the Himalayan heights. This was because Pakistan was seen as the quintessential “enemy” while China (at least till 2017) was seen as an “economic competitor” and not as an “enemy”.
As in the rest of India, there was an obsession with Pakistan in the DSSC. A 1992 batch student said his classmates believed that the Pakistan Army was the source of all evil in the South Asian region. Without the army, Pakistan would be friendly to India, they believed. Therefore, India’s main aim ought to be to “destroy the Pakistan Army” to end its political domination over the country and prevent any future Indo-Pak conflicts.
In a reference book on China issued to DSSC students in 2011, the army’s perception of threats from China was ambivalent. On the one hand, it recognized the irritants, such as the boundary dispute; the Dalai Lama issue; China’s assistance to Pakistan’s Missile and Nuclear weapon program, were recognized. But on the other, it acknowledged that the Indian and Chinese armies were engaged in joint military exercises and regular defense dialogues since 2007. The overall belief was that Sino-Indian problems could be resolved through talks as there were bonds of trade which were not easy to break. That was not the case with Pakistan which had little or no trade ties with India and which had also been continually staging ‘terror strikes’ in Kashmir and also deep inside the rest of India.
There was little or no discussion in the DSSC on reform in counter-insurgency tactics and strategy though India had been fighting insurgencies unsuccessfully for decades. Despite a deep-seated conviction that its internal security doctrine is effective, the Indian Army had not completely quelled any of India’s four long-running insurgencies, Smith points out. The issue of human rights violations was a blind spot. The excuse given was that the troops’ faced tremendous problems in insurgency-hit areas which were not taken into account by critics.
There was little or no content in the DSSC course on nuclear warfare though Pakistan had tactical nuclear weapons to be deployed on the battlefield. Despite a doctrinal assumption that Pakistan would employ nuclear and chemical weapons against India in a future war, the DSSC curriculum avoided any significant discussion of the effects of these weapons, and no meaningful training was given on how to face them. The excuse given was that a nuclear war with Pakistan was not a possibility as both Pakistan and India considered nuclear weapons to be a deterrent rather a weapon to be actually deployed.
A disturbing feature, from the American perspective, was that, despite two decades of increasingly close US-Indian political and military relations, a high level of mistrust (and thinly veiled hostility) about the US generally existed among senior, middle level and junior officers, Smith points out.