“When we’re leading troops, we have to strike a balance between the mission and our men”
Lt. Gen Asit Mistry is the Commandant of the National Defence Academy, one of India’s most prestigious Defence training Academies. Lt. Gen Mistry has had a spectacular career in the Indian Armed Forces having served in the Maratha Light Infantry, has been the Parade Commander of the Republic Day parade, and has served as a Military Observer internationally. In this interaction with Spandana Datta, he shares his best experiences in uniform.
You were a cadet at the prestigious National Defence Academy, 40 years ago! How was your experience as a cadet and what is it like being the Commandant of the Academy you have trained in?
Gen AM: (smiles) That’s a very difficult question to answer. Well, I joined this Academy long back in 1978. A lot of things have changed since then but yet, essentially, training for cadets remains the same. The basic essence, still, is the same. It’s been a remarkable experience! (Laughs) I never expected that in my career of 40 years I would come back to NDA as the Commandant but when I got this chance, I was most delighted. My cadet days, like all cadets days, were hectic. Before we knew what was happening, we actually finished the training and were on our way out to our next academy. Very interesting and great days.
What inspired you to join the Indian Army?
Well, I was studying at Sainik School, Balachadi, in Gujarat. So for us to appear for NDA was mandatory and I appeared for NDA. Right from my childhood, I was looking forward to a career in the military. So, it worked out and I managed to pass the exam, in the first chance and in the process, I skipped 12th. In those days, one could appear for the NDA exam in the 11th standard itself. I appeared in December 1977 and I joined NDA in June, 1978. I just did 11th and skipped 12th standard, despite my batch being the first one to undergo 10+2, under the CBSE.
You are the first Colonel of the Regiment of the Maratha Light Infantry to have become the Commandant of the National Defence Academy. What motivated you to choose the Maratha Light Infantry when you got commissioned in the Indian Army?
When I was in my third term at Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, where one exercises the choice of arms, I was very keen that I wanted to be a true soldier. Infantry was my choice and then what regiment was the second thing to be considered. I belong to a city called Baroda, in Gujarat, which was ruled by the Gaekwads, who were Marathas and Baroda has a fair amount of Maharashtrian population, which is the closest I could identify with, as there is no regiment from Gujarat, per se. Also, Marathas are very hardy troops and have great traditions. So that is what inspired me to opt for the Marathas. And as I told you, the regiment is a great regiment with inspiring history. I was fortunate to get not only the regiment, but also the youngest battalion, which was 12 Maratha. The battalion at that time was under raising. The process of raising had commenced on 01 May ‘82 and I got commissioned on 12 Jun ‘82 so I was the first officer to get commissioned into the battalion. All the others at that time had come from other sister battalions to form the nucleus to raise the battalion. So, I’m the first original 12th, you can say! (smiles)
Recently the Supreme Court has granted permission for the induction of women in the armed forces through the National Defence Academy. What are your views on it and how will that change things in the Academy?
The matter is still sub-judice and at this moment, it will not be appropriate for me to make any comments. The Government has already filed its reply in the Supreme Court and we will be complying with the assurances given by the Government. That is all I can say, at this moment.
As General Officer Commanding, Delhi Area, you have had the honour to be the Parade Commander of the Republic Day parade, thrice. Please talk about your experience and responsibilities for the conduct of such a grand parade.
The experience of commanding the parade is the most unique kind of experience and not a usual occurrence. It is not only commanding the parade per se, but the whole coordination and organisation. A huge effort goes into making the parade what it is and that is the job of Delhi Area, which on behalf of the Army, the three services and the Ministry of Defence, acts as the primary coordinating agency. There are a lot of people involved, a lot of ministries involved, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the CAPF participating. The Delhi Police plays a major role in terms of the administrative and security arrangements, framework for the parade, as well as participation of their own contingent. You have the children participating, the NCC, the other two services, the tableaux, etc. The rehearsals, their timings and even coordination with the fly past is done by Delhi Area. It is not only leading and commanding, but also the complete organisation of the parade. A humongous effort goes into it. It is a massive exercise in team spirit. One needs to get into the minutest details to ensure that nothing goes wrong. A lot of contingencies are practiced. Even the equipment that takes part in the parade is completely stripped, inspected, serviced, painted afresh and almost renewed- a kind of complete overhaul. It’s a massive challenge. The troops who come to participate in the parade have to be housed, camped, fed and looked after. All this is the charter of Delhi Area. It is a huge responsibility and a very satisfying one at that.
You have gained exposure as a Military Observer in Liberia and Deputy Force Commander in South Sudan. How were your tenures abroad? Have you made any lifelong friends?
Both my UN tenures were very interesting and quite different from each other. My tenure in Liberia was, at that time, what was called in the UN parlance as Chapter VIII Mission. The peacekeeping force was being provided by the regional organisation, which in case of West Africa is called the ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) and the force provided by them was called ECOMOG (Economic Community Of West African States Monitoring Group) so far contributed by the West African countries, primarily led by Nigeria, duly supported by Ghana and others. The UN provided military observers and other supporting activities at that time. Therefore, this was what was known as a Chapter VIII Mission. The regional force does the job of peacekeeping and the UN supports in an observer role. The peace agreement had been reached among the various factions and our job was to primarily help them implement that agreement and by that process to disarm and demobilize the combatants that were involved in the civil war and assist their rehabilitation, which ultimately led to the conducting of elections in Liberia in 1997. Probably for the first time, Military Observers were also converted to become Electoral Observers. Along with our civilian counterparts, we were taught the fundamentals of the electoral process, its observation, etc. So we assisted the Civilian Electoral Observers to augment the capacity as well as facilitated mobility, coordinated security and so on. We helped in conducting the elections and then the mission concluded in Sep ‘97. Of course, the process did not succeed all the way as after a couple of years, the civil war restarted. Then, a different mission was launched by the UN, which was more of a Chapter VII Mission. That was a very different experience from the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia, in 1996-97.
South Sudan was again, an entirely different experience. Before the UN mission was launched in South Sudan per se, there was another mission in Sudan i.e. United Mission in Sudan or UNMIS. The mission I went into was UNMISS (United Nations Mission In South Sudan) which was immediately preceded by UNMIS (United Nations Mission In Sudan). It was in 2005 that a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Government of Sudan and the rebels from the southern part of Sudan (referred to as South Sudan) was signed. After a six year interim period of power-sharing, there was to be a referendum to ascertain if South Sudan would remain part of Sudan or not. On 09 Jan 2011, the referendum was conducted under the aegis of UNMIS, wherein almost 99% of the vote was in favour of cessation from Sudan. So in a six months period i.e. by 09 July 2011, South Sudan became an independent country and the newest member of the UN. Thus, the role of UNMIS concluded and was restructured, re-oriented and renamed to become UNMISS. The role of the previous mission was to act as a third-party to create confidence among the two-sides and help them implement the peace agreement that they had reached. For the mission in South Sudan, this changed to support the birth of a new nation and in that process, extend support to the government of South Sudan and the rest of the country to create the framework of a modern state, assist in creation of various organs of the state, to lay the foundation of a successful, modern democratic state. It was also to manage levels of violence and protect the civilians to ensure that the rest of the activities and peace process could continue to unfold without disruption. About a year and a half down the line, the President, Salva Kiir and the Vice President, Riek Machar fell apart and the whole army i.e. the SPLA split down the middle on the ethnic lines, reverting to civil war within the country. The role of the mission perforce had to change focusing on POC, ensuring security of UN Personnel and humanitarian agencies, reporting on human rights and so on. You had to maintain absolute impartiality between the warring factors. You could no longer be seen siding with one side or the other.
Thus, one day you are acting like a friend and the next day, watching over human rights compliance. There were a number of times the UN was targeted. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly by various factions, sometimes by accidental fire, sometimes by mistaken identity and at times, even deliberately by some factions. So it was a very challenging mission.
So was there any time when you were a part of a convoy or at a base which was attacked and your life was under threat?
As Deputy Force Commander, I was in the senior hierarchy of the mission so it was not my role to undertake tactical operations, at company level. However, right in the beginning of the mission, when I joined the Mission on 21 Dec 2011, there was a threat building up to one of the communities around Pibor in Jonglei State of South Sudan. This was supposed to be an inter-ethnic clash. I had gone to familiarise myself with an area of potential threats and to see one of the forward bases, which was one of the most likely targets of the attack by one community and was incidentally held by an Indian Battalion. As luck would have it, when I was there on the ground, things started developing quickly. I was asked to go back but I declined, saying that if UN troops were deployed and were on the verge of a potential attack, I could not be seen going back to base. So I stayed with the troops for three days. We stopped the combatants right in front of us and ensured protection of a large number of civilians. So that was literally being in action, upfront. Even later, when the civil war started, our camp at Tomping, Juba was under constant threat and frequently under fire. So all of us, in some way or another, were in the frontline. However, due to my role, I never operated at the tactical/company commander level.
And did you make any friends? One does make friends but then, once you come back to your own country, you are subject to your own security regulations.
You have been awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal, Sena Medal and Vishisht Seva Medal. Could you please shed some light on the missions for which you have been decorated with these medals?
I am fortunate to be recognised and decorated like this. In my view, all these awards that senior officers get, in particular, for distinguished service are recognition of the collective efforts of the teams that they have had the privilege to lead. So it's more an individual recognition of the collective efforts of the entire team. In that context, starting with the earliest award I got was the VSM for the command of my battalion in Siachen. So the award actually belongs to my battalion, 12 Maratha LI. Similarly, my Sena Medal was awarded for commanding a Brigade in North East in Upper Assam/Arunachal, as a part of Operation RHINO. I was awarded the AVSM for command of Kilo Force, The Rashtriya Rifles CI Force in North Kashmir. I was awarded the PVSM in January ‘21 for the combined effort of my command of Delhi Area as well as the leadership of NDA. I would reiterate that it is the work of the entire unit on formation be it, 12 MARATHA, Kilo Force, the Brigade in Assam, Delhi Area or National Defence Academy that is being recognised, rather than the individual.
As you near your retirement after almost 4 decades of meritorious service to the nation, what has been the most joyful moment of your career?
Gen AM: (laughs heartily) That’s very difficult to answer! For me, every day is joyful. My approach in life has always been to do today's job to the best of your ability. If I feel satisfied that I have done my day's work well, that is the most enjoyable thing for me. That itself creates a path for your success tomorrow. Just focus on today! If your job demands to think for tomorrow, do it from a team perspective, from a job perspective but not from a personal perspective- like I must reach a certain landmark in my career or I must get a certain award. Those are all the fruits that will come your way if you keep doing your job sincerely, if you put in your heart and soul, irrespective of your job. That’s my way of looking at it. Every day when I go to bed, I sleep with a lot of contentment and satisfaction and look forward to the next day to begin. And, I get very good sleep. So everyday is a joyful day for me. (smiles)
If you had the chance to relive those 40 years, is there something you wish you could change? Do you have any regrets?
No, I have no regrets whatsoever! Given a choice, a chance, I would live the same life, the same way because I would assume to know the story. Maybe, I would be bolder or take more risks i.e. because I would have the advantage of knowing the future. But in real life, you do not have the benefit of divine foresight and when one is leading troops, one has to strike a balance between the essentiality of accomplishing the mission and the safety and security of the troops. So, one has dual responsibility and must strike a balance. So I would not like to change anything.
Before we part with you, what would you like to say to the defence aspirants of our country?
I've gone through the whole cycle, having started my career here and finishing my career here. In the process, seeing the youngsters of today, getting molded here at NDA into military leaders of tomorrow, reinforces my confidence in the youth. These boys are so inspired; they are inquisitive, so confident, I'm so happy about that. They take everything in their stride. I find they are more aware. They are on the verge of a great career. All young people of any gender, who seek a career in the armed forces, I would appeal to them…Grab it with both hands! It's a fantastic career. You can't find a more satisfying profession to pursue. It gives you a lot, while it demands a lot out of you but yet, there is nothing more satisfying. While the monetary returns may not be so high, they are not that bad either. They are reasonably good. But the quality of life that you get in the services cannot be found anywhere else. I would say, grab it with both hands, in whatever arm or service, in any of the three services. It’s equally satisfying, enjoyable and challenging.