Major General Harsha Kakar is a distinguished officer of the Indian Army with several accolades up his sleeve.
Sir, you're an alumnus of the esteemed NDA. What has your experience at the NDA been like? Any particular incident or memory of those years you'd like to share with us?
I joined the National Defence Academy in my second attempt as I failed in the first attempt and had a 6-month gap before the next one. Having been a Commerce student, my understanding of subjects like physics, chemistry and mathematics was not very strong. Unsurprisingly, I failed to clear the Physics exam in the first attempt. I remember clearly how I was marched up to the Commandant and was told that I had lost 6 months because I did not qualify in a subject. The loss of 6 months and having joined 6 months late, was a loss of one year and that hit hard. For anyone else, it might have had a demoralizing effect. However, for me, it was a lesson learnt the hard way. I learnt that nothing comes on a platter, you have to work for it! And if you have to succeed, you have to overcome your shortcomings. Apart from having taught me something, I also formed a close relationship with two batches- the batch with which I joined and the batch with which I graduated. Instead of having 300 course mates from the academy, I’ve got over 600! This is the group of people I can bank on, for anything– we call ourselves 'brothers from different mothers'.
In your Josh Talks episode, you have emphasised largely on the humanitarian aspects of the Armed Forces. While we generally look at people in uniform as tough soldiers, they are also human beings like us. What is your insight on this humanitarian aspect of the Armed Forces?
As an institution, the Armed Forces has an environment wherein everyone is tough, sacrificing, serving in strenuous terrains, and where one is cut off from family and friends. Thus, we form a separate society within ourselves which is cut away from the civil environment, we are in our own cantonments, we are in our small groups where we live and operate together and even pray together! So for us, though it is not officially broadcast in the public domain, being human within ourselves, looking after our own people and caring for those who have served with you is something which is natural. You would never find anyone from the Forces saying that my men and I are cut off from one another. This is because we live together, eat together and face the same difficulties together. In fact, I have always said that the Forces is the only institution that trains leaders and leads leaders. We are one family and for us, the human aspect of a family is something which is very important and a part of our daily routine. This is a part of our human nature which is generally hidden on account of how we project our lives to the public which is in terms of operations, difficult terrains, sacrifices that we make. I felt a need to project this different frame of ours to the public domain to make them understand that we are humans and we come from the same society, we care for our own, we love our own the way you love your own people. I believe that the bonding that we have is far more than you can ever get in any organization or even in most families, for that matter. This is something that I feel needs to be projected and portrayed to the people. Having spoken about the portrayal of the Armed Forces, have you come across certain stereotypes about the Forces advanced in your circles? How do you react to them?
There’s a lot that you hear. There are a lot of people who feel differently about the Armed Forces. You hear comments like, “you are the jamaai of the government”, “you get pensions and are paid to sit back in cantonments”. You hear so much but the question is how many actually realize what you go through. I have hardly been there to see my son grow up. I have been away most of the time. There were times when he had to join college in Bangalore while my wife and I were in different parts of the country and the only means of communication I had was a satellite phone. I had to teach my son how to follow the radio procedures. I could possibly speak to him for about a few minutes every two-three days because that was as long as the telephones would last! There were no mobiles, no other networks. You never heard of any entertainment – the only thing we had were the newly introduced dish which showcased only Doordarshan and Sahara. You had electricity which was working on a generator which would run for two-three hours a day. I can recall that when my mother passed away, I was sitting in Walong and by the time I had reached the base, I was told that she had passed away. Fortunately my Father and brother were both serving officers, and they understood and waited until I arrived which was almost 48 hours later because that is how long it took me to reach. These are aspects that only a few people outside the Forces have to endure. At times it hurts to hear these blanket statements and at times you understand that this is just a lack of understanding and you tend to ignore it.
Sir, you have also been a part of peacekeeping operations in Mozambique. What exactly transpires in a peacekeeping operation and how was your experience for the same?
Peacekeeping operations in different countries come under different forms. In some cases, you are there between two warring forces to ensure that they don’t come in contact. In others, you are there to ensure protection against rebel groups that move in or that are possibly targeting. Mozambique was a very different ball game. In Mozambique, the agreement was between the United Nations and the rebels which entailed that the rebels were to lay down their arms and had to be brought into camps where they were to surrender their weapons till the peace agreement was officially signed. We were the first lot to move into Mozambique and we set up camps in the conflict zone.
The camp that I had set up saw an almost open revolt by the rebels and the surrender of weapons were yet to begin. They were threatening the few peacekeepers who were unarmed in a tent. Now, peacekeepers are unarmed – you have doctors, medical assistants, people catering for logistics among them. It was a very difficult situation. Someone had to take the step because had it not been brought under control; lives would have been lost. The only option was to take the lead. Slowly and steadily things came under control. They agreed, weapons came down and peace was restored. I then had to take the hard step of changing that standard rebel camp into an Army camp and keeping them engaged the whole day, giving them education, benefits in terms of their future settlement and most importantly, a prospect for a brighter tomorrow. The next few months that I spent in the camp, I ensured that the camp followed a schedule so that people had no time to re-plan any such revolt. The handing-in of weapons was the fastest in this camp and we had to keep demanding boxes to stock the weapons and move them out. The end result was that when I left finally to come back to India, these same soldiers who revolted the very first day of my arrival, lined up in a sort of ramshackle parade only to bid me farewell for the work which had been done. It was again a similar humanitarian approach because you cared for them, looked after them, gave them a future to think about – whether it was education or farming. We gave them something to look forward to and the moment we started doing that, we realized that anywhere people respond to you when you take care of their needs. This was maintained there also and ultimately, it was a major benefit.
Tell us something about the operations that you had handled in the J & K area as well as in the North East.
In J&K, we were predominantly involved in the initial phases in the early 90s when the militancy was rising. We were handling the Rajouri Punj sector in the rear areas as that was an important inlet for militants. We’ve had regular encounters, we have been able to ensure that there was no loss of lives in terms of the civilian population. We have been able to ensure that we were able to secure our own people as well. We had taken militants in, arrested them and neutralized them, if need be. We have been able to do that only because the men who worked and operated with you, had your confidence as you were leading them. I established a rapport with all the village heads around which ensured that anything – even the slightest bit of information came to us well in time so that we could react appropriately. It is only by getting the cooperation of the people whom you are responsible for and the people who operate under you that can you really achieve success. At the end of the day, that is what gave me success.
My first tenure in the North East was as a Second Lieutenant and I had just about got commissioned into the Force. That time we were involved in flood relief in the Assam agitation. We were also responsible for the protection of the Digboi Oil Refinery. When I was commanding in Walong, I had my troops spread all the way from Walong to Tezpur – some were responsible for protecting the lines of communication including the bridges and others in counter-insurgency operations. That was a tough phase because there were vehicles moving all over and given the terrain, there were stretches where ambushes could be laid. There were areas where patrols were sent into the jungles that moved for 7 to 14 days at a stretch. I was almost always on the move. The aim was to be visible, to be seen, to continue building confidence, ensuring what people needed was always available to them and building an atmosphere where the administrative forces enabled the people to function in their routine lives.
At the end of the day, when I completed my tenure after 3 and a half years of commanding my unit, we had no casualties, we were able to complete everything that was given to us and we achieved our successes well, we ensured that we had no accidents and these are, I think for me, the signs that my men and I have bonded, we got what we wanted, achieved our results and at the end of the day we’ve been able to deliver what the nation expected of us.
There is a lot of discourse around Kashmir and the presence of the Military and Paramilitary in Kashmir in popular media today. As an officer who has served on ground level in Kashmir, what was your dynamic like with the civilians? How did they view the uniformed officers of the Indian Army?
See, when you go into the valley, you will always be referred to as, “Aap India se aaye ho” . You had radio Kashmir. You never had All India Radio. Although that feeling was there, it was not a feeling of alienation or distancing which arose rather later as the radicalization increased and a feeling of religion crept in. This sort of a change with Kashmiri Pandits leaving and with the massacre of the 400 Kashmiri Pandits brought about a change in the atmosphere of the locals. But yet, no matter what the change was, the only savior to them was the Army. This was because we were the go between the local public and the state administration. The anger was largely towards the state. The Army came in between. That was the kind of system that was set in place. Unfortunately, it was being exploited by a lot of people
What were the times when you had been most proud of the men and women that you served with?
The one time that you are in closest contact with your men is when you command the unit. On 28th July, 1981, with barely two years of service, I joined my unit in Bikaner where it was being raised. On the very first day, we were barely four to five officers and about five to six men who landed up with no place to sleep, to eat, to sit. We started from scratch. We contributed from our pockets to buy a cooking stove, to buy the basic requirements for a mandir which was the first and the foremost requirement. We pulled out the drawers of the table to sit on them and plan for the way ahead. We even needed paper to note down our further course of action. The unit that I raised in 1981 was the same one that I commanded from 1999 to 2002. That was a time that made me proud because I had seen it grow and when I commanded it, it was 17 years old and I took it till it was 22! I took it through the late teens (smiles) where I saw it grow and mature in a wonderful manner. And the fact that they call you even today, either at times of a crisis or an occasion, that sort of a feeling is what remains with an individual all through life.
Did you have anyone in the Army whom you looked upto; someone you could call your role model?
Yes, my first boss, a Brigadier who is now retired and settled in Chennai. He was the one who gave me some life lessons that have stayed with me all these years and can apply to anyone - officers or civilians. The first thing he said was – if a soldier can call you “sahab”, the least you can do is call him “aap”. The second – it is not your rank that counts, it is experience. A jawan who has got a greater service than you, will have more experience than you. Learn from it. The third – You will only learn if you make mistakes. That is the only way for you to pick up and learn. It was because of this strong footing given by my senior that I learnt things from a very different perspective. A cook in the Army kitchen and a Commanding Officer, in spite of their tremendously different worlds, goes through their own set of problems, has his/her own experiences and would like to be treated and understood in a kind and positive manner. This is a lesson that I carried through my days in uniform and now, although not in uniform anymore, these values remain close to my heart as do several other aspects of my life in the Fauj.