For those veterans, serving officers and defence commentators who felt that voicing professional opinion in the army was an increasingly risky proposition, a bold though anguished letter of a Commanding Officer (CO) surfacing after 17 years has brought a sharp and public focus to the issue.
Former Northern Army commander Lt Gen HS Panag (retd) tweeted on Wednesday the CO’s letter to his then Brigade Commander and it attracted immediate attention and comment from the vocal community of veterans because the CO had dared to put on record his views: That his Commander’s professional counselling letter to him was to be “treated with the contempt it deserves”.
Here’s the letter tweeted by Lt Gen HS Panag (retd):
An example of moral courage! pic.twitter.com/kmWwzUofpc— Lt Gen H S Panag(R) (@rwac48) June 22, 2016
The CO also accepted responsibility for the encounter and had put in his papers early. Gleeful veterans rejoiced at the letter going public, declaring it “probably the most badass letter from a CO ever”!
Former 15 Corps Commander, Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd) tweeted: “Some moral courage one must say. Haven’t seen anything like this in 40 years.”
Reacting to then Pathankot-headquartered 90 Infantry Brigade Commander KS Dalal’s counselling missive of September 16, 1999, the then CO of 5 Sikh Col Jaipalan Santhanam wrote back the same month: “The allegations made in your letter are just your opinions and conjectures. You are entitled to it. The simple facts are that the unit got information about the militants through its own sources, established contact, maintained contact, used minimum force to avoid civilian carnage, suffered minimum casualties, did not lose its nerve or chutzpah, evacuated its casualties in an efficient manner, captured and killed the militants. Your comments and conclusions are the typical manifestation of a shaken and unnerved hierarchy trying to pass the buck and cover its tracks. So be it.”
Sons of an army officer, Colonel Santhanam and all four of his siblings joined the army, with one, Kashinathan, awarded a Shaurya Chakra posthumously. Colonel Santhanam wrote further: “But remember Commanders do not demand victories from their subordinates; they create environment/situations where possibilities of success increase. They stand by their subordinates. It’s incredible that neither you nor the GOC have found the time to meet the officers, JCOs and the men and have a word with them, and instead started issuing threats and unsubstantiated charges even before the heat of the encounter has died down. If this be the attitude of the elders, the day is not far off when no CO or junior leader will ever dare to display the courage or initiative to establish contact and close in with the enemy. Acceptance of responsibility is the crux of leadership. I accept responsibility for the whole incident and if need be, offer my resignation and premature release from service,” wrote Col Santhanam.
Col Santhanam did put in his papers for premature resignation and is now a managing director of a security and consulting services firm in Bangalore. Col Santhanam refused comment though his brother, Col Narsimhan Santhanam (retd) told HT: “I don’t know how the letter has come out in public domain.”
Lt Gen Panag told HT: “Yes, this is not a common letter. While the subordinate officers do accept the views of seniors, they are also expected to voice professional opinion. But there is the fear of being ‘fixed’ by seniors if contrary views are expressed.” Adds his brother, Maj Gen CS Panag (retd), who also served with 5 Sikh: “Yes, the CO did put in his papers after the tiff with the Brigade Commander.”