Corps of Signals 100th Anniversary
1911 - 2011

Photographs and Report on 14th Reunion at Jablapur: 13- 15 Feb 2011

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Of Sparrows and Straws: Innovative ideas or agreeing with the boss?

Army led by deer or lion?
by Ajai Shukla Business Standard, 17th Apr 12
On Sunday the army chief, General V K Singh, raised an intriguing question while talking to schoolchildren in Jaipur. “An army of deer led by a lion is to be feared more than [an] army of lions led by a deer,” said the general.
My first thought as I mulled over this profundity was: can a deer that has served all his life in an army full of deer suddenly transform into a lion at the top? Alternatively, could a lion serving in an army full of deer be promoted somehow to the top slot?
Common sense would rule out both eventualities. An army full of deer would only promote a deer to the top, just as an army of lions would always have a lion in command. But the Indian Army presents a paradoxical third alternative. The numerous lions in this excellent army serve up to a certain rank. Then, around the time they become colonels or brigadiers, something strange happens: the lions start turning into deer!
The General V K Singh affair illuminates the generals in a harsh and unforgiving light. The generals emerge as riven with infighting; they undermine meritocracy by promoting loyalists; and, perhaps most worryingly, they compromise the army’s readiness for war by meekly acquiescing in crippling shortfalls of equipment and ammunition.
Over a drink, ask any junior or mid-ranking officer, and you will find disillusionment with senior commanders and with a working environment that rewards the safe and predictable rather than the bold and unexpected. Recent controversies have exacerbated murmurs that generals only think about themselves. Talk to the generals, on the other hand, and they express disappointment over the “poor quality” of young officers. There is a clear disconnect between the two ends of the rank pyramid, between the lions and the deer.
This observation is fraught with personal danger, since my army batch-mates have just been evaluated, and many of them cleared, for promotion to major general! Knowing these gentlemen as intimately as a course-mate, comrade and friend of many years does, I acknowledge with some satisfaction that the army has homed in on the high achievers. But identifying good lions is of little use if they begin turning into deer.
At a time when many soldiers – serving and retired – bitterly regard themselves as under attack from the defence ministry, the media, and even the judiciary, it is time for India’s finest and most resilient institution to look within rather than without. What are the systemic flaws in the army structure that disempowers its leaders and binds them in mental shackles?
The first is a growing culture of conformity: an intolerance of alternative viewpoints that is the natural attribute of under-confident commanders. This causes the boss’ viewpoint (itself springing from what he thinks his boss’ viewpoint might be) to become the viewpoint of everyone down the chain — effectively killing any prospect of internal reform. The system cannot be challenged from within, since any discussion about alternative leadership models presupposes that the existing model might be less than perfect.
It is nobody’s case that the army should encourage dissent; no military does. But great armies tolerate, and actively encourage, non-conformism. This is essential, not just for operational innovativeness that would keep the enemy guessing in war, but also for throwing up essential bottom-up challenges to the status quo. Totalitarian Conformism, as today’s army leadership style might be termed, reduces the landscape of professional and personal creativity to a dull wasteland where the fabled “dashing young officer” is marked not by flashes of innovative genius but by his quickness in agreeing with the boss.
Young officers allow themselves to be bound by these shackles because of the army’s insularity. Segregated from the world outside, and with little realisation of their actual worth, junior officers are reluctant to buck the system. Given the conviction that promotion is the only measure of success, they toe the line rather than risk professional hara-kiri by setting out to change the system. Their outlook can only change with exposure. Sending out junior officers on secondments and deputations – with academic institutions; successful government enterprises; media organisations; the police forces – will enrich the military’s bloodline with external leadership and decision-making cultures. It will also provide officers with the confidence that is required to challenge the status quo and to create a bottom-up dynamic that forces the generals to respond like lions rather than continue like deer.
Will the generals permit such a change? Most probably not since empowering junior officers and encouraging non-conformism are threatening prospects. Good reasons are ready at hand to shoot down such “unworkable” and “impractical” ideas: a shortage of officers; inter-se seniority issues during secondment; and so on. It would, therefore, be necessary for the government to intervene. We’re waiting for Godot.
The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was used by the Germans to describe the British army during World War I. It encapsulated their impression of incompetent generals letting down the brave and dedicated British soldier.
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Remembering Lt Gen Balaram: Scarcely one sees a Signal of officer of his calibre

A true Role Model for the youth of the Nation
Maj Gen Balaram succeeded Maj Gen Mohinder Singh as Commandant Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) Wellington in 1982 soon after we reported for the staff course. Maj Gen Mohinder Singh used to run DSSC with a firm hand. For mid career young officers it was a great achievement to be selected for the course and a feather in one's cap to be graded DS (Directing Staff) material. Gen Mohinder Singh's legacy was that officers must be taught to obey rules and regulations scrupulously and any deviation or slackness would invite adverse comment / negative marking. The introductory talk by the BGS to us was overawing. It was the jewel which crowned the very surgically precise joining instructions which we had received earlier. Constantly improved over years of feedback and experience, the DSSC joining instructions are a role-model of outstanding staff work and minor SDs. Everything in them is well thought out. Detailed instructions & guidelines are articulated in well formed centre headings, group and para headings, using words & language which leaves no room for doubt.
The list of Donts spelt out by the BGS in his welcoming speech was exhaustive. It made us white uniform walllahs sit up and re-think whether we were really going to enjoy a year's sabbatical from the navy. We had all dreamt of a welcome break from the tough navy life and a year of regular family life in the exotic surroundings of a beautiful, quaint old hill station in the Nilgiris where time is reported to stand still.
Soon we began to reminisce about our initial days at NDA and about taut army discipline once again You see, the naval service is quite informal in many respects. One does not have to stand to attention all the time while speaking to senior officers; passing salutes are generally exchanged only upto noon and when they are, it is not necessary that you have a cap on your head, and so on. The coastal climate does not encourage one to invest in three-piece suits or many silk Saree's for the spouse....We felt a wee bit stifled at regimented routine and the lack of creative freedom.
But our fears were short-lived. Maj Gen Balaram came on to the scene without a swagger and swatch. A quiet unassuming, studious looking senior officer, he quietly observed the daily life for a couple of days and then made an unforgettable speech which showed how humane and perceptive he was. We took our seats in the main auditorium well before the appointed time, decked in our Sunday best, dreading what was to come. Though young in service, we were well-aware that traditionally a new hand at the helm always meant an across-the board tightening-up in any service. There was an unusual silence as we awaited the customary pep talk and a pronouncement of a fresh list of dos & don ts by the new commandant.

But what he said that evening remains forever etched in my memory. He spoke in fatherly terms and advised us to make use of the opportunity to spend a year with our family in that wonderful place to renew bonds with family and make new friends. He advised us to study hard, think creatively, question the 'greens' (the staff solutions) and come up with better ones. In our spare times we should play hard and utilise the recreational facilities of the institution to the fullest. He told us that our Directing Staff were mature senior officers who knew how to recognise the potential in us and that we should not be too-conscious of our gradings by them. We should consider them our gurud who were there to guide us to develop skills and abilities to become assets as future staff officers in higher formations.

He informed us that recognising that we were all fairly senior and mature officers, he had issued a specific directive to his staff earlier in the day. The staff were there to assist and guide us to develop our full potential. Henceforth, they were required to minimise the burden and routine chores of 'personal adm' from our shoulders so that we could devote our energies to the primary task of studying. He streamlined the requisitioning of transport to ferry the sick and the womenfolk from far off residential areas like Gorkha Hills and ensured easy access to medical facilities for the families so that we did not have to absent from class for these purposes. The doorstep supply of service rations and daily necessities from the market (Needs, near MRC) etc etc also became well organised and left the men-folk with more time and energy to think and turn in better solutions.
Above all (and this was a stunner) he said he had issued instructions that no one in the college had the power to say 'No' to the mature and responsible officers undergoing staff course. The buck for turning down a request for a sudden trip to Coimbatore to receive a family member, to take a couple of days leave to see an ailing parent, to requisition transport etc etc stopped at the Commandant's desk. If you got a No, it meant that it was his considered decison as head of our family and must be obeyed. All other officers of the DSSC had the power only to say YES and with that was implied their responsibility to ensure that students never faced problems - personal or professional.
It was a great thought. We worked hard and we played hard. Personally, I felt that the overall quality of our professional output notched up many times.
I practiced his philosophy about the power to say no in subsequent life and always had good results. It was a facet of leadership that he had passed on to us.
In the evening of his life sometimes I met Gen Balaram in a seminar or in the lawns of the Delhi Gymkhana Club. It was always an honour to re-introduce myself every time and to thank him for that unforgettable year in DSSC. Ever the courteous and caring senior officer, he never forgot to enquire about my well-being and about my family as if he knew them. Though in failing health himself, he always said that although he was not sure what he could do for me, I should feel free to call on my former commandant for a helping hand.
If memory serves me right, once after his retirement he was hand-picked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to personally assess the ground truth and give her a factual account of what had happened in Orissa - I seem to recall that it was a case of starvation deaths or atrocities on dalits and that the administration was trying to cover it up. She probably trusted the General's sense of fairplay and his integrity to put in a true report of the reality as he saw it.
As a naval officer I salute my old commandant. I am fortunate that I got a chance to meet him. May his soul rest in peace and may his spirit guide us to develop our faculties for original and creative thinking. Perhaps I may yet invent a follow-on to the famous Balaram aerial!
Best regards,
(Cdr Arun Saigal)

Is there any Serving Signal Officer of his Calibre?
Lt General Balaram was only vice chancellor of the oldest university of Haryana who practised austerity and bridled the unbridled in the university whether in the teaching fraternity or in the categories of employees. He was the administrator who suspended an IAS Registrar Rajiv Arora and got his almirahs broke open in his absence where some important files were locked, just a few days before the expiry of his three year tenure. The Fauji Balaram was the VC who denied access to university auditorium to the then Prime Minister late Chander Shekhar who was to address a workers rally in the presence of the then Haryana CM Om Prakash Chautala. Although the District Magistrate used his special powers and acquisited the auditorium. The hand-over and take-over was done by the junior officers of the university and the district administration. Unlike today's vice chancellors in the country, Lt. General Balaram made his way to Delhi to attend a meeting and did not bother even to receive the PM at the helipad in the university sports grounds itself.

Balaram used to walk to his office and back on Thursdays during the Iran-Iraq war to save petrol, a call given by the union ministry those days. He could venture sliding beneath his official car to repair it during the lunch break and then board it after stretching his safari suit which could be seen with torn stitches under the cockpits. He never availed any free medicines from the University Health centre , rather he was the VC who paid a cheque of five thousand rupees to the university in lieu of the reimbursement of medical bills despite the repeated requests to the contrary from the then SMO Dr Mrs S Maleyvar.

He was so popular amongst teaching fraternity and also amongst employees that on his retirement, a ceremonial departure was performed by pulling the ropes tied to his car and a send-off was given at the Oasis at Karnal after which his convoy was escorted upto Delhi by the representatives of teachers and employees. His last words of advice to the university people were : 'Save this prestigious university from unscrupulous people if you can, let it flourish to blossom fully
Lt Gen Balaram