Obituary: General Krishnaswami Sundarji

KRISHNASWAMI SUNDARJI was India's most brilliant, ambitious and controversial chief of army staff, who during a little over two years in office committed the army to a disastrous peace-keeping campaign in Sri Lanka and on at least two occasions brought India close to war with Pakistan and China. Known as the "thinking general", the whisky-sipping Sundarji also raised the mechanised infantry regiment and was responsible for re-organising the army's functioning and laborious equipment procurement policies.

But Sundarji was vilified for committing the expeditionary Indian Peace Keeping Force, the IPKF, to Sri Lanka to disarm Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for independence following a bilateral treaty between the two neighbours in 1987. Armed with little or no intelligence regarding the rebels, the Indian army walked into a virtual trap laid by the highly committed Tigers in the north and east of the island. It took the IPKF over two years to extricate itself from Sri Lanka having failed in its mission, but only after suffering an unusually high casualty rate and covering itself with ignominy.

The irrepressible Sundarji also organised Operation Brasstacks, India's largest ever military exercise in the late 1980s, in northern and western India, seriously raising tensions with Pakistan who feared an attack under the guise of peacetime manoeuvres. Brasstacks was aimed at cutting the southern Pakistani province of Sindh in two to make it easy for India to thrust into Pakistan's heartland of Punjab.

Sundarji also planned a covert, albeit cynical, winter offensive against Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in which he was willing to take an exceptionally high casualty rate in snowbound, inhospitable terrain at heights of over 14,000 feet to resolve the Kashmir dispute over which the nuclear-capable neighbours have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947. He achieved the near impossible task of ferrying tanks to a height of nearly 13,000 feet for the bold operation but at the last minute was ordered to call it off by the perspicacious Rajiv Gandhi.

Fighting also escalated during Sundarji's tenure as army chief along the 20,000-feet-high Siachen glacier, the world's highest battle ground, claimed by both India and Pakistan, where hundreds of soldiers have died since the early 1980s in cross-border firing and from exposure to temperatures that average 30 degrees Celsius below freezing. Nearly two Indian soldiers die every day on Siachen as the posts they occupy are higher and colder than those held by Pakistan.

The confrontation over Siachen is a financial burden for both sides, totalling around $2m a day. India's outlay, however, is higher as everything is flown in by helicopter. According to official estimates one chapatti (unleavened bread), staple food for soldiers, costs over 12 rupees (16 pence), or 80 times its normal cost.

Sundarji also raised the ante with China - with whom India fought a disastrous war in 1962 over a territorial dispute that remains unresolved - during two exercises, Operation Checker Board and the follow-on Operation Falcon along the eastern front in the late 1980s.

He strongly advocated India becoming a nuclear weapon state, frequently detailing in newspapers and at seminars the exact number of missiles it would need to build an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction to deal with Pakistan and China.

In 1984, as head of Western Command, Sundarji planned Operation Bluestar to flush out armed Sikh separatists hiding in the Golden Temple in Sikhism's holy city of Amritsar in the north. The disastrously executed operation in which over 500 people including around 80 soldiers and scores of women and children died, ended after 72 hours of fierce fighting when tanks were brought in.

Operation Woderose, the mop-up exercise that followed to apprehend terrorists across Punjab state, alienated the entire Sikh population. It led eventually to the assassination of the prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards in October 1984 followed by the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi and other north Indian cities in which over 5,000 people - mainly Sikhs - were murdered.

But Sundarji was involved in controversies other than operational. He was a major player in the import of 410 howitzers from Sweden in the mid- 1980s in which kickbacks of over $200m were allegedly paid to Indian officials and politicians. The complex Bofors case, which is still under investigation, led to the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi's Congress government and tarnished the image of India's military, considered till then to be above corruption.

Born into a high-caste Brahmin family in southern India in 1928, Sundarji graduated from Madras Christian College and joined the British- Indian army in 1945, two years before independence. He was commissioned into the prestigious Mahar infantry regiment a year later and posted to the North West Frontier Province (now in Pakistan) to quell restive Pathan tribesmen forever at war with the colonial administration. Thereafter he was posted to the disputed, northern Kashmir state of which Pakistan forcibly occupied a third in 1947 before it was halted by the Indian army.

He attended the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington in southern India in 1959 and after a series of command and staff postings was part of the United Nations armed contingent to the Congo in the early Sixties. As chief of staff of the Katanga command combating rebels, he was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry.

On returning home in 1963 Sundarji took command of an infantry battalion and participated in the second war with Pakistan in 1965, again over Kashmir. A tenure as instructor at the Staff College, Wellington was followed by the US Army Command and General Staff course at Fort Leavenworth. He graduated from the National Defence College in Delhi in 1971 and was posted as brigadier, General Staff of a corps involved in the 1971 operations against the Pakistani army in East Pakistan that broke away to become Bangladesh.

In 1976 Sundarji became the first infantry officer to command an armoured division. During his three-year tenure he realised his ambition of raising the desperately needed mechanised infantry regiment and was a forceful member of the committee reorganising the army before being promoted to lieutenant-general and becoming deputy chief of army staff. After two years as general officer commanding-in-chief Western Command during which he planned Operation Bluestar, Sundarji became vice-chief of army staff then chief in 1986.

Till he retired 26 months later he did more than any army chief before or after. Criticised by many for his naked ambition and aggression, Sundarji's simple answer was "I have to aim for the moon". After retirement he completed his masters in defence studies at Madras University and remained in the limelight by admitting that he had been pressured to opt for the Swedish howitzer by the government. In his 1993 book Blind Men of Hindoostan - Indo-Pak nuclear war, he wrote a fictional account of a nuclear war between the two neighbours that came chillingly close to reality.

An engaging and charming conversationalist Krishnaswami Sundarji was a keen gardener and a wild-life enthusiast who lived under "Z", the highest category of security, surrounded by army commandos for his involvement in Operation Bluestar and in Sri Lanka.

Krishnaswami Sundarji, soldier: born 30 April 1928; Deputy Chief of Army Staff 1981-82; general officer commanding-in-chief, Western Command 1983-86; vice-chief of army staff 1985-86; army chief 1986-88; married (one son, one daughter); died New Delhi 8 February 1999.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment