Agniveer, the Regimental Spirit and the Indianisation of the Indian Army

In 2004 General SS Mehta suggested a permanent integration of Armoured Regiments and Mechanised Infantry battalions. Most COs of old units of both armoured corps and mechanised infantry were sceptical of the proposal.

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Brig Sanjay Sangwan
Brig Sanjay Sangwan
Brig Sanjay Sangwan (Retd.) is an Indian Army Armoured Corps Veteran and has commanded an Armoured Regiment and an infantry brigade on the Western Border with Pakistan. * Views are personal.

While preparing for Staff College in the mid-90s, I read an article in Outlook/ Sunday which quoted a Rand Incorporation study on the Indian Army, making two pertinent observations. First was that IA is a victim of Protocol; secondly, IA has too many thinkers and few Doers. It immediately resonated with my experiences as a young Major and immediately became a guiding principle for me. I have tried to be a Doer in my professional and personal life, and in most circumstances of application, it has proved beneficial. From the vigorous execution of operational staff work in the Rashtriya Rifles to the operationalisation of discarded Vijayant tanks on the orders of Gen SS Mehta – Western Army Commander during Operation Parakram, to the receipt and operationalisation of T-90 tanks, including operational benchmarking and technical shortcoming rectification with Rosoboronexport and Thales, to operational planning in Punjab, being a Doer has aided in assessing an issue thoroughly and ensuring its resolution.

Change is the only constant in life, and technology has compressed space and time and synergised diverse fields, thereby hastening the pace of change which demands greater flexibility and adaptability, and we see the impact all around us. Militaries tend to work on traditions and customs, which are proven as it facilitates continuity and integration of new members with a fair degree of assurance of outcomes. Hence it is said that “more difficult than getting a new idea into a military mind is to get an old one out”. It is partially due to our aversion to change and want to remain in our comfort zone and partly due to the human defence mechanism and structure of our neuro system, in which the initial reaction is an emotional one, followed by a few milliseconds of logical analysis. The profession of arms and warfare demands a certain degree of rigidity and unquestioned adherence inculcated by tradition and customs, but modern technology is changing that need too.

 In 2004 General SS Mehta suggested a permanent integration of Armoured Regiments and Mechanised Infantry battalions instead of coming together to form combat groups and teams just before an operation. It would have facilitated better integration, joint training during peace, and a better understanding amongst the members. All Brigade Commanders and Commanding Officers (COs) of Mechanised Forces were grouped into syndicates, not per reporting hierarchy, to elicit honest opinions and all senior officers were moderators in the discussion. Most COs of old units of both armoured corps and mechanised infantry were somewhat sceptical of the proposal, fearing a loss of heritage, customs, and traditions. Our syndicate supported integration on the understanding that unit names, battle honours, traditions and customs will not be affected, nor will their heirloom be taken away. On the other hand, living together, sharing everything, and training together will result in greater integration and professionalism.

I dare say our syndicate leader was from one of the most decorated and illustrious units of the Army. During the discussion, the house seemed divided, and as a leading supporter of integration, a challenge was thrown to me if I was willing to try exchanging a subunit for a month. I accepted it immediately though mine was a very young regiment, having been raised in 1984, while the unit I was exchanging a subunit with was an old one raised in 1887 and with an illustrious history, battle honours and war trophies. Their mess was a veritable museum. Both units were sent across a subunit each; lock, stock and barrel and trained as new entities for a month. The little confusion we faced was in the maintenance and repair aspects due to an increased inventory of spares and broader technical expertise, which too settled soon. 

Although the trial seemed successful, it had to be shelved, given continued resistance to change. Interestingly, one officer who had voiced an opinion against the integration then changed his view 15 years later when he was a corps commander and had been exposed to the Integrated Battle Group concept. Some changes need to be experienced for acceptance.

The veteran’s group has demonstrated great opposition to the Agniveer and now to the removal of colonial-era markers. Resistance as the first response is predictable. I, too, had initially written against Agniveer, but as I considered its implications from a broader national perspective in the country’s current environment and did not limit myself to a military standpoint, I came to see that the benefits outweighed the risks, including for the military, and wrote a second article supporting it a few days later. In a nutshell, only the military can complete the mission for the desired changes.

Eventually, I reduced the understanding of the variations in responses to three variable factors impacting the cumulative view. These are a ‘Combined Pol-Eco-Social Perspective’ (P) with a Global/ National perspective on the higher end and a purely Military/ Local perspective on the lower end. The second factor impacting is the ‘Personal Inclination’ (I) of the commentator, with the two extremes being Aggressive and Passive. The third factor influencing the commentator’s final view is his ‘Selected Depth of Understanding.’ (U) With over three decades of experience in uniform, all veterans have a detailed understanding of most military issues; however, his personal experience makes him predisposed to accept or resist the proposed change, and he chooses issues accordingly, hence the ‘Selected Depth of Experience.’ An interactive combination of these three positions gives the final position in support of or against the proposal. 

Agniveer resistence chart
Agniveer resistence chart

I have made a simple model explaining it as given below. There can be eight blocks or positions with varying combinations of the three factors. Block 3 represents the Aggressive view supporting the policy, while Block 4 represents the most vocal resistance. Blocks 1 and 2 are somewhat hesitant voices. 5 and 6 are loud but casual, while 7 & 8 are subdued views. It is not doubting the competence or experiences of the writer but indicates the position his beliefs make him take. Like most life lies in shades of grey and not in pure black or white, this policy would have a few solid points and possibly a few weaknesses too. A lot would depend on the diligence of execution and reducing gaps between expectations and delivery. That lies mainly in the hands of the serving people, regimental centres, units and formations. The initial response of the youth is quite encouraging. 

Since the proposed changes influence the known strength of IA, it raises a valid question on what constitutes Heritage, Customs and Traditions. The best traditions inherited from the British are the Regimental System and its corollary, ‘the Regimental Spirit,’ according to Gen Hanut Singh, the leader of mechanised warfare in India. It is this spirit which binds disparate people and disparate communities into one close-knit family. And these ties endure, not only while in service but beyond that into retirement. The Regiment and the Regimental Spirit are great heritage; it is this heritage we must nurture, for, as the Regimental spirit is alive, so long will the Regiment live.’ At the core of this spirit is trust and bonhomie amongst all ranks.

The Oxford dictionary defines heritage as the traditions, qualities and culture that have existed for a long time and have great importance for the country. On the surface, the Indian cultural legacy seems to be older, more abundant, and more robust than the history of units and formations; therefore, the move essentially entails shifting to the broader Indian heritage. Here it pertains to the units that form the operational Army’s primary block. Like any other organisation, army units have an internal environment and culture. Subject to the ethnicity of troops, customs and traditions may vary a bit. But the result is an environment of professionalism, bonhomie and trust weaving all personnel into a close-knit family, which continues post-retirement and for generations through sons opting for the same unit because of an assurance that their interests will be looked after. The Army, despite its hardships, offers one of the most honourable, clean and attractive life in the country with a good remuneration package.

Even a young regiment like mine boasts of three generations having served, and more definitely would come. That results from a bond built amongst the members during peacetime, which gets reinforced during operations. Getting an opportunity to go in for operations is a matter of chance and multiple other factors, but that does not imply that units not exposed to operations aren’t professional or are any less potent. Rashtriya Rifles is a proven case. Even in peace, the military has its means of assessment of a unit’s efficacy through exercises, inspections and impromptu tasking, apart from the performance analysis of other peacetime activities like sports, aid to civil authorities, disaster relief operations and other administrative activities. Taking an example of my own Regiment, we haven’t had an opportunity to go into operations being a young tank regiment, but we have benchmarked the T-90 performance, which is yet to be improved upon, and I am sure in the event of war, we will emerge victorious.

Battle honours and awards add to honour and pride but can traditions like crests and names of British royalty or officers be critical to the morale and self-worth of the units? Likewise, do glamorous uniforms add to morale? Till the 80s, the Quarter Guard standard, which was largely drill, paint and polish, used to be an essential component of annual inspections, but by the 90s, it was changed to working dress instead of ceremonials and then even combat dress and finally the visit to Quarter Guards by the inspecting officer almost stopped since they had no material impact on unit’s operational or administrative efficiency. 

Similarly, Dinner Nights in Officers Mess was a significant event but gradually shifted focus to mobilisation and operational aspects. Our Corps Commander, in 2007, mobilised our Division HQ and deployed us tactically for the annual inspection. His logic was simple, if the HQ can mobilise in time and be functional for 72 hours, then administration and logistics are in shape. In 1956 when words of command for drill were being changed to Hindi from English, there was lots of resistance, but today Hindi words of command come naturally to all men in uniform. 

Traditions like glamorous uniforms, shiny Quarter Guards, Beating the Retreat, and British names do not serve any functional purpose today. Maintaining all these is a burden in today’s hectic environment in terms of effort and resources. It doesn’t mean we don’t maintain them, but they could be given an Indian identity based on unit, regiment, or corps heroes. Europeans have given up these and have simple uniforms with badges of rank and other embellishments made of cloth that are maintenance-free. 

The focus has to shift from appearances to greater functional efficiency. There are two broad styles of command, authoritative (autocratic) based on legal authority was preferred by the British commanders to govern the armies comprising poor native soldiers as it suited them better, and glamour was an inherent part of it. Post-independence and with Indian officers replacing the British, the Autocratic style gradually was replaced by the Inspirational style of the command executed through personal example and leading from the front. 

There should be just two uniforms to maximise functioning – the Combat Dress and an Office Dress that may be worn in the mess. Of course, a regimental games dress is necessary. Aspects like Army Law may be tweaked for the odd technical lacuna, but the essence shouldn’t be tinkered with, or else it will become like Indian Penal Code – ineffective. Battle Honours such as 1857 may be replaced since it is now considered the First Battle of Independence, but others must survive, along with regimental histories and war trophies/relics gained by forebears of units by sheer bravery and determination.

Shifting parades like the Army Day parade to new venues every year would encourage the development of these second and third-rung cities and expose newer segments of the populace who have had nil or very little exposure to the military.

More important is to make it a participative exercise and let the units and regiments/ formations decide on the changes they deem fit. It would also make the entire process better accepted and facilitate smooth implementation.      


  1. This is just an academic coverage of why change is resisted by the military mind !
    Does Not touch at all the core of the problem – the shortcomings and pitfalls of the Agniveer scheme and how it is going to affect the Armed Forces. Disappointing.

  2. This article is seems to come from someone uninformed. He does not even know that the parade is called Beating Retreat and not Beating the Retreat. Pre independence Battle Honours and Theatre Honours have already been shed for the last 30 years or more. Only President’s Colours are paraded now with post ‘47 Honours. Do away with these also then as troops no longer have to rally round the commander. Do away wth Mess regimens and you will have single officers eating out of broken tin plates in their rooms. My personal views.


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