TRIBUTE TO THE ORIGINAL THINKING GENERAL

Lt Gen Eric Vas.

15 May 1923-18 Aug 2009

 

By

Colonel (Dr.) Anil Athale,

Chatrapati Shivji Fellow of the USI & Coord of Pune bases think tank INPAD.

He is the co-author of official history of Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962.

 

 

The year was 1960, the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ slogan had lost much its sheen. There were clashes on Ladakh- Tibet border. Having gracelessly removed General Thimmya and superseding General SPS Thorat, Krishna Menon and his chosen coterie ruled the roost. In a bizarre twist to the drama, some armchair Generals thought of a ‘brilliant’ idea of pressuring the Chinese on the Eastern front in Arunachal Pradesh (the erstwhile NEFA or North East Frontier Agency). It fell to the lot of Eric Vas, then a Lieutenant Colonel in command of first Nine Gorkha Rifles battalion to be the first regular battalion to be inducted in Towang area. Earlier the border was sparsely manned by the Assam Rifles men, a para-military outfit. The journey to Towang and the border was over 300 kms, mainly mule tracks through one of the toughest terrain.

 

Vas was given the ‘task’ of defending Towang district, having area larger than the state of Kerala, and with less than 400 men at the end of a long, tenuous line of communications. There were shortages of all kinds, from boots and warm clothing to ammunition. Eric Vas decided to do something about it. Since there was shortage of even paper to write on, he wrote a letter on a ‘chapati’ to the higher ups highlighting the shortages and warning that the Indian army was in no position to take on the Chinese unless these were rectified.

 

At a time when ‘the Chinese will not attack’ was a mantra that substituted for realistic strategies, Vas became a marked man for speaking the truth. There was furore in Parliament, opposition MPs (who were to turn 180 degrees later) raised the issue of lack of ‘discipline’ in the army! Eric Vas was moved from his command and posted to Mumbai in NCC, regarded as a punishment posting.

 

But in less than a years time the Chinese attacked and the Indian army suffered major reverses in NEFA. All the Krishna Menon cronies and he himself was sacked and a professional soldier like Manekshaw took over the reins in NEFA. The army HQ fished out Eric Vas from Mumbai, promoted him to a Brigadier’s rank. He never looked back after that and reached the rank of Army Commander East from where he retired in May 1981.

The reason to narrate this story in full is snide remarks often passed against the retired Soldiers who are active and at times critical of current policies.  that why were they silent while in service! General Eric Vas was an exception to this as the story above illustrates.

Vas was an exception to the adage that ‘Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away’. He was fully engaged in contributing to the nation with his incisive ideas on security issues. But I am jumping the gun………

 

Eric Vas was an alumni of the famous St Patrick’s school in Karachi (a few years senior to L K Advani and several years before General Musharraf ). His father was a prominent Physician of Karachi and part of the family is even now in Pakistan. Eric Vas, an officer of the Baluch Regiment had the option to stay back, in fact the then Governor of Sindh tired his level best in that direction. But Eric Vas was clear on one issue, he did not wish to stay on in a ‘theocratic state’. All the hullaballoo about ‘secular’ Jinnah etc of recent days notwithstanding, Eric clearly saw the direction Pakistan was going and opted for India.   

 

He took part in the ongoing operations in J&K in 1947-48 and acquitted himself credibly.  He wrote a delightful account of his experiences as a young Major in his book ‘Without Baggage’ that is a standard work for young officer’s education today. He was always known for his intellectual ability and in one of his course reports a British officer had remarked, ‘An extremely intelligent and conceited officer-with reason!’

 

He missed out on the action in 1962, being shunted to Mumbai. But the so called punishment was to be a blessing for a bachelor Eric as it was here that he met and married the vivacious Maureen- his partner and wife! Within 3 months of marriage in 1965, their honeymoon was interrupted as Eric went to Sialkot sector to command an infantry brigade at Bhagowal. Here he employed his unique ‘creeping attack’ technique. It involved his infantry literally digging through a 1000 yards every night------and ready with minefield in front before daybreak when the armour could attack them. Thus without the support of any armour (with just one squadron of tanks), in the 22 day war, his Brigade advanced close to 15 kms………….Almost the same that the much vaunted Armoured Division! And he achieved all this with minimum of cost in casualties! This was sound, practical military leadership at its best! Taking note of his success, a study team visited him. The members were aghast at the fact that tanks that had no night fighting capability were used by Vas at night, and were kept in the forward area against the WWII axiom of ‘retiring’ to night harbour……………..When asked what was the secret of his success, Vas with a straight face replied that it was his ‘Kiss’ strategy……..When asked to explain what it stood for, Vas replied ‘ Kiss stands for Keep It Simple Stupid’.

 

Well-known for his abilities of analysis, he was appointed a member of a study group that analysed the 1965 Indo-Pak war and went round the army giving a bird’s eye view of war to the future leaders. Promoted Major General, he raised a division in deserts. Keenly aware of the need for mobility, he created a fully mobile division within the meagre resources- a concept that was to be later refined by General Sundarji in creating the ‘Rapid’ divisions. But shortly before the 1971 Indo-Pak war, his tenure had ended. Many soldiers are of the view that had he been in command there in 1971, we may well have had a major success in desert.

 

At this stage he was tasked with the responsibility of raising the Indian Army’s premier training institution, the College of Combat, at Mhow. Though not its first Commandant, he was for all intents and purposes the founder of that institution.  He is widely credited with starting the ‘Higher Command Course’ at the college of Combat. He abolished grades for that course and actually encouraged the student officers to question all the doctrines and dogma………the aim was to make the higher commanders think out of the box.  He even introduced the controversial system of the students grading the teaching staff……….Vas was a man far ahead of his time.

 

During the 1971 Indo-Pak war he was a ‘reserve’ divisional commander and missed out the action-or should we say that the Indian army missed him. Post war, Field Marshal Maneckshaw sent him on a fact finding mission to all the battle fields to collect and collate data and write an analysis.

 

As Adjutant General he was instrumental in creating the ARMY WELFARE HOUSING ORGANISATION.  Thanks to him many like me have a house of our own. The scheme has been a grand success and has been a major contributor to the welfare of soldiers.

 

He went to the Eastern Command at Calcutta and was there at the height of the Assam agitation of 1980. His tenure there saw the successful operation ‘Indra Vajra’ that broke the oil blockade in Assam. This is no occasion to write the many achievements of that period but one must recount an episode of that time to illustrate the personal qualities of man.

 

While on a visit to the North Easter Sates, a particular chief minister told the mainly Christian tribal audience that they should feel happy that they now have a ‘Christian’ Army Commander!  The staunchly agnostic Vas was very uncomfortable and replied with his characteristic wit,

 

“I was born a human being, raised in a Christian family. By conviction I am a Buddhist. But should you take up arms against us I am a Mussalman. But every morning when I have to shave I always wish that I was a Sikh! Now you decide who I am!”

 

In 1981 Army Chief was to retire in June, Vas was the senior most Army Commander but completed 58 years in May. But on technical grounds he was retired and next in line became the chief. It is to the credit of persons involved that there was no rancour or ill will. He was then offered a job to run the then scheduled Asiad games project. But Vas was very clear that he would NOT work under any ‘babu’. That ruffled too many feathers in the bureaucracy and the job went to someone else. Even the PM felt sad and offered him a governorship----which he refused. This is not hearsay as I have seen that letter with my own eyes.  

 

 

POST RETIREMENT CONTRIBUTIONS.

 

Retirement for Eric Vas meant change of job. He plunged whole heartedly in writing. For over two/three years he wrote for the Calcutta weekly ‘Sunday’. The subsequent years saw his trilogy on conflict ‘Violence in Society: The Formative Years’, ‘Insurgency & Terrorism’ and ‘India’s Search for Security’. He also wrote a travelogue on Bhutan, a personal history of 1947 Kashmir war and an autobiographical, ‘Fools and Infantrymen’. He was actively associated with Pune University and lectured at various defence institutes like Defence College et al.

 

The end of cold war saw profound changes in world balance of power. Vas was of the view that in changed circumstances India’s earlier posture of hidden nuclear capability was a liability. He along with self and Major General KS Pendse, carried out a campaign to build public opinion to revise Indian nuclear strategy. Out of this was born the independent think tank Inpad (Initiative for Peace And Disarmament) affiliated with  Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. It is not a publicly known fact but we succeeded in convincing the Narsiha Rao govt of the need to carry out a thermonuclear test and it could have happened in 1996-but for premature detection by the Americans and consequent pressure to abandon it. (The then defence minister and present Finance Minister, Mr Pranab Mukerjee is on record regarding this). In 1997, ie one year BEFORE  the Pokhran II tests, Inpad brought out a blueprint for Indian approach to emerging threats-the Sataygraha Approach. The central idea of a non-threatening yet credible nuclear posture was the seminal contribution of Gen Vas. The current Indian nuclear posture conforms to what

Vas had proposed in 1997- though it is seldom acknowledged by the Delhi officialdom.

 

 

 

He was honoured with invitation for first Pyarelal Memorial lecture and Cariappa Infantry Memorial lecture invitations. He contributed to the present higher defence decision making set up with his ideas- the CCS or Cabinet Committee on Security was his brain child. While many of armchair ideologues were flogging the idea of ‘national security council’ on the lines of American set up, Vas correctly pointed out that in the parliamentary form of system that we have it was not possible to have an ‘extra constitutional authority like this!

 

In 2000 April, the two of us undertook a two week lecture tour of US and Canada to put across Indian point of view on nuclear and Kashmir issue at the behest of the foreign ministry. Then already 78 years old, he undertook the gruelling task of close to 13 lectures at various universities and think tanks. All this was done with a shoe string budget, economy class travel and being hosted not at hotels but by local Indians.

 

In 2003 he wrote ‘ABC of Peace and Security’ an Inpad publication that is a virtual primer on geopolitics of our era. His last work was a biography of Subhashchandra Bose, his hero. The second part of the same book, a fictional history if Bose had lived beyond 1945, throws a searching light on the happenings of 1947 and partition. The book, a joint effort by Vas and me, is likely to be out soon and may shed more light on the drama of 1947 than current crop of books.

 

On 18 August, Eric Vas died in sleep at 1045 PM, as he always wanted to. I and Inpad lost a beacon, friend and mentor but the nation and world lost a fine human being who passionately believed in universal humanism and eternal values propagated by the great Buddha. He is no more but his memory and ideas would continue to inspire generations of Indians.