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Indian Army Gets Its 1st Chief From Corps Of Engineers

General Manoj Pande’s principal challenge during his 2-year tenure will be handling the protracted stand-off with China in Ladakh and preparing the Army for Theatre Commands

Photo Credit : Indian Army

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Change of guard: General Manoj Pande taking over from the retiring General MM Naravane as the 29th Chief of Army Staff

The Indian Army got its first chief from outside the traditional combat arms, with General Manoj Pande taking over from the retiring General MM Naravane as the 29th Chief of the Army Staff on April 30. 

General Pande is the first four-star officer from the Corps of Engineers, a privilege which eluded even the legendary Lt General PS Bhagat, a Victoria Cross awardee in World War-II who narrowly missed succeeding Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw as the Chief of Army Staff in 1973. 

The Chiefs of the Indian Army so far have been from the Infantry, Artillery, Armoured Corps and the Mechanised Forces which comprise the fighting arms. The Corps of Engineers is considered a support arm. But technological orientation will be vital for transforming the Indian Army as a fighting force of the future, and that is why General Pande’s tenure will be observed with a lot of interest.

After the initial euphoria of an unusual entity taking over as the Chief of the world’s second-largest military force whose top echelons are dominated by the Infantry, General Pande will have to deal with the challenge of the continuing two-year military stand-off with China on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. 

During the course of his distinguished career, General Pande has served key tenures as the commander of the Eastern Army and earlier of 4 Corps which give him deep insight into military readiness on the China front. A three-month tenure as the Vice-Chief gave him lead time to prepare for the difficult job of leading the 1.4-million-strong Army in some of the most difficult battlegrounds of the world. 

Although it has overruled the seniority principle in appointing Chiefs to the Army and Navy over the last eight years, the Government this time honoured tradition in picking General Pande, who was the senior-most 3-star officer after the retirement of Lt General YK Joshi in January 2022. 

How he got to the top

Commissioned into the Bombay Sappers in 1982, General Pande was co-opted into the General cadre at the rank of brigadier, making him eligible for commanding higher troop formations. 

Thereafter, he commanded an Infantry brigade on the Line of Control, an and a mountain division in western Ladakh before heading 4 Corps headquartered at Tezpur in Assam. 

He also had the privilege of heading the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command before serving as in the key operational position of Eastern Army Commander from June 2021 to January 2022, before his brief but significant stint as Vice-Chief. 

He is also very lucky on account of his age vis-à-vis his predecessor, General MM Naravane. General Pande would have retired as a Lt General in May 2022 had General Naravane been one month younger. On promotion to four-star rank, he automatically picks up an additional two years in service, and will now retire on May 31, 2024.

The luck factor also enabled him to survive the crisis following the tragic mistaken killing of innocent civilians in Nagaland by special forces under his charge in the Eastern Command in December 2021. The Army’s court of inquiry report into the incident will now ironically require his nod as the Army Chief. The political fallout of the incident forced the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from significant portions of the North-East, which restrains Army initiative in the protracted insurgency in the region.

One of the key tasks before India’s military leadership, of which General Pande is now a pivotal member, is to roll out Theatre Commands as part of the biggest reforms in India’s higher Defence management. These reforms lost momentum after the tragic death of the first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat in December 2021 and need to be brought back on track in order to give the Indian armed forces the right structures to fight the wars of the future.