Sharad Mathur

Lt General HS Panag (R): An Action Centred Leader

Sharad Mathur

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John Adair, in his best-selling book Develop Your Leadership Skills, recommends leaders to focus on three overlapping circles of achieving the task, building and maintaining the team, and developing the individual. This sounds simple and is yet profound. He writes, ‘In order to achieve the common task and to maintain teamwork, certain functions have to be performed. And a function is what you do, as opposed to a quality, which is an aspect of what you are.’ Just like the proof of pudding is in the eating, the essence of leadership lies in the doing, not merely in the being. This settles the debate around ‘are leaders born or made?’

This action-centred approach best describes Lt Gen HS Panag’s approach to leadership at the northern command of the Indian Army in 2007. He focused on setting command objectives, break them down for easy implementation, put in place systems and processes to ensure synergetic efforts from all his units, and developed individual skills.

The Northern Command Challenge

Headquartered in Udhampur and covering all of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, the northern command is home to the largest number of armed personnel of the Indian Army. Almost all of India’s armed conflicts and security concerns are attributed to the north where it shares a majority of its international borders with Pakistan and China. It has endured five wars since independence. No wonder, in 2007, when Lt Gen HS Panag took over as General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC-in-C) of the northern command of the Indian Army, his challenges were immense. Pakistan could have undertaken an adventure across the border anytime, like it did in 1999. With China’s unsettled borders, there could be incursions due to varied perceptions of the actual line of control. And every such incidence that takes place can also escalate to a limited or major conflict. Added to this was the ongoing insurgency since 1990, which virtually had all of Jammu and Kashmir engulfed in it.

Profile HS PanagAfter a quick analysis of the situation, Lt Gen Panag started with laying down his command objectives. The first was to implement pre-emptive strategic offensive, which is colloquially known as cold start strategy. As part of the pre-emptive strategic offensive, the army needed to respond in a time span as short as 48-72 hours. With more than one-fourth of the total manpower of the Indian Army deployed in the northern command, it was not an easy objective to achieve. His second command objective was to check the insurgency, eliminate the terrorists, and inspire the confidence amongst locals for the armed forces; the last one being most tricky. Since 2003, India’s counter-insurgency measures had been spot on and insurgency was progressively declining. Having an elected state government in power had also helped. Responding to this, the insurgents had adopted a new strategy. Instead of direct action, now they were trying to show the government of the day and the Indian Army in bad light. They were trying to orchestrate protests, instigate human right violations, and set up a chain reaction on the lines of Intifada in Palestine.

Systematically, Lt Gen Panag went about achieving them.

Implementing Manoeuvre Warfare

The Indian Army has traditionally been an attritionist minded army, which believes in gathering a large force to quash a smaller force; a legacy of the British Raj. However, in the mountains of the northern command, the terrain does not permit to engage large forces in the operations. And even when situations demand large-scale operations to take place, they are executed at the company, platoon, or section level. Moreover, with the insurgents, the army deals with a force that is small in size and engages in hit and run tactics. They’re anything but a conventional force and hence more mobile and flexible. They try to multiply impact by constantly shifting locations and often camouflaging amidst civilians, relying greatly on deceit and inflicting shock upon an organized set-up. In an environment like this, to fight the insurgency and to remain battle ready, the attritionist style would not be much effective. Lt Gen Panag, saw the answer to it in ‘manoeuvre warfare’ which runs on military strategist John Boyd’s OODA cycle – Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Lt Gen Panag tells me “When the OODA cycle is repeated over and again, multiple times, you can get into the decision loop of the enemy. So, you can pre-empt a strike even before it takes place and ambush the ambushers before they could even attempt it”.

Manoeuvre warfare was the answer to fight the insurgency and remain battle ready.

Manoeuvre warfare was the answer to fight the insurgency and remain battle ready.

Once he had the solution in manoeuvre warfare, he took pro-active steps to acquaint every Commanding Officer (CO) and even the jawans under them with his ideas and strategies. “Time was less, as normally a commander has only a two years tenure and I ended up having only 14 months. I went and addressed all the officers, those who were not present were briefed through video conferencing. And the officers went back and briefed their men,” remembers Lt Gen Panag. And he did not leave it at that. Since manoeuvre warfare wasn’t a concept familiar to most, he prepared small-sized manuals providing an overview of the manoeuvre warfare. These he circulated to all 370,000 troops under his command after translating them into Hindi and other languages. This was a commendable feat considering the sheer volume of work and the fact that it was achieved within his first ten days in office. The troops were slowly acclimatised to this style and consequentially the number of casualties during operations reduced steadily and the number of infiltration bids foiled, increased.

Continuous Training by Objectives

In peace time, the focus of generals often remains essentially on larger picture and in doing that they ignore individual skill enhancement of the troops. But not Lt Gen Panag, who focused on identifying weaknesses of his forces and addressed them in the annual training cycle. He implemented a system where one hour had to be dedicated for training the troops, every day. The idea was to run short capsules of trainings or refresher courses which addressed simple topics like how to handle a weapon etc.

Now at this point, it is important to tell you how he implemented continuous training by objectives, and for that matter any other project. There are two fundamental styles of command: the detailed style and the directive style. The detailed style includes laying down an elaborate blueprint and directly controlling proceedings right from the first plan to its final execution and conclusion. The directive style on the other hand leaves room for adaptation and interpretation and believes more in delegation. Lt Gen Panag followed the directive style of command wherein he defined his command and mission objectives and let the commanding officers execute the strategies to achieve them within a specified time-frame. Continuous training by objective was also driven in the spirit of directive command.  “I asked the corps commanders to design their own monthly program calendars with the content and the time of their choosing,” Lt Gen Panag explained.

Moreover, a focus on training for Lt Gen Panag was also a strategic move with a quick win in sight. There is a large reserve of Rashtriya Rifles in the northern command of the Indian Army. In Rashtriya Rifles, 50 per cent of the men were from the infantry and other 50 per cent came from various arms for one or two year’s tenure. This was an asset which was waiting to be leveraged. “A lot of people were apprehensive about the reserves’ operational capabilities. But when I went and saw the men, I became sure that with training they could be brought up to the level of regular troops. I mean consider the fact that the number of soldiers in the Indian army went up from 2.5 lakh before the Second World War to 25 lakh after that.  It was a tenfold growth in just six years which was achieved by training,” reasoned Lt Gen Panag. With regular training, Rashtriya Rifles were prepared for the dual task of controlling the insurgency and supplementing the conventional military operations.

Implementing Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield

Lt. Gen. Panag in his tactical doctrine believed that ‘intelligence’ is the key for an upper hand in any battle and he saw it as a great opportunity to implement Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB).  IPB, originally devised by the Americans, is a systematic, continuous process of analyzing the threat and environment in a specific geographic area. It is designed to support staff estimates and military decision making and was mandated to the northern command, but its execution had been delayed, till Lt Gen Panag took on the mantle. Since no active war was on, he rechristened it to In Preparation of Area of Operations (IPAO).

Implementing Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield helped reduce casualties significantly.

Implementing Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield helped reduce casualties significantly.

Using rough and ready methods, I ensured that computers are available at every unit level. And then we fed the satellite data from Google maps on every computer. We had every village and every lane covered. On top of that we added information and pictures of village headman, our informers, suspected terrorists, their family members etc.,” recalls Lt Gen Panag.  Now, when patrolling parties went out, they knew exactly where they were going, which route they should be taking, and who are they dealing with. This system removed the dependency of knowledge transfer from one unit to another, given the frequent transfers, and the soldiers now did not need to rely on memory alone. Thus, enhancing operational capability and reducing the response time to potential emergency situations. In addition, considering the scale of operation in the northern command encompasses 3,000 patrols in a single night, it helped reduced casualties significantly.

When I asked Lt Gen Panag, how he drove projects which were long stuck, he responded in a calm voice, “Always being in touch with the soldiers, I tried to create a buzz word around all my initiatives. I tried to infuse my initiatives into the very DNA, the culture of the organisation.

Curbing Human Rights Violations

As a policy the Indian Army never indulges in human right violations. Having said that, there are times when human right violations do take place in an environment laden with charged emotions. Moreover, during Lt Gen Panag’s tenure, even though the violence was on the wane, the troops’ responses were conditioned by the environment of the more violent times in the past. So, highhandedness, over-reaction, and sometimes even rogue action of some troops led to human rights violations.

Leading by ExampleKnowing that every human rights violation is counter-productive in the fight against insurgency, Lt Gen Panag showed no hesitation in punishing the violators. His principle, in his own words was, “No good faith action would be punished but any bad faith action would not go unpunished.” In addition, he worked on changing the command’s approach.  “I made it very clear to my corps commanders and unit commanders that we will not carry out cordon and search operations in a big way, and we will focus on surgical operations instead,” Lt Gen Panag told me.

He would himself show up in the trainings of new officers inducted in Jammu and Kashmir to brief them. With every visit he made to far-flung posts, he would meet the commanding officers separately, and provide them with regular feedback. There were almost 600 officers deployed in the northern command and he made sure he met them all. And not just the officers, he would also talk to the soldiers; send messages which would be relayed to the last section and the post. He wanted the message to reach the last man and not get lost in the hierarchy.

Many may wonder why would a military commander, who was responsible for strategic and higher operational objectives take it upon himself to stop human rights violations, which take place at the tactical level? But in an insurgency situation, it doesn’t take much time for a tactical error to spiral into a strategic issue. Take for example the Pathribal incident (alleged fake encounter killing of 5 people), where a unit level action became a strategic issue, and for that matter an international issue. So, I as a leader had to get involved,” reasoned Lt Gen HS Panag for his direct involvement in curbing human rights violations.

The HS Panag Way



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