Sharad Mathur

Maj Gen (Retd) GD Bakshi: The Master Strategist

Sharad Mathur

Maj Gen GD Bakshi

Maj Gen GD Bakshi, a retired Indian military leader, started his career in the Indo-Pak war of 1971 as a young officer. During his long service years, he has led many successful counter-insurgency operations. He commanded a company in Punjab and later a brigade in very tough conditions in the Kishtwar mountains of J&K. Later he commanded the famous Romeo Force in the troubled districts of Rajouri and Punch. He served in the prestigious Military Operations twice. First time during the Sri Lanka opertations and then as Director Operations in the MO5 (Military Operations 5) during the Kargil War. He was instrumental in the strategic planning and troop deployments during the Kargil War and had received commendation from then army chief.  A recipient of the ‘Sena Medal’ and  ‘Vishishta Seva Medal’, Gen Bakshi has also authored 35 books addressing the issues of defence and national security. He has taught at the prestigious Indian military Academy, The Staff College and the National Defense College.
In a conversation with Maj Gen Bakshi, I focused on three episodes from his career where not only he utilised his own strengths to a great extent, but also was able to utilise the strengths of other individuals on his team to meet its objectives.

Making of a Soldier

Maj Gen (Retd) Gagandeep Bakshi was born in a military family in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Originally from Jammu, his father served with the state forces of Maharaja Hari Singh. His elder brother had joined the Indian Army as an officer with the 11 J&K Rifles in 1963. He grew up reading about hard fought battles of World War II in the popular ‘Commando Comics’ printed in black and white. He always knew he was going to join the military, but his resolve became much stronger after his brother, Captain Raman Bakshi, was martyred in the 1965 Indo-Pak war at the young age of 23 years. “We did not get to carry out his funeral as he was blown to bits by an M-16 mine. We just got an urn with his ashes and we dispersed them in the Narmada. Next year, quietly, without telling my mom and dad, I gave my NDA exam. On my selection there was a lot of hue and cry in the house, (understandably so) but I had already resolved to join the armed forces. In 1967, I was in the NDA,” reminisces Maj Gen Bakshi. He joined as an Air Force cadet but later switched to the Army — in the same regiment his father and brother had served.

The Kaksar Battle

The first Kargil intrusion took place way back in 1987 in the Kaksar village of Kargil tehsil. This place is of strategic importance as the vital Srinagar-Leh highway was just five kms away from the line of control (LoC). Very surreptitiously, the Pakistanis had entered the Indian Territory. The first unit that discovered them suffered major casualties as the Pakistanis had already occupied the heights. 45 of their men were martyred and over 140 were wounded. Within three months they had to be pulled out. In 1990, Gen Bakshi’s (then a Lt Colonel) was the third unit to be sent there. “We were told that the situation had stabilised but it was far from it,” remembers Maj Gen Bakshi. Massive exchange of fire was the norm and because of the dominating height, Pakistanis were always at advantage. “We couldn’t get out of our bunkers even on moonlit nights for we would be shot at. Sending of supplies to our posts was possible only on moonless nights,” Gen Bakshi tells me. Even though some of the Indian posts were at the height of 19,000 feet, the unit did not have any special clothing or resources. They had to function with what they had. And the Pakistani soldiers were getting more adventurous with every passing day.
“On my first day I found tracers flying at night. I came out of the bunker and was told that it was the Pakistani soldiers celebrating their victory in the cricket world cup by firing on us,” recalls Gen Bakshi. He was told that it had become a common practice and he decided that such unprovoked firing should not be taken lightly and he must act on it. But just as he was ordering a retaliatory fire, his second-in-command came running to him and told him that he needed prior approvals at many levels to be able to fire back. GenBakshi took it upon himself to answer his seniors and ordered a calculated retaliatory strike anyway. It was vital for keeping the morale of his soldiers up. This shocked the Pakistanis but the conflict was to escalate soon.

Artillery Fire Indian Army

“Luckily for me, a new set of commanders came in and they were open to listening,” says Gen Bakshi with a chuckle. He assertively told them that for him to throw out the intruders, they needed to back him with resources. “If you need me to expel the three companies of 29 Baloch from our territory, I need three battalions to attack and three battalions in reserve. In addition, I need divisional artillery fire,” narrates Gen Bakshi. Since six battalions were available for deployment, he proposed getting the job done with artillery, mortars and rocket fire.
He then devised a plan by thoughtfully considering every possible move and counter move of the commander of 29 Baloch. This plan involved targeting the winter stockpiling of Pakistani troops and it entailed a big risk of Pakistani retaliatory attack on Indian winter stock. However, taking a closer look at the way winter supplies were transferred by both sides, Gen Bakshi derived a game changing insight. The Indian Army used Zojila Pass, which is at the height of over 11,000 feet, and was only opened in the month of May for transport. The Pakistani Army used the Burzil Bai Pass, which is at the height of over 13,500 feet and opened in the month of July. “We had clear 2-3 months advantage over them and we used it to take decisive action,” Gen Bakshi tells me with a grin. Supplies of bare essentials like ammunition, food, water, salt, and matchboxes were stocked during this time and then the Indian supply route was sealed. He also utilised this time to ramp up his defences by getting his men to make underground bunkers. As soon as the Burzil Bai Pass opened, the Indian Army attacked the Pakistani supply routes with vengeance. However, a conclusive strategic victory was still far away.
The commander of 29 Baloch understood the play. He realised that he would not be able to stock his winter supplies and thus would not be able to hold his position for the six-month long winter. In desperation, he escalated the battle and opened with mortar fire. This was exactly what Gen Bakshi had anticipated. He knew the Pakistani commander had two mortar platoons, he knew where they were, and in anticipation he had five mortar platoons at his disposal. “The moment they opened fire, I targeted both their mortar platoons with all five of our mortar platoons. We inflicted serious damage to their mortars and they were forced to shift positions and go silent,” Gen Bakshi recalls with a sense of satisfaction. Once the Pakistani mortars went silent, he put all his mortars on the Pakistani battalion headquarter area where all their supplies were stored. The whole area was decimated and the Indian Army had secured a strategic advantage by throwing the intruding forces completely off balance.

Kargil War

During the Kargil war, Gen Bakshi was assigned to a very critical assignment called MO5 (Military Operations 5) as the Operations Director who worked in close coordination with the then Chief of Army Staff. He was instrumental in mobilising troops, artillery guns and planning defence strategies. Initially, the 3rd Infantry division stationed there was completely taken by surprise and lost out. But they kept getting back and continuing ‘probing attacks’. “It was like spotting a man in a dark room. You can’t know where he is unless you touch him,” says Gen Bakshi.

The turning point of the war was when the extent of infiltration was diagnosed, thanks to the probing attacks. After which the Indian Army could pull out its final punches. The heavy guns including Howitzers, Bofors, and Grad multiple rocket launching systems were brought in. The Pakistani Northern light-infantry troops, in Gen Bakshi’s words, “were blasted to bits.” The artillery fire was ably supported by the Indian infantry which launched attacks from impossible positions. They climbed up steep surfaces and surprised the intruders. Lauding the courage of his boys, he quotes a Pakistani soldier who in his statement described how the ‘mad’ Indians kept coming at them despite the Pakistani firing enough shots to make their trigger fingers go numb.

With such resolve was the Kargil war won.

While this was going on, the brigade commander paid a visit and he was very keen on taking out a Pakistani post which was situated at the height of over 16,000 feet. It was important because the post offered a clear line of sight to roads, 7-8 kms inside the Indian territory, which allowed the Pakistani commander to direct fire at Indian convoys. Attacking a post that high with mortar fire was virtually futile and it would have put a lot of ammunition to waste. However, the brigade commander was very keen and he personally went forward to direct the fire. That is when the Pakistani artillery men from the height of 16,000 feet saw his flag and vehicle star plate and opened fire. The attempt was clearly to kill this senior ranking officer to dampen the morale of Indian soldiers. But by sheer good fortune he got back to the brigade headquarter and arranged for artillery guns to fire at the Pakistani post. However, Gen Bakshi still had to go back to his battalion headquarters and it involved crossing a suspension bridge on the Shingo River and a stiff 50 minutes climb; all of this while remaining in clear sight of the Pakistani artillery. Now the focus of the artillery fire was the commanding officer Bakshi and the two men who were accompanying him. When fired upon with huge artillery shells, the subedar major and regimental havaldar started to run forward to get quickly back to the HQ. However, Gen Bakshi realised that if the unit sees them running, especially him — their commanding officer, panic would set in. So, he calmly put his hand on the shoulder of his subedar major and explained to him that it was the first time the unit was under shelling and it was vital for them to not let the panic set in. So, risking their lives, they walked back to their battalion headquarters. “It was a miracle that we survived without a scratch. Those were the longest 50 minutes of my life,” remembers Gen Bakshi. By evening, Indian artillery guns started blazing and the Pakistani post was destroyed.
When leading men into battle, it is imperative that they trust their leader unconditionally. And leading by example is the most potent way to do so. Gen Bakshi enjoyed the high level of respect trust among his men because he always led by example.

Countering Terror

Post Kargil, Gen GD Bakshi headed various counter-insurgency operations in Rajouri, Poonch and Kishtwar districts of Kashmir.
 Safe Return of Minorities to Kishtwar
 In early 2000, Gen Bakshi was handed charge of Kishtwar district to neutralise the terror threat and bring peace to the region. However, when he went about targeting the terrorists, he was sent a threat. Being a career soldier, he knew it was not out of the ordinary and just asked his men to remain vigilant. Little did he know that the terrorists would target the innocent minority civilian population. Although, the army had tried its best to protect the minorities by arming Village Defence Committee (VDCs), the terrorists chose to attack the herders when they would take their cattle uphill for grazing. They murdered innocents sitting cozily in their dhoks (Gujjar huts), which were located outside the periphery of the village. In the first week they killed five innocent villagers, in the second week they killed eight, and the week after they killed 13 of them. Entire families were murdered — the old, women, and children included — but one individual would be spared to go to the village and give out the gory details. Clearly these were not just acts of mindless violence but were part of a systematic attempt at forced exodus of one of the largest Hindu minority populations in J&K. And they began to succeed. Many minority families started fleeing.

The options left with Gen Bakshi to stop this exodus were limited. He could not send his men to protect all the villages. He did not have enough manpower to do that. He had 2,500 men at his disposal and the area in question was almost 11,000 sq km. “Even if I were to position one man to guard a sq km area, there would be 9,000 sq kms of area un-guarded,” says Gen Bakshi. And as always, he came up with an innovative strategy. He gathered his men and marched with a large cavalcade of 40 vehicles to Gulabgarh, a village  where the last and the biggest massacre had taken place. A massive search operation was launched and men from the village were asked to gather in the village school. A maulvi (Muslim priest) read out ayats (verses) from Quran which strictly prohibit killing of women, children, and the old in battle. Gen Bakshi showed them the dead bodies of women, children, and the old using a projector and asked them if they deemed these killings legitimate! The response was an unequivocal and resounding ‘no’. He got the names of the terrorists who had committed those murders and he left the locals with a message for the terrorists, in case they visit the village, “They can run wherever they want to. We shall flush them out of hell and hand them a horrible death for what they’ve done!”
No sooner had the message reached the terrorists; panic set in their camp and their priorities changed from killing more people to bracing for their own lives. They turned so paranoid that they ended up threatening locals and lost whatever little support base they had. Soon, Gen Bakshi got a tip off about the location of the terrorists and he instructed the local commanding officer to eliminate them. However, the terrorists were holed up in a house, which was located in an opening in the forest around which there was hardly any cover. And the terrorists were showering a barrage of bullets on the soldiers. Many got injured. At this critical moment, Gen Bakshi backed the commanding officer of the unit and authorised him to use a thermobaric flamethrower. The three terrorists were eliminated.
The situation at Kishtwar improved drastically and many from the minority community, who were living a life of exile, returned.
 Bringing Peace to Rajouri and Poonch
 During 2004-05, Rajouri and Poonch district were amongst the hotbeds of terrorism in J&K and Gen Bakshi was just done with his stint heading the Information Warfare wing in Kashmir. That is when he was asked to take control of counter-insurgency operations in the region. The commander preceding him, a veteran in counter-insurgency operations had launched a massive attack on a terrorist base camp which was virtually a fortress and located on a steep hill. This was a successful operation and many terrorists were slain, but it created a new problem. A large number of terrorists also got dispersed and camouflaged themselves with common villagers to avoid detection. “I was thus left with the difficult task of spotting the cats amongst pigeons,” Gen Bakshi tells me.

Army Outreach in Kashmir

He responded to this situation by strengthening his intelligence network and preparing a list with the names of terrorist leadership. The local Gujjar community, who faced sexual and other abuse at the hands of terrorists, helped in the intelligence gathering to a great deal. Once Gen Bakshi had a name and location of a local leader of the terrorists, he would inform the commanding officer of the area and empower him to execute the operation. Upon successful execution of the operation, he would go to the location himself to congratulate the commanding officer. This coupled with his concern and support boosted the morale of his men and he managed to have 108 ‘quality kills’ achieved in the region. With the terrorist leadership wiped out, the terror infrastructure in the region fell flat and district transformed from a cordon of mayhem to a zone of tranquility.
 He reinforced this operational success and built a strong foundation for peace by improving the trust levels with the local population. People got the peace dividend in the pacified areas. Farmers were helped with quality agricultural equipment, seeds, and water mills. Every household and every mosque was given solar batteries and solar lanterns. The focus was also on protecting the young minds of the area against extremist ideologies. The local madrasas were helped to keep themselves free of the extremist narrative. The terrorists used to burn the schools. So, new schools providing modern education were built in the region. With every company a primary school was opened. With every battalion a secondary school was opened. The army held singing competitions in schools where teams of children from each primary and secondary school would participate in singing “Saare jahan se accha Hindustan hamara”, (which translates to ‘our India is the best country in the world’). Intentionally, “Vande Mataram” (translates to ‘devotion to the mother nation’) was not chosen so as to avoid religious misgivings, and there was an amazing response to it.
 The two districts which were hotbed of terrorism some time back now had songs in praise of India echoing through their mountain ranges.

 

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