Gen Naravane is both a dove and a hawk, depending on the issue. This was because, at the end of the day, he was, and is, a “quintessential Army man”

Gen Naravane’s tenure has been an action-filled one. From the ongoing standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to the reiteration of the ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, from rewriting of the Order of Battle (ORBAT) to focusing on conventional warfare rather than just counter-terrorism operations, his tenure as Army chief has seen it all, including focused modernisation.

Gen Naravane has been both a dove and a hawk, depending on the issue. This was because, at the end of the day, he was, and is, a “quintessential Army man” — a term I used to describe him in a profile I did when he took over as the Army chief on 31 December 2019.

He took over from his antithesis Gen Bipin Rawat, who spoke freely at the cost of being accused by many of going beyond the realm of the Army chief at times.

Gen Naravane, The Dove

Immediately after taking over, Gen Naravane held his first press conference on the occasion of Army Day, which is celebrated on 15 January. He was asked by a journalist if he agrees with Gen Rawat’s statement on the students’ protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Gen Naravane said the Army’s role is to “uphold the core values” of the Constitution.

“We respect the fundamental rights of the citizens. If we remember this, then we will not go wrong in the discharge of our duties. We are an Army of the people and for the people, and whatever we do, will be for them,” he had said.

He underlined that the armed forces owe their allegiance to the Constitution of India and fight to protect the core values of justice, equality and fraternity enshrined in the Preamble.

In a TV interview on Wednesday, Gen Naravane was asked whether there could be a war with China in the near future. He responded calmly: “Army people are the last people who want to go to war. It is always better, (to have) the whole of nation approach and have a good relationship with all neighbours, a stable relationship with all neighbours, because if you have stable relations, the country prospers, and that should be the aim. That should be done at the political level, diplomatic level but you need the army… If you want to ensure peace, be prepared for war.”

The fact that he could openly state a soldier’s feeling on war speaks of his strong belief that comes at a time when ultra-nationalism and war-mongering is the flavour of the season.

In a sense, some might assume he spoke the language of a dove because, as the interviewer said, many people believed that the ceasefire at LoC was a mistake.

Chief of Army Staff As A Hawk

When the time comes, the Chief of Army Staff can also be a hawk. As the Eastern Army Commander and Vice Chief designate in August 2019, Gen Naravane had set the cat among the pigeons by calling China a “regional bully” while asserting that if China transgressed the “grey zone” at the LAC a 100 times, the Indian Army did so on 200 occasions.

At the time, journalists on the defence beat got frantic calls from the Army headquarters to play down the story or not to report it.

It was clear then that his focus was on the ‘China challenge’. In his first press conference, Gen Naravane said that the Army is “re-balancing” its deployment and strategy along the western, northern and north-eastern borders to deal with any kind of threat — be it from Pakistan or China. “Earlier the focus was only on the western front. We feel now that both the western and northern fronts are equally important and that is why we are re-balancing,” he had said.

The China Challenge

Just four months after Gen Naravane made this statement about ‘re-balancing’, China did exactly what he feared — taking the 14 Corps by surprise, the PLA moved into the LAC and occupied multiple locations on the Indian side.

Indian forces reacted to the Chinese advance, and carried out mirror deployments and brought a large number of personnel and equipment to eastern Ladakh.

As tensions ramped up, Gen Naravane was already planning a counter move, which resulted in Indian troops occupying heights in the southern range — a spectacular operation — finer details of which are being withheld for security reasons.

Government sources say it was Gen Naravane who led the planning of the operation with his key commanders to seize the heights of the southern banks, an operation that surprised the Chinese.

During his tenure, the Army has rewritten the Order of Battle and carried out key changes in deployment patterns, including ramping up numbers for India’s only Mountain Strike Corps that have been neglected for long.

As Defence Minister Rajnath Singh handed over free financial powers to the three Service chiefs, the Army went in for multiple immediate and long-term procurements, from high altitude clothing to new rifles, vehicles, boats, surveillance kits, and drones, among many others.

Many other changes brought in by the Army chief are still shrouded in secrecy. Known to be soft-spoken, reserved and prudent with his words, Gen Naravane diligently focussed on his work rather than building an image.

He is known to be a thinker who makes firm decisions and sees them through instead of applying knee-jerk reactions. However, his ability to be measured in his words is also why the true sense of his legacy will only be known in the years to come.

The opinion is still divided over whether China or India prevailed during the Ladakh stand-off. But one thing is clear: The LAC dynamics are not going to be the same. It will be a focus area moving forward.