Nirmala Sitharaman has adopted a proactive approach and has begun her tenure by acquainting herself with the ground situation on the hostile frontiers on which the Armed Forces are deployed
|By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd) |
Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF
In the first week of September this year, Nirmala Sitharaman scripted history of sorts when she assumed charge as the first full-time woman Minister of Defence (MoD) in the history of Independent India spanning just over seven decades. She is the second woman to hold this appointment in India, the first being Indira Gandhi who was only a part-time functionary first in the mid 1970s and then again in the early 1980s. During these tenures, she held the Defence portfolio as additional charge while holding the top political appointment of the Prime Minister of India. As the Minister of Defence, Nirmala Sitharaman is also a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the others being the Prime Minister of India, the Minister of Home Affairs, the Minister of External Affairs who at this point in time also happens to be a lady and the Minister of Finance.
There is no doubt that the responsibility associated with Nirmala Sitharaman’s new appointment is enormous and so are the challenges for her that lie ahead. And these indeed are formidable. She undoubtedly is fully aware of the responsibilities accompanying the high profile appointment as is evident from her own words “The role given to me is both challenging and interesting. From here onwards, I will have to prove myself and perform to satisfy the expectations of those who have assigned me for this role.” More importantly, as the Minister holding the Defence portfolio, Nirmala Sitharaman has to ensure that the nation’s military is adequately equipped to meet with the challenges of ensuring national security in real terms and not merely project a façade through mere rhetoric as has sometimes been the case.
Two days before she formally took charge of the Ministry of Defence on September 6, 2017, the three service chiefs called on her and apprised her about the overall security scenario, the challenges ahead, the state of operational preparedness and the major issues concerning the Indian Armed Forces. Apparently, in her view, briefing by heads of the Indian Armed Forces was clearly not enough. On her part she has adopted a proactive approach and has rightly begun her tenure by acquainting herself with the ground situation especially on the hostile frontiers on which the Indian Armed Forces are deployed.
Visit to Operational Areas
The Minister of Defence began her tour on September 10, 2017, with a visit to Goa Naval Area even though it was a Sunday. She was received by Vice Admiral Girish Luthra, Flag Officer Commanding Western Naval Command and Rear Admiral Puneet K. Bahl, Flag Officer Commanding, Goa Naval Area. After a ceremonial reception at the Naval Base Hansa, the Minister of Defence and members of her staff were briefed on Naval Aviation. The briefing was followed by a demonstration of operations by the MiG-29K carrier-borne combat aircraft. The Minister of Defence also flagged off in Panaji, an allwomen team of the Indian Navy tasked with a mission to circumnavigate the globe signalling a new level of empowerment of women in the Indian Armed Forces. On the same day, Nirmala Sitharaman visited Golden Katar Division of the Indian Army in Ahmedabad where she was received by General Bipin Rawat, Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) and Lieutenant General P.M. Hariz, GOC-in-C, Southern Command. She desired to first visit the area of Sir Creek owing to its critical importance to the overall security paradigm of Indian Army’s Southern Command. She was briefed on the strategic importance of the area and the need to maintain effective surveillance. Nirmala Sitharaman was appreciative of the way the troops were maintaining territorial integrity and were prepared for any eventuality.
On September 16 and 17, 2017, the Minister of Defence visited Headquarters Western Command of the Indian Army located at Chandimandir. Here she was briefed on the operational preparedness, administrative issues and ex-servicemen affairs by Lt Gen Surinder Singh, GOC-in-C Western Command, Army. In response, she appreciated the efforts of Western Command and expressed her complete confidence in its immense operational might. She also lauded its contribution in all spheres including assistance to civilian administration especially during the recent past. She also laid a wreath at Veer Smriti, planted a sapling and interacted with Junior Commissioned Officers and Other Ranks from the units located there. The following Saturday i.e. on September 23, 2017, Nirmala Sitharaman visited the field firing range in Khetolai area in Pokhran and interacted with the senior officers of the Indian Army stationed there.
Having traversed the length and breadth of the country in just over a month and having gained firsthand knowledge of the challenges the Indian Armed Forces are confronted with, Nirmala Sitharaman would be in a better position to understand the urgency with which issues pertaining to national security ought to be addressed.
The following week i.e on September 29, 2017, Nirmala Sitharaman arrived at Srinagar on her two-day maiden visit to the state. Accompanied by General Bipin Rawat, COAS, she headed for Kupwara in North Kashmir for an on-ground assessment of the situation along the Line of Control. On return to Srinagar from Kupwara, she was briefed on the overall situation in the Valley, including counterinsurgency and counter-infiltration operations. Nirmala Sitharaman complimented the commanders for the high level of synergy achieved with the Jammu and Kashmir Police and central armed paramilitary forces. Later in the evening, she interacted with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and called on Governor NN Vohra.
From Srinagar, Nirmala Sitharaman flew to Ladakh on September 30, 2017, visited forward locations including Siachen and reviewed the security situation in the area. She was accompanied by the COAS, Army Commander, Northern Command and Commander 14 Corps. She interacted with the soldiers in the remote areas of Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest and coldest battlefield and in the Ladakh region and conveyed her best wishes on the occasion of Dussehra. She uttered comforting words when she said “I assure you that the government is with you all the time and in all circumstances. We are not only sensitive to your needs and demands, but also to those of your families.”
She also inaugurated a bridge on river Shyok on the road between Durbuk and Daulat Beg Oldi which was constructed by the Border Roads Organisation. During her visit, she also interacted with personnel of the IAF serving at the Air Force Station, Leh.
From the icy heights of Siachen, the next weekend i.e. on October 7, 2017, Nirmala Sitharaman was at Air Force Station Jamnagar in Gujarat to garner first hand information about the role and nature of operations undertaken by the IAF air base. A live demonstration of special heliborne operations by the Garud Commandos was also staged for the Minister of Defence. She also sat in the cockpit of a MiG-29 fighter aircraft during her visit.
From the Western coast, Nirmala Sitharaman flew to the North East region of the country on October 7, 2017. She travelled 52 km by road from Gangtok in Sikkim to visit Nathu La on the Sino-Indian border. She was accorded a guard of honour on her arrival at Nathu La and was also briefed about the security preparedness along the Sino-Indian border in the Sikkim sector by Lt Gen Abhay Krishna, GOC-in-C, Eastern Command. Lt Gen Sarath Chandra, Vice Chief of Army Staff was also present. Her scheduled aerial survey of Doklam and forward posts in the border areas of Sikkim was cancelled due to inclement weather. However, after her return from Nathu-la, she carried out an aerial survey of Gangtok and surrounding areas from the new Greenfield Pakyong Airport in East Sikkim.
Nirmala Sitharaman’s appointment as the Minister of Defence came at a time when the stand-off with China in Doklam had ended. However potentially, relations with China will remain a challenge that she or the nation cannot wish away. But perhaps the most difficult task for her would be to provide the much needed impetus to the plan for modernisation of the Indian Armed Forces. Having traversed the length and breadth of the country in just over a month and having gained firsthand knowledge of the challenges the Indian Armed Forces are confronted with, Nirmala Sitharaman would be in a better position to understand the urgency with which issues pertaining to national security ought to be addressed.