Gen K Sundarji, PVSM, popularly known as “the thinking General”, was the guiding force behind the raising of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment. He was also the first Colonel of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment, who nurtured and steered it through its early days and provided a rock solid foundation to it. As the pioneer of nuclear strategy, Gen Sundarji single-mindedly got the tradition-bound Indian Army to think about the consequences of nuclear weapons. In his glittering career spanning more than four decades, Gen Sundarji, PVSM took active part in all military conflicts of post independent India. As he rose to the pinnacle of his profession, Gen Sundarji, PVSM straddled the challenges in front of him in his very own inimitable style.
Born on 30 Apr 1928 at Chengelpet in Tamil Nadu. Gen Sundarji left Madras Christian College in 1945 to don the Olive Greens. Dr AJ Boyd, a well-known educationist of his era, who was then the highly distinguished Principal of the College, was sorry to see him leave, but suffice to say that the loss of the white coat fraternity was the gain of the fraternity which dons the olive green.
Commissioned into the Mahar Regiment in 1946, Sundarji soon saw action in 1947-48 against the Pakistani tribal raiders in J&K. In 1963, he won accolades as Chief of Staff of the Katanga Command in the United Nations Mission in Congo. He demonstrated his military acumen in the face of Pakistan artillery shelling, as Commanding Officer of 1 Mahar in Kutch in 1965 war, and, as Brig Gen Staff of a Corps in Rangpur Sector during the Bangladesh war.
An Alumni of Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, Command, General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth in US and the prestigious National Defence College, Delhi, Sundarji was amongst the core team that created Indian nuclear policy. As a senior general in the Army along with Admiral Tahiliani, Sundarji wrote the Indian Nuclear Doctrine.
Sundarji can also to be credited for shaping the modern Indian army thinking. In his stint as the Commandant of the Army War College at Mhow, he practically rewrote the war manual with emphasis on speed, decisive action, technology and his abiding love – Mechanised Forces. Despite being commissioned in the Infantry he developed a deep love for the Mechanised Forces. He pioneered various operational guidelines; challenged his commanders to push the machines and the men to their limits. He struck a parallel with ‘Rommel’, both in flamboyance and in attire; with black dungarees and black goggles coupled with his penchant for being upfront by landing in choppers at Battalion and Brigade headquarters locations in the thick of battle/exercises. His dynamic leadership, total commitment and bold and innovative thinking have left their stamp on the Indian Army.
He had other sides to his personality. He had written many articles and even a few books. He wrote “Blind Men of Hindoostan” in which he compared India’s nuclear policy with six blind men who misinterpret an Elephant by touching parts of it. He also left behind a partially completed autobiography titled ‘Of Some Consequences: A Soldier Remembers’ He planned to write 105 episodes, but lived only to write 33. His greatest contribution has been to establish the primary role of Mechanised Infantry Regiment. Rightly regarded as the Father of the Regiment, he remains a guiding star for the Mechanised Infantry, exhorting us to shed the dead weight of complacency and always strive for excellence. It was due to his foresight and vision only that the Mechanised Infantry Regiment is considered as ‘Tomorrow’s Regiment in Today’s Army’.
Sundarji has been known as the “Thinking General”, a somewhat apt description of the man whose contribution, according to Vice-Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen KK Hazari (Retd), was to change the “traditional mind-set of the Army”. The comment underscores the sum of Sundarji’s professional life, as he firmly believed in the adage “to win a battle, mobility of forces is essential, but to win a war, mental mobility of its Commanders is a prerequisite”. The legacy shall live forever. Post retirement, he continued to do excellent work in articulating India’s position on nuclear and other security issues both in India and abroad. He wrote columns, straddled the security seminar circuit and was active till the very end. Gen Sundarji packed so much into his life that it was difficult to decide where precisely his legacy to the armed forces lay. As the then Gen Ved Prakash Malik COAS put it, “Gen Sundarji introduced professionalism into the Army. We are today no longer a ceremonial force, but an Army ready for modern war, led by a thinking leadership”.
08 February 1999 will always be remembered in the Mechanised Infantry fraternity as the day when it lost its father figure.