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Institute Lecture: In Conversation With Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain

February 20, 2020

Through most of his 41-year illustrious career, Lt. Gen. Hasnain has served in a turbulent environment and hot spots. From Sri Lanka to the Siachen Glacier, from the North East to J&K and in UN operations from Mozambique to Rwanda, he has seen it all in crucial appointments. He served seven tours in J&K, in every rank, decorated in almost all of them and knows the J&K conflict comprehensively. He is one of the foremost writers and analysts on J&K, Pakistan and transnational extremist violence. He is a much sought after speaker and writes for major Indian newspapers. With a strong academic background from Sherwood College, Nainital, St Stephen’s College, Delhi, the Royal College of Defence Studies and Kings College London, as also the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Hawaii, he has been at the forefront of encouraging the adoption of the Scholar Warrior concept in the Indian Army. Besides having spoken at the Bangladesh Institute of Strategic Studies (BISS), National Defence College (NDC) and Institute for Policy, Advocacy and Governance (IPAG), all at Dhaka, he also lectures at the Rajaratnam School for International Studies (RSIS), Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), and Lee Kwan Yu School for Public Policy all at Singapore and is associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation as Distinguished Fellow and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at New Delhi. On 13 Jul 2018 The President of India has appointed Lt Gen Hasnain as Chancellor of the Central University of Kashmir. As one of India’s most decorated military officers Gen Hasnain has six decorations awarded by the President for India and two by the Army Chief.

Lt. General Hasnain gave an institute lecture on the 22nd of january. Watch Out! Decided to interview him to know more about his way of life and his acumen of dealing with sensitive situations as and when they present themselves.

NOTE: This interview contains certain parts that are gory in their detail, and may be inadvisable for certain readers. Those parts will be preceded by a “trigger warning”, and readers are expected to read that part of their own volition.

WO: Being in the military is a profession where your life is always at risk. When and why did you decide that you wanted to join the army? And what was your motivation behind that?

Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain: Frankly, in the army, we have a system called passing It on which means that a military family, will always want that at least one person in the family joins the army to carry on the tradition. My father was in the military. He belonged to the Garhwal Rifles, he didn’t ask me to join the army. I was good academically. My brother was very good academically. He joined the Foreign Services, I could have also probably worked for civil services, but I had an inner calling. I loved the outdoors, I went everywhere with my father anyways. I loved the life of the army, and that is why I didn’t even give a second thought to this idea. It’s a profession in which your life can be endangered. I think you ask any of the army officers. I don’t think this aspect has probably ever come to our minds. We take an oath. At the cost of our life, we will perform our duties at the expense of our lives.

WO: Sir, you have been in the service since 1974 and hence have a lot of experience. So how does it feel like to serve in the military? What were some of the things that being in the army taught you?

Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain: Number one was the whole concept of team spirit. You can’t be an individual in life. Everything has to be done in a team. For us in the army, everything is about the team.

Number two is a sense of honor. I don’t want to do anything which will bring a bad name to my family and, more importantly, to my regiment. We have a very strange system. I may be an Indian Muslim from Allahabad or Lucknow, but my troops are all Garhwali. We have a very simple thing in the army; the faith and belief of the ideology of your troops become the faith, ideology and value of the officer. So, I’m equally comfortable going to a temple. The army has taught me to go to the temple, to go to the mosque, to go to the gurdwara. God is omnipresent. I wish, rest of India could follow this. I want this lesson to be learned by the rest of India.

I think this is some of the very big lessons the army had taught me, the whole aspect of tolerance, the entire aspect of plurality that please don’t look at people by their faith and by their caste or by their color and by their creed. Nothing of that sort. Another is the overall value system that the army gave us and the excellent team spirit that it imbibed in us. I think these are three takeaways for me from the military.

WO: I was going through your Wikipedia page, and I read something about the Scholar Warrior Concept. Can you tell us more about it? And why are you an advocate of that?

Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain: You see, first of all, it’s not my thing alone. I will never claim something which is not mine. I brought this system from America, and many people have gone to America for courses from the Indian army. Many people came across this concept. No one brought it back to India. I thought it was such an exciting thing. I thought, let me bring it back, and if I am in a position to implement it, let me implement it.

So I was in a particular part of the Army War College, and I implemented it. I started by saying that no officer will be called a student officer, every officer would be called a scholar warrior. The common belief is that a normal army man does everything through his physique and muscle power. This is what people believe. They don’t realize that this profession that we are involved in has much more to do with the brain than anything else. Now, if you don’t combine the brain and the brawn, you will never be successful. The scholar warrior concept is nothing but combining the brain and the brawn. Know your profession from the physical side, but at the same time read about different things.

Imbibe intellectualism, investigate many other things otherwise you’ll be stuck in one line only. For me, history is essential, economics is essential, social science is essential, computer science is essential, bollywood is important, cricket is important. The other day someone asked me on twitter, Sir, which newspaper do you read, I said the first paper I read is DAWN, Pakistan. They were surprised. They said, why do you read DAWN? I said DAWN tells me about my enemy; that’s why I read it first. Then he asked which Indian newspaper i read, I said Indian Express. Then they asked where do you turn to in the Indian Express? I said I turn to the page where there are two cartoons. One is Marvin and the other one is Calvin and Hobbes. I read them first to start my day with some cheer. Then I read my horoscope also. To see if the day would go well or not. I read that too. So you know, you must have varied interests. If you are to become a scientist tomorrow, I mean as an IIT graduate, you are a science-oriented person and you may have no other interest in life. If you don’t know when did Virat Kohli hit his last century, then you’re not fit enough. I tell people on twitter that Virat is going to score a century. They’ll be like Sir, why do you have an interest in cricket? I say I have an interest in everything under the sun. So your personality has to be rounded up completely. At the end of the day, any question that you ask me, I am ready to answer. That’s because of the scholar warrior concept.


Question (audience): Sir, would you like to share some good experiences in your 40 years of service and if you don’t mind can you share some bad experiences from which we can learn as students?

Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain: My worst experience, let me tell you, one of my most awful experiences was when I came back from the United Nations, I was in the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Rwanda. My unit had already gone to Siachen. I came quickly through Delhi. I went to the Siachen base camp and met the commander there and everything. He told me I should acclimatize adequately. I said I have to get to my battalion headquarters. He said, you are a CO(commanding officer), take your own decisions. So the next morning instead of waking up there, which is a normal thing, I took the helicopter and headed there, got down and as I was taking the initial briefing, I got a call from the front post from an officer. I can’t remember his name, a lieutenant, a young lieutenant, ASE officer attached to my battalion. He rang me up, I inquired who is on the phone, he said I am lieutenant Hardeep Singh, I am the youngest officer in the battalion. I’ve just joined. He said he was in a war post called Ashok. I think about nine or ten weeks he had been there.

I said, I hope everything is well and safe. He says, I hope you’ll be coming here to visit me. And I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for some time. I said okay, great. I asked him what do your parents do? Then he told me he was from Chandigarh; his father was from a bank, And he said I’ve got one sister, no brothers. So then after a while, I cut the call. Not even a minute had passed when I received another call. I picked it up. Another Jawan calling, he said sir, sir, sir, I said yes? He said is this CO sir on the line? I said yes, he said sir, Hardeep sir has been hit by a bullet. I asked him how is this possible? Just a minute ago, I was talking to him over the phone. He said yes sir, as soon as he ended the call with you and lifted his head, he received a bullet under his eye and fell on the other side of the wall. He died.

Then Pakistan started heavy firing, the jawans told me that sir, there is so much firing over there, we can’t recover the body. Then I told them to leave the body there. Leave it. Later in the night, at around 9 pm, when it was pitch black, I knew my jawans since I was from the same battalion. I asked for a particular jawan and asked someone to tell him to go down; he was from the Ghatak platoon. I told him to go down, tie the legs of the body with a rope and pull the body up. Then he went there and brought it up.

You have to bring it through a tunnel. The tunnel is made up of drums and the body, by then, had developed rigor mortis. To bring the body down, you had to break the body. So the body had to be broken to bring it back. I mean, one day he is your officer, talking to you and the next day you are talking about his body only. This happens a lot in our lives.

I have seen this in Sri Lanka a lot of times. One of the second-worst, I would say one of the even worse experiences was when a jawan in front of me stepped on a mine, a mine which was planted by LTTE. All his blood, the muscle, everything from his leg, came on my face. Unfortunately, he also died later. He lost his leg initially, so then he went off. He had an amputated leg, but he died. Such instances like this happen a lot in our lives.

Now good experiences, there have been many good experiences in my life. I mean, something which is out of the world and makes you feel so good. I can’t think of anything that way, personally immediately with me. But otherwise happiness in the Army, it’s a lot there. The biggest delight is when you get the command of your battalion.Oh! Excellent, I also commanded my battalion. The battalion that you had been admitted in, and for me the cherry on the cake was that my father was also from that battalion; he was the one who brought it together. And then I received the order that I am going to take over the command of the battalion, So I was the second generation CO of a battalion which was also raised by my father. I think that was a great feeling. Amazing feeling! I mean, very nice. One small little anecdote, let me tell you when I came back after I got commissioned in my battalion as a second lieutenant. I arrived and the sahayak told me, the CHM of the company also said to me that, sir, tomorrow you are going to have the CO interview, sir, please get a haircut before that, I am sending the barber to you. So now the barber came in the mess, made me sit, and started cutting my hair. After a while, he says,”sir, aapke baal kam ho hye”. I was barely 21 so I asked, “baal kam ho gye? Aapne kab mere baal dekhe jo aap keh sakte ho ki mere baal kam ho gye?” He remained silent. Then when I asked him again after a minute, he said, “Sir zindagi ka pehla haircut maine hi diya tha”.

He was my father’s rifleman , but my father was a part of the first Garhwal Rifles. The barber was also in it. At that time, that barber had just joined as a young constable and I was only a year old then. So he came home, my father made me stand on the chair and he gave me a haircut. And 20 years later, he was giving me a haircut again.


WO: Sir, recently you have been appointed as the chancellor of the central university of Kashmir so what are your plans for it in the future?

Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain: It’s a near-impossible job. Operating these things in Kashmir, from the past 2-3 years or in the future, also is a very very difficult task. The university after the 5th of August was closed for almost two months. When it opened, then satyagraha started. The students didn’t come, teachers didn’t come. I’ve been a military commander in Kashmir. I can’t go back and start motivating university professors and students to start coming and studying. I said this is not my cup of tea. I am not going to do it. But I had a Skype talk several times with students, with people like that. And I did motivate them, one of the things which we started to do was to try and bring in new departments, international studies department we have been trying to start, but it has not been fully functional till now.

We want to look for strategic studies as a subject. These things will help the Kashmiris a lot; academically, they are very sound. But because of the prevailing environment, although there is a lot of passion for academics but at the end of the day, somehow, it fails to flourish. It doesn’t emerge that way. Kashmiris have a lot of love for sports. It’s a sporting state. If you see the unconventional games which involve body contact, different-different martial arts, and other games like that, you will find that Kashmiris win them all over India. Especially the female child. The girls around the 13-14 years age group win, and many a time even at the all India level. I wish we could do much more to encourage them and train them for better potential things internationally and things like that. So I have tried a lot to improve this sporting culture in the central university of Kashmir. But I’m not happy with what I have achieved. I hope the situation is much better next year and we can pursue better academics and better sports activities.

Question (audience): Since the army does a lot for the people in Jammu and Kashmir. We see it in the news, like managing students who want to give JEE exams and others. So the army still helps in bringing those people in the mainstream and then you see people pelting stones against you, accusing you. So sometimes do you feel unacknowledged and directionless and that all your efforts are going in vain. Like do you sometimes feel that no matter how much you do, some people have a set ideology and don’t want to appreciate what the army does in their capacity?

Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain: Good question, excellent question. And let me tell you, it all depends on what rank you are on in the army, what service you had in the military and how much experience you have in these turbulent areas.

Someone who has spent two years there, six months or eight months there, would feel disappointed. But someone who has spent 22-23 years over there will never be disappointed because they know that these things are for the long term. There are no quick-fix solutions to this. Generational change has to happen. It will take three generations to change Kashmir. I am aware, so I don’t feel disappointed by this as I was telling you that the first stone was thrown on my car. Even after that stone, I used to go so often in Baramulla like that. A curfew was present; it lasted for over two months. So I told my staff, for me, in my Gypsy and the escort car behind me, there should be only biscuits and baby food. So I got them filled with biscuits and baby food. Then I told them I want medicines and a doctor to go with me. And we went into the old town of Baramulla. The turbulent area filled with terrorists. I said I don’t want any ammunition near me. I want to go out. I said wherever we will go we distribute biscuits, give baby food and whosoever is sick will see the doctor. And through that, I broke their will. I cut their intention with that. If in these places you use force, power and try to intimidate them, they will rise again to fight you. That is the approach we need to follow and keep reinforcing it. Keep reinforcing it.

Don’t keep it as a transactional thing; make it a transformational thing, how to ultimately bring everyone on board with you. That’s why I said, the program Sadbhavna that we do, by which we try to win people’s hearts and minds, has to be taken ownership of by the government of India, not by the army alone. Then only it will succeed.

WO: Sir, do you have a word of advice for our young generation?

Lt. General Syed Ata Hasnain: I would say, don’t be disappointed by temporary setbacks that your nation goes through. You will get through this in your personal life, your parents will get through this. With every setback like this, there will be compensation that will come your way. And that compensation will always make up for it. So if you’re going through a particularly tricky phase at a particular time, believe in yourself. Believe in God. And at the end of it, everything will be delivered to you. Thank you.