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Far corner of an Indian village: The story of Havildar Surba Tode

Indians had played a great role in World Wars I and II, but they have been largely ignored due to a variety of reasons. Here’s a story of a great grandson’s search for his great grandfather’s war-time legacy.

Cmde Srikant B Kesnur

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The Memorial at Shirgaon village which was inaugurated on 5 June 2015, exactly 100 years after Surba Tode passed away in East Africa.

Today, 28 July, we observe the anniversary of commencement, in 1914, of World War 1 that went on till the end of 1918. Also called ‘The Great War’, it had a profound impact in many parts of the world, including, also, in leading to the Second World War, barely two decades later. These two wars, fought in the first half of last century, saw massive Indian participation. WW 1 witnessed almost one million Indian soldiers involved, with nearly 75,000 laying down their lives. In the Second World War we contributed close to 2.8 million volunteers, of whom nearly 90,000 were battlefield casualties. Sadly, Indian involvement in these epochal events has, by and large, been ignored due to a variety of reasons. However, there have been some encouraging instances in last few years, especially while commemorating the centenary of WW 1 and 75 years of WW 2, when government agencies and dedicated individuals have sought to highlight Indian stories and participation. This is one such human story of WW 1. It is also the story of a great grandson’s search for his great grandfather’s legacy. This author had a small part to play in it. Please read on.

The account begins in end of 2009 in the High Commission of India (HCI) in Nairobi where I was posted as the Defence Adviser with Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Eritrea and Somalia as my area of responsibility. I had, few months earlier, returned from a trip to Asmara, Eritrea, where the sight of a lone Indian sailor’s grave at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery (CWGC) had occasioned much curiosity and an article for a Navy journal. Earlier that year, at Nairobi, I had also taken part in the Remembrance Day commemoration on 11 November and the Gallipoli Day commemoration on 25 April and wondered why Indian participation in WW 1 and in the Gallipoli campaign was unknown to almost everyone around including Indians in East Africa. In December 2009, an email landed at my desk, seeking details of a person’s whereabouts in Africa. Normally, this was an affair for the Consular Section in the Mission but my High Commissioner knowing my passion for the subject of ‘war dead’ promptly sent it to me for action.

The somewhat incoherent email from one Kiran Tawade in India sought the details of his great grandfather Surba Tawade (Tode) who had apparently passed away in World War 1 and whose commemoration stone was ‘somewhere in Nairobi’ as per the details available to him from the CWGC registry. I had a dynamic colleague in the Mission’s Assistant Welfare and Protocol Officer (APWO) Shri Arun Kumar, who too was a history enthusiast, to help me. We scouted all around the picturesque Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Ngong Road in Nairobi, but to no avail — there was no mention of Surba Tode. Just as we were giving up, we learnt of another Cemetery, a separate small British Indian Memorial, right off the Airport Road, next to the Moi stadium.

Arun and I visited the place, it was eerily quiet and nobody was there save the caretaker. While it was somewhat shabby compared to the main CWGC, the graves were neatly maintained. This was a different kind of memorial. While the Muslim and Christian Indian soldiers had specific burial stones, Hindus who had been cremated were remembered in the form of a memorial wall with their names etched on them. And there we found the name of Col Hav Surba Tode, of the 101 Grenadiers Battalion. We learnt that he had died on 5 June 1915 before the advance to Rufiji in East Africa. Arun had been prescient enough to carry flowers; we conducted a quick informal memorial service and took photographs of the memorial stone which we emailed to Kiran Tawade.

I thought that was the end of the matter but a few days later I received a call from Kiran. He was an inspector in Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and his first few minutes were a mixture of blabber, excitement and emotional outpouring. I calmed him down and asked him to explain again. “Sir, I cannot believe what you have sent. It is such a thrilling moment for my family and me. For years I had been wondering about my great grandfather and now you have given me this great news that he is commemorated in Nairobi”. Then, he went on to relate his story.

It begins in the 1870s when the subject of this story, Surba Tode (also spelled Tawade), was born in Shirgaon village of Devgarh Taluk in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. As was the practice those days he married early. He was tall, well-built and handsome and had the reputation of being a happy, fun loving personality but did not have a regular job. Possibly realising the need for means of livelihood as well as wanting to have a life of adventure and travel, he volunteered for the Army, sometime around 1892 and was recruited in 101st Grenadiers battalion of the British India Army.

However, it was not a decision that went well with his larger family or wife Draupadi. As it happens, Military was not a very popular profession in the coastal Devgarh region unlike in interior Maharashtra like Pune, Satara, Kolhapur which has a rich tradition of soldiering. In fact, in this place, like in many parts of India, there was a shade of infamy to soldiering as the stereotype was that they often took to bad habits like drinking, smoking and even womanising owing to their being ‘far away’ from wives.

 Army life implied Surba rarely stayed in touch with his wife except for an odd letter or the visit on annual leave. A son, Maruti, was born in 1906 but Surba saw him on very few occasions. When war happened in 1914, his unit was deployed in East Africa where he died in the course of the campaign. Back home, there was very little news of Surba. One can imagine the state of posts and telegraph in small Indian villages. Rumours swirled of him missing or being killed or his running away. Nobody was clear, nobody knew and nobody in that clan knew whom to ask. Other rumours suggested that he had deliberately staged this to desert his wife. Some others implied that he had joined a travelling troupe or some other itinerant team never to return. As Kiran explains “he came to be considered a bhagoda, a fugitive”. He was condemned as an arch villain who had left his wife and family and hence was not deemed respectable. While Surba had died ‘fighting for the King and the Country’ he had become a persona non grata in Shirgaon.

 His wife and young son Maruti Tawde, thus, went through great deal of suffering. Draupadi, an illiterate young woman, was subject to great humiliation and, given the unfortunate social atmosphere at that time, held responsible for the fate that befell her husband. On the one hand she was subject to unwelcome advances and propositions, on the other she was routinely insulted and mocked. When it was suggested to the young Draupadi that she must shave her head as a widow, she ran away with her little son to live on the outskirts subsisting with people who lived in the margins of society’ and often living on ‘roots or shrubs’. In short, they became outcastes in their own village.

Therefore, she missed out on the pension and other benefits that the government bestowed on the family — as all of this was delivered at the home address of Surba. The only thing that the other family members handed out to her was a scroll signed by King George V. That scroll acknowledged the death of Surba in East Africa and paid tribute to his devotion to duty. They had no use for a piece of paper written in English which nobody understood. Thus, Surba continued to face ignominy.

Consequently, the son Maruti Tawade grew up amid hardship and deprived of father’s love or care. He also, grew up, like Amitabh Bacchan in ‘Deewar’, hating his father and holding him responsible for their indignity and insult. A silent compact came up that Surba Tawade was never to be mentioned. Surba’s belongings, memories and the scroll were bundled together in a wooden trunk with strict instructions not to be opened.

Maruti went on to become a Sub Inspector in Maharashtra Police, was posted in Mumbai for many years, he sired seven children and earned both money and respect in society. However, he was a strict father who, while providing all amenities, showed no love for his children and was joyless in his conduct. His resentment against his father was reflected in the anger and physical violence against his children. He returned to village Shirgaon and even went on to become the Society President and Sarpanch. However, his hard drinking and bitterness about family reputation led to an early demise, in 1972.

The documents of his father, Surba, still remained in the wooden trunk and were passed down to Sadanand Tawade (born 1940) the elder son of Maruti. Sadanand had his own struggles in life against a stentorian father. He endured hardship and poverty, shifted to Mumbai, lived through the grind of staying in a chawl with 15 people in one room, went through 16 jobs but persevered. And prospered. Sadanand was meticulous, dressed well and had his grandfather’s happy attitude to life. However, going by his father’s diktat, the wooden box remained unopened.

Our protagonist Kiran Tawade was born in 1980. From his childhood he had fascination for uniform. He did well in studies, excelled in outdoors and enrolled in NCC in 1997. He was keen to join the Army as an officer but a setback in family fortunes and the death of his elder brother in an accident forced him opt for a job at the earliest. In 2002, he was recruited into the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). He quickly moved up the ladder becoming a head constable in three years and adding to his repertoire of skills.

He was also curious about his great grandfather’s past and the wooden trunk. At last, in 2005, an ageing Sadanand decided that the time had come, to unlock the trunk after nearly nine decades and make peace with the past. Thus, he and Kiran discovered the commemoration scroll issued in honour of Late Col Havildar Surba Tode. But they still had no idea what it meant in its entirety, apart from a fuzzy idea that their ancestor had died in World War 1 because the scroll mentioned no details.

Kiran decided to get to the root of the matter. He had no idea where to start. In retrospect, it might be easy to suggest that he could have contacted the CWGC, the British Embassy or the Army records or the Grenadiers Regimental Centre. The arm chair variety might even suggest a Google search. But 15 years ago, young Kiran was unaware about these organisations or devices. Posted in Delhi, he launched himself into this activity with zeal scouting government records offices, Army Offices (he possibly visited the wrong ones), Japanese embassy (wrongly thinking he may have died fighting the Japanese, thus even mixing up his wars but one cannot blame Kiran) and searching at India Gate where for some reason, his great grandfathers name was not mentioned. It took him four years before an empathetic senior in ITBP guided him to the CWGC website and they were able to get the information that he died in Kenya and is commemorated in a cemetery at Nairobi. But Kiran needed confirmation of this, some palpable physical evidence other than website records. That’s how, to complete the flashback, his query landed on my desk.

Thus, the reply from our side was a culmination of a long search to know the real truth and whereabouts of his great grandfather. The fact that he had died in war, in the cause of the country, meant that the impression of a philanderer who had deserted his wife and was a disgrace to the family was wrong. He was not a villain but a hero. The family erupted in joy.

But it was not enough that his reputation was restored. The family was now convinced that his legacy needed to be celebrated. As Kiran explains “For several decades his heroic sacrifice remained unknown to my family. He had, for no fault of his, earned a bad reputation. However the chance discovery of commemoration scroll and certificate from the British King issued in his honour and our enquiries established that he laid down his life in the First World War. We embarked upon a mission to give him due recognition for his valiant act and dedication to his duty in his native village of Shirgaon. The idea was to erect a small memorial in his name. From our village or neighbouring region, hardly anyone went to war or served with the Indian Army in British India or independent India”.

This began the next herculean journey from early 2010 onwards. Kiran experienced the full force of the ‘Indian system’ as he tried to navigate through several corridors of bureaucracy and government offices. He met and corresponded with the district administration and Maharashtra State Government to seek assistance. This involved several visits to the MP of the Region, the Collector, the Tehsildar and their many deputies and assistants. I too wrote a letter from Nairobi to the District Collector Sindhudurg apprising him of the issue. I don’t know if it helped any. The family encountered the usual ignorance, resistance, obduracy and the standard taunt “But he fought for the British and not India”. However, Kiran stayed resolute.

In 2012, after three years of sustained efforts, the district administration earmarked a tiny piece of land, about 50 sq feet, in Shirgaon, to erect a memorial on the condition that the family obtains No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the 16 village sarpanches in proximity. Kiran, dutifully, visited all these villages, recounting the story of his great grandfather and got them to agree to the memorial. Since the plot was very small, they had to shelve plans for a general memorial for soldiers in the region to a specific one for Surba. As no financial assistance was given, the family decided to crowd source for funds and, to keep matters transparent, established a trust in the name of Surba Tode memorial.

 Kiran and his family had no idea how a memorial looked and what it involved. The design, construction and aesthetics had to be in-house since they had no money to pay ‘experts’. The ITBP helped him source an old rifle and helmet, the family got a glass cage and casting done and a small memorial was thus readied. Through all this time and all these hardships, Kiran informs that the entire family had taken a vow ‘not to celebrate any festival, any birthday, any anniversary, any good event, not conduct any wedding or any ceremony’ until they could finish the memorial. From 2010 to 2015, the Tawade family had one single mission — the erection of memorial no matter the odds.

At last, on 5 June 2015, precisely 100 years to the day, after he had passed away in distant East Africa, a memorial was inaugurated for late Col Havildar Surba Tode, in his native village. The whole village had turned for the function as the ITBP paraded a guard of honour. Many local dignitaries were present and heralded the occasion. The ‘prodigal son’ had finally returned home with pomp and show and his honour redeemed. It was the culmination of a journey, in different ways, for both the great grandfather Surba and his great grandson Kiran Tawade.

Note 1: In order to make his commemoration more meaningful and everlasting, the family, every year on 05 Jun, engages in social service, such as sponsoring meals for villagers, donating books and notebooks for poor and deprived children and going around all villages motivating children to join armed or security forces to serve the nation.

Note 2: The Grenadiers is a regiment of the Indian Army, formerly known as the 4th Bombay Grenadiers when part of the British Indian Army. It is the oldest active and continuing Grenadier regiment in the Commonwealth of Nations. The 101 was the 1st Battalion of this regiment. After Independence, the 4th Grenadiers were allocated to the Indian Army and retitled ‘The Grenadiers’. 101 Battalion was transferred to the Brigade of the Guards in 1952, becoming its 2nd Battalion (2 Guards).

Cmde Srikant Kesnur is a serving Navy officer with interest in contemporary naval history.

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‘ARMY CAN MEET ANY CHALLENGE TO SAFEGUARD COUNTRY’

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The Army is fully prepared to meet any challenge like the use of drones and social media by adversaries to safeguard the country, said Commandant of Chennai-based Officers Training Academy (OTA) Lieutenant General M K Das. Lt Gen Das, who is also the colonel of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) regiment, said the situation in J&K is getting better with the Army and other security agencies working together to stamp out terrorism. Speaking to media on the sidelines of the maiden attestation parade of 460 new recruits of the 126th batch after a successful 40-week training period at Dansal here, he said the Indian Army is aware of the challenges and prepared to give a befitting response to the enemies of the nation.

Talking about the need to introduce special training courses for soldiers in the aftermath of the developments in Afghanistan, he said, “Our training is very contemporary as it caters for all the contingencies and unforeseen situations. My young soldiers, who have taken the oath to defend the constitution and the country, will live up to all the challenges. One of the unique things of this regiment (JAKLI) is all our troops hail from J&K and Ladakh. They have ingrained quality to be security conscious much more than others.” Lt Gen Das said, “All the situations unfolding in the country or in our neighbourhood, the JAKLI regiment will continue to excel and be the lead agency in the fight against terrorism.” Asked about the challenges posed by the use of drones to hit targets and deliver weapons and narcotics from across the LoC and International Border, he said a capsule course on anti-drone measures has been introduced. “On Army Day on 15 January, our chief took the threat seriously and our soldiers are being prepared to deal with the challenge in a better way.” During recruitment training, Lt Gen Das said that besides the arms handing and exercises, thrust is also given on science and technology, cybersecurity and other new challenges. He said the misuse of social media by “anti-national” elements is a reality and the new recruits are being trained in cybersecurity during their basic and orientation courses.

On attempts by Pakistan to mislead the youth of J&K, Lt Gen Das said, “The youth of J&K is showing keenness to be a part of the regiment which is a message to those who think they can mislead our youth. Joining the regiment is the best way to serve the nation, the youth live like a family and there is complete communal harmony.” He said the regiment is increasing the number of local youth from Ladakh and would also go for recruitment in J&K to provide an opportunity to the local youth to become part of this regiment. Asked about his message to the misguided youth, he said, “J&K is the crown of India but if I focus as a soldier, I feel they (misguided youth) have not understood their country… the situation has not gone out of hand and the Army has kept its window open to allow them to surrender and join the national mainstream.”

He added, “We have a unit of 162 Infantry Territorial Army who are former militants but have become upright soldiers.” Lt Gen Das said the Army and other security agencies are working in close coordination and the situation in J&K is getting better and the “day is not far when this region will make our country proud.”

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SOUTHERN NAVAL COMMAND OBSERVES INTERNATIONAL COASTAL CLEAN-UP DAY IN KOCHI

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The Southern Naval Command observed International Coastal Clean-up Day on Saturday with a focus on mangrove plantation and clearance of plastic/non-biodegradable waste along with waterfront areas in and around Kochi, said a press release from the Ministry of Defence.

Pursuant to the global campaign of keeping coastlines clean, more than 600 Naval personnel and the families of Southern Naval Command undertook clearance of plastic and non-biodegradable waste at different locations spread across the city, coastal areas such as Fort Kochi beach, Thevara waterfront, Willingdon Island, Cherai beach, Bolgatty and around 2 km stretch of the Venduruthy channel while restoring around 1 lakh sqm of mangroves to the pristine condition. In addition, 80 mangrove saplings were also planted along the Venduruthy channel. Similar coastal cleanup drives and lectures/webinars/competitions emphasising protection of the coastal and marine environment were undertaken with the enthusiastic participation of the Naval community at other outstation Naval units located at Lonavala, Jamnagar, Chilka, Coimbatore, Goa, Ezhimala and Mumbai.

Being the Training Command of the Indian Navy, the Southern Naval Command has always been at the vanguard in promoting environmental conservation activities both at the Command Headquarters, Kochi as well as at Naval stations spread across the country.

Mandated to oversee naval training, the Southern Naval Command has conceptualised and implemented a variety of green initiatives. Keeping environmental preservation as one of the Key Result Areas, the Command has constantly endeavoured to motivate young officer and sailor trainees of the Indian Navy to imbibe the habit of protecting mother nature as part of their grooming efforts in preparing them to become responsible future Naval leaders and dependable citizens of India.

Particular attention has also been given to create more awareness among the families and more importantly the children.

During the last three years, the Command has adopted a multi-dimensional approach towards conservation of the environment and implementation of energy conservation methods.

To highlight a few, the personnel of the Command were actively involved in the rejuvenation of 4.5-km-long Venduruthy Channel near Kochi Naval base, creating awareness in and around Naval establishments.

Efforts were undertaken to enhance green cover by conducting mass plantation drives which included planting more than 75,000 trees, using the fast-growing Miyawaki forestation method. In addition, regular coastal clean-up drives, mangrove plantation drives, in-house handling and recycling of bio and non-biodegradable waste, adopting efficient energy and water-saving methods etc were also undertaken. The Command has also earnestly endeavoured to continue all the efforts for protecting and conserving the environment and natural resources. Towards achieving the same, the Command has implemented a Green Initiative and Environment Conservation Roadmap with a prime focus on Carbon footprint reduction.

With the personal involvement of Vice Admiral Anil Kumar Chawla, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command is committed to creating a clean, green and healthy environment in line with the visionary environment conservation policies of the Govt of India. On the occasion, Adv M Anilkumar, Mayor, Kochi Municipal Corporation and staff also participated in Kochi.

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IAF TO HOLD AIR SHOW OVER DAL LAKE IN SRINAGAR ON 26 SEPT

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An air show will be held here on 26 September where IAF’s skydiving team Akash Ganga and Suryakiran Aerobatic and Display Team and paramotor flying will manoeuvre the skies over the famous Dal Lake, officials informed on Saturday.

The air show will be organised by the Air Force Station Srinagar and the Jammu and Kashmir administration as part of the ongoing celebrations commemorating ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, they said. The main aim of the exercise—under the theme ‘Give Wings to Your Dream’—is to motivate the youth of the valley to join the Indian Air Force (IAF) and to promote tourism in the region, the officials said.

The event will be flagged off Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha at the Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) overlooking Dal Lake.

More than 3,000 college and school students are expected to participate in the programme to witness the impressive manoeuvres of the IAF, which will motivate them to dream about a career in the force and in the aviation sector, the officials said. “The show will also develop passion among the students to give wings to their dreams. Along with the students, 700 teachers will also be present at the venue,” they added.

During the demonstration, students will also be familiarised with the new technological advancements achieved and incorporated by the IAF while flying aircraft in the sky over the world-famous Dal Lake, the officials said. Stalls will be established at SKICC where students will be familiarised with the achievements of the Air Force, employment opportunities in the IAF, recruitment rules and eligibility criteria, they added.

Srinagar-based PRO Defence Col Emron Musavi said the display will include flypast by various aircraft of the IAF. The spectators would also get to witness paramotor flying and IAF’s skydiving team Akash Ganga in action. ‘Ambassadors of IAF’, Suryakiran Aerobatic Display Team, will be performing in the valley after a gap of 14 years, he said. Col Musavi said the symphony orchestra of the IAF would also be performing at the event. The event would also consist of a photo exhibition depicting the history of the

IAF, he said. 

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ARMY ORGANISES EXHIBITION IN JAIPUR TO COMMEMORATE INDIA’S VICTORY IN 1971 WAR

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JAIPUR : South Western Command of the Indian Army on Saturday organised an exhibition showcasing defence equipment at Chitrakoot Stadium in Jaipur to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war.

Speaking to ANI, an Indian army official said, “We have displayed the defence equipment in this exhibition to make people aware of the Indian army achievements. We want to motivate the youth by showcasing these types of equipment.” “Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these events had been started to make people aware of Indian Arm Forces. So, we are also continuing the move by organising these kinds of events,” he added.

Further, he said that India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war is memorable for all the Indians, so, every citizen should be aware of this war.  

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BRO makes history, appoints woman Army officer in-charge of road construction unit

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The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has appointed a woman Army officer for the first as the Officer Commanding of its 75 road construction company (RCC) in Uttarakhand, the Defence Ministry said on Sunday.

The three platoon commanders under Major Aaina, Captain Anjana, AEE (Civ) Bhawana Joshi and AEE (Civ) Vishnumaya K became the first women RCC. The appointments were made on August 30.

BRO on Sunday recalled the list of women officers who were assigned higher leadership roles in the organisation in the current year.

According to a statement issued by the Defence Ministry, BRO has inducted a large number of women into its workforce over the years, right from officers to the level of commercial pilot license holders. “In this regard, a General Reserve Engineer Force (GREF) officer EE (Civ) Vaishali S Hiwase took over the reins of 83 Road Construction Company on April 28, employed on an important Indo-China road connecting Munisairi-Bughdiar-Milam, in an area full of adversity and challenges. The lady officer has taken control and is leading the charge with meticulous execution of her tasks,” the statement said.

“The BRO created history again on 30 August when Major Aaina of Project Shivalik took charged as Officer Commanding, 75 Road Construction Companies (RCC) at Pipalkoti in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand. She is the first Indian Army Engineer Officer to command a road construction company. Not only this, all three platoon commanders under her, Captain Anjana, AEE (Civ) Bhawana Joshi and AEE (Civ) Vishnumaya K are lady officers and they have together created a first-ever women RCC. The Border Roads plans to make four such all women-led RCCs, two each in North Eastern and Western Sectors.”

As India celebrates 75 Years of Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, it also celebrates the ongoing efforts of our Nation towards women empowerment. Women today have started assuming their rightful, equal place as the frontrunners in nation-building and representatives of our strong national character, the statement read.

Over the last six decades, in a graduated and steady manner, the BRO has increased the number of women employed in various roles and duties of road construction. A consolidated effort is being made to empower them by giving them authority and responsibilities to undertake work independently. These women have become symbols of Nari Shakti in their respective areas.

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IN FIRST FOREIGN VISIT AFTER TAKING OVER AS CDS, GEN BIPIN RAWAT TO VISIT RUSSIA, US

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In his first visit abroad after taking over as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat will be visiting Russia and the US.

Rawat took over his new office as CDS on 31 December 2019, and since then has been declining foreign invitations for focusing on the new assignment of integrating the defence forces as a combined fighting force. “There is a conference of the CDS-rank officers of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement member countries. China and Pakistan are also part of this grouping,” senior defence officials said.

The CDS conference would be focusing on addressing the regional security issues and Afghanistan is also likely to come up for discussion, they said.

The CDS would also witness the activities of the respective armed forces taking part in the SCO peace mission drills being held in Russia. Indian Army and Air Force are also taking part in the exercise there.

The visit will take place in the coming week and soon after return from Russia, Rawat would be leaving for the US for meeting his counterpart and other American military leadership at the Pentagon.

The two countries have been coming closer militarily in the last few years and have been holding multiple military exercises and hardware cooperation.

The Indian military saw a major change in senior-level structures under the Narendra Modi government as the focus is now on the theatrisation of the fighting forces and bringing in more capabilities and jointness among the three services. 

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