Remembering Gen KV Krishna Rao

Had he lived, Kotikalapudi Venkata Krishna Rao, or Gen KV Krishna Rao would have turned 95 today. He passed away two years ago in Secunderabad, leaving behind a rich legacy as India’s Army Chief, Governor of several states including J&K during a very turbulent phase in the 1990s and a strategic thinker who ushered in long-term changes in the India Army’s organisational structure and its doctrinal thinking.

By the time I met him for the first time in 2006, Gen Krishna Rao had comfortably settled down in his retirement house after having done his bit for the nation as an army officer and as a Governor. But even before joining NDTV, he played a small role in my decision to shift to Delhi and take up the NDTV assignment.

I had come to Delhi from Guwahati in January 2006 to discuss the possibility of becoming NDTV’s Defence Editor. After discussions with the editorial leadership, I was meeting the CEO, Narayan Rao (Gen Krishna Rao’s son, who too has passed away–God bless his soul) to finalise my terms before joining the organisation. Till then, I of course had no idea that Narayan was Gen Krishna Rao’s son. 

We got chatting about Army life, after he learnt about my background. “I too am an army kid he said without revealing who his father was. I was yet to decide whether to shift to Delhi and join NDTV. Then suddenly Narayan remarked, “Wait, aren’t you the guy who did the Kargil reports for Outlook? Also the stories on Brig Surinder Singh?” I nodded in the affirmative. 

Without saying a word he picked up his mobile and dialled someone. Then, without warning, he passed the phone to me and said, “speak to my father.” Dumbfounded, I asked, who’s your father. He said Gen KV Krishna Rao! It was all very unnerving. I nevertheless blurted out a greeting to the General and said Sir, I’am Nitin Gokhale. It’s a great honour to speak with you.” Gen Krishna Rao’s reply was: “Of course I know your name. I wanted to thank you for saving my Paltan’s izzat.” I was flabbergasted. For life of me I couldn’t fathom why he was saying that. His next sentence removed the confusion. He said: “Thanks for giving the right perspective on what happened in Kargil and to one of our own boys, Brig Surinder Singh.” Brig Surinder, former commander of the 121 Brigade in Kargil was a controversial figure in the context of the 1999 conflict and he belonged to the Mahar Regiment, the General’s own regiment. 

The penny dropped. I thanked him for his words and was about the give the phone back to Narayan when the General said from the other end: “I am told by Narayan that you are still in two minds about joining NDTV. Don’t hesitate. Take up the offer. You will like it.” He left me with no choice really! His nudge was one of the reasons why I decided to come to Delhi in 2006. 

Then, later in 2006 I met him in Secunderabad and spent a very educative two hours listening to his experiences, his thoughts on the army, the security situation and the strategic challenges that India faced. He shared his experience in bringing in organisational changes in the army and also why Mrs Indira Gandhi decided to appoint Gen AS Vaidya as Army Chief to succeed him instead of Lt Gen SK Sinha! We also chatted about the north-east (where I had already spent 23 years) and the 8 Mountain Division, commanded by Gen Krishna Rao in the 1971 war. That Division used to be based in the north-east before being shifted to Kargil-Dras area in 1999.

Gradually as I started taking more focused interest in the military and some of the strategic issues, I read about Gen Rao’s contribution to a major shift in Indian Army’s doctrinal thinking between 1975 and mid-1980s. The mechanisation of the Indian Army, the raising of the Mechanised Infantry were his seminal contributions to the nation. Gen Rao’s vision was later translated into reality by Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji.  

As Col Vivek Chadha writes in an IDSA article: “The government appointed an expert panel in 1975 to undertake, probably for the first time, a long-term perspective plan for the army. The committee was headed by Lieutenant General (later General) K.V. Krishna Rao, with Major Generals M.L. Chibber and K. Sunderji as members and Brigadier A.J.M. Homji as secretary. It was mandated to present a perspective till 2000. It was required to evaluate national security threats, propose a strategy against it, visualise the future battlefield, determine the size of the army and suggest an incremental build-up of forces. Wide-ranging discussions were carried out by the committee with a number of agencies, including the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Planning Commission. This ensured that it was able to collate a wide cross-section of views prior to making its recommendations. These changes aimed at improving the teeth to tail ratio of the army, making its organisationally lean even as it pursued modernisation. This report followed up on the limited mechanisation of the army that had begun in 1969 with the induction of TOPAZ and SKOT armoured personnel carriers. As a result of the recommendations of the report, this received an impetus with the raising of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment on 2 April 1979, equipped with BMPs. The real impact of these recommendations was felt when Sundarji took over as the Chief of Army Staff in 1986. By the end of his tenure, 23 mechanised battalions had been raised, most equipped with BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles (ICVs), thereby utilising the best technology available.”

Even by 1975, General Rao had done enough to be remembered well in the Indian Army. He was commissioned in August 1942 in the Mahar Regiment and served in Burma, North West Frontier and Baluchistan during the Second World War. He was part of Lord Mountbatten’s Punjab Boundary Force during Partition, which saved lives in both East and West Punjab during extensive rioting. He saw action as a Company Commander with 3 Mahar, the infantry battalion he later commanded, in the Jammu and Kashmir operations of 1948.

But the moment he cherished most from his life was the one he began his memoirs, In the Service of the Nation — Reminiscences, with: being witness to Pakistan’s surrender at Dhaka in December 1971. He was the GOC of 8 Mountain Division in Sylhet sector, where his division liberated North-East Bangladesh. 

After his retirement, Gen Rao served as the governor of Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura from 1983 to 1989.
He was appointed governor of J&K in July 1989. General Rao had a major role to play in subduing militancy in his second stint as governor of J&K from 1993 to 1998. He governed the state under Governor’s Rule and ensured successful parliamentary and assembly elections in the state in 1996.
He provided military helicopters and security to election commission officials and saw that the polls were conducted smoothly. He had earlier survived an IED blast during the Republic Day celebrations in Jammu in 1995.

As I kept going to Secunderabad–to the College of Air Warfare and to the College of Defence Management–to deliver talks, I would either bump into him at the inaugural sessions or would go and call on him, whenever possible. Truly a towering personality and not just because he was more than 6 feet tall.