A pacifist, humanitarian and a prolific writer, Mr. Chatterjee is a regular contributor for the Reuters and the Huffington Post. A Princeton University alumnus, he was decorated for gallantry by the President of India during his service in the Indian Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Major.
Wycliffe Muga (WM): Everyone has a remarkable story from his youngest days. Something which happened that only now looking back do you realise how profoundly it influenced you for good or bad. Looking back, what would you say had a profound impact on you?
Siddharth Chatterjee (SC): Without a doubt it was being laughed at by a teacher when, aged 14, I told him my ambition was to get into India's prestigious National Defence Academy. He hooted with laughter and described me in words I have never forgotten: 'You are the deadwood of mediocrity'. He, in fact, asked me to pursue a vocational skill and forget about advancing in academics as he did not see a future for me there.
I was hurt and furious, but I wasn't really surprised because, to be fair, it wasn't completely unjustified. So, comparing me to the deadwood of mediocrity may actually have been a compliment, as mediocrity is certainly better than plain bad (laughs).
Getting into the National Defence Academy is incredibly competitive and I was failing to shine both academically and at sport, so my big ideas about being a Special Forces officer in the Indian military and learning to parachute and play polo and dive sounded pretty hollow to my teacher.
I suspect, that very statement of my teacher stuck to my psyche. While it sounded cruel and insensitive at that point of time, on reflection it might have woken me up. Rather like a jolt of electricity that shook me and spurred me on.
By way of background, my father came to India as a refugee from East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – when India was partitioned in 1947. My mother came from a very simple background. She came from a family of nine siblings and her mother was married at 11 years of age. Even as a child I remember clearly noticing the massively different status in Indian society of the different genders. Gender differences in India are very pronounced. I saw deeply ingrained patriarchy, misogyny and gender inequalities within my family and the wider community. It was not easy for my mother and for countless women who were married young and had scarce opportunities to achieve their full human potential.
Ours was a simple household. My father's family lost everything during the partition of India, which on all counts may have been one of the worst genocides in history. No side was innocent, except for the women and children caught up in the tragedy.
My paternal grandfather died and my grandmother fled East Pakistan with her two sons and a daughter. Life was hard for them, very hard. To be made indigent from a reasonably comfortable home and through no fault of their own left my father's family deeply traumatised.
So when I see refugees anywhere in the world, I connect with them in many ways and feel deep empathy.
My father's family basically restarted their lives from scratch. When I was born and growing up, there was no money to spare at home but, like most parents, my mother and father were very ambitious for me, and really struggled to ensure they did their very best for me. My father was the bread-winner and my mother stayed at home to raise my brother and me. They used their modest means to get me private tuition, but I was still failing. I changed schools often simply to avoid having to repeat the previous academic year.
I also contracted polio as a child, but was very lucky as it was detected early and corrected in time. Countless other children in India had to resign themselves to a life of handicap, pain and immobility. I was three years old, but my memory is still vivid with the painful rehabilitation process I had to go through at a military hospital.
My brother was born 10 years after me and in the meantime my experiences at school could at best be described as inconsequential. I tried my hand at boxing, but invariably I would be either knocked out in the first round, or even when I survived the first round, I never won any fight.
However, I think my childhood experiences on seeing how women were treated and my own tryst with polio, may have had something to do with my passion to fight gender inequality and my enthusiasm to advance universal health coverage. These are two issues I am deeply passionate about.
WM: Looking back, do you see why? Because it wasn't that you didn't have brains. What do you think was holding you back?
SC: Frankly I found the education system tyrannical. Corporal punishments and bullying was common. The pressure was intense. I must admit I hated each day, I had to wake up and go to school.
I also think it was because the education system involved a lot of rote learning. It was all about how much you could memorise, and didn't focus on problem-solving or creativity of any sort. This didn't play to my strengths.
It was obvious I wasn't heading for a good university, but with the help of a tutor I managed to pass the entrance exam for the National Defence Academy (NDA) on my second attempt. This was a huge success for me. Out of around 100,000 applicants only about 200 were selected following difficult exams and rigorous interviews. I was overjoyed.
The NDA is like the West Point of the United States of America. However it is a unique military training institution where the three arms of the armed forces train together – the Army, Air Force and the Navy – as officer cadets. We join as sixteen year olds after passing an entrance exam followed by a week of personality, psychological and medical examinations. The process is exacting, it is an intense period of studies and training. You are groomed to be an officer and a gentleman.
At the end of three years we receive a Bachelor's degree and move to the specialised service academies, the Indian Military Academy, the Air Force academy and the Naval Academy, where we spend an additional year. It is like doing a graduate programme on steroids.
Something about being accepted changed me. Perhaps it was my "Forrest Gump" moment. On the first day at the Academy they cut your hair, put you in a uniform, and basically start to build you as a new person. I found this liberating. It was like a formal break away from the past where I hadn't known any success and had no self-confidence. Suddenly the lights came on.
From a childhood of academic and sporting failure, in three years at the Academy I became a top boxer, show jumper and polo player. I also finished my Bachelor's degree by 19 years of age, and set my sights on joining the Indian Special Forces.
Joining the Special Forces was a crowning moment of my life. You put on that maroon beret and that uniform and you are a part of an elite unit, quite a feat given my background. I started getting top grades in the commando course, the infantry course, and the junior leaders' course. Suddenly I was coming first in my unit in battle physical efficiency tests, and I became a parachutist, a combat underwater diver and skilled in unarmed combat.
In a sense, the military helped me find purpose in my life. I was decorated for gallantry by the President of India for my part in counterinsurgency operations.
But this intense exposure to combat unsettled me. I started to feel uneasy, a sort of "subconscious disquiet". Something about this violence did not make sense at all.
WM: Let me hazard a guess here: Was it all the people being killed? Was there an incident which crystallised the doubts in your mind?
SC: Many years ago, while out on patrol in a very hostile insurgency environment, a platoon of my Special Forces unit came under fire. Minutes later, an officer lay lifeless from gunshot wounds. I remember that day like it was yesterday.
Nothing can prepare a soldier for the death of a comrade, or for delivering the news to his family. I remember the look of pain and agony on the faces of my fallen comrade's wife and children, and that memory still breaks my heart.
Every time the media reports on military deaths, I think of the families of those soldiers and wonder if a little more regard for soldiers and their families would inspire us to seek non-violent resolutions to conflicts.
I had misgivings about the whole principle of fighting an insurgency when alternate opportunities existed for advancing peace, dialogue and diplomacy. If I could turn back the clock and if I had any position of influence, I would have encouraged dialogue and reconciliation.
India has the largest number of war widows, currently estimated at 25,000, but very likely much more. I doubt there is another nation-state that has lost so many soldiers to fighting within its own borders.
WM: That is a large number of war widows. Surely the political leadership in India as well as the population of India must be sitting up and taking note of this?
SC: I wish that was the case. Frankly I am not sure.
In banal, patriotic statements, we declare these fallen soldiers martyrs and war heroes, while ignoring the shattered dreams of the spouses and children left behind. Clearly, we must find alternatives to sending young men and women to war. The cost is not only in lives lost and families shattered, but also in long-term damage to the mental healthSid Chatterjee holds up a live and deadly Russel's Viper, teaching his students survival and living off the land at the Commando School which trains young infantry officers in commando operations. Photo: Indian Army of military veterans. Many struggle to adjust to life after very traumatic and disturbing experiences in war, and some even take their own lives.
When I went into a counterinsurgency operation in the North East of India, I realised we were fighting in an insurgency with no real prospect of success. I had read this very interesting book by American author Barbara Tuchman called "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam". The book is compelling and brilliant and draws on a range of examples, from Montezuma's absurd surrender of his empire in 1520 AD to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour-she defines folly as the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives. She enlightens the reader with four decisive turning points in history that illustrate the heights of folly: the Trojan War, the breakup of the Holy See provoked by the Renaissance popes, the loss of the American colonies by Britain's George III, and the United States' own persistent mistakes in Vietnam.
Something started to stir in my mind when I went into this particular counter insurgency operation.
There was no endgame in sight, for that matter anywhere in the world in this sort of environment. That was when it became clear to me that something needed to change.
WM: You are saying then that military victory – or what is generally assumed to be victory – is really little more than an illusion. But many leaders who have taken their militaries into war have argued that there was no other choice. So what do you think should have been done?
SC: History is replete with examples that military might alone cannot end such insurgencies or what is called low intensity conflicts.
From my own experience in India's military, which included many years of active service in counterinsurgency operations, it is clear that unbridled violence invariably back-fires, as it tends to add fuel and sustain the insurgency, just as it has in other parts of India and the world.
In many parts of the world governments continue to combat insurgencies over decades. In most cases such conflicts are unwinnable, each side inflicting increasing levels of violence, creating a vitiated environment of hate and a vicious cycle of vendetta and revenge, with civilians bearing the brunt.
Insurgencies thrive in the parts of India have seen protracted socio-economic deprivation, inter-generational poverty, poor governance and a deep sense of injustice. For example this is particularly true given the fact that the problem of left-wing extremism and the question of social justice are essentially entwined in India. In 2009, former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared, "Left-wing extremism poses the gravest internal security threat to India." He was right. India's long-running Maoist insurgency has developed into one of the country's most serious security challenge of the past 50 years.
Unfortunately, this form of militancy has all along been sustained by India's wide and deep-rooted inequality with conflict over land ownership, struggles for the rights over mineral and forest wealth, poverty, and denial of justice and human dignity, which plays a pivotal role in alienating a large segment of the working class poor. It often reflects the harsh reality of the wider local region, which is typically affected by either exploitation of the peasantry, struggles over mineral wealth, or denial of rights over forest-land to the local tribal population.
WM: Not that I think your message would have any real chance of reaching him, but if you had an opportunity to convey a short message to India's Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi, what would you say to him?
SC: Ending conflicts through dialogue and diplomacy is a daunting undertaking. However, history shows that peaceful negotiation can resolve even the most obdurate conflicts. For instance, we can learn from the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the long-running Irish conflict or the recently-concluded peace agreement in Colombia. It needs perseverance, stamina and an abundance of optimism.
The road to peace in Ireland was characterized by violence, setbacks and numerous false starts, but the negotiating parties realized that military strength alone would not guarantee peace.
India's Prime Minister, Honourable Mr. Narendra Modi, can change this. He is an exceptional leader much admired throughout the country, leading the world's largest democracy. Peace with India's neighbours and peace within, would unleash the country's' true economic and social potential, lift people out of poverty, make India a beacon of hope, prosperity and social cohesion.
(Read the second part about why Mr. Chatterjee left the Army and highlights of his UN stint spanning two decades)