The posting order for me to take over command of 125 SATA Battery (now a Regiment) was issued on a Friday evening in June 2002 by the Military Secretary’s Branch of the Army Headquarters. The first to come to know of the posting order was our Second-in-Command (2IC) Late Colonel Suresh Babu who knew me from the Indian Military Academy (IMA). He called me up and said “Sir, please do not get this posting cancelled. This is an excellent unit and you will enjoy commanding it. We are now then deployed in our operational area in Rajasthan.”
That time I was serving with the Army Headquarters and on Monday morning I was called by our boss, General Mohinder Puri. He said “Reji, it is matter of pride and a God send opportunity for you to command a unit. You must move immediately as the posting is ‘forthwith.’ Please look after the soldiers under your command. There is a lot of hype going around in our field formations.”
After that meeting I called up General Raj Mehta, (my Guru from the National Defence Academy [NDA] days and my mentor during my Army service), who was then serving with the Army Headquarters. His advice was no different and he said “The men of the unit you are going to command are lucky. You should not deny them an opportunity to serve under you. You got to ease the hype and pressure the soldiers are undergoing in their operational area.”
I realised what the Generals said soon after reaching our unit in the operational area. It appeared that most Commanding Officers (CO) were in an overdrive to prove the ‘combat readiness’ of their Battalions/ Regiments. It appeared that the Brigade Commanders and COs were in a competitive mood to prove to the Generals their superiority in combat readiness.
There was a total makeover in the Regiments – everything and anything – movable or immovable – all had a disruptive covering. Soldiers were always (24×7) dressed in their disruptive coloured combat dress. The chairs all had a disruptive coloured covering overnight on their fine velvet tops. The dining table had a new table cloth with table mats – all disruptive coloured. The tea-cosy and the coasters – all had disruptive coloured coverings on them. Some Battalions even had their teacups and glasses covered with disruptive coloured cloth. If they could, many would have even procured disruptive coloured crockery and cutlery. The pencils and pens in the pen-holders were all disruptive coloured and the list of disruptive coloured items was endless.
Some would have even contemplated issuing their men with disruptive coloured under-wears (disruptive coloured vests were being issued). That was the height of ‘combat readiness’ in vogue at that time.
The evening after assuming command, our 2IC took me on an evening walk to familiarise me with the area around. He showed me the unit layout, neighbouring units, roads and tracks being used, various hutments of the villagers, flora and fauna, especially deer and peacock, etc. At the end of the walk at the Regimental Headquarters we saw the unit roll-call being conducted.
The roll call was being conducted by Subedar Major (SM) Thagaswamy and on seeing us, came running and reported. I asked him “Do you conduct the evening roll-call with our soldiers dressed in in disruptive combat uniform?”
“Our unit is all set to move into combat any moment. Our soldiers even sleep in combat dress,” replied SM Thangaswamy.
That was when I realised the depth of the ‘hype’ as explained to me by the Generals before I left Army Headquarters.
Out of the blue, I told our SM “After 48 hours I want to see the roll call with all ranks wearing most colourful T-Shirts and Bermuda shorts.” After I passed the order I realised that it was the first order I had passed after assuming command.
After the walk, I retired to my caravan and had a bath and took out a book to read. I could see the commotion my first command order had created. All section commanders (Havildars/ Subedars) were already closeted with their troop commanders (Captains) outside their tents, mostly discussing how to execute the order. 2IC was busy arranging transport for the men to visit the nearest city to procure the new outfit.
In the evening get-together of officers at the Officers’ Mess, I said “This evening you are all dressed in disruptive combat uniform. Tomorrow onward, we will have dinner in civvies.” Our officers wanted to know the reason for my order and I tactfully dodged all their questions on the subject. This effort by the officers continued for the next two days.
After two days, in the evening SM Thangaswamy came to my caravan wearing a yellow T-Shirt with red and blue flowers printed on it and a bright blue Bermuda shorts. He reported “Sir, the entire unit is assembled for roll-call in this dress as per your orders.”
I complimented him for his attire and said “Rajanikanth, the Tamil movie hero will have a run for his money on seeing you now.” SM Thangaswamy blushed.
I explained to the SM “Though my order might sound illogical, my aim is to ease the pressure and the hype.”
I further added that “In case you sleep in your combat dress, you will only have a combat dream; in case you sleep in colourful clothes, you will most likely have a colourful dream.”
SM Thangaswamy left my caravan, trying his level best to control his laughter. I achieved what I wanted, even though my first command order would sound most quixotic.