The posting order for me to take over command of 125 SATA Battery (now a Regiment) was issued on a Friday evening in May 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 immediately called me up. Colonel Babu knew me from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) days and hence advised me not to get the posting cancelled as the unit is an excellent one and I would really enjoy commanding it. The unit was then deployed in the 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. General Puri told me that it is matter of pride and a God send opportunity for anyone to command a unit and hence I should move immediately. 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 whose advice was no different and he said that I should not deny the men of the unit an opportunity to serve under me.
Both the Generals advised me to ensure that the men are well looked after and the hype that was being created as most units in the Western/ Northern Sector were in their operational area, needs to be eased.
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, the neighbouring units, the roads and tracks being used, various hutments of the villagers, the flora and fauna, especially the 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 the Subedar Major (SM) Thagaswamy and on seeing us, came running. I asked him as to whether the roll call is conducted in the disruptive combat uniform and to this he said that the men even slept in the combat dress as they had to be ready to meet any eventuality in no time. That was when I realised the depth of the ‘hype’ as explained to me by the Generals before I left the Army Headquarters.
Out of the blue, I told the SM that after 48 hours I wanted to see the roll call with all ranks wearing the 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 tent 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. The 2IC was busy arranging transport for the men to visit the nearest city to procure the new outfit.
In the evening get-together of the officers at the Officers’ Mess, everyone 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 tent wearing a yellow T-Shirt with red and blue flowers printed on it and a bright blue Bermuda shorts. He reported that the entire unit had assembled in the same dress. I complimented him for his attire and said that the Tamil movie hero Rajanikanth would have a run for his money after seeing him. SM Thangaswamy blushed.
I explained to the SM that even though my order might sound illogical, the aim was 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 tent, trying his level best to control his laughter. I achieved what I wanted, even though my first command order would sound most quixotic.