While commanding the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA) Battery at Devlali in 2003, I received a call from the Colonel General Staff (Col GS) of the Artillery Division, our higher HQ, that he wanted our soccer team to represent the Division in the Corps level soccer tournament. The tournament was to commence in a week’s time and our Col GS knew that we had a very good soccer team.
The Col GS is in charge of the General Staff branch, responsible for training, intelligence, planning and conduct of operations, beside a host of other less important subjects. Most orders from the General Officer Commanding (GOC), pertaining to these issues are actually drafted and signed by him.
Our Col GS was Colonel Azad Sameer (now a Veteran Brigadier) and he was my friend, philosopher, mentor and guru while I was in command. Our relationship had started off on a strictly official level and evolved into a personal one of mutual respect and friendship at an emotional level. The entire Regiment knew this for sure, such that one day our Adjutant (the officer who acts as an administrative assistant to the Commanding Officer) came to me and said “We implicitly respond positively to all orders and instructions passed by the Col GS as we all know that you would always want them to be executed without a question. Rather, there is no appeal against it even in the Supreme Court of India.” Now these words coming from an Adjutant who was fully aware that his Commanding Officer was no ‘yes man’ and invariably had issues with unfair/ incorrect orders or those that were either complicated or made no sense; these words quite simply summed up our professional and personal equation.
Colonel Sameer and I had never met before during our military career and our first meeting was when our Regiment became part of the newly raised Artillery Division. We developed an instant liking for each other from our first meeting, a continuing equation as on date.
Our Regiment was then a cooperating unit of the School of Artillery, and as such we were not administratively under the Artillery Division. The request for sending the soccer team came from the Col GS (who was also a soccer enthusiast and a very good player) and I had to take a decision whether to send the team, or politely tell him why it was not possible. I was not obliged to do so, rather it was against the norms of the Indian Army. Also I was aware that if my response was negative, he would well understand. But somewhere deep down I wanted to be positive in keeping with the ethos of our relationship. If I were to ask for approval from the School of Artillery, it would surely have been turned down. The Regiment had immense training and administrative duties under the School of Artillery and manpower was always at a premium. The question was ‘will we be able to spare 14 soldiers for three weeks? That too without proper military authority?‘ It’s also a case in point regarding some tough decision making that a Commanding Officer is required to do in a peacetime army.
I summoned Major Suresh Babu, our Second-in-Command to discuss the issue. He led our soccer team to victory in the Station Tournament. The most critical game of this tournament was with the team of officers attending Young Officers’ Course at School of Artillery for they were fresh out of the Military Academy and were fit as a fiddle.
After hearing me out, Major Suresh said “We got to send the team; it’s obvious from your words. We can cover the soldiers’ move as a training event, but to send an officer we need explicit permission from School of Artillery which is near impossible.”
A decision was made – we will send 14 men comprising the football team and the Col GS was to find an officer to lead the team from any of the other regiments of the Artillery Division and the same was conveyed to Col GS. Well that was that.
It also meant that I will be without the services of my Radio-Operator-cum-Buddie – Naik Ranjith. He played as the Right Winger of the team and was also the reserve goalkeeper.
In the normal course, a divisional sports team would be drawn from the talent of all its dozen or so units, after a competition or trials and would have trained together for a while. So it is very seldom that a regimental team gets to represent a division. Sometimes in the Army, the Command and Control Hierarchy can be a strange animal. Here in this case while our Regiment was operationally under the Artillery Division, we were not under them for administration, sports or training. To that extent the orders to send the football team may even be viewed as illegal!! But having made the decision, more with my heart than with my mind, I got the team around, explained the overall situation and simply told them that they ought to do well. Being a Regimental team, we maybe a little short of talent, but that was well compensated by the ‘espirit de corps’.
After three weeks I got a call from Colonel Sameer – his voice brimming with excitement and pure elation. He said “Reji, Congratulations! Our team came runner-up in the Corps soccer tournament! I never ever dreamt that this experiment would work the way it did and your boys would do so well!” Well I was a bit surprised too at the progress they made and thought to myself that although the orders were not entirely correct, I was happy with the decision I made and its outcome, both for the formation as well as the Regiment.
A few days later, we had a long chat over the phone about the soccer tournament. Colonel Sameer was really thankful for our Regiment sending the team and said “Only you could have done it!” I too was bit surprised about the laurels our team brought for the Artillery Division.
It turned out that a young subaltern from another regiment was appointed the team captain and as per his report it was very clear they would not have progressed to the finals of the tournament without the dedication and commitment of the soldiers from our Regiment. He said that rather than he leading the team, they were forcing him to lead them. They used to be up early morning and reached the ground for practise and he too had to follow them. They devised strategies for each game and he only had to lead and implement them.
He reported that the senior Havildar (Sergeant) of the team, Havildar Dharambir had said to him “Our Commanding Officer has sent us on a mission having complete faith and confidence in us. He spared us to play this tournament despite the heavy commitment of our Regiment. Other soldiers in the Regiment had to put in extra hours to cover our absence. We got to do our best as we cannot let down our Commanding Officer and the Regiment. I am sure you will surely lead us to our aim.“
Keep abiding faith in the men under your command. Laurels will surprise you.
Trusting your soldiers will not diminish or vanquish the anguish, but will enable you to endure it.