‘When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.‘ (Gospel According to St John, Chapter 10, Verses 4 & 5)
This was my guiding light as I trained myself along with our soldiers on assuming command of a Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA) Regiment. Being new to the outfit, it was imperative that I ‘recognise their voices’ and for the soldiers to know the ‘voice’ of their Commanding Officer (CO).
My mornings were well spent on training with our officers and soldiers on the equipment, as my first priority was to achieve a good level of proficiency in handling and operational functioning of the radars, surveillance and survey equipment.
The deficiency in our posted strength of personnel was made up by the influx of about 20 recruits, whose training had been truncated in view of the mobilisation. They had to be trained further to become effective soldiers. Drill and Weapon Training Instructors were requested from the neighbouring Infantry Battalion. All young soldiers with less than five years of service were trained separately, commencing with 45 minutes of Physical Training, followed by a breakfast break of 45 minutes . This was followed by 45 minutes of Drill after which there was a 15 minute ‘hydration break’ with liberal amounts of lemonade and water being served. This was followed by a 45 minute Weapon Training class under the trees. The technical and tactical training sessions were conducted thereafter, on each day.
For the next four weeks, all Officers and Soldiers trained sincerely and hard. At the end of our training schedule, we had well turned out soldiers moving about with a smart military bearing. They all proved to be an asset to the Regiment as they were ready to execute any task. A strong feeling of ‘espirit de corps’ and Regimental Pride developed due to which, we had zero disciplinary violations. .
Training of JCOs and NCOs to become effective junior leaders was a bit difficult on account of systemic inertia caused due to decades of centralised functioning. Though their duties and responsibilities were explained in detail and all JCOs were granted the financial power to purchase anything up to Rs 100 without prior approval, they were rather hesitant to assert themselves.
On the third day of my training with the Radar teams, I tasked a JCO to drive in a vehicle along the road, for a distance of about 15 km from our location, with a radio-set and a GPS. He was required to stop after every km and report his location while those of us at the radar end tried and locate him and compare the map coordinates worked out by us with his GPS coordinates reported. After about five reports, the JCO stopped reporting his coordinates because the batteries powering his GPS had drained off. “Why couldn’t he use his initiative and purchase the standard AA batteries from any local shop?” I asked. Though the cost of the batteries was well within his financial powers, the thought of procuring them himself, did not occur to him. “March him up to me tomorrow!” I ordered. In the evening Major Suresh, our Second-in-Command, came to my office and said “At this rate you will end up marching up half the Regiment. Please give them time to get used to your style of functioning.”
There were many myths prevailing which had to be broken. This needed persistent efforts as it is rather difficult to introduce new ideas and practices without uprooting deeply entrenched beliefs and practices that drive the functioning of any military unit.
As the Regiment was all set to move into battle, all soldiers wore their Identity Discs with the oval disc on their left wrists and the round one around their necks. The myth prevalent was that this was to ensure that identification of the body parts would be easier if blown apart due to an explosion. The correct method of wearing the two discs was explained to all soldiers. The oval disc, through one hole of which, a cord 24 inches long is passed through, is worn around the neck like a chain. The round disc is required to be attached to the bottom hole of the oval disc using a smaller cord, about four inches in length. Both the discs, attached to each other, were required to be worn around the neck of each soldier! In case of death during war, the round disc is required to be removed by the soldier’s comrades or at the field hospital and deposited with his unit as proof of his death in action. The oval disc is left on the body for identifying it and conducting the last rites. The round disc, along with the soldier’s personal belongings are despatched to the Depot Regiment/ Company of the Regimental Centre of the soldier and the oval disc is removed at the time of cremation/ burial or despatch of the dead body to the soldier’s home and kept for records.
An aspect that hindered the effective functioning of JCOs was the non-availability of transport, especially when they had to travel outside the Regimental area. Three 100 cc light motorcycles with six helmets were handed over to our Subedar Major, for use by the JCOs. The Subedar Major was directed to issue military driving licences to all JCOs and to those Havildars who had qualified for promotion to be a JCO. One JCO was brought to me with the excuse that he could not drive a motorcycle and hence, did not want any driving license to be issued to him. I cleared his doubts by making him aware that, “All JCOs were required to clear Mechanical Transport Level 3 Test (MT3) prior to attending the promotion cadre. Anyone with MT3 is qualified to drive a motorcycle and other vehicles. In case any JCO is unwilling to drive, he would be marched up to the General Officer for dismissal from service on grounds of inefficiency.” There were no complaints after that.
The Battle Physical Efficiency Test (BPET) and Small Arms Annual Classification Firing results of the Regiment, did not follow a bell curve. That meant that either the standards set by the Army Physical Training Corps or the Infantry School were too easy (which, obviously was not the case) or the soldiers of our Regiment were exceptional in their marksmanship and physical fitness!! I impressed upon all the need to be truthful in reporting test results and it must follow the bell curve. The case of Havildar Shivnath Singh who represented India twice in the Asian games and twice at the Summer Olympics and who wilted due to unscientific over training was discussed. I summed it saying “Failing in any test is not a sin and the soldier has to be trained systematically to achieve the desired results.“
Another retrograde convention among all ranks concerned the use of the telephone or intercom to communicate with the CO. This was considered by most as sacrilege. Our officers felt that calling the CO over the intercom or telephone appeared discourteous and they were not comfortable with it. They felt that they must physically appear in front of the CO to pass on any information. I explained to them, “The exchequer has spent a considerable sum to provide the Regiment with a telephone network and an intercom system. Please use them. Calling the CO over the phone is not being discourteous.” It still took them over a month to shed this inhibition.
Did it continue like that for ever in the Regiment? I did what I could and I cannot ensure its continuity, but I succeeded to a great extent in dispelling many myths and retrograde conventions.