Stress Levels : Indian Army Officers


During a recent discussion with a Veteran Brigadier Azad Sameer of the Indian Army who was my mentor while I commanded our regiment, he was concerned about the spate of sudden deaths by heart attacks among number of middle level Indian Army officers (Majors / Lieutenant Colonels.) He attributed it to the increased stress level caused due to heavy operational commitments of the Indian Army.

Is it so?

I took my mind back to my Indian Army days – as a Second Lieutenant in 1982 to being a Commanding Officer  (Lieutenant Colonel) in 2004.  As the years rolled by, operational commitments did increase, but with it improved the availability of resources, life styles and more open interaction among officers at least at Battalion/ Regiment level.

The reasons for increased stress levels among Indian Army officers have been attributed by many to:-

  • Lack of freedom among junior officers to give free feedback about work concerns.
  • Incompetent senior officers.
  • Lack of avenues to express domestic and marital concerns.
  • Lack of support from senior level especially when situations went out of control.
  • Difficult and emotionally demanding work,
  • Uncomfortable management/leadership style of senior officers.
  • Non-recognition of efforts.
  • Complexity of performance review system – Annual Confidential Reports.
  • Lack of mutual trust and unsupportive culture, especially while one is in command of a Comp[any/ Battery/ Squadron – where the Annual Confidential Reports become critical for promotion to the rank of Colonel.

It was so when I joined in 1982 as a Second Lieutenant, but it did improve leaps and bounds as years passed by. To cite an example, when I was a Major, our General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Division passed an order that the entire Mechanical Transport of the Battalion/ Regiment to be jacked-up for a week in case of any vehicle accident.  Our neighbouring Regiment did have an accident and the Commanding Officer had to walk to the Divisional Headquarters for a dressing down by the GOC.  I always wondered as to whether that GOC knew how a Battalion/ Regiment functioned, especially its transport section.  Such Generals became a rarity as years went by and might even be extinct by now.

Another bugbear was the availability of married accommodation for officers and soldiers.  It improved tremendously over the years and Separated Family (SF) accommodation for those deployed in field areas too more than doubled. More married officers’ accommodation was available at training institutions where officers underwent various military courses.  During our young officer days, it was an anathema for any student officer to bring their spouse for a training course, but a lot had changed while I was in command at Devlali, co-located with School of Artillery.

Resources needed for executing operational tasks improved manifold with better weapon systems, equipment, vehicles, etc.  Grants and funds available at the disposal of the Commanding Officers multiplied  with each passing year, which tremendously improved operational efficiency.  There were marked improvements in the living condition of soldiers and officers in field areas, especially along the border and Line of Control.  The road communication network improved with time.  Soldiers and officers mostly travel today by air while proceeding on vacations – an unheard of luxury during my service days.

Improved communication with the advent of cellular phones have revolutionised the communication aspects of officers and soldiers.  Even the remotest posts have reliable communication systems and soldiers easily keep in touch with their family, spouse and children.  Gone are the days of the snail paced ‘Forces Letter.’

The better financial status of officers and soldiers coupled with modern banking facilities like credit/ debit cards, online banking, easy credit and advances have made life much more comfortable.  Gone are the days of ‘installments’ and being perpetually indebted to the Regimental Wet Canteen Contractor.  I remember buying Marina a Fashion Maker Sewing Machine, my first wedding anniversary gift to her on six monthly installments.

The lifestyles of today’s Indian army Officers and soldiers have gone up many a rung.  It was a rarity to find a Regimental officer other than the Commanding Officer owning a car during my young officer days.  While I commanded our Regiment, many soldiers were driving to the Regiment in their cars.

During our young officer days the common saying was “No one ever died because of work, but by the lack of it.”  It was also said that “It is better to be in a field area and carryout professional work than be in a peace station and carry out more administrative tasks.”

Taking into account the above two dictum to be true even today in the Indian Army, increased operational commitment should not result in over-stressed officers and soldiers.

Why there is increased stress among Officers and Soldiers?

Today’s military spouses – of both officers and soldiers – are better qualified with equal or greater aspirations than their spouses.  Many spouses prior to their marriage were working in managerial or high-end jobs and some had to leave their jobs to be with their spouses for a better family life. Those spouses continuing with their jobs remained separated, maintaining a long-distance relationship.

These factors causes work-family conflict which results in exhaustion, both physical and emotional.  Many a times this leads to depression, anxiety, frustration, anger and increased levels of psychological strain.  This work-family conflict adversely affects the quality of the officer’s/ soldier’s relationship with the spouse as well as the quality of time spent with children, family and friends.

Here I would again cite my personal example.  The evening the result of my promotion to the rank of Colonel was announced, Marina invited all our friends for a party at home.  Everyone trooped in and complimented me.  After everyone assembled, Marina said “This party is to celebrate my husband  not making it to a Colonel.  Now I can have my plans rolling and he can take a back seat.”  Marina emigrated to Canada and after two years the children followed and then I landed in Canada.  By then Marina was a licensed pharmacist and earning handsomely.  Thus, I became a house-husband taking care of our children and the household.  The turn of events may not be so for many Indian Army officers, especially those who do not make it in the deep selection to the rank of Colonel and then even deeper selection upwards.

Another major cause of concern for Indian Army is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  A study in Canadian Armed Forces showed that among those invalidated out or those who sought voluntary retirement due to medical disabilities, about 40 percent  were for mental health issues, about half of those were diagnosed as PTSD.  The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS) noted that military service meant moving often and spending time on duty far from family and was a major source of mental health risks – a standard practise for most Indian Army officers and soldiers.

Most Indian Army officers and soldiers suffer from PTSD due to the intense combat situations they face – Canadian Armed Forces hardly face any such situations. Luckily the military echelons never accepted the existence of PTSD in the Indian Army!  I had never even heard of PTSD while in service with the Indian Army until I read a paper by a US Military Doctor on the subject.  Now think of the PTSD suffered by the driver of the vehicle that met with an accident wherein the GOC jacked-up the entire Regimental fleet.  Did anyone address the PTSD suffered by that soldier driver?

Was I prepared to command the soldiers on being appointed the Commanding Officer?

I will emphatically say “NO.”  It was merely by observation of one’s Commanding Officers and analysis.  The Senior Command Course every officer underwent prior to taking over command was nothing but re-frying of what one learnt during Junior Command Course as a Major and also Staff College Course.

Our son when in Grade 12 worked at the city’s swimming pool as a swimming instructor and lifeguard.  One day he said “I teach the kids for thirty minute class and to become an instructor and lifeguard I had to undergo ten levels of swimming, three courses on leadership and swimming instructorship, first aid, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), child psychology and obtain a life saving certificate What qualifications did you  have to parent?”

I did not have any qualifications to be a parent.  It was all by trial and error and also by the knowledge gained through reading and interactions.  Now I asked myself – “What qualifications did I have to be a Commanding Officer? Was I trained for it?  Did I have any formal qualifications like first aid, CPR or soldier psychology?”

There was a suggestion to employ more psychiatrists and psychologists to help soldiers tide over the pressure situations they face.  Where will these psychiatrists and psychologists be located? Will they be available to the officers and soldiers in the field?

It would be prudent to train the officers during Junior/ Senior Command Courses in the psychological aspects of command and HR management to be effective Company/Squadron/ Battery Commanders and Commanding Officers.

Soldiers’ Pensions and Disability


Recently the social media was abuzz with the news of Indian soldiers’ pension being cut by 50% for those seeking voluntary retirement after 20 years of service.  One suggested methodology is to follow the Canadian Armed Forces Pension scheme.  Canadian Armed Forces Pay scales are second only to the Australian.

It is a well established fact that the Armed Forces have a steep pyramidcal structure – more at the officers level – and also at the soldiers level.  The need is to have a young and large base – Lieutenants, Captains and Majors  for officers and Privates for soldiers.

Canadian Armed Forces offers 50% pension on completion of 10 years of service.  Officers who continue further are only put through command and staff courses and they rise up to command battalions/ regiments. This results in:-

  • Those wishing to retire after 10 years of service are generally about 35 years old and many even get married and raise their families on retirement.
  • The 50% pension assures them a constant income and facilitate them to embark on a new career.
  • The pyramidical structure of the Forces is considerably reduced.
  • Those wishing to serve beyond 10 years receive their pension on a sliding scale to be 100% with 20 years of service.

Among those invalidated out or those who sought voluntary retirement due to medical disabilities, about 40 per cent  were for mental health, about half of those were diagnosed as  post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Most Indian Army soldiers and officers do suffer from PTSD due to intense combat situations they face – Canadian Armed Forces hardly face any such situation. Luckily the military echelons never accepted the existence of PTSD in the Indian Army – hence no claimants for disability pension.

Canadian Veterans who qualify for disability benefits receive up to 75 per cent of the salary they were earning when they left the Forces. They are guaranteed benefits for 24 months initially, or until age 65 for those completely disabled, after which the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) kicks in.

The rise of mental health claims is often chalked up to Canada’s difficult 2002-11 combat mission in Afghanistan.  The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS) noted that the Afghanistan mission was  far from the only source of mental health risks. Even at home in Canada, military service means moving often and spending time on duty far from family – a standard practise for most Indian soldiers.

Common disability among Canadian soldiers  for Fiscal Year 2018–19 were:-

  • TINNITUS                              6,726
  • HEARING LOSS                   6,139
  • PTSD                                    2,440
  • ARTHROSIS OF KNEE          842
  • OSTEOARTHRITIS KNEE     781
  • DEPRESSIVE DISORDERS  721
  • LUMBAR DISC DISEASE      629
  • OSTEOARTHRITIS HIP         617
  • CERVICAL DISC DISEASE   578
  • FACET JOINT SYNDROME    50

Tinnitus is defined as the perception of a sound in one or both ears or in the head when it does not arise from a stimulus in the environment.  A single indication or complaint of tinnitus is not sufficient for diagnostic purposes. The condition must be present for at least 6 months.  Individuals who experience tinnitus have provided many different descriptions of what the tinnitus sounds like to them. Descriptions include high-pitched sound, ringing sound, whistle, squealing sound, hum, pulse-like sound, etc

There are two general types of Hearing Loss – sensorineural (sometimes called perceptive) and conductive hearing loss.  Sensorineural hearing loss is hearing loss due to a defect in the cochlea or the auditory nerve whereby nerve impulses from the cochlea to the brain are attenuated. Conductive hearing loss means the partial or complete loss of hearing due to defective sound conduction of the external auditory canal or of the middle ear. A mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive.  A hearing loss disability exists when there is a Decibel Sum Hearing Loss (DSHL) of 100 dB or greater at frequencies of 500,1000, 2000 and 3000 Hz in either ear, or 50 dB or more in both ears at 4000 Hz.

Most Indian Soldiers and Veterans will vouch that a great chunk of them are suffering from  Tinnitus or Hearing Loss and also that most soldiers under their command suffered from it – especially those from the Armoured Corps, Regiment of  Artillery, Aviation  and also Mechanised Infantry.

Will the Indian Military hierarchy ever be willing to accept the existence of Tinnitus, Hearing Loss or PTSD?

Over Structured Training in the Indian Army


While commanding the Regiment, I tasked our young officers to draft a letter in reply to a query from the higher Headquarters on deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones.)  After two days I asked them about the status of the draft and one of them said “Sir, why don’t you please write it as you write much better than all of us.”  I did not like it a wee bit, but my usual response I curtailed and I analysed the reason with them.  I explained to them:-

We all came through the Services Selection Board (SSB) where we were shown nine caricature images of which one could not make head and tail of.  We all wrote nine convincing stories.  The tenth was a blank and still we wrote a story.  We were flashed a hundred words at the rate of two words every minute and were all wrote a hundred sentences.  Had what we wrote not make sense or was not creative enough, none of us would be here.  Where did we lose all those critical thinking, analytical power and  creative thinking?”

A case study I projected to them.  It was about a section capturing two militants in a hideout by an infantry  section.  The situation was posed to ten Gentleman Cadets  (GC), ten Young Officers (YO) Course qualified officers, ten Junior Command (JC) Course qualified officers and ten Staff College qualified officers.

Ten GCs will come out with nine solutions of which eight will work.  Ten YOs will come out with seven solutions of which five  will work.  Ten JC officers  will come out with five solutions of which three  will work.  Ten Staff College qualified will come out with one solution which is sure to fail at its very first step.

It’s all because of the over structured training in the Army at various stages with the level of structuring increasing up the hierarchy.  

It all commenced from the very first document most of us as YOs in our regiments would have created – a Court of Inquiry mostly to regularise an injury suffered by a soldier while playing.  The task would be given by the Adjutant with a caveat “Refer to a previous Court of Inquiry and do the needful.”  From there commences the procedure of looking back and copying forward.

A decade ago, a friend, a Brigadier at DSSC was tasked to suggest methodology to make tactical exercises more creative.  My suggestion was based on the education here in Canada for Gifted Children who form 2% of students.  Gifted Children unusually possess advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided.  They are usually segregated at Grade 4 based on a written examination.

Gifted Children Programme is a  carefully designed the self-contained program to meet the needs, characteristics and interests of gifted students. Self-contained classes for gifted students offer a space where the child can relate to their intellectual peer group.

The programme is run by teachers who have additional qualification for such special education. It aims to provide:

  • Learning content more relevant to their interests and abilities than in a regular class.
  • The opportunity to work with and learn from other children with similar or higher intellectual aptitude.
  • The ability to work with like-minded peers who also have creative and complex ways of thinking.
  • The ability to relate with others who have similar interests.

It was mutually agreed that the Gifted Children situation is similar to the student officers at DSSC.  Based on the experience I gained working with both our children who were in Gifted Children programme, I suggested that for one tactical exercise let the students be given a blank map sheet with minimum inputs regarding force level, weapons, logistics etc and let the students commence by marking the International Boundary onward and create an exercise and also a solution.  Here no ‘pinks’ will come handy as every time only the map sheet is changed and there is no pre-made solution.  The instructors will have to work overtime to correct and assess each solution and one or two  among all the exercises may be conducted for the course.

The idea was presented to the DSSC Commandant who asked the Brigadier to present the same to the entire faculty.  At the end of the presentation, senior faculty members came out with a question “How will we assess the students?”

The ‘baby’  was thrown out of the window – with the bath, loofah and soap.  It appeared that the aim of all military training is to assess and not to teach.

The Good Old Days


On my blog on Z – The Commanding Officer’s Jeep,  was a comment by Veteran Colonel BIS Cheema as appended below.

‘How things have Changed with use of Public Property? I was commissioned in 1948, and joined 1 DOGRA, at Jalandhar. No one including the Commanding officer ever used any public transport for any private or personal use, unless, it was specifically hired, on payment of 8 Ana, equal to 50 Paisa, per mile. The duty slip was made out in Red Ink. All offers, including the Commanding Officer, used to come from the residence to Office/ Unit lines in their personal transport, that was mostly cycles. Sahayaks were allowed only in field units, and on payment of Rs. 30/- per Month. The same was deducted by CDA from pay. Ladies and Children were not allowed access to Officers Mess, except a specially dedicated room, that was marked as Ladies Room.

Officers never used any Government item, of clothing and equipment. we purchased cloth from Officer’s Shop, got our uniforms stitched to fit each individual at his own cost. One never saw an officer using regular Government issued Shoes for Other Ranks. We got our Service Pattern Boots made by cobblers under own arrangements. There were no free rations for officers at peace stations. Officers Messes were run on the basis of No-Profit-No-Loss. Daily Messing costs were equally shared by all dining members. Such was concern shown by officers towards use of Public property, to be able to earn the respect of the all ranks under their Command.’

How did these aspects change?  When did these change?

Has any officer ever paid for using government vehicle? I never paid for it during my service (1982-2004).

When was the practise of allowing ladies and children into officers’ mess commence?  When I joined our Regiment, the practise was in vogue. Ladies and children had access to ante-room, dining room and even the bar.

When was a Sahayak/ helper/ buddy/ orderly authorised for officers? When was the system of payment for the same discontinued? I was never charged a penny for the same.

Who was that Doctor?


In December 1992 I attended the three month long Junior Command Course at the College of Combat (now Army War College), Mhow, India.  The Army War College is a tactical training and research institution of the Indian Army. It develops and evaluates concepts and doctrines for tactics and logistics for the army. The college trains about 1,200 officers of the Indian Army, and also from friendly foreign countries as well as paramilitary forces each year.

The Junior Command (JC) Course aims to train Army officers who have gained theoretical knowledge of warfare and practical skills necessary to lead company-size units in various war situations and terrain.

I went to attend the course with Marina and our little daughter Nidhi was about 20 months old.  As a student officer I was busy attending classes, outdoor exercises, working on solutions for the tactical discussion on the next day or reading.  Marina found that she had lot of time at hand after I left for classes by 7:45 AM.

That was when Marina with the assistance of our neighbour’s wife, a Masters degree holder in music, tried her hand at honing her singing skills.  As a child she had a passion for music and did attend a few classes in preliminary Carnatic music.  Later she joined a boarding school and her musical interests perhaps gave way to athletic ones!

Marina learned to sing a few Hindi songs and Urdu Ghazals.  On return to our Regiment after the course, at a party she sang two Hindi songs and an Urdu Ghazal.  It was a real surprise package for our Regimental officers.  A lady from Kerala who could barely manage to communicate in Hindi until then was now singing classical Urdu Ghazals.  At the end of her singing, our then Commanding Officer Colonel Rajan Anand in appreciation remarked   “Even if Reji hasn’t learnt much during the JC Course, Marina has learnt to sing pretty well.

We had a Regimental Jaaz Band, led by Major Gulshan Kaushik and Marina became part of the band.  Her Hindi and Urdu diction was polished up with the help of both Major Kaushik and Mrs. Ritu Kaushik.


Later, in 2001, while I was posted at Delhi, Marina sang a high pitched song during the Christmas party at home.  Next morning, she was in serious trouble with her vocal cords, so much so that she just could not speak.  She went to the ENT Specialist at the Base Hospital Delhi.  The specialist, a Major from the Army Medical Corps, inserting a scope through her mouth (video-stroboscopy) and showing her the lacerated condition of her vocal cords said “You must have tried to sing at a very high pitch and you are not trained in classical singing.  This is what happens when you suddenly strain your vocal cords.”  He diagnosed it as a case of ‘vocal cord hemorrhage.’

Our larynx, or ‘voice box’ houses the vocal cords and has several groups of muscles that raise or lower it when we sing, swallow or yawn.  Many singers raise their larynx unconsciously when they sing high notes. If the larynx is too high on high notes, it can actually strain the vocal cords.  Vocal trauma, such as excessive use of the voice when singing, talking, yelling, or inhaling irritants can cause damage to the tiny blood vessels of the vocal cords. These may then rupture and bleed.


We are familiar with players or other athletes moving into the injured reserve list.  Similarly, many singers too move into the injured list, resulting in cancellation of many of their performances.  This often happens primarily due to vocal cord hemorrhage.

Diagnosis done, but the most interesting was the treatment – complete voice rest – मौन व्रत  (Mauna Vrat).  That meant she should not strain her vocal cords at all.  She was advised not to speak for a week, else she may even end up losing her speech all together. She had to communicate with the children and me through writing and often through a comic sign language.

The news spreads fast – even in those days before the advent of cell-phones and social media – it spreads faster in the Army circles when an officer’s wife is sick.  By evening there were many visitors calling on to enquire Marina’s health, especially those who were guests at the Christmas party the previous evening.

Every officer who came over had only one serious question “Who was the doctor? May be, I need to take my wife to him for consultation

The lesson I learnt after the ordeal was that children must be put through vocal music training and I ensured that both our children attended vocal music training.  To read more about it, please click here.

Carrying a Burden of Guilt


Our Regiment was deployed in our operational area in  Rajasthan deserts for Op PARAKRAM when I assumed command.

In the first week I passed directions regarding day-to-day administration of the Regiment.  For sure, a Havildar (Sergeant) Clerk was the first one to flout one of my directions.

I instructed the Adjutant, Capt Subhash, that  the Havildar Clerk  be chargesheeted.

Subhash came to my office in the CO’s Caravan with the charge sheet which I approved.  He asked me ” Sir,Can I march him up tomorrow morning?  It’s already 8 PM now.”

No.  March him up now,” I replied.

Now Sir? At night Sir?” He asked.

Yes. Now. Remember we are in our operational area, ready for a war any minute,” I affirmed.

On taking over command, I realised that there were lots of gaps in the documentation of our soldiers.  Most data was either outdated or was missing.  I got into designing and coding a software for capture and analysis of soldiers’ information, soon after I took over command.  My initial two weeks were fully devoted to automating the entire system.

During the designing and coding stage, I used to work day and night, mostly sitting in my comfortable Lungi.  That evening too I was dressed in my Lungi and vest.

Subhash looked at me and said “Sir, if you want him to be marched up now,  you need to change into uniform.

Give me five minutes and I will be back,” I said, and walked into the bedroom space of the Caravan and changed into a uniform.

The Havildar was duly reprimanded for his minor offence.  It had a great impact on the soldiers – not because it was the first punishment I awarded, but more because the recipient was a Havildar Clerk.

After two years in command, I hung up my boots, to migrate to Canada.  During my dining out, Subhash narrated what happened in the five minutes I took to change into uniform that day.

“After you said ‘Give me five minutes,’ I went out of your office and realised the gravity of what I said to you.  I rushed to Major Suresh, our Second-in-Command and narrated what happened. 

Major Suresh gave a smile and said ‘Don’t worry. The old man will never take you wrong.  I know him very well from our young officer days.‘”

Now Subhash’s question to me was “Why did you not admonish me for what I said?  Before coming to this Regiment, I served in a Field Regiment for four years.  There if I had said so, you can well imagine my plight.  Even Major Suresh didn’t seem perturbed over my conduct with our CO.  That hurt me even more and I have been carrying this guilt with me for the past two years.”

Looking at Subhash I said “If you felt guilty for something you did in good faith, you should have confided in me then and there.  You would not have had to carry the burden this far.”

But that day why did you act the way I told you to, and not admonish me,” was his next question.

If I had said anything to you or admonished you for an act done in good faith, you would have lost your self-confidence and self-esteem.  Later, you would not have had the courage and conviction to advise the Commanding Officer and point out any error or folly in my decisions or directions,” I philosophised.

Z – The Commanding Officer’s Jeep

Commanding Officers (CO) of all Artillery Regiments travel by a Jeep/ Gypsy  which is identified by the alphabet ‘Z‘ painted on all its sides.  Most other arms/ services have ‘COMMANDING OFFICER’ written in the front of the CO’s vehicle. Needless to say that it is the most decked up and mechanically fit vehicle of any unit, driven by the most competent and disciplined driver. It carries with it an air of sacred and infallible exclusivity.

Our unit was a cooperating unit of School of Artillery, Devlali.  We had to provide equipment and soldiers for smooth conduct of training of students of various courses. This was at a time when I was a single parent CO as Marina had migrated to Canada by then. The responsibility of bringing up our children now  rested solely on me.

My residence was about 400 m behind the unit with the Officers’ Mess in between.  Thus I could walk to the unit or Officers’ Mess at any time and hardly ever used the Z.

One day our daughter Nidhi, a grade 6 student, returning from school asked, “Dad, are you a CO?

Yes,” I replied “What ‘s the matter?

Everyone in my class tells me that you cannot be a CO,” she said.

But why?” I queried.

I was taken aback by her reason.  “They say that if I am a CO’s daughter, I would be dropped at school on a Z and not be cycling down to school.” She replied quite innocently.

OK. I am not a CO then.  You continue to cycle to school,” I justified.

One morning I received a call from a senior Staff Officer at the School of Artillery Headquarters.  His concern was that our Regimental officers travelled in jeeps while Colonels of Tactical and Field Wings – many approved as Brigadiers – were travelling on their scooters.  It was not that our officers were travelling on Jeeps, even their ladies used it.  Surely it was an eyesore for those Colonels who had commanded their regiments ‘well’; else they would not have been posted to School of Artillery.

I explained to this Staff Officer “When some of these Colonels were commanding their regiments, they had five Jeeps with them – one for the CO, one for his wife, one for his daughter, one for his son and one for his dog.  I have only one and the rest are shared by other officers.  It is my command and I will decide what to do with my jeeps and henceforth please keep away from my command functions.”

On a Saturday I was informed by our Adjutant  that the in-laws of  Captain Vikrant, who joined us just a week before, are in station.

Then let us have a get together in the evening at the Officers’ Mess.  Please invite them too,” I suggested. The CO’s mild suggestions are invariably directions to be implicitly followed.

During the evening get together I asked Captain Vikrant “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s a Sunday.”

My in-laws want to visit Shirdi,” he replied.

How are you going?” I enquired.

I have booked seats in the School of Artillery bus leaving from the Club tomorrow morning,” he replied.

When our officer’s parents or in-laws visit Shirdi, they take the Z.  Naik Suresh, my driver will report to you tomorrow morning,” I said.

Hearing this our Quartermaster, Captain Subhash passed the customary instructions to Naik Suresh to include carriage of adequate water, soft drinks, sandwiches and a spare jerrycan of petrol.

Sunday morning at five, I was quite rudely awoken by my telephone.  It hardly ever rang unless there was some very very important information to be conveyed to the CO, which was indeed a rarity.

It was Captain Vikrant at the other end. “Good Morning Sir.  Sorry to disturb you at this hour. Your vehicle is standing in front of my residence.”

It’s there to take you all to Shirdi,” I confirmed.

I thought you were not serious when you told  me that,” he said, embarrassed and apologetic.

I shot off a volley of choicest  profanities in my vocabulary ending with, “Now you take the vehicle to Shirdi and on Monday morning see me in my office.”

On Monday morning Major Suresh, our Second-in-Command escorted Captain Vikrant to my office and said “Sir, please don’t get angry with him.  He is only a week old in the unit.  He is yet to know you.”

I looked at Captain Vikrant and he said “This is my second unit.  Before this I served only in a Field Regiment for five years.  There the Z was regarded as something holy, something of an institution. I have never travelled in a Z till now.  That is why I called you early in the morning to reconfirm.

I dismissed both with the words “The Z did not come as a dowry to me when I got married to the unit.

Building a UAV Base


In 2002, our SATA Regiment was designated to be equipped with Unarmed Aerial Vehicles  (UAV).  Having experienced as to how our Medium Regiment was equipped with Bofors Gun, I realised that there is a critical need for complete infrastructure to house and operate the UAV and the crew.

In 1987, our Regiment received Bofors Gun while located in the Kashmir Valley.  The Guns and the Gun Towing Vehicles were parked in the open, with these costly and high-tech equipment wizening in the vagaries of weather.  It was in true sense proving an old Malayalam adage ആനയെ മേടിക്കുവാൻ കാശുണ്ട്, തോട്ടിമേടിക്കുവാൻ കാശില്ല  meaning ‘You have enough money to buy an elephant, but not enough to buy a hook (ankus) to control the elephant.’  It was a similar case – Indian Army had spent crores for procuring the equipment, but did not have a few lakh to build the sheds to house them.

Copy of THE ELEPHANT AT WORK !. HD...avi - YouTube
Whatever it was, I got down to working out the infrastructure requirement as specified by the manufacturer- that too by someone who had hardly any clue of aircraft operation and avionics.  The UAV Base was to come up in Agolai, Rajasthan, which already had an Aviation Squadron operating from a small airbase.  The UAV infrastructure was to be created there which involved extending the existing runway – both in length and in width and also reinforcing it to facilitate UAV operation.

Luckily for me, the Commanding Officer of the Aviation Base was our course mate from NDA – Colonel Kesar Shekhawat.  He provided all technical and aviation inputs and extended all out cooperation in planning the UAV base.  I made many trips to his Base and he always provided me transport and accommodation and also looked after me very well.

I visited many UAV Bases in all corners of the country – operated both by Indian Army and Air Force – interacted with the crew operating the UAVs and learnt their needs and the deficiencies they had.  They suggested many modifications to the existing infrastructure they had and also provided lot of valuable inputs.  Most of these bases operated UAVs with existing infrastructure the base had and they had very few of the infrastructure as specified by the equipment manufacturer. 

After two months of detailed planning, we came out with an extensive document regarding the layout of the augmented Base, buildings, accommodation for crew, housing for all technical equipment, hangars for UAVs, and so on.  The entire project cost ran over three Crore.

Project report did raise shackles of the higher Headquarters who wanted me to scale down the project so that the project could be sanctioned by the Army Headquarters.  With this high-cost project, sanction of Ministry of Defence was needed.  I refused to budge and held on and advised them to scale it down if they felt so.  The other option offered was to phase out the entire project, which I again refused and advised the higher Headquarters  to do so if they deemed so.

No one wanted to bell the proverbial cat.   The file moved at a snail’s pace through the corridors of power to be ultimately sanctioned.  Now Indian Army had enough money to buy the hook for the elephant.

Immediately on sanctioning of the project, work commenced in full swing.  Every month I had to fly to Jodhpur from Devlali for a day or two to oversee the progress of the  work.  

Why did the Commanding Officer had to travel every month for a task that could have been executed by any Major in the Regiment?  It was all because in those good old days, Majors were not allowed to fly even on Temporary Duties.  The backchat (apparently emanated from our Second-in-Command) among the junior officers were that in case someone displayed a sad face early in the morning, the Commanding Officer would detail him to proceed to Agolai to oversee the progress of the work.   The officer detailed would end up spending at least three days on the train – from Devlali in Maharashtra to Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

I took a cue from it and during a Regimental Officers’ Mess event declared that in case I see any officer with a ‘long face’, I will despatch him to Agolai.  Our Regimental Ladies understood what it meant.  After that the mere mention of the word “Agolai” by me to any officer of the Regiment  would be followed by the officer’s reply “Sir, She is really taking care of me.  There is no problem.

I hung my boots a year after the project commenced in full swing, duly supervised by Colonel Kesar Shekhawat.  A complete UAV Base as envisaged in my project report was completed in two years.   Then only our Regiment took over the UAVs and made them operational. 

This must be the first time in the history of the Indian Army that the complete infrastructure as specified by the equipment manufacturer,  including air-conditioned living accommodation for the crew came up well before the induction of high-tech UAVs. I am told that this base is the best UAV Base of the Indian Army today.

Broad Arrow Number

 


Everyone must have seen military vehicles plying in most Commonwealth Countries with a number beginning with a vertically upright Broad Arrow.  This number is called a Broad Arrow Number in military parlance or BA Number.  It is used by the Army, Navy and Air Force and also some civilian establishments that work under the Ministry of Defence.

Many, including those in military service have humorously referred to this ­‘Up Arrow’ to indicate ‘This Side Up’ as seen in many packing cartons.  Is it there so that no one erroneously parks it upside down??  Is it to indicate ‘Right Side Up’ in case the vehicle topples???

The ‘Broad Arrow’ was used by the British to depict an item to be a military property.  It was also referred to as the ‘Crows Foot’, or the ‘Pheon.’  The Broad Arrow number with other symbols, numbers and/or letters convey various details of the equipment – manufacturer, year of entry into service, ownership, inspection, alteration, repair, etc.

The origin of the Broad Arrow is unclear. It could have originated from the actual arrow to depict anything military.  It is believed that Broad Arrow was used as a symbol to identify British government property by Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney who was Master of Ordnance to William and Mary (1689-1694 AD).  In order to reduce theft of British property, Henry was asked imprint a mark on all government property.  He is said to have chosen his family emblem – The Broad Arrow.  In those days the prisoner’s uniforms were also stenciled with a Broad Arrow , but later this practice was discarded.

In the book ‘A Complete Guide to Heraldry’ by AC Fox-Davies, he states that “Perhaps the case which is most familiar is the broad arrow which is used to mark Government stores. It is a curious commentary upon heraldic officialdom and its ways, that though this is the only badge which has really any extensive use, it is not a Crown badge in any degree. Although this origin has been disputed it is said to have originated in the fact that one of the Sydney family, when Master of the Ordnance, to prevent disputes as to the stores for which he was responsible, marked everything with his private badge of the broad arrow, and this private badge has since remained in constant use. One wonders at what date the officers of His Majesty will observe that this has become one of His Majesty’s recognised badges, and will include it with the other Royal badges in the warrants in which they are recited. Already more than two centuries have passed since it first came into use, and either they should represent to the Government that the pheon is not a Crown mark, and that some recognised Royal badge should be used in its place, or else they should place its status upon a definite footing.

Most British Military equipment in the earlier days was marked ‘BO’ as all these equipment came under the Board of Ordnance.  Then ‘WD’ was used to denote War Department.  During World War II, a standalone depicted British military equipment.

That was the history of the Broad Arrow .  Now let us decipher the Broad Arrow Number on an Indian military vehicle which begins with symbol .


The Broad Arrow is followed by two digits depicting the year of entry.  Up to 1971, a letter depicted the year of entry.  It was ‘Z’ in 1971 and from 1972 onward, the last two digits of the year of entry into service was used (as English language has only 26 letters of the alphabet) and the practice outlived the number of letters in the alphabet.


This Jeep is displayed at Grenadiers Regimental Centre, said to be the Jeep with which Late Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid, Param Vir Chakra (Posthumous) of 4 Grenadiers hunted down eight Pakistani Patton Tanks during the 1965 Indo-Pak War.  Look at the BA Number of this Jeep.  Letter ‘Y‘ indicates its year of entry into service as 1970.


All vehicles Indian military used during 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak war would not bear the last two digits of year, but a letter.  Can you make out the repainting error in the BA number of the Jeep in the image above? If the year of manufacture 1968 is correct, then it should have been letter ‘W‘ instead of ‘68’, as per the then prevalent policy.


The two digits depicting the year of entry is followed by an alphabet indicating the class of the vehicle.  Some of the letters I came across during my military service are A-motorcycle; B-car or a jeep; C-light truck; D-heavy truck; E-towing vehicle; K-ambulance; P-water bowser, and there are many more.

It is then followed by the serial number of the vehicle, given by the Ministry of Defence.  The last alphabet is the check-alphabet for the serial number using the ‘Modulus 11’ formula.  A check digit is a form of redundancy check used for error detection on identification numbers. 

Now readers must be able to decipher the Broad Arrow number on an Indian Military vehicle.  It is not surely to indicate ‘This Side Up.’

Military Special Trains

The story of my romance is never complete without the story of the military special. Indian Railways and the military have a close and intimate bonding. The military refer to the special coaches as ‘rolling stock’ and the engine simply as ‘power’.  The Military has its own ‘Movement Control Organisation’ (MCO) with its personnel closely integrated with the railways and located at important railway stations/ headquarters.

This special relationship goes back to the very formation of Indian Railways. One of the main reasons for establishing the railway network was to provide an effective and trustworthy method of transporting large amount of troops from one part of the country to another. The colonial masters found this as an imperative requirement, which enabled the government of the day to maintain control over the vast lands it governed.


Indian Railways run these Military Special trains all the time. These trains move both in peace and in times war. Some of these trains are freighters only, while others have accommodation for personnel as well. Some military specials carry armed forces personnel for aid to civil authorities, such as earthquake or flood-relief work. Some Military Special trains have rakes formed totally by special ‘Military’ coaches in their own distinctive greens while others have rakes formed by ‘normal’ Indian Railway coaches. Some movements get decided suddenly (such as due to natural or man-made disasters), while other movements are planned well in advance – as per the strategic relocations of operational units of Indian armed forces. The mobilisation plan of military units and formations are made in close coordination with Indian Railways.

I had my first experience of travelling with our Regiment by a military special in 1983, a move from Delhi  by a meter gauge military special for firing practice of 130mm medium guns at Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan.  We had to move to Pokharan as that was the only Field Firing Range with the Indian Army that offered 30 square km of uninhabited area to fire the guns over 27 km.  Railway lines in Rajasthan then were all meter gauge.  Indian Railways today operate mostly on broad gauge.  The gauge of the railway track is the distance between the inner sides of two tracks.   For broad gauge it is 1676 mm (5 ft 6 in) and for meter gauge it is one meter.

A 24 wagon rake for loading of the medium guns – MBFU – (M – Meter Gauge, B – Bogie Wagon, FU – Well Wagon) was placed at the military siding ramp at Delhi Cantonment Railway Station -12 for loading guns and 12 for Russian Kraz towing vehicle. The gun weighs over 8 tonnes and the wheelbase just about narrowly fits on to the meter gauge rake.  Today with broad gauge rakes, the wagons offer sufficient width to maneuver the guns.

The most crucial part of loading is to mount these guns and Krazes on to the MBFU.  I watched in fascination how the most experienced driver, Havildar Kuriakose, drove the leading Kraz towing the gun.   He drove on to the ramp and then straight through, over the wagons to the last-but-one wagon and halted in such a way that the gun was exactly adjusted in the well of the MBFU.  The gun was unhooked and he drove his Kraz in to the well of the last MBFU.  A slight wavering or error in judgement would have caused the unthinkable. It was a critical operation which only best of the specialist drivers can accomplish.

Tank drivers of armoured regiments too face similar predicaments driving onto the MBFU and sometimes end up in mishaps.

By nightfall, the train was formed with 24 MBFU, one first class coach, four sleeper coaches, a military kitchen car and seven wagons for carriage of ammunition and stores.  Now it was an eternal wait at the station for ‘power’- a diesel engine – to tow the train.  They had the crew – loco pilot, his assistant and guard ready, but no ‘power’.  By midnight, an engine was made available after it had towed a passenger train.  There were three halts enroute, each over six hours, all waiting for ‘power’ and after 36 hours, we were at Pokharan railway station.

The last military special train I travelled was while commanding the Regiment in 2002.  Our Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve.  The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan.  The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were mobilised to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days.  The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.

After ten months, the move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite. An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely had no priorities in anyone’s mind.  Our Divisional Headquarters had entrusted me with an important and critical task two days prior to the move back of our Regiment.  I was given a week to complete the task and fly back to Devlali on completion.  I did not want to miss travelling in the Military Special, that too as the Commanding Officer.  I burnt the midnight oil for the next two days, completed the task, handed it over to the Divisional Headquarters.

On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), our soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train.  A diesel engine was connected but now the Railways had the ‘power’, but no crew.  As many Military Special trains were run from Jodhpur taking the army back home, adequately rested crew was at premium.  We waited for 24 hours for the train to commence its journey. Our train stopped at every possible station, even to give way to freight trains.  Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways.  The onward move executed in less than two days now took five days on the return leg.

After my premature retirement and move to Canada, I very much miss my passionate association with the Indian Railways. Now, even when I travel in India, it is mostly by air, due to time pressures. Gone are the days of those never ending train journeys. I can only recollect those days with a sense of loss and nostalgia.

My Romance with the Indian Railways


My journey with the Indian Railway commenced with my first travel way back in 1966 when I was in Grade 1.  In the Malayalam text book there was a small verse on the ‘Steam Engine’ – (കൂ കൂ കൂകും തീവണ്ടി, കൂകി പായും തീവണ്ടി) Koo koo kookum theevandi, kooki payum theevandi.  I was fascinated by the poem and insisted on travelling on a train.   My dad took me on my first train journey – an eight kilometer one from Kottayam to Chingavanam on a steam engine powered passenger.  Little did I realise as a toddler then that I will serve in the Indian Army and travel the length and breadth of the country on trains. It was the beginning of a long and cherished association with the Indian Railways.


My father first took me to the steam engine as the poem was more about the steam throwing coal eating monster.  He showed me three persons working on the engine.  The Engine Driver (Pilot or Engineer) was the overall commander of the engine.  He was responsible for ensuring punctuality, watch the signals, the track ahead and the train behind, see that the locomotive is running safely and efficiently, blow the whistle when required and plan ahead for stops.


The engineer was assisted by two Firemen who stoked the fire, maintained steam pressure in the boiler, watched the track and signals ahead, and relayed signals from Guard.  They took turns with one stoking the fire and the other watching the signal and blowing the whistle. Firemen were also apprentice engine drivers, allowed to run the train under the engine driver’s supervision and expected to learn enough to be ready for eventual promotion.  Even today, the Indian Railways recruit only Assistant Loco Pilots for their Diesel and Electric Engines, who over a period of service are promoted to be Loco Pilots. I am told that the Assistant Loco Pilots of today earn a salary more than that of the average software engineer!


Steam engines of yesteryear may have been slower and ‘dirtier‘ than diesel/ electric ones, but they were much safer.   As per records, out of every 100 accidents on Indian Railways, only two involved steam engines as the steam engine staff had to be on their feet, busy stoking the fire, adjusting gauges, tightening gears and releasing excessive steam pressure, polish gleaming brass fittings and gauges, filling the water tender and so on.

The train was controlled by a Guard who impressed me with his well starched and ironed cotton white trousers and coat as white as snow.  For the life of me, I could never figure out as to how these Guards on the trains pulled by steam engines, maintained their white uniform so well.  A short journey on such a train always invariably resulted in my dress and hair getting covered with coal-dust.


I might add here an interesting aside. The Indian Railways currently runs a luxury heritage train from Delhi to Alwar, renamed The Palace On Wheels, (earlier Fairy Queen, since 1855) powered by a 70-year-old renovated steam engine, named ‘Azad‘- engine number WP 7200, built in 1947 in USA.


Indian Railways is still maintaining its oldest working steam locomotive named Fairy Queen at New Delhi. I wonder whether the Railways still have the drivers to operate it.

When I joined Fifth Grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu), in June 1971, travelling from Kerala to the School was the longest train journey one undertook until then.  It commenced by boarding a Meter-Gauge train at Kottayam, hauled by a steam engine to Ernakulum.  From there in the afternoon it was on to famous No 20 Madras Mail – a Broad-Gauge train – which ran between Cochin and Madras to alight at Coimbatore.  The only reprieve was that the train was hauled by a diesel engine, and therefore no coal dust.

The advantage in a diesel or electric engine is that it can run at same speed whether forward or backward. Steam engines were to run at lesser speed when running with its water tank in the front side. To avoid this there were engine turn tables at major loco sheds for turning the engine to keep engine side in the front.


We got off at Coimbatore by 9 PM and at 10 PM there was a train to Rameshwaram, again a steam engine train on Meter Gauge.  This train would drop us at a tiny station called Udumalaipettai at 2 AM.  Then there was the agonising wait in the small waiting room at the railway station for it to dawn so that the restaurants in town would open their shutters. Early in the morning it was a walk of about a km to the bus-stand, lugging our bags.  Near the bus-stand there was a restaurant which served vegetarian breakfast and we would enjoy the last civilian meal of the semester before joining the Military School. From then on it was going to be the much loved ‘bill of fare’.

After breakfast it was a bus ride of 24 km on the No 10 Bus which plied between Udumalaipettai and Amaravathinagar – about an hour of a bumpy ride, but it ensured that the heavy breakfast we had consumed was well truly digested without any hiccups.


By the time I was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1982 the railways had evolved a great deal; the steam engines had given way to diesel ones which were much faster and did not deposit coal dust in our hair and clothes. With the army life came some really long and memorable train journeys. For a Mallu posted to most military stations in North India, 72 hours was par for the course.  If your unit was in the North East, it was 96 hours and beyond. A colleague of mine used to travel from Trivandrum, then the southernmost station of the Indian railways to Ledo, in Assam, almost on the then Burma border, where his unit was located. It was small matter of some 4000km, 3970km to be precise, taking seven days.  It involved travel by five different trains, with changes at Ernakulum, Madras Central, Howrah Junction, and Tinsukia. The journey from Trivandrum began with a meter-gauge train and ended at Ledo on a meter gauge train. But the bulk of the journey in the middle was by broad gauge. In some ways, the experience of a journey such as this is as exhilarating as that of a mountaineering expedition

Once or twice a year it was a journey homeward to avail the much awaited leave. Also the initial years in the army one had to undergo a lot of training courses at various institutions widely dispersed all over the country. So this resulted in at least one more long train journey. Very often one had to travel at short notice and therefore without reservation. It was nothing short of high adventure.

As the trains rumbled across the length and breadth of the country, I was able to directly imbibe the diversity of our ancient land. As they crossed the many rivers flowing West to East, East to West and North to South (Only the Son River in India flows from south to North), and climbed the many hill ranges and plateaus, I came face to face with school geography. The vastness of the Indo-Gangetic plains, the stunning beauty of the Konkan tract, tenuous criticality of Siliguri Corridor, mesmerising  beauty of the plains of Punjab engulfed in endless fields of wheat, mustard  and sunflower, and he endless barren expanse of the Thar desert all lay bare before me.   I couldn’t help but notice the gradual change in climate, topography, flora, demography, culture, architecture and so on. It was an ever changing landscape of every facet of human existence. There is no better way to learn about this vast country than to simply travel by train. No wonder, the Mahatma, loved to travel by train.

When I am at Kottayam the Pole Star is not visible as it is always hidden behind coconut trees. As the train takes me northward from Kottayam, on the first night I begin to see it quite high above the horizon. On the second night it is much higher in the sky than the previous night. It was much later, during a training course that I theoretically learned that the latitude of a place is the vertical angle between the horizon and the pole star (altitude of the Polaris.) But the railways had made me understand the phenomenon much earlier. Latitude until then was just a line on a map.


Over the many years of train travel I also realised that the Indian railways is a truly humongous organisation any which way you look at it. It is one of the largest rail networks in the world with over 68500 km of track network and nearly 7200 railway stations. It is one of the world’s largest employers, employing some 1.4 million people. Every day it transports 25 million people. It is simply mind-boggling to think in terms of the likes of the entire population of a country like Australia or Taiwan being transported by the Indian railways on a daily basis. Of the worlds 230 odd nations only 55 odd have a population more than 25 million.  The railways also move some 1200 million tons of freight every year.

One got to fully subscribe to Michael Portillo, British journalist, broadcaster, and former Conservative politician- “The two biggest legacies of the Raj are the unification of India and the English language. Moreover, without the railways, India would not have been connected and could not have become one country.” 

Next : Military Special Trains

Regimental Training for a Young Officer


On commissioning I joined 75 Medium Regiment in January 1983.  The Regiment then had an interesting class composition – one battery of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.  Today the Regiment consists of soldiers from all classes from the entire nation.

I was allotted the Brahmin Battery commanded by Late Major Daulat Bhardwaj.   He was a Brahmin and his first advice was “To command Brahmin soldiers, you got to be a Brahmin yourself, beat them in all aspects – physical, mental and spiritual. You got to be mentally alert and morally straight, else they will never respect you. Once you earn their respect and confidence, they will blindly follow you.

You got to be a better Brahmin than your soldiers.  You are a Christian from Kerala and you got to beat the Brahmins in spiritual aspects too.  You attend Mandir Parades with the soldiers every evening; learn by-heart all the aratis, slokas, mantras and hymns; understand their meaning and apply them to your everyday life.”

Within a month, I could sing the arati and recite the slokas fluently and thus became a ‘Brahmin.’  Even though the first of the Ten Commandments the Christians follow say ‘You shall have no other Gods before Me‘, for any officer of the Indian Army, the religion or Gods of the soldiers they command come before their own. While praying to the Hindu Gods during Mandir Parades, in my heart I was praying to my Lord and Saviour Christ.  In fact, now I was praying to a God I did not believe in for the soldiers who believed in me.

The soldiers, especially the ones who manned the guns called Medium Gunners were all well built and nearly six feet tall.  They were selected keeping in mind that they had to handle the eight ton 130mm Russian gun, the toughest being bringing the gun into action mode from travelling mode and vice versa.  The shells the guns fired being heavier also dictated this.

Training for the gunners involved bringing the gun into action, laying the gun at the specified bearing and elevation to engage targets far away, loading the shell into the gun and firing. This training on the gun is called Gun Drill in artillery terms.  Among these giant gunners, I stood as a Lilliput.  I had to look up to meet their eyes when I spoke to them. Rather than they looking up to me, now I was looking up to them.

The first place I lived in the Regiment was the soldiers’ barracks.  My bed was placed next to Havildar Brij Bhushan Mishra’s, who was better known among the soldiers as BB Major. Soldiers address Havildars as Majors, short for Havildar Majors.  He was then the senior most Gun Detachment Commander and was well known for his gunnery training abilities. BB Major spoke in a soft and low voice and the soldiers had to strain their ears to listen to him. He did not believe in talking much, but the soldiers of the Battery respected him and many were scared of him; all because he knew his job well and he had a reputation of being a tough detachment commander and also he sported a ferocious looking handlebar moustache. He believed in the doctrine that soldiers and brass – they shine well when rubbed hard and polished well.

I commenced gunnery training as any other recruit soldier on joining the Regiment would do – to be the Number 9 of the detachment. I attended Gun Drill classes with the soldiers under the watchful eyes of BB Major. As days passed by, I was ‘promoted’ until I became the Gun Detachment Commander in two weeks.

I was pretty impressed with my ‘promotions‘ until the day I goofed up while bringing the gun into action. My omission at that time would have jeopardised the safety of the crew, but timely intervention by BB Major saved the day for me.  He ordered “Stand Fast” – meaning everyone to freeze as they were. This command is used when a commander or a trainer feels that safety of the soldiers is at risk. BB Major pulled me out, shook me hard and said “Saheb, you have got to take care of the soldiers under your command. You got to be alert at all times. You cannot risk injury to your soldiers because of your callousness.” Major Daulat Bhardwaj who was witnessing the training called out “BB, तेरे  मूछों  में  दम  है  [therey moochon mein dum hai] (there is strength in your moustache).”

I did not speak a word, for I was shaken up and also feeling guilty of committing a major goof-up. After this incident BB Major and I developed mutual respect. While conducting gunnery training later on, BB Major would often quote the incident to the young soldiers and how well I took it in a positive stride. He would also add “If I could do it to the Lieutenant Saheb, you guys better watch out.

 

Identity Discs


The movie 1917, based on the First World War, tells the story of two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake who are ordered by General Erinmore to carry a message to Colonel Mackenzie of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a scheduled attack that would jeopardise the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake.


Schofield and Blake cross no man’s land to reach an abandoned farmhouse, where they witness a German plane being shot down.  They drag the burned pilot from the plane. However, the pilot stabs Blake and Schofield shoots the German pilot dead. Schofield promises Blake as he dies that he would complete the mission and to write to Blake’s mother.  He removes two rings from  Blake’s fingers  along with the round Identity Disc worn around his  neck.

Schofield succeeds in reaching Colonel Mackenzie, who reads the message and reluctantly calls off the attack. He is told that Lieutenant Joseph was in the first wave, and after  searching for him among the wounded, finds him unscathed. Lieutenant Joseph is upset to hear about his brother’s death, but thanks Schofield for his efforts. Schofield gives Joseph his brother’s rings and Identity Disc and requests him to write to their mother about Blake’s heroics.

As I watched it, I made a mental note to write a post on the identity discs worn by the soldiers. On a philosophical note it reminds every man in uniform that martyrdom is just around the corner. However, at the practical level, it has a specific purpose. They bear the personal number, name, regiment, religion and blood group of the soldier and serve the twin purpose as both a recorded evidence of a soldier’s death in action as well as for the eventual recognition of the body, in case there is a need. When there are a large number of fatal casualties over a short duration, it serves a purpose of keeping a record of death. It must be sounding a bit eerie to the uninitiated.


In the Indian Army we had to wear these Identity Discs while on operations and during various training exercises.  Actually there are two discs – an oval disc with holes punched on either ends and a round one with a single hole.  Our soldiers wore the oval disc on their left wrist and the round one around their neck.  On inquiry they said that it is to ensure that one disc will remain with the body even if the hand shears off.  The logic did not appeal to me at all, but I could not find any instructions regarding the proper way of wearing the discs. Surely we were not fighting a battle with swords to have either our heads or hands to shear off.

I had no difficulty wearing the round disc around my neck, but the oval disc around my wrist was always a worry.  I lost them during most training exercises and had to get a new one made every time.  Obviously there was something amiss – I thought.

In 1988, I had to appear for a promotion examination in which ‘Military Administration’ was a subject.  Disposal of the mortal remains of a martyred soldier was an issue on which I often had many questions.  Our Battery Commander was Major VN Singh, a 1971 Indo-Pak War veteran.  He was well known for his knowledge and meticulous military administration skills and had just been posted to our Regiment after a stint as an administration and logistics staff officer of an infantry brigade.  I approached him and he clarified the mystery and explained to me the procedure and the proper way of wearing Identity Discs.

The oval disc, through one hole a cord 24 inches long  is passed through and the chain is worn around the neck.  Using a small cord of about four inches, the round disc is attached to the bottom hole of the oval disc.  In case of death in war, the round disc is removed to identify the dead and the oval disc is left on the body for identifying it whenever the body is recovered.  The round disc along with the soldier’s personal belongings is despatched to the Depot Regiment 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.

Identity Discs of Indian Army owe its origin to the British Army.  The first British ‘Disc Identity’ was introduced in 1907.  It was a single identity disc, fitted with a cord to be worn around the neck underneath the clothing.  The single-disc led to many postmortem problems in identification of the dead in that the disc was being removed for administrative purposes, leaving the body devoid of identification.


In May 1916 the second disc was introduced – octagonal in shape – known as “Disc, Identity, No.1, Green”, with the original disc becoming “Disc, Identity, No.2, Red”. The No.1 disc was to be attached to the long cord around the neck, with the No.2 being threaded on a 6 inch cord from this disc. No.1 Disc was intended to remain on the body whereas No.2 Disc was to be removed for administration.

In the movie 1917, Lance Corporal Schofield is shown removing the Red Disc, leaving the Green Disc on  Lance Corporal Blake’s body.


During World War II, British Army soldiers were issued with aluminum Identity Discs – oval and round.


Canadian soldiers’ Identity Disc is scored by a horizontal groove so that the lower portion may be detached. If the wearer becomes a fatal casualty, the lower portion of the disc shall be detached and returned to the Headquarters with the soldier’s personal documents. The chain and upper section of the disc shall not be removed from the body.


US Army Identity Discs consist of two discs. One disc is on a 24 inch chain and the other is attached to the main chain by a four inch chain.

Soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they’ve been given.”   ― Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Public Address (PA) System


Can you hear me at the back?”  Queried the Reviewing Officer at the Passing Out Parade of our nephew, prior to commencing his address to the Cadets.  There was a seven second utter silence that followed – as if those seven seconds did not exist in this world for everyone gathered out there.

Did the Reviewing Officer not trust the Commandant of the Academy, a General Officer, who invited him to be the Reviewing Officer?  Would everyone at the Academy have not put their best foot forward to ensure successful conduct of the most important and venerated event at the Academy?  As Cadets during our own Passing out Parade in the past, haven’t we all seen the Herculean efforts put in by everyone, especially the team responsible for the PA system, to ensure that each word spoken is audible at every nook and corner of the Parade Ground and beyond?


Was the Reviewing Officer expecting a reply?  Was he expecting a Cadet lined up in front to acknowledge his query?  Did he expect the Adjutant mounted on his charger, with a sword in his right hand and reins of the horse in the other to raise his sword as an answer?  Did he expect the buglers standing on the ramparts of the fort behind to play a note in acknowledgement?

What if the address was not audible to the Cadets? Would it make a huge difference? No. They would have already been bored to death with the surfeit of advices from all and sundry.  I do not remember a single word of the address by the Reviewing Officer at our Passing Out Parade, though the Reviewing Officer was the most charismatic of them all, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.  So would be the fate of any lesser mortal here and now. Senior military officers could sometimes do well without recourse to ‘out of place clichés’.


My mind flashed back to my military service days.  Once a month in military service, it was the day of the ‘Sainik Sammelan’ (Address to Soldiers of the Regiment by the Commanding Officer (CO)), a monthly ritual, mostly held on the last Saturday of the month.  During my Regimental service, I had observed that a Sergeant responsible for the PA System would set it up well before everyone assembles, tested it by tapping his fingers on the microphone and saying “Testing, Testing, Testing.”

Once the Regimental Sergeant Major assembled all the soldiers, he also tested The PA System by tapping his fingers on the microphone and saying “Testing, Testing, Testing.”  After that the Sergeant Major gave his report to the Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer.)  The Adjutant then received the report from the Subedar Major who then handed over the parade to the Second-in-Command (2IC).  At every stage of reporting, no one seemed to trust the poor PA system and everyone tested its functionality.

Now came the auspicious moment of the arrival of the CO.  The 2IC gave  the report to the CO and the CO settled down on the dais.  As the CO was about to commence his speech, the PA system sabotaged itself and gave out a most shrill and unholy tone “Koooooooooooo  Thap” and refused to do its job. Pure and simple system generated retribution for the lack of faith!!

The CO now looked at the 2IC, who in turn gave a frowning look at the Adjutant, who gave a dirty look at the Subedar Major, who now gave a dirtier look at the Sergeant Major, who finally gave the dirtiest look at the hapless Sergeant who set up the PA system.  Obvious display of lack of trust at every level of command.

Sainik Sammelans have been an event for the CO to demonstrate his oratory skills.  Some COs believed that they could communicate all their ‘accumulated wisdom’ on to their captive audience during the Sainik Sammelan and often in such cases, it would extend to several hours.  In effect there is no transmission/reception of wisdom, but it always ends up with sore bottoms, numb feet and a few caricatures of the CO by the officers.

Captain Desh Raj was the self appointed commander for all young officers (Lieutenants and Captains) of our Regiment. One day, after the CO’s Regimental Sainik Sammelan, Captain Desh Raj summoned all of us, five young officers of the regiment, and directed us to show him our note pads where we had noted down the points briefed by our Commanding Officer.  All of us, except one, were reluctant to display our pads.  We were all trying to hide our note pads, but Captain Desh Raj successfully managed to snatch them from us and glanced through them.  Soon thereafter he declared “None of you can make a good caricature of our CO.  Your artistic skills need to be toned up.  Look at my note pad and the next time I would like to see a better caricature of our Commanding Officer from you all than this masterpiece of mine

That was when I realised that all those serious note taking by all young officers were much the same and on similar lines to what Captain Desh Raj did!  When I became a Battery Commander and later a CO, I ensured that all my Sainik Sammelans were of less than ten-minute duration. Possibly, I was mortally scared of my subordinates drawing my caricature! So I resolved not to give them time for the act.

Whether the PA system is working or not, there is no need to raise the question “Can you hear me at the back?”  Every speaker must realise that nothing much can be done at the nick of time other than the speaker straining his vocal cords to make the speech audible to all.  It only shows lack of trust in the organisation or the person who invited you to speak. Above all, a routine and meaningless cliché that is best avoided!!

Abiding Faith


While commanding the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA) Regiment 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.

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 would reach 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. 

Passing Out Parade at Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) Chennai


It was an important milestone for Gentleman Cadet Jerrin Koduvath who passed out from OTA Chennai on 07 March 2020.  The entire Koduvath family were there at the Parameshwaran Drill Square to witness the occasion and bless Jerrin on the auspicious moment of him stepping into being an Officer in 56 Engineer Regiment of Indian Army.


The Drill Square was smartly decked up befitting the ceremony with all military ornamentation.  The most conspicuous was the seating area for guests to witness the parade.  The witnessing area was covered with hydraulically operated awnings extending forward towards the Drill Square.  Under the covered space were rows of permanently fitted comfortable seats and under the awnings were four rows of removable chairs.  A bottle of mineral water was placed on all seats and that was really worth and refreshing.  The ceiling fans ensured a constant movement of air to ward off the Chennai heat and high humidity.


We were 24 family members and all of us ensured that we were at the Drill Square by 5 AM so as to get the seats that offered the best view of the proceedings.


Admiral Karambir Singh, PVSM, AVSM, ADC, reviewed the Parade.


The Cadets marched with precision at the Parameshwaran Drill Square and the proud parents and relatives of the Officer Cadets and dignitaries witnessed the mesmerising parade. 136 Gentleman Cadets and 31 Lady Cadets along with eight Gentleman Cadets and three Lady Cadets from friendly countries were commissioned as Officers following completion of vigorous training at the Passing Out Parade.


At the Parade, it was a pleasant surprise for me to meet Veteran Major General PK Ramachandran and Mrs Hema Ramachandran.  General Ramachandran commanded 75 Medium Regiment at Sikkim and Ambala.


After the Parade, we had a sumptuous breakfast at the Cadets’ Mess and then we moved to Pratap Pipping Lawns for the Pipping Ceremony.  Pratap Pipping Lawns too had excellent seating arrangements facilitating everyone a clear view of the proceedings.


Late Captain Pratap Sing, MVC (P), and I grew up as Lieutenants together at 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) from 1983 to 1988.  In May 1988 he attained martyrdom at Siachen Glacier.  Hence, I was emotionally charged, with my heart thumping, to be at this place, to pip Lieutenant Jerrin Kodvath.  More about Captain Pratap, please click here.


On culmination of all ceremonies, I walked to the Jessami Company living area where a bust of Captain Pratap had been installed by his OTA course-mates.  While training as a Gentleman Cadet at OTA, Captain Pratap was in Jessami Company.  It was a bit disheartening to note that the bust had no resemblance to Captain Pratap.  May be, I would have been among a few who interacted with him closely during his last days in Indian Army.

The Commandant OTA, Officers and staff need to be complimented for exceptional organisational skills and administrative arrangements for conducting such a Parade and all other connected ceremonies.  Everything was as fit as a T.


After the ceremonies got over, a grand tea was hosted for us at the residence of Major Subhash Chander of 75 Medium Regiment, now posted as Instructor at OTA and his wife Preeti.  We, the Koduvath Family stand indebted to Major Subhash and Preeti in extending all-out support and guidance to us for attending all the events connected with the POP and making us extremely comfortable.


With gratitude we the Koduvath Family thank all the staff of Trident Hotel, Chennai for ensuring a comfortable stay for us for three days during the celebrations.  Special thanks to Sudharshan Iyer who recommended Trident Hotel  and Varun Sharma, Trident Hotels for coordinating all arrangements for us.

Major General Dharmendar Singh Gill – A Soldier Friend


Though Dharmendar and I underwent training together at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Indian Military Academy (IMA) and having being commissioned together as Second Lieutenants to Regiment of Artillery in December 1982, we hardly ever interacted.  Rather we hardly ever met during our Academy days or during our initial regimental service.

We got acquainted only during our Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1989-90 at School of Artillery, Devlali, Maharashtra.  Veteran Brigadier GM Shankar was my desk-mate, but he was a bachelor then, staying in the Officers’ Mess.  Dharmendar and I were living in Married Officers’ Accommodation close by.


Dharmendar and his wife Babita were the most friendly couple in the neighbourhood.  They were better known as parents of Honey, their chubby chirpy little daughter.  Honey was an adorable kid and every officer in the course knew who she was.  Marina and I being newly married looked forward for their company.

Dharmendar was a honest and hardworking student and he did put in his best efforts during the entire course.  He always admonished me for taking the course ‘cool.’  He often reminded me “You are very intelligent and will top the course if you put in little effort.  Why are you holding yourself back?”

After LGSC, I met him while travelling to India from Canada on vacation in 2015.  I had a stopover at Mumbai and whom will I call up – it was surely Major General DS Gill, then Additional Director General (ADG) National Cadets Corps (NCC), Maharashtra.  That evening he organised a get-together of all our course-mates stationed at Mumbai.  We had a grand dinner that evening.

It is pertinent to mention here that under the premiership of General Gill as ADG, the Maharashtra Contingent of the NCC struck gold in 2015  – the contingent has created history by winning the prestigious Prime Minister’s Banner for the sixth consecutive year at the Republic Day Camp held in New Delhi.  Maharashtra NCC was also adjudged the Champion Directorate from out of 17 NCC directorates in the country.  In 2017, the Directorate bagged the Runners-up Trophy.

Maharashtra NCC also has the unique distinction of winning the Prime Minister’s Banner and the Champion Directorate Trophy 17 times since its inception. The achievement is particularly remarkable since as many as 17 NCC directorates and 2070 Cadets from across the country participate in Republic Day Camp every year.


I am sure General Gill made a difference to many young cadets while serving with NCC.  They stand proof to his dedication and selfless service to NCC.  Performance of the Directorate when he was at the helm is commendable.

Soldiers like General Gill helped many soldiers and officers  to be groomed to be thoroughbred gentlemen and soldiers.   When a soldier as wonderful as General Gill finally hangs his boots, it makes many a heart melt, especially those who benefited under his guidance.   I am sure General Gill will continue to do well or may be even better post retirement.

General Gill , please think about it, now you never have to ask for a day off ever again.  You may presume that you are your own boss, but wait!  You now left your old boss and start a  life with your new boss, your wife.  You are now a ‘Go Getter’ – your wife will now order you to go get something and like an obedient husband, you will go and get it for her – which you never did in your life.

Now that you’re retired you can do all the things you enjoy;  all of the wonderful things in your bucket list – including a visit to Canada.   In reality after retirement only the body grows older, but the heart grows fonder and the mind becomes younger.  You in fact realise that all these years you were trying to be mature, but now  is the time when you can get back to being a child.

Happy retirement General Gill!  Retirement is when you stop living at work and start working at living.  Please also make sure you work just as hard at relaxing as you worked hard soldiering.

You’ll be missed but never forgotten!

Major General Sanjay Thapa VSM – My Good Old Friend


Sanjay and I came to know each other during our Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1989-90 at School of Artillery, Devlali, Maharshtra.  In fact it was we both moved into in Married Officers’ Accommodation in the same area.  Thus we became travel buddies, travelling from home to our training classes, he riding his motorcycle and I a scooter.

Sanjay was a honest and hardworking student and he did put in his best efforts during the entire course.  He always admonished me for taking the course ‘cool.’  He often reminded me ‘You have the ability and intelligence to even top the course, but you never put in the best.  Why are you holding yourself back?”

Sanjay was a strict disciplinarian, obviously his Veteran Dad must have inculcated military discipline in him from childhood.  He never accepted any slackness from anyone, even if he was remotely connected with him.  Our early morning ride to the classes always was interrupted by Sanjay stopping his motorcycle to ‘set right’ young officers riding their cycles not befitting proper military discipline.

He was always meticulously turned out with a proper military haircut, even though his hairline had receded.  He was punctual always and that made me punctual too as he expected us to leave well ahead of time to reach our classes, at least five minutes ahead of schedule.  We often found that we were the first ones to reach, even before our Havildar (Sergeant) Major- Assistant Instructor-in-Gunnery (AIG) had even opened the class room.

As expected, at the end of the course, Sanjay came out with flying colours and was rewarded with an instructional tenure at School of Artillery and I returned to our Regiment.  Sanjay turned out to be one of the finest instructors from our course, all because of his dedication and commitment to his students.

After three months of completing LGSC, I returned to School of Artillery for a computer course (ADP).  Whenever I visited Sanjay’s those days, he was always closeted with his books preparing for the next day’s classes he was to conduct or was correcting papers of the student officers.

Then I met Sanjay while he was commanding a Medium Regiment at Bhatinda, Punjab in 2004, prior to me hanging up my military uniform.  He was staying in the Officers’ Mess, in a single officers’ suit.  There was nothing special to call it a CO’s Residence – it had nothing ‘special befitting a CO.’  His residence was a testimony to his concept of ‘Simple Living with High Thinking.’

General Sanjay Thapa, I know you are the most hardworking person and is now time to take a break – even your heart works with pauses, so you also have to learn how to ‘relax’.  Your retirement will make you proud of yourself and also make each one of us associated with you proud.

Retirement does not make you feel that  you are old. It means that you have been working real hard to deserve the longest vacation of your life. Wishing you a lot of beautiful adventures and happy moments with the ones you love.

Gods’ Speed and Good Shooting all the way ahead.

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu – An Ever Smiling Soldier

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, ADC, Vice Chief of Army Staff, hangs his boots today. Do not get carried away by his smile; he is a rare combination of professional competence, inspiring leadership, humility and chivalry. A quote by John F Kennedy came to my mind As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” There is no better person than General Anbu for whom the above quote applies as he hardly uttered any words, but always lived by them – for over five decades of life in a military uniform.

It began when he was all of ten years old, as a cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in June 1970. As a cadet, two years our senior, he was identifiable by his cheerful smile, his omniscient trademark insignia. He often walked away with a lion’s share of medals in most sporting activities at school – athletics, swimming, boxing, football, hockey and so on. He was adjudged the most technical boxer while at school and his gymnastics skills were invariably on display during our School Day Pageants.

He graduated from school in 1976 to join the 56th Course at the National Defence Academy (NDA). In his final year at school (1976), he was Chera House Captain – Cadets were divided into four houses – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava- named after the great ancient Tamil Kingdoms, which somehow paled into insignificance in the History of India as devised by the British. It may be a coincidence that the present Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM from our batch too was the Chera House Captain in 1978.

His smiling, soft spoken demeanour concealed a firm, no nonsense attitude – no wonder he was appointed the Cadet Sergeant Major (CSM) at the NDA as well as at the Indian Military Academy (IMA). He was awarded BLUE in Athletics and Physical Training and Merit Card in Basketball – an envious record for any NDA Cadet. As a young officer he continued to excel in sports and competed with the soldiers at the highest level.

General Anbu was commissioned into 14 Sikh Light Infantry in June 1980. He served in all operational environments – Siachen Glacier; Counter-Insurgency Operations in Kashmir and Manipur; Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, United Nations Peace Keeping in Namibia, etc. He was awarded the Sena Medal for a very daring operation, showing exemplary leadership and gallantry during operations in the Siachen Glacier.

During my visit to Hyderabad in 2001, he organised an impromptu get-together of all our school mates that evening. There I met Mrs Gowry Anbu – a down-to-earth and compassionate lady who mirrors the very same qualities of her husband.

He was in command of his battalion during operational deployment in Rajasthan deserts and that is where I met him in 2002, when I was commanding a Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment in the same Division.

One day I walked into Colonel Anbu’s battalion and was received by Subedar Major Swaraj Singh, a smiling smart confident soldier. The way the Subedar Major interacted with me was indicative of how the character of a Commanding Officer flows down the chain of command to all ranks of the Battalion.

As we waited for Colonel Anbu to get free, I asked the Subedar Major something that had intrigued me about the soldiers in Sikh Light Infantry: How does Colonel Anbu, with his quiet and pleasing manners, command the fierce Sikh Light Infantry soldiers so well?

That was when I got a significant military lesson from Subedar Major Swaraj Singh:

“It is a myth in the Indian Army that Sikh Light Infantry soldiers need tough handling in a language filled with profanity. They are just as sensitive as other soldiers and their sensitivity needs to be respected. Our Commanding Officer from his Lieutenant days (1980) believed in respecting the soldiers under his command and we all respect him immensely for that. The performance of the Battalion under his command amply proves the equation.”

Subedar Major Swaraj Singh also said that his Commanding Officer neither drank alcohol nor smoked in his life – busting another Indian Army myth!

I must relate an interesting story about Brigadier Devraj Anbu when he was posted on deputation as the Commandant of the Assam Rifles Training Centre (ARTC) at Dimapur, Nagaland – a first-hand account narrated by another colleague of mine.

At that time he was on the upward trajectory of a very impressive career graph. This posting was his first exposure to the Assam Rifles and prudence dictated that he swim with the tide. Right from his first day in office, all ranks got a feel of his sincerity of purpose, steely determination, no nonsense attitude and genuine concern for the welfare of his Officers and Soldiers. One soon learnt not to mistake his self effacing modesty and courteous demeanour for weakness.

Like most Indian Army Regiments, the Assam Rifles too has very strong traditions rooted in their rich heritage, the foundations of which were laid by Gorkha Troops who formed the nucleus of the Force. One such tradition was the conduct of animal sacrifice on the Vana Devta Pooja celebrations to propitiate the Gods of the forest.

Over the years, many General Officers, Commanding Officers and Religious Teachers had done their best to sensitize the soldiers about the regressive nature of this tradition, quoting examples from the scriptures, but none issued orders prohibiting this practice as it was felt that such an order would cause deep resentment among the rank and file. As all Army Officers were posted to the Assam Rifles on deputation, most were not keen on risking their careers by ‘rocking the boat’.

He was barely few months in the saddle when it was time for the pooja. A traditional havan (where oblations are offered into the sacred flame) was conducted by the Priest and the principal participants were Brigadier Anbu, his deputy, a nominated officer, the Subedar Major and some selected representatives of the soldiers in the presence of all personnel of the organisation except those on essential duties. The ritual was to conclude with the sacrifice of a goat with a single stroke of the khukri (a Gokha’s machete), wielded by a chosen soldier.

The Priest used the ashes of the havan to anoint the sacrificial goat, the selected soldier, and the sacrificial khukri. The soldier then positioned himself near the head of the sacrificial animal with his khukri ready and formally requested Brigadier Anbu for permission to carry out the sacrifice.

In a steady clear tone, Brigadier Anbu replied “Nahin Hai” (permission denied). For the benefit of those unrelated to the uniform, this needs elaboration. In the army when permission for conduct of a troop related religious act is ceremoniously sought, it is simply expected to be ceremoniously granted. If not, it is deemed to a serious attack on troop sensitivity and could culminate in loads of trouble.

Everyone was stunned and the Priest, assuming that he had heard incorrectly, repeated the formal request only to get the same reply from the Commandant. Jaws dropped in astonishment and emotions could have flared at the perceived sacrilege. However, Brigadier Anbu remained unmoved despite gentle hints from his Deputy (who was his senior at SainikSchool) to reconsider his decision.

Without batting an eyelid, Subedar Major Arjun Thapa, a Gorkha from Nepal where ritual sacrifices are held sacred, supported his Commandant’s decision and ordered that the goat be set free. A lauki (bottle gourd) was produced and ritually chopped in two by the Khukri in its place. Not one dissenting murmur was heard from any quarter!

That’s obviously a classy example of what is meant by courage of conviction. It is a testimony to the immense respect and affection earned by Brigadier Anbu across the organisational spectrum, that too within a few of months.

Brigadier Anbu’s brief tenure at the ARTC is still remembered for the immense progress made in training, administration, and welfare at the premier establishment of the Assam Rifles.

In April 2017, the 79ers, my batchmates from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar had our annual meet in Srinagar, J&K. I reached Srinagar three days ahead to spend time with soldiers who had served with me. I travelled to a remote locality to be with the boys and that evening I called up Lieutenant General Anbu, the Army Commander Northern Command over the military telephone circuit. Typical of the Corps of Signals’ way of doing things, the duty officer at every successive military exchange came on line and fussed around for ever as the call was being directed to the Army Commander. He finally came on line and spoke to me for over thirty minutes, bantering about the good old days and expressing his inability to fly down to meet his school mates at Srinagar as he had to attend the Army Commanders’ Conference at New Delhi next day.

It is said that a soldier has no holiday in life; but retirement makes every day one for him. Knowing General Anbu, I am sure that he will make the rest of his days more rewarding and entertaining as he is a man of great versatility. He is bound to enrich the life of those around him in a meaningful manner.

Great soldiers do not retire, they just fade away – surely he too will fade away and be rarely be in television spotlight, as is the wont of so many retired senior defence officers these days! Perhaps he will pen down his thoughts covering a momentous half century in uniform.

Bathing Nude


Few years ago an Indian Army Officer undergoing a course at Canadian Forces College, Toronto came over for dinner.  During our conversation he said that one evening he walked into the sauna in the gym to find the Commandant, a General, sitting nude, enquiring his welfare.  He said that he felt a bit embarrassed to face a nude General.  I asked “That means you are surely not an ex-NDA (National Defence Academy)?” And I was dead right.

Bathrooms at the NDA are all open ones with neither any cubicles nor any shower curtains.  There are only shower heads, all in a row.  It is mandatory for all cadets to shower before breakfast and in the evening after games.  As time is always at a premium for any military cadet, the ritual had to be as short as possible, with many waiting in queue – hence an elaborate bath was near impossible.  The highlight of the bath was not its brevity, but by tradition implicitly enforced by the seniors, the cadets are not allowed to wear any clothing – it’s all nude and pretty natural. `

I cannot really say with any great emphasis that bathing nude is hygienically a huge plus as compared to bathing with a small brief on. However, it is more than a century old tradition in many military training institutions the world over. The open shower system meant that a large number of cadets could use the facility within the limited duration of time available.

To my mind, bathing nude has two distinct advantages. It helps one to overcome one’s inhibitions about being nude in the presence of others thereby developing a sort of self confidence about one’s own being and physique. When one learns to overcome this pretty strong inhibition, one automatically develops the capability overcome a lot of other inhibitions of less intensity.  The second is that with everyone down to his skin it builds a sort of camaraderie with the fellow trainees.

There is no awkwardness, nobody made any stupid dick jokes and nobody stared. There was just complete utopian nonchalance about the whole thing as cadets from all regions, religions, castes and creeds bathed under the same shower. In everyone’s consciousness he was down to mother earth, a sort of nude common denominator. The act was indeed a great leveler.  The common Indian mentality is that public nudity is obscene and vulgar and therefore should be abhorred. I do hope that as a nation we can learn to tolerate public nudity, no matter what our personal inclinations are in this regard.

Communal bathing and spas have been around for thousands of years, especially in the Indian context. However, the concept of modesty is a relatively recent one and was mostly dictated by the Victorian British norms.  Many indigenous people still  play sports without any covering and athletes in ancient Greece competed naked. In fact, the Greek word gymnasium means ‘a school for naked exercise,’ but in English it means only athletic exercise.


Men and women bathed nude in Roman baths of first century.  Emperor Hardin is believed to have issued many decrees against co-ed bathing.  There were baths of varying levels of luxury and also at varying levels of propriety. At one extreme were the ones for prostitutes and at the other the ones for royalty.  These baths showcased  Roman architectural expertise where new and innovative building styles were tested.


Bathing complex of Friedrichsbad Baths, Baden-Baden, Germany, opened in 1877, catering to European aristocracy.  It is still open to all and visitors who indulge in a 17-step Irish-Roman bathing ritual – a sequence of hot air baths, steam rooms, showers, pools, and massages, soaking in curative mineral waters. Here on some specific days of the week and on holidays, it is co-ed nude bathing and on other days it is gender specific nude bathing.

It was mandatory for students to swim nude in Chicago high school swimming pools till 1970’s.  In those days filtration and chlorination techniques were not as advanced as of today.  Nudity ensured that the swimming costumes they wore, mostly cotton or wool, did not leave any fibres that would clog the pool.

In most gym and swimming pool locker rooms for men in Canada, the baths are all open without cubicles.  Cubicles are provided in family locker rooms used by children and parents.  It is natural for people to have differing standards of modesty, based on their cultural/ religious background and upbringing.  Some are comfortable striding around the locker room naked and some prefer to change their clothes more discreetly. People around are neither stealing glances nor are they being judgmental.  I generally go to swim in the afternoons which is the time designated for adult swimmers.  I surely do not have a body to flaunt and no six-packs to flex.  Everyone around me also passes the same muster with respect to their masculinity.


One has to shower before entering a swimming pool to keep dirt and germs out.  Post a swim-session, it is meant to rinse off salt, chlorine and other harmful chemicals.  You cannot do this well with your swimming costume on.  It is said that the concept of the open bath came to Canada with soldiers returning from World War II when most able bodied Canadian men got enlisted to fight the war in Europe.  The only country where it is a rule to have a nude bath prior to entering a swimming pool is Iceland.  Here the bath may be in public or in a cubicle.

Nudity in public bathroom may offend some people, but most will not react to it though they may avoid it.  The argument that nudity is natural may fall on deaf ears to the puritans who refuse to accept their ties to the natural world.

Sleeping without underwear is another military tradition proven to be good for one’s genitals as per many medical studies.  Underwear tends to trap moisture, creating a breeding ground for bacteria.  For sure, allowing that area to get some air helps to keep it dry and clean.  Royal Marines tend to sleep naked for a similar reason and also to ensure they don’t hold all the juices and skin flakes emitted from their bodies in their clothes.  From this came the expression ‘going commando‘  which means going without wearing any underwear.

In Western militaries where men and women serve together the bathrooms are shared.  Here too there is hardly any awkwardness or sexual discrimination.  In 2011, a woman soldier of the Norwegian Armed Forces complained about being asked to bathe naked with 30 men and in front of other male officers during a field exercise.  The Norwegian Armed Forces initially gave the male officer who ordered the bath a harsh disciplinary warning for his behaviour and a fine of 2,500 Kroner, but cancelled the official reprimand after the officer appealed the decision.  After two separate internal reviews, Norwegian Military ruled that it would not make any changes to its bathing policies, meaning that other female soldiers could find themselves in a similar situation due to Norway’s gender-neutral military conscription policy.

I must here quote from the book ‘Immediate Action’ by Andy Mcnab.    He was a member of 22 SAS Regiment and was involved in both covert and overt special operations worldwide until he retired in 1993.  Teaching young infantry soldiers as an Instructor at the Regimental Training Depot how to bathe, he writes ‘We had to show them how to wash and shave, use a toothbrush…  Then I had to show them how to shower, making sure they pulled their foreskin back and cleaned it.

To be NUDE or not to be – it is your choice – rules permitting. 

Article 370 and Kashmir


Kashmir could better be defined as a paradise in turmoil. Persian poet Amir Khusruhad said “Agar Firdaus bar roy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast” meaning “If there is a paradise upon earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”.

In August 1947 the British divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan based on religious lines. British India consisted of about 565 princely states and their rulers had the option of joining either of the two new dominions, India or Pakistan.

The princely state of J&K, had three geographically distinct areas – Leh in the North and East with many Buddhist, Jammu in the South mostly Hindus and the Kashmir Valley in the middle with a Muslim majority. The state was ruled by a Hindu Ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh. Under British rule, J&K had its own army, police, post, telegraph, transport, etc, akin to many other Indian princely states then.

Maharaja Hari Singh did not want to accede to either and wanted to remain independent. In order to gain time, Maharaja signed a ‘standstill’ agreement with Pakistan so that trade, travel and communication would be uninterrupted. India did not sign a similar agreement. Pakistan believed that Kashmir would accede to them as it had majority Muslim population, was geographically contiguous to them and the area had better road and rail communications with Pakistan than India. As the Maharaja kept delaying his decision, Pakistan imposed a trade embargo on Kashmir resulting in a lot of misery for the people of Kashmir.

Soon Pakistan’s patience ran out. They covertly sent in Pathan tribals to capture Kashmir. These Pathans were lured with a promise of loot, plunder and rape. The invasion commenced on 20 October 1947. Kashmir was then defended by the state forces and many Muslims from the force rebelled and joined the invaders. Despite the desertions, the state forces fought many pitched battles and were successful in delaying the attackers. The invaders reached Baramulla on 26 October. The Pathans now let loose a savage orgy of loot, rape, murder and abduction of girls. The local Muslims could not believe that a force that had come to liberate them could indulge in such barbarism even against fellow Muslims. Raping, looting and plundering at Baramulla in fact delayed the raiders from reaching Srinagar, thus saving the capital.

As the raiders were knocking at the doors of his capital, Maharaja Hari Singh first sought urgent military aid from India on 24 October. The Indian cabinet under Governor General Mountbatten refused to send troops unless the Maharaja acceded, arguing that the Indian Army could only defend Indian territory.

By about 11 PM, the Maharaja sent another request specifically asking for Indian troops to be sent to Kashmir. The Indian cabinet agreed to the request and on 26 October Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession joining India.

The decision was taken on 27 October to launch the First Battalion of the Sikh Regiment (1 Sikh), located at Delhi, to be flown into Srinagar by Dakota aeroplanes of the Indian Air Force. As there were no administrative echelons of the Indian Army in Kashmir, the battalion had to be self-contained, meaning it had to carry anything and everything – from rations to ammunition. Landing a heavily loaded Dakota on a poorly maintained airstrip at an altitude of around 5000 feet was a feat in itself. Neither the pilots nor the soldiers had any experience in operating at such altitudes and were not equipped to do so. The soldiers had only a thin sweater to beat the cold. Biju Patnaik, who later became the Chief Minister of Odisha State, was one of the first pilots to land in Srinangar that day.

The soldiers of 1 Sikh fought many a bloody battles against the raiders and threw them back to Baramulla and then beyond up to Uri. By November 1948, the Indian Army was in a strong position. They were in fact ready to defeat the Pakistani forces and occupy the entire Kashmir. Yet the Indian government requested United Nations (UN) mediation to resolve the conflict. After protracted discussions at the UN, a cease-fire was agreed to by both countries, which came into effect on 01 January 1949. Why India called in the UN to resolve the conflict when the Indian Army was on the brink of achieving victory remains a mystery.

The terms of the cease-fire as laid out in the UN resolution of 5 January 1949 required Pakistan to withdraw its forces, both regular and irregular, while allowing India to maintain minimum strength of its forces in the state to preserve law and order. On compliance of these conditions, a plebiscite was to be held to determine the future of the territory.

Pakistan claims that a plebiscite must be held to determine whether the people of J&K want join India or Pakistan as stipulated in the UN resolutions. India blames Pakistan for failing to withdraw their forces from the area held by it as stipulated in the very same resolution as a reason for not holding the plebiscite. This simmering bone of contention between two nations resulted in the beautiful state of J&K being divided along the Line of Control (LC) as Azad Kashmir on the Pakistan side with India calling it Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and India Held Kashmir (IHK) as Pakistan calls the Indian part of J&K.

Raja Hari Singh meanwhile appointed Sheikh Abdullah as the Prime Minister, who with three other colleagues joined the Indian Constituent Assembly to discuss provisions of Article 370 of the Indian constitution under draft.  In 1950, the Indian constitution was adopted with its  Article 1 defining J&K as a state of India and Article 370 conferring it a  special status.

Article 370 allowed J&K to make its own laws in all matters except finance, defence, foreign affairs and communications.  It established a separate constitution and a separate flag for J&K and denied property rights in the region to the outsiders.

The events and turmoil thereafter only complicated the existence of the state within Indian Union with all political parties fishing in the troubled waters for a few more votes. This situation led to rampant corruption in all spheres of life.  Even though Indian government was pumping in lot of money, it never reached the grassroots level.   It only alienated the local population from India and they called themselves as Kashmiris and others Indians.

First time I landed in Kashmir was in 1987 as a young Captain and I observed that the most effected due to rampant corruption was basic primary education and healthcare. When I visited the state in 2017, the tale was not different.  When these two basic facilities the state must provide is absent, the area becomes an ideal breeding ground for political extremism.  Now add religious fanaticism to it, it becomes a real Molotov’s cocktail.  This is what has happened in J&K and a similar game is being played in some other areas of Indian hinterland also.

In my view, Article 370 has not served the part it was intended by the authors of Indian constitution, but has led to extreme corruption and difficulties to the common Kashmiri.  Lack of education, coupled with lack of employment opportunities encouraged  Kashmiri youth to take up weapons, with support and facilitation by Pakistan.

Article 370 though gave a separate identity to Kashmiris, it failed to amalgamate the state and its people with the Indian union.  Abolishing it was a mandatory step to ensure the very existence of Indian union.  It had to be done now or later and that must have been what the authors of the very same Article 370 intended.

Like many other such ‘special rights’ articles in the Indian Constitution like  reserving jobs for the under-privileged castes – Article 338, the number of castes were to be reduced each passing year to ultimate removal of the article from the constitution.  The political parties have played hell with this article that the number of castes swelled and beneficiaries have overtaken the normal citizens.

The present Indian Government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the strength and support in the Parliament to move any constitutional amendment.  Removal of Article 370 is the first step in the right direction.  It must be followed by constructive steps to ‘Educate, Employ and Empower’ the Kashmiris.  This will help them to amalgamate with the Indian union and also quell extremist forces fighting for independence or cessation.

When the common Kashmiri finds economic and social upliftment as a result of removal of Article 370, they are sure to amalgamate easily with Indian union than when the article was in force.  If necessary steps to improve the lives of a common Kashmiri is not taken up on a war footing, removal of article 370 would prove to be catastrophic.

Meeting Subedar Major Paramjit Sidhu


We were enjoying the Canada Day long weekend from June 29 to July 01.  Our daughter Nidhi and son-in-law Jay had left our grandson James with us and went golfing the weekend.  We the grandparents were enjoying a laid-back and relaxed long weekend with our grandson.

Canada Day is celebrated on July 01 to commemorate Canada becoming a self-governing dominion of Great Britain and a federation of four provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec in 1867. The anniversary of this date was called Dominion Day until 1982.  Since 1983, July 1 has been officially known as Canada Day.  It is a public holiday, a day off for the general population with all schools and most businesses closed.


In many towns and cities, municipal governments organise many events, often outdoors being summer. These include pancake breakfasts, parades, concerts, carnivals, festivals, firework displays and so on. Canada’s national flag is widely displayed and a lot of people paint their faces red and white – Canada’s national colors.

On June 30 morning, as I was playing with our grandson and also watching the inglorious defeat of the Indian Cricket team at the hands of their English counterparts in the league stage of the World Cup, I received a call on my cell-phone. The caller spoke in a soft and confident voice introducing himself as Subedar Major (SM) Paramjit Sidhu.  He said that he was visiting his daughter in Toronto and had got my number from his Commanding Officer(CO), Colonel Viveka Murthy of 288 Medium Regiment.  He informed me that he was at the Square One Shopping Mall near my home and expressed his desire to meet me.   I could immediately place Colonel Murthy as I had interacted with him on the Sainik School Amaravati Nagar WhatsApp Group.  Colonel Murthy had joined the school in June 1979 shortly after I had left the school to join the National Defence Academy.

Vet Plate
I briefed SM Sidhu that our home is only two minute away and he must come to Gate 8 of the Mall and my car would be parked outside the gate.  It would be very easy to recognise my black Honda CRV with its unique licence plate.

As I pulled alongside Gate 8, a tall smart Sikh gentleman emerged from the shadows.  From his bearing, gait and the meticulous folds of his turban, I couldn’t have missed him a mile away. He was a true representation of the smart and ramrod straight Indian Army Soldier.  On entering the car, he greeted me and introduced himself.  The way he spoke and his conduct was the reflection of the confidence this soldier had and obviously it came from his CO. I felt he was different from many of the Subedar Majors of the Indian Army that I had come across.  Why else should he ring me up in Canada and express his desire to meet a Veteran Gunner who retired 15 years ago?


We drove home to be greeted by Marina and James.  We spoke at length about his daughter, family and military life.  During our interaction I confirmed my earlier belief that he was ‘something different‘ when he casually mentioned about his achievements in powered hang gliding.

After the meeting, I drove him to his daughter’s home, a 30-minute drive.  He was very pleased and thankful to me for this gesture.  I said to him that I take it as a matter of pride and my solemn duty to take care of all soldiers of the Indian Army who visit me. Irrespective of rank and stature, I treat everyone alike.

On returning home, I decided to research on SM Sidhu’s power hang gliding.  SM Sidhu hails from Sangatpura village in Ludhiana district of Punjab.  He joined 76 Medium Regiment and was later posted with the Adventure Cell at the School of Artillery, Devlali.  He has an experience of over eight hundred hours of hang gliding during his 21 years stint there.

On 17 February 2012, he broke the 33 years old British world record in powered hang gliding by covering a distance of 380 km between Sriganganagar and Sanderav near Jodhpur. Gerry Breen, a British Pilot had on May 7, 1979 created the previous world record by gliding 325 km from Wales to Norwich.


Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India conferred Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award to SM Sidhu, named after the first Everest summiteer Tenzing Norgay.  SM Sidhu also holds three national records in hang gliding as mentioned in the Limca Book of Records. What a great achievement for an Indian Army Soldier!!

I am very thankful to Colonel Viveka Murthy for providing me an opportunity to meet and interact with SM Sidhu. It was an opportunity to rekindle a sense of belonging, regale about the good old times and share a camaraderie and esprit de corps, albeit separated in space and time! I felt wonderful and perhaps a wee bit more thankful to him than he was to me.

A Note Pad


During my Indian Army service, I envied all those officers who carried a well organised note pad.  The envy was obvious because I could never maintain one whatever and however I tried.  My pad was almost like God and Time, with neither a beginning nor an end.    I did not know what I wrote where, hence retrieval was never possible.  Why? – I never even attempted it.

Some officers of the extreme meticulous variety had their pad separated into sections to note down instructions and orders from their Commanding Officer, Battery Commander, tasks allotted to Sergeant Majors and Sergeants, and so on.  Some even used different coloured ink to jot down points based on its priority or severity. Some officers even had note pad beside their toilet seat. Supposedly, all the earthshaking ideas dawned on them while they were on the throne, and it had to be noted down there and then for fear of losing them. I did make an attempt once after observing the pad of a senior officer.  I created various sections in the pad, but when I wrote something, it was back to the God status.  When I tried to retrieve some information from it, I realised that it would be easier for me to decipher the Harappan script than my own handwriting.

The Harappan script was used by the Indus Valley civilisation some 4,000 years ago.  From excavations in present-day Pakistan and North-West India, archaeologists have recovered several thousand short inscriptions, mostly consisting of four to five signs.   Till date no one has come out with a satisfactory resolution of these inscriptions.  It is ironic that although the Indus Valley Civilisation existed in the heart of present day Pakistan, the nation claims no cultural heritage from this indisputable fact. Due to the non Islamic roots of the civilisation, Pakistan finds it convenient to hand over all cultural heritage claims to the Indians.

The pad often ended up as an appendage in my uniform’s Left breast pocket.  In the Regiment of Artillery, we very proudly wore the Lanyard on the Right shoulder with its tail end in the Right breast pocket. So the left pocket was reserved for the appendage! At the slightest hint of an order/ instruction coming my way initiated by a senior officer, I took out the pad and dutifully completed the motions.  The pad accompanied me to all the conferences and briefings that I attended.  As every other officer, I too often scribbled into it, using my version of the Harappan script. However, when it came to execution I found it more comfortable to rely on my memory.

Captain Desh Raj (now Veteran Colonel) was the self appointed commander for all young officers of our Regiment.  He was a great sportsman and captained almost all regimental sports teams.  This resulted in him being our mentor and guide in those days.  One day, after the Commanding Officer’s Regimental Sainik Sammelan (Commanding Officer’s monthly address to all soldiers and officers), Captain Desh Raj summoned all of us, five young officers of the regiment, and directed us to show him our note pads where we had noted down the points briefed by our Commanding Officer.  All of us, except one, were reluctant to display our pads.  We were all trying to hide our note pads, but Captain Desh Raj successfully managed to snatch them from us and glanced through them.  Soon thereafter he declared “None of you can make a good caricature of our Commanding Officer.  Your artistic skills need to be toned up.  Look at my note pad and the next time I would like to see a better caricature of our Commanding Officer from you all than this masterpiece of mine

That was when I realised that all those serious note taking by all young officers were much the same and on similar lines to what Captain Desh Raj did!  When I became a Battery Commander and later a Commanding Officer, I ensured that all my Sainik Sammelans were of less than ten minutes’ duration. Possibly, I was mortally scared of my subordinates drawing my caricature! So I resolved not to give them time for the act.

In the Army it was all about check-lists and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and here was I, treading a different path, and relying totally on my memory.  I prioritised and analysed all tasks in my mind and executed them to the best of my ability.  I too had my failures, but my dedication to execute the task always outweighed my failures.  I had a self commitment in that the day I omitted or failed to execute any assigned task, I will accept the consequences and carry a note pad for ever. Well, fortunately, it never got to that.

At the end of our Long Gunnery Staff Course of 13 months, our juniors presented me a mock prize.  You guessed it right!  It was the smallest note pad available in the market with a mention “This will last for your entire military service.”

I was posted as Brigade Major and our Brigade Commander was often peeved with me for not carrying a pad when he summoned me.  He tried all tricks he knew to make me carry one, but failed.  One day his Personal Assistant came to me and said “Brigade Commander has summoned you.  Please carry this pad and pen when you go in.”  I went in to the Commander’s office carrying the pad.  He smiled at me and asked me to take a seat.  He briefed me on ten tasks to be executed and whatever he said I religiously noted them down on the pad.  At the end of it, assuming that he succeeded in making me carry a pad, called for a cup of tea.  The two of us sipped our tea while discussing some mundane matters.  After that I left his office and commenced with the execution of tasks.

After an hour, I got a call over the phone from the Commander. He wanted a progress report on the tasks and I briefed him about the seven tasks completed with three in progress.  At the end he summoned me to his office.  As I entered his office, he pointed at the pad on the table and said “What is this pad doing here?”   That was when I realised that after the discussion over tea, I had inadvertently left the pad on his table.

It is where it is supposed to be.  I do not need it” I said.  Our Commander being a thorough gentleman, even though was livid, asked me “Seriously, please tell me why don’t you carry a pad with you all times like other officers?”  My instant reply was “Only cricket players and women use them.  I am neither.”  (Sorry! My apologies if you deem it sexist).  That was it! Our Commander never asked me to carry a pad ever after.

On assuming command of our Regiment, my orders to all was that no one will take out a pad and start noting down the moment I give any directions or instructions.  They must listen to me with all attention.  In case I felt the instructions were complicated or is likely to lead to any confusion, I or my Staff Officer will issue the instructions in writing with all details.

A few months into command, our Regimental Havildar (Sergeant) Major said “When you start a conversation, my hand first goes into my Left breast pocket.  Then I realise that it is an anathema for you and so bring it down immediately.  Most of our soldiers too face a similar dilemma.

How true was the famous military axiom “It is easier to put in a new idea in a military mind, but it is impossible to take out an old one!

Colonel Kizhakayil Kotiath Arun, Sena Medal


Cadets at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) were divided into four houses named after four Tamil Kingdoms – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava.  I was in Pandya House.  Reminiscing through the good old Sainik School days, a thought came to my mind about my many visits to Chera House dormitory in my Grade 11 days (1978), walking through the back alley of Chola House  dorm.

The most prominent object that would catch my eyes was the wheel of a trolley that lay unmoved in the Chola House back alley.  It was black cast-iron wheels, surely weighing over 80 kilos, from  one of the trolleys used during the construction of Amaravathi Dam.  It had a solid axle with two wheels, akin to the wheels of a railway wagon, but a bit smaller.  It obviously resembled the ‘Barbell with Plates’ used by champion weightlifters.   I used to try moving it and many a time realised that it has not moved an inch since  1975.

These trolleys used during construction of the dam found their resting place behind the old Cadets’ Mess, now the Gymnasium and Cinema Hall on completion of the dam.  The Gymnasium building was the workshop during dam construction days, hence these trolleys were abandoned there.

How did this barbell find its way to the back alley of Chera House dorm?

It was brought in by Veteran Commander Ponnar and his friends who managed to pick up the trolley-wheel from their ‘graveyard’ behind the gym and carried it over a kilometer long trail and brought it to its current resting place in the back alley of Chera House.

The toughest senior cadet I came across during my Cadet days at Sainik School Amaravathinagar was Cadet  KK Arun of 1975 Batch.  He was tall and well built, quiet and unassuming, always with a smile on his face.  I realised he too was a Malayalee who found his moorings at Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu like me.  I hardly ever interacted with him – he was too senior and I belonged to a different House – the Pandyas.

It was a matter of pride, sense of achievement and a dream  for any Cadet at Sainik School to be selected to join the National Defence Academy (NDA).  It involved passing a written examination with a qualifying rate less than a percentile or two.  Then was the five day Services Selection Board (SSB) interview and then a stringent medical examination.  Cadets of the graduating  year (Grade 11 then) used to work out mentally and physically to qualify through this rigorous and grueling procedure.

Cadet KK Arun too had set his aim to join the NDA.  He found the weights and exercises at the gym and the morning Physical Training (PT) inadequate to stress and strain all his muscles.  One often found Cadet KK Arun lifting it with ‘Clean and Jerk’ or a ‘snatch’  in the evenings after the Games Parade.  Whenever I walked past this ‘Barbell’ during my NDA preparation days in 1978, the idea to lift it germinated in my mind.  Obviously, I could only lift it from a side, that too with both my hands. I always had a ‘Hero Worship’ for Arun as to how come he could lift this monster many a times at my age.

Arun joined NDA in 1975 and I followed suit in 1979 January.  We never met since our school days.  Arun remained a fitness freak throughout his Indian Army career.   He was an Instructor at the Commando Wing of Infantry School – an appointment any young officer will even trade his ‘girl friend’ for.

As a senior Major he landed in a coveted appointment – The Adjutant of NDA – an appointment any Cadet who passed out of NDA will sacrifice anything and everything for.  It was a reward for Major Arun’s soldierly qualities, his love for his soldiers, dedication to duty, physical fitness, gentlemanly qualities and so on.

Drill is the bedrock of discipline – thus goes an old saying and it is the Adjutant who meticulously oversees the Drill Training at NDA.  It culminates with  the Passing Out Parade (POP), a spectacular event which marks the  culmination of another successful semester.  POP parade held at the Khetarpal Parade Ground comprises over one thousand cadets bidding farewell to their senior colleagues and will remain etched in the memory of anyone who has witnessed it.  Passing Out Cadets march past the Quarter Deck to the  haunting strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  The Adjutant on his charger accompany the passing out cadets to their Final Steps.

This entire spectacle is the culmination of five months of rigorous drill training imparted by the Drill Instructors under the watchful eyes of the Adjutant.  It is purely an Adjutant’s show.  Please click here to read more about the Academy Drill Instructors.

Who will ever forget the ‘Josh Pep-talk’ delivered by the Adjutant prior to the commencement of POP, exhorting all cadets to put in their best to make it as spectacular as possible.

A young Officer on commissioning  to our Regiment narrated an anecdote.  He was trained by Major Arun at the NDA.  He said “While delivering the customary Pep-talk by the Adjutant, his Charger, a well built white horse, delivered an anal salute.  Major Arun immediately said ‘SORRY’ and continued.  That was our Adjutant, an epitome of decency.”  I felt very proud of our Alma Mater and did not miss the opportunity  to declare with pride in my voice “I attended the very same school from where Major Arun graduated.”

Major Arun served as a Commando Instructor.  He was a real ‘tough’ instructor and was well known for his teaching abilities with love for his students – A real GURU in all aspects.  Some even say the Nana Patekar’s Hindi movie ‘PRAHAR‘ (please click here for more about the movie) was inspired by him. He was awarded Sena Medal for gallantry.


He rose to the Rank of Colonel and commanded a Rajput Regiment.  There are many anecdotes from his army life worth mentioning.  He hung up his military boots and is now settled with his family at Greater NOIDA near Delhi.

I was lucky to come in contact with him, courtesy Colonel TM Natarajan, our batch mate from Sainik School.  It was a rewarding experience sharing our journey experiences and also relent that we two never met after leaving school.

Pongoes


On 13 January 1979 I joined the National Defence Academy, Pune India as an Army Cadet.  National Defence Academy is a Joint Services academy of Indian Armed Forces, where cadets of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force train together.   This is to ensure jointmanship amongst the three services.

We, the Army Cadets, were often referred to as Pongoes or at times Grabbies, especially by the Naval fraternity – both officers and fellow cadets.  It often intrigued me as to from where these terms originated. In fact, I disliked it, like every other Army Cadet at the Academy.

The word Pongo is seemingly used in a somewhat derogatory sense evoking a sense of both stupidity and a bad smell, something like a ‘stinking moron’.  Although a bit derogatory, the word is often used by the Naval guys in a friendly manner when they referred to the Army guys.

It is interesting to go into the etymology of the word.

Pongo is a British slang dating from the mid nineteenth century meaning soldiers. The word itself stems from expressions used by comedians in theaters and music halls to get a cheap laugh. The two most common quotes were “where the army goes the pong goes”, or “when the wind blows the pong goes” – pong meaning stink. This quickly became pongoes meaning soldiers (plural) and pongo meaning an individual.

Another possible explanation is that the soldiers were being likened to a large, hairy, smelly ape called a pongo. The expression is still in use today although not common, confined mainly to those who saw service in World War II or in Korea or who did National Service in Britain while this was still compulsory.  (www.urbandictionary.com)

There is another explanation given in a blog post ‘Be Proud to be a Pongo’ at www.theobservationpost.com. During the Napoleonic wars, the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written pão (this could also be the origin of the Indian street bread – the Pav पाव), and pronounced pong. British soldiers coined the term pongo as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of pong. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time was that sailors lived on biscuit while, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting army soldiers and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of pong might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – meaning bread eaters.

As per Appendix: Glossary of British military slang and expressions, an  Army soldier is referred to as Pongo meaning “Everywhere the army goes, the pong (stink) goes”; derived from the supposed inferior washing facilities in field compared to those on a navy vessel.

Pongo was also used by members of the Royal Navy or RAF.  Sailors noted the similarity of the sand-apes’ colour to the rough brown (khaki) uniform of the British Army.  They believed that a Pongo was an ape that when alarmed did not climb trees, but dug holes and hide itself on the ground reminding the onlooker of the infantrymen.  They said a pongo dug holes and filled it for no rhyme or reason.  However, the only mention of Pongo – the ape – I could find was in National Geographic website which refers to a new orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutanthe rarest great ape species on the planet – found in the high-altitude Sumatran forests.

The term Pongo comes from the days when soldiers were stationed on board ships to protect the Navy when sailing abroad. Usually the first to be sent ashore when the ship docked, soldiers carried out all sorts of different tasks.  One important (the most important… surely) task being setting up of a brewery. The main part of it, the still (apparatus used to distill alcoholic spirits) being called a pongo. Hence the nick-name given to the soldiers who were sent to do the job “send the pongos ashore”. The name seems to have filtered down through the years and is used today by the Navy towards members of the Army.  (www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Pongo)

Our childhood adventure series – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – in its fifth volume, Five Go Off in a Caravan (1946), has Pongo as a main character who is a circus chimpanzee.   In David Foster Wallace’s novel – Infinite Jest – refers to Checkpoint Pongo, a border post of the Concavity near Methuen, Massachusetts.

That is all about the poor Pongoes, but how did they get their nickname Grabbie?

It is said that the poorly fed soldiers on boarding a ship scrambled to the Galley – the ship’s kitchen – and would grab anything and everything edible

Here I would quote from The Sea Regiments published in The Navy and Army Illustrated MagazineOctober 1806, where it says ‘The Marines, in a word, are a military force maintained by the Admiralty for service in the fleet.  “What’s the good of ‘aving leather-necked grabbies aboard ship?”  said an ordinary seaman once to a private of the Royal Marines.  “To keep you flat-footed, ginger-whiskered swamp rats from eating one another!” was the prompt and unexpected reply.’

Another reference to grabbies I found was in the book The Cameronians – A Concise History by Trevor Royle.   ‘Amongst the officers of my Regiment, nice fellows as they were, only a few cared for the Army as a profession.  All were proud belonging to splendidly drilled Light Infantry Battalion – drilled according to the practice of War in the Peninsula, before the introduction of the rifled musket.  They thought themselves to be socially superior to the ordinary Regiments of the Line, which were always spoken of as grabbies.’

In the book Seven Sailors by Commander Kenneth Edwards ‘The history of British Empire is rife with examples of devotion of British sailors to their brothers in army.  These reached their zenith at Dunkirk, not only among the matelots and the grabbies, but all the way down from the Admiral and staff to the over tired infantrymen.

Matelots, a Naval slang, refers to a sailor and originates from 19th century from French, variant of matenot, from Dutch mattenoot meaning ‘bed companion’, because sailors had to share hammocks in twos.

Whatever you call a soldier, especially an Infantry Soldier, Victory is still measured on foot.