Selections @ Devlali

Those were the days when Selections ruled the roost at School of Artillery Devlali.  It was obvious skimming at the highest level of the Regiment of Artillery.

When we passed out of Indian Military Academy in 1982, we were forced to return our Blue Patrols for mere Rs 100 – all because the Artillery version had a red stripe on the trousers’ side which was half an inch thicker than what was provided by Kapoor & Co at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. While officers commissioned to all other arms/ services retained their Blue Patrols, we the Gunners had to return them to Kapoor & Co.

On joining Young Officers Course at School of Artillery, Devlali, every student officer had to get a new pair of Blue Patrol and winter ceremonial uniform or Service Dress (SD) stitched – costing over a thousand rupees those days- only from Selections.  The reasons – obvious. A Second Lieutenant’s pay was less than a thousand rupees a month then.

Service Dress is the style of khaki serge dress uniform introduced by the British Army for use in the field from the early 1902, following the experiences of a number of imperial wars and conflicts, including the Second Boer War. The uniform was originally issued as a field uniform, later designated as SD. Variant of this uniform continues to be worn today, although only in a formal role, as No. 2 Pattern dress by the British Army. Indian Army too continued with a similar winter SD for the officers until 1990s. Today the Indian Army officers wear a similar uniform designated as Dress No. 5SD.

No. 1 Dress , sometimes referred to as ‘blues’ or ‘blue patrol,’ is a universal ceremonial uniform which is almost consistent throughout the British Army. For most regiments and corps, this No. 1 dress consists of a dark blue tunic and trousers. Different units are distinguished by the colouring of the cap, piping on the tunic and of the welts or stripes on the trousers, as well as badges and in certain Cavalry Regiments by the colour of the collar.

Indian Army Blue Patrol consists of a ‘bandgala’ tunic and a trouser. The shoulder pips are embroidered along with ranks on the coat except for armoured corps officers who wear a chain mail along with their ranks on the shoulders.

Veteran Colonel SP Mudholkar

It was not until 1980 when Second Lieutenant SP Mudholkar filed a case in Bombay High Court against the forceful inclusion of a private firm in the Offices’ Mess Bills.  In those days, Mess Bills of various messes at School of Artillery had a serial dedicated to Selections.  You can well imagine as to the patronage Selections enjoyed from the highest levels of the Regiment of Artillery – mostly occupied by officers belonging to the Khlan.

By the time we went to Devlali to attend our Young Officers’ Course, Blue Patrol and SD procurement was done away with – thanks to the orders of Bombay High Court.  But Selections appeared on the Mess Bills – luckily for us it remained at zero value.

Three years later, Lieutenant General Sood who was Commandant, School of Artillery, was appointed the Director General of Artillery – and away went Selections.  The ‘baby’ of the erstwhile higher-ups of Regiment of Artillery was thrown out with the tub, water, soap, and loofah to land in Devlali market. 

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.

Academy Drill Instructors

Drill is the bedrock of discipline” and the Drill square is often compared to a potter’s yard, wherein clay of various hues and textures are shaped into commendable works of art; each piece unique in itself and yet part of a whole. Passing the Drill Square Test (DST) entitles every cadet to the two ‘Ls’ he craves for; the Lanyard and Liberty. Here the ‘Liberty’ is a pass to go out of the Academy on a Sunday.

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Every Defence Service Officer would always remember their Drill Instructors – the Havildar Majors (Sergeant Majors) and Subedars (Warrant Officers) – who taught them the basics of drill. These Drill Instructors have to constantly maintain a high standard of military bearing and a super intense level of performance while they are training Officer Cadets. They are always under the microscopic eye of the Cadets.   They are in a competitive environment against other Drill Instructors of other Squadrons/ Companies to ensure that their Squadron/ Company emerge as champions at drill in the Academy competitions.

Above all, they take on a huge challenge to accomplish, making soldiers out of raw teenagers, coming from different parts of the country, speaking different languages (I could hardly understand Hindi when I joined the Academy), from different family/educational backgrounds.

There is a lot of prestige associated with being a Drill Instructor at the Academy. The training to become a Drill Instructor is tough and the job has long hours and can be extremely demanding. These Instructors, mostly from the Infantry Battalions, are real go-getters and are always looking for opportunities to push themselves. It is one of the highest honours a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO)of the Indian Army can get. Only the most qualified NCOs are chosen to attend Drill Instructor Course and from them the cream is selected to be appointed at the Academies.

The Drill Instructors train the Cadets under the watchful eyes of the Drill Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer) and the Adjutant of the Academy has the overall responsibility for the Drill Training.

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Our course-mates stationed at Mumbai organised a get together on 26 February 2016, to honour our Drill Subedar Major(SM), now Honorary Captain Ghuman Sinh. He was the first Drill SM when we joined the Academy and he was the best Drill SM I have come across in life. As a cadet both at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), I had seen a few more, but he was easily the best. He had a roaring thunderous voice at the Drill-Square, but had the softest tone elsewhere. He had mesmerisingly penetrating blood-shot eyes at the Drill-Square, which metamorphosed into large pools of kindness when outside the square. He was surely a soldier to the hilt, perfect with his drill and above all a great Guru.

SM Ghuman Sinh never believed in punishments. At times we got late for the Drill class by virtue of previous class getting delayed and our drill instructors got into the act of punishing us for being late. SM Ghuman Sinh would reprimand these drill instructors saying “These Cadets do not deserve punishments as they are not responsible for the delay. Treat them like your sons and teach them Drill.”

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One Sunday morning, cycling my way to the Church, (the route was through the Drill Instructors’ Quarters), I met a soft-spoken, humane person, dressed in his civvies, waiting with the NDA cycle near the church. He inquired as to where I was off all alone in a hurry. I said I was off to the church and the mass was to commence in about ten minutes. This person I knew from his bearing and being with the NDA cycle was a Drill Instructor and he spoke to me with a lot of compassion, care and love ( for NDA Cadets, it’s a rare experience). At the end of the conversation, I bid goodbye to him and assuming that he might be a recently posted Drill Instructor, my last question  was – “By the way who are you?” The man said “I am your Drill SM Ghuman Sinh”. I just could not believe my ears and eyes, as the man in the civvies was really humane and I had seen him only in his military uniform until then.

At the NDA, in Echo Squadron, we had Subedar Kalyan Chand from the Dogra Regiment as the chief Drill Instructor with Regimental Havildar Major Karnail Singh Chauhan from the Para Commandos as his deputy. They were really good at their job, thoroughly professional and real hard-task masters.

Two years after my Academy Training, as a Lieutenant, I was leading the Artillery Brigade Athletic team for a competition at Dehradun. On reaching the ground for the march-past, I realised that a button was about to come off my blazer and I needed a needle and thread to fasten it. I looked around and saw SM Kalyan Chand there. He, a roaring salute, me, a bear hug! I then requested him for the much needed needle and thread. The service came in no time, but SM Kalyan Chand insisted on fixing the button himself. He said that it would be a matter of honour for him to do the favours for his cadet. I was pleasantly taken aback by his kind gesture.

In 1990, our Regiment moved to Udhampur and was co-located with a Para Commando Battalion. An officer from the battalion was my neighbour and while conversing with him he said that their SM was Karnail Singh Chauhan. Next day I walked into the SM’s office and he could immediately recognise me. He introduced me to all the Havildar Majors of his battalion who had assembled there as “My Cadet at the NDA, now a Major in the neighbouring Artillery Regiment.” After that the two units developed such a great rapport that they would help each other with troops, vehicles and other resources whenever needed.

Our classmates’ from the 1979 batch of Sainik School Amaravathinagar had a reunion at the NDA on 22 December 2015.  It  commenced with the wreath laying ceremony at the Hut of Remembrance, to pay homage to the martyred officers, who had passed out of NDA. The solemn ceremony was an acknowledgement of the courage, valour and sacrifice of those who served the country. The ceremony had a patriotic impact on everyone present, especially the children.

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The Drill Instructors (Havildar Majors) provided an excellent ceremonial guard for the occasion. At the end of the ceremony, I thanked them and spoke to them to say that the Drill Instructors at the Academies are the most blessed lot of Gurus as they are the only ones to see their wards placed above them on completion of training under them. Hence, they are doing the most divine job and must always strive to impart the best Drill education to the cadets.

Poor Banian or a Wife Beater

One day our teenaged son came up to me and asked me if he could borrow my ‘Wife Beater.’ I lost all my balance and composure and I told him that I neither ever had beaten their mother nor ever intend to do so. I stopped short of telling him that the idea did sprout in my mind a few times, but good senses always prevailed over my impulse. Our son understood my predicament and explained that he wanted the sleeveless white vest I used to wear while in India. Hardly seen anyone wearing it in Canada; could be something to do with the weather and reduced perspiration level.

Our son explained that in the TV show ‘COPS‘ had a lot do with the creation of this word. Every time they showed a guy getting arrested for beating his wife, he was shown wearing one of those sleeveless vests.

Some say that in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, when police arrested a local man (James Hartford, Jr.) for beating his wife to death, the local news stations aired the arrest and elements of the case for months after, constantly showing a picture of Hartford, Jr, when he was arrested, wearing a vest and constantly referring to him as ‘the wife beater.

I always marveled the simple in design white sleeveless vest for all the services it rendered. It never even cared where it ended up after its owner threw it out after clinging to his skin and exploiting it to the hilt. They mostly ended up as a shoe-shining cloth, a mop, a duster, etc. Why should someone discard such good quality pure white cotton cloth?

I never understood why any more layers than absolutely necessary are worn in a hot climate, but I always felt that it absorbed the sweat. It absorbed the sweat, got wet, making me feel a bit uncomfortable at times, but it always stopped the passage of the sweat to the outer layer of the Olive Green (OG) Uniform. The white salt left on the shirt after the sweat dried up was rather un-soldierly. My skin never felt comfortable touching the thick clothed OG shirt. The poor banian maintained an impregnable gap between my skin and the thick shirt.

Some of my friends in the Army wore a banian with sleeves. I always preferred the sleeveless version to avoid ‘Sunday is longer than Monday‘ syndrome. This happens when you wear a short sleeved shirt or T shirt, under which you have worn a sleeved banian and the sleeve of the banian creeps out of the shirt sleeve.

On joining Sainik School Amaravathinagar (TN) at the age of nine, my box had a dozen banians. We had to wear the banian for the morning Physical Training (PT). The aim was to observe the physical development of the body and to ensure that there were no skin infections. This practice of wearing the banian for PT continued on to the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA), till I was commissioned as an officer, after which I started wearing the white T-shirt as was the practice for all officers. The men still wore the faithful banian for PT. I still enjoyed the banian clinging to my skin and ensured that I had it on at all times.

My sahayak (helper) in the regiment was Sepoy Hukum Chand, who served me with at most dedication, love and care. He was my accountant, my personnel assistant, my bodyguard, my radio operator, my buddy in all aspects. He ensured everything for me – from when I got up, my morning tea, my cigarettes, my uniform, my room, my wardrobe, my outfit for the evening party etc. This continued for long seven years until seven year itch erupted – I got married and Hukum Chand refused to be dictated to as to what dress I wore for the evening party. My wife did not approve the suit Hukum Chand had chosen for me to wear that evening as it did not match her saree. My wife won and Hukum Chand lost.

Sepoy Hukum Chand had observed my keenness to wear the banian at all times and every six months he bought a dozen of them from the regimental canteen (he paid for it with my money as he was my accountant and I had no clue about the expenses). On enquiring as to why he bought new banians every six months, he told me that they become yellow on washing repeatedly in brackish water used by the waherman. He used to snip off the shoulder straps and cut open the trunk and it became a shining cloth for him to polish the leather boots and the belt and also the brass badges of rank. He said that the yellow shining-cloth available at the regimental canteen left yellow lint on the OG uniform and the black boots and looked awesome and he had to put in extra effort to clean-up after polishing. Used and many-time washed white banian was best suited for it and one did not have to pay to buy the shining-cloth – What a costly saving?  He had the thin cloth for the leather boots and belt and the thicker ones for the brass.

After five years of postings on staff and various long courses, I returned to the regiment at Sikkim as a Battery Commander. Sepoy Sri Chand was this time assigned as my Sahayak and Hukum Chand was by then promoted to the rank of a Havildar. A few days after I rejoined the unit, Havildar Hukum Chand came to my bunker while I was having my afternoon siesta and started admonishing Sepoy Sri Chand as he had not maintained the Saheb’s bunker as per standard. Hukum Chand started advising Sri Chand about my likes and dislikes, my preference of tea, food, clothes, cigarette, etc. At the end he said “Saheb likes wearing a banian at all times, even while he is sleeping.” That was the time I observed that I was sleeping in my favourite lungi-banian. He added that I preferred wearing the thick banian under the uniform and the thin ones under the civil dress. A preference I never had and may have been cultivated by Hukum Chand to ensure that he had a constant supply of thin and thick cloth for polishing the leather and the brass.

Many a times your preferences and habits are not self-developed, but thrust upon you by the environment.