I was commissioned in the 2nd battalion of the 4 Gorkha Rifles (GR), on 13 December 1959. My only reasons for opting to join the illustrious Gorkha Regiment of the Indian Army were, the impressive looking head-gear donned by them, and my love for football (having played for the IMA Eleven)! One had little awareness of other military matters. The Adjutant of the IMA, in those days, was Major R B Dunne, a rather smart looking personality from 2/4 GR, besides the very soldierly Captain Bharat Singh, who motivated me to join the 4 GR. However, this was not entirely smooth sailing. My Battalion Commander, Colonel A. S. Judge was a ‘Gunner’ and he wanted me to join the Artillery. In the provisional allocation, I was earmarked for the Artillery. This caused me much concern. And made me rush to Capt. Bharat Singh, who reassured me, stating that a senior Lt. General of the 4 GR, was scheduled to visit the Academy, and he would sort out the problem.
There was a hockey match preceding the Passing Out Parade where I was also representing the IMA hockey team. During the introduction of the teams, to my great relief, the senior officer told me of my posting to the 2/4th GR, of which he was also the ‘Colonel’ of the Regiment. I was very happy when, later, I was presented with the rifle green beret, the cane, and the belt of the Regiment and briefed about the location of the unit in the J&K, by my sponsor Capt. Bharat Singh.
The Battalion was located in the high-altitude area in the Kargil sector in Ladakh. Those days in the winter months, the only mode of transport was a lift in the IAF courier service in the Dakota aircraft from Jammu. This had limited capacity, and the flight depended on good weather. There used to be a huge pile-up of the waiting soldiers, in the transit camps at Pathankot and Jammu. Pathankot, those days was the railhead, and accordingly I reported to the transit camp at the railway station for onward move to my unit. Along with other transients, we were assigned to the Officers Lorry, in a 3-Ton convoy for further despatch to the Transit Camp at Jammu. Here, at, the Jammu Transit Camp, we were manifested for airlift to Kargil. Though officers were given priority, the wait could vary from days to weeks. It all depended on the availability of aircrafts, and the weather. Many a time, there were last minute cancellations or diversions enroute due to inclement weather. After a wait of nearly 10 days, I was lucky to get a lift in the Dakota flight to my first military duty-station, to begin my long and eventful journey in the army.
The officer commanding the Rear elements of the Brigade at Jammu was also from our unit, (Maj. S. S. Tomar), a very lively person who made the daily routine interesting and instructive, besides giving us some first-hand information about life in the unit. The special clothing at Kargil was a padded jacket commonly called ‘Coat Parka’ and special gumboots for snow, besides extra issue winter clothing and the sleeping bags. The battalion HQ was located close to the air field, on the banks of the River Suru and the sub-units were occupying the heights on the Line of Control (LoC). This was my first experience staying in the underground dug-outs, known as living-bunkers, with kerosene fired bukharis for heating. After the initial three weeks of Orientation training at the Battalion HQ on the functioning of a unit, learning first hand, the duties of an infantry rifleman and a junior commander, I was asked to quickly learn Nepali as all the communication with the men was in Nepali. Thereafter I was posted to A Company as a Platoon Commander, on the LOC at the height of 12800 feet, opposite the famous 13620 feature. ‘A’ company had a very senior company Commander, in Major H. K. Shepherd, who was also officiating as the second-in command of the battalion. He was very thorough and meticulous in training and administering the men. He knew his men well and would maintain their personal records of the service and would insist that his platoon commanders do the same.
The company was deployed on the LoC, on five posts at altitudes varying from 11 to 13000 feet high. I was made the Officiating Company Commander and sent up to the pickets. Here I had the important responsibility of the security of the border, besides learning the battle procedures and minor tactics. I must acknowledge the good basic grounding given to me during the first few weeks, by the Adjutant, the QM, the Senior JCO, the Company Commander and the Second-in-Command on all the details, the regimental history, the customs and traditions of the Regiment. The Rifle Drill and Guard Mounting procedure, the management of Arms and Ammunition, and the range firing drills, may appear routine. But they were important for a fresh subaltern. The mess etiquette and dinner night procedure, despite being in the Field, had to be learnt, and periodically observed by those at the battalion base.
I was sent on a long range patrol of ten days during the winter where we were to be administratively self-contained, visit villages in the area with essential medicines and also practice snow-craft. I recall my attachment for a week’s patrolling cadre, with 1st JAK LI, at Drass, then commanded by Lieutenant Colonel M. M. Ismail, of 8 GR, who was a true professional, loved outdoors, and shikar. I enjoyed the training outdoors under him, the night marches, navigation by stars and the study of the, natural flora and fauna of the area. Incidentally, many years later I met Colonel Ismail’s son, an outstanding officer, commanding a Gorkha battalion in the Kashmir valley. The duties in Kargil were challenging and interesting except during the time I was located at the HQ. The late nights in the Officer’s Mess, were most difficult for young officers, where most of the senior officers got involved in playing continuous games of bridge and a few of us had to sit out for our dinner beyond midnight. The Field concessions helped save money for kitting, by making essential ceremonial military dresses and also contribute regularly to the family budget at home.
In March 1960, I was asked to come down to the Base from the forward posts, as a vacancy on the Officer’s Physical Training Course (OPTC) had to be subscribed within the next three weeks. I was asked to do pre-course training and the Adjutant, then, Captain (Later Brigadier) Vijay Badhwar, lectured me that “In the 2/4 GR, nobody, comes back with less than an excellent grade”! He impressed upon me that I must perform well on the course, to retain that reputation. Fortunately, being fit and a good sportsman helped and I returned with ‘Alfa’ Grades. This good beginning gave me the necessary motivation and the confidence, and I continued to obtain the Instructor Grades, in all my subsequent training-courses: Weapons, Mechanical Training, Junior Command, Senior Command, Staff College, Higher Command and the National Defence College.
After a few months, the battalion moved to the Kupwara sector in the J&K Valley and I was sent on the snow warfare course at Gulmarg. I learnt to ski and was retained as an instructor for the winter of 1960-61. This was indeed a great opportunity for me to learn mountain and snow craft. I made some fine friends who were also great mountaineers – Everest climbers Colonel N. Kumar, Jagdish Joshi, Avtar Cheema and Harsh Bahuguna, who were excellent skiers too. As I look back to the yesteryears, spent in the Field, there is great improvement in the pay and allowances, in the logistics support and the quality of life and service conditions – as it should be. However, there is also some dilution in the maintenance of high physical standards and moral values, which needs to be restored in a professional army like ours, by the officer cadre.
The Battalion moved to Mhow (Madhya Pradesh) as the demonstration battalion and was also earmarked to go to the Congo, on a UN mission. I was appointed the Battalion Mechanical Transport Officer and the Football Captain. We trained hard and won the formation football tournaments. I was also selected to lead the Southern Command Team in the Services Football who had three India level players in Havaladar Trilok Singh, Arvinder and Ethiraj. The Chinese invasion of 1962 brought the battalion to Dehra Dun, for a three months commando training for special operations, cancelling the projected UN mission. We moved to Sikkim in February 63. In the meanwhile I was posted to HQ 20 Infantry division as the GSO (3) Ops and was selected as the Aide to the GOC, Major General Kamta Prasad MC and later Lt General J T Sataravala, at a rather young service of three years. This was a new learning phase for me. The Commando training at Doon was imparted by some of the finest Officers who had been trained at the Ranger’s School in the USA and focused on survival behind the enemy line, the ability to operate by night, the ‘buddy system’ and junior leadership. This was to prove of immense value to all Ranks and to the younger officers in particular.
Although, in the Army there are many who feel that a young officer should do more of the Regimental Soldiering for the first 5 to 7 years, there are others like me, who was moved on staff appointments very early, with just three years’ service. I personally gained by the early move to the staff appointments, as I had to be on my own and learn new professional matters and interact with officers of different Arms and Services. This gave me a much better professional exposure. I made up for the lack of some important courses such as the Platoon Weapons Course, by surrendering my annual leave and going on the course instead. This may not have been possible if, like some of my batch-mates, I had got married too early. I think officers should refrain from getting married for the first five years, to devote full time to soldiering, and do well on the professional courses, as this would facilitate their future prospects in the service career.
Visits to the Recruitment Areas of the soldiers and understanding their environment, background and language, is another issue, which is not being followed strictly in most of the regiments today. Some of the older battalions like mine encourage officers to trek to explore the soldier’s habitat during annual leave. I remember visiting the recruitment area in ‘Western Nepal’, after the, 1971 War, to meet the War Widows and the pensioners, despite a wedding in the family, which had to be missed as the tour dates were clashing with the event. For this, I was never forgiven by my wife, Aruna, as it was her sister who was getting married. But the Regiment was always a priority over the family, as per the old norms.