Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Early Formative Years

The Indian Army has undergone many changes for the better in its equipment profile, training philosophy, and logistic capabilities, although it has also been inevitably affected, to some extent, by the declining values in our society. Today, there is proper planning for the career development of officers and soldiers. In the early sixties, before the Indo-China war of 1962, and soon thereafter, one learned to live with frugal resources and allowances. The national priorities at that time, including the border settlement, were planned to be resolved by an emphasis on diplomacy rather than military power, and the Army was being employed on tasks such as housing and road construction rather than training for war. The Armed Forces were thus deficient of weaponry and equipment, which were generally of old vintage and often obsolete.

It was a challenging time in more ways than one. There were shortages in manpower, both of the officer cadre and other ranks. The Gorkha battalions had a good mix of middle-level officers inducted from various regiments of the Indian Army. This was due to the fact that, till August 1947, Gorkha units were officered entirely by the British. Their replacements were ‘old-timers’ with a variety of interest and traits. Some transferees were good professionals, whereas a good number were only interested in drinking and socialising. The young officers were left to do various tasks or sent on multifarious routine duties. These varied from unit administration to the formation Head Quarter tasks, such as collection of classified documents, cash from the banks, and so on. In fact, even a sum of Rupees 10,000 had to be collected or deposited by an officer with an armed escort! In short, there was what may be termed wasteful work with little planned routine. However, these had useful pay-offs as well – primarily of honing the ability of improvisation. We learnt to do all sorts of tasks, and accept challenges as they came. Fortunately, our unit had a very fine Commanding Officer in Lt. Col. R. S. Rai, and a competent team of officers. My senior subalterns were Brigadiers (then Lieutenants) Nripad Gurung and Raj Negi., both outstanding officers.

Today, very rightly, units try to give pre-course training, and systematically prepare the Young Officers – YOs as they are referred to – for likely missions, although with some inevitable interruptions. Here, I wish to mention that many a time, events are not well planned for all of us, but sincere hard work and commitment can always help to make up. It should, therefore, be our effort to put in our best whatever the circumstances, rather than to get disheartened by a perceived lack of opportunity or lack of pre-course training. For instance, I got the opportunity to do the PT Course, the Snow Warfare Course, and the Mechanical Transport Officers’ Course, all within the first two years of service – without either much planning or preparation time. Fortunately for me, by dint of hard work and some good luck, I earned excellent grades in all the courses, which helped me professionally and gave me the confidence to keep up. However, on the flip side, I missed doing the basic weapons course – which was generally considered a must – as the vacancies were fully utilised and were never surrendered by any unit.

Though we did not naturally think of it as such then, but now as I look back at what constitutes my personal history, I find that I was fortunate to have personally witnessed or participated in events which may be termed historic in the context of our country as well as the larger context of the subcontinent. I had barely completed three years’ service when I was posted out as the GSO 3 (Int), of a Mountain Division located in Sikkim. The GOC, Major General Kamta Prasad MC, was also from the 4 G.R. He selected me as his ADC and I continued as the Aide for over one year. This was not as easy an appointment as it may sound. The GOC had a remarkably short temper. He had been a Japanese POW during the War, and that experience might explain his lack of patience with his fellow-men. His staff had the challenging task of negotiating his temper while doing their duties. Many of them did not come out unscathed from this experience. However, this appointment gave me new opportunities for professional education. I had to travel extensively over the divisional sector. This, though arduous, was exciting. The road net-work, beyond Gangtok was rather undeveloped. We had an unmetalled one-ton road, leading to the Nathula Pass, and another similar road axis to the North Sikkim. The deployment was new and involved frequent changes. There was inadequate winter clothing and equipment. The preparation of defences involved digging of defences on the ridge lines, astride the axes, and on the water-shed.

Apart from the valuable professional exposure on these matters, there were other positive experiences that I had there. Sikkim those days was a protectorate of India and much prettier, with a smaller population. As the ADC, I not only had the occasion to meet the King (Chogyal) of Sikkim, but also the privilege of attending his wedding to Hope Cook, a pleasant and pretty American lady who, contrary to the stereotypical image of Americans, was of very slight build. The wedding was solemnised in the Palace with the traditional Buddhist rituals by the senior monks, followed by a dinner for few select invitees. The King had studied at Darjeeling, and was a jovial and pleasant person. He used to stammer slightly, but whenever I had the occasion to converse with him, I found him well informed and easy to speak with.

After my stint as the ADC, I was reverted as the GSO 3, at the Divisional Headquarters for two years. My annual leave saw me heading not for home or holidays, but to the Platoon Weapons Course conducted at the Infantry School, Mhow. Since I had not done this Course, which is mandatory for an Infantry Officer, I volunteered to do so during my leave, by obtaining an additional vacancy. On completion of the course, I re-joined my unit in March 1965. It was then located in North Bengal. Lt Col (later Major General) B. D. Kale was the commanding officer. He was an excellent trainer and ran a very happy team. He was extremely fit and considerate. During his command, our battalion stood first in the 50 km long route–march in the division.

After the conflict in Kutch in 1965, and before the 1965 Indo-Pak War, there was a lull in the tensions and leave was reopened. I decided to utilize the leave period fruitfully. As soon as my family could complete the essential preparations, my wedding, which had been arranged with Aruna Ghildiyal about a year ago, was held at Dehra Dun on 7 July 1965. Incidentally, Major (now Lt. General) T. P. S. Rawat, another officer of my Regiment, also got married on the same day as us, and in the adjoining neighbourhood. But, naturally, I could not attend his wedding and vice versa. In September 1965, 2/4 G.R. was deployed on the East Pakistan border fully geared to undertake the offensive across. However, the hostilities never broke out in the East.

Aruna and I at Naintal, soon after our wedding

After the 1965 War, the battalion moved to Jhansi in central India. Before we got settled fully, the unit was moved to the training area to prepare for the Corps exercise. We also got a new commanding officer, Lt. Col. V. B. Sathe. Though highly professional in most matters, he rather liked his drinks. Not only that, he also expected everyone else to share his liking. Anyone who failed to join in with the necessary enthusiasm became the butt of his jokes. There were some young officers, like Capt. R. Nath, and Capt. Umesh Saklani, who by temperament or because of family considerations were originally strict tea-totallers. They took to drinking – or pretended to do so at least while in the presence of the CO in sheer desperation. I suppose this was also some sort of education. Though certainly not pleasant for those who do not have a taste for hard drinks, it must have helped to develop qualities of forbearance or toughness in us – presumably akin to the effects of ‘ragging’ that many undergo as part of their college education.

The training involved long marches by night, outflanking population centres and moving cross-country and setting up camps away from roads. I recall one instance in the camp when we had to send search parties to locate Capt. Saklani who got lost while coming to dinner in the mess. He later confided to friends that he was partially night-blind and missed the mess-tent by going around for more than hour in the pitch dark night, within a short distance of 500 yards. It is not unusual to lose your way if there are no landmarks or if you are disoriented in the dark, even for those with perfect eyesight.

The training schedule was very hectic and as the officer–in-charge training, I had to ensure that the schedule was implemented. I was made in charge, despite my relatively few years of service at that time, because the officer who was second-in-command was sent off on duty to the controlling higher HQ as the Officer Commanding Bank Control – an ad-hoc HQ for the river crossing organisation – by Col. Sathe. The reason for this was personal rather than any other, since the two senior officers did not get along very well with each other. While at the field training, there was no question of any visits to the unit location at Jhansi. They were simply not allowed. Neither was any telephonic or other communication. So it was that when our son, Vivek, was to be born at the Military Hospital (MH) in Jhansi, I was on exercise, and Aruna was all by herself. Fortunately for us, the first lady, Mrs Kamal Sathe, was very considerate. Also, unusually for those days, she had a car and could drive. She took my wife to the MH in January 1968, as Aruna still recalls, in her blue Morris Minor. I only came to know about the birth of my son on my return from exercise! This may sound a trifle unusual, and even perhaps unwarranted, in these days. However, our battalion has always maintained its traditional spirit of trust, cooperation and camaraderie, and the bond as well as the responsibilities of a family. This is the reason we were never worried about timely help, and could concentrate on our professional tasks to the exclusion of even family matters.

Aruna with the children
Before participating in the important Corps training exercise (Ex Betwa) at Shivpuri-Jhansi area, I had been detailed for the Junior Command (JC) Course at MHOW, again an unplanned but a welcome change. This is considered an important course, and a pre-requisite to taking the Staff College Entrance Examination. I worked extremely hard and managed to do well on this course, and later I got posted as an instructor to the JC Wing, at the Infantry School, at a rather young service of nine years. This was the most rewarding tenure, both professionally as well as personally. We were able to spend time together as a family at Mhow, and I could also study for the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) Entrance Examinations. The tenure at the JC Wing was professionally useful, as one got the opportunity to operate with all Arms and Services at the functional level.  We were also blessed with our second child, Anisha.

While at the Infantry School, Mhow, when I had completed only half the tenure and was in the midst of my preparations for DSSC examinations, I was in for a surprise. I was selected for a posting to Nepal to head the Welfare Wing of the Indian Mission at Pokhara. I had to regretfully decline, as I was keen to take the competitive examinations for the Staff College, which I subsequently cleared successfully, and moved on to do the Course at Wellington.
Aruna and I at the DSSC, Wellington with Mrs. Datta, Mrs. Khanduri and Mrs. Shukla

The Hockey Team at DSSC, Wellington (I am standing first from left),
Also in the picture:
Major J.S. Rao standing second from right, Major G.S. Somal, sitting extreme left, Major B.S. Randhawa, adjacent to Commander (later Admiral) Khurana, the Officer-in-charge Hockey, and extreme right, Major Kharbanda

On completion of the course, I got posted to my unit, 2/4 GR in Ladakh in the Karu Sector. Shortly after, we were caught in the tumultuous events of the 1971 War. During this time, the battalion under the command of Brig Prem Gupta, was moved to the ‘Samba Sector’ and participated in the1971 War as part of the 1 Corps. I was holding the ‘Screen’ position’ in front of the DCB obstacle, in the 168 Infantry Brigade Sector with the A Company group. We were subjected to frequent shelling by enemy medium artillery but we suffered no damage due to our evasive action of siting defences away from the village.

The buildings, (already vacated by the villagers) at ‘Nanga’ village astride the screen position, were a prominent landmark (which we had taken care to avoid), and did suffer damage from the shelling. During the initial phase of the events, our battalion provided the firm base and flank protection for the planned 54 Infantry Division offensive. This was a defensive task, and it denied the battalion an opportunity of going into attack, which was eagerly awaited by all ranks. Thereafter, when the enemy was expected to launch a counter-attack with his reserves, the entire brigade was asked to remain on the defence. The anticipated enemy counter-offensive on the defensive position never came, which 168 Inf Bde with 16 CAV was supposed to absorb, and before the Brigade could be employed for further tasks, the War was over. Thus, the battalion missed out on going into the real battle, which is the ultimate dream of all fighting units of the army.

After the war, I was moved to the North East, as the Brigade Major (BM) in 61 Mountain Brigade, which had just reverted from the Bangladesh-Chittagong hill tracts to the area of Lekhapani in North Assam. The tenure with 61 Mountain Brigade took us to Nagaland and Manipur for the counter-insurgency operations in areas of Tamenglong, Mao-Maram and Ukhrul. Brig K. P. Pande, MVC, was the Brigade Commander. He had proved to be an excellent Field commander in the Bangladesh War. All the three battalions in the Brigade fought well in the war and earned many gallantry awards: 13 Kumaon, 7 Rajputana Rifles, and 2 JAT. The Brigade Commander’s attitude helped the units to perform exceedingly well in the battle. He had the great qualities of reposing trust in, and delegating appropriately to, his subordinates. These are important lessons that all senior officials in all branches of public and private service would do well to emulate.

Under our Brigade Commander, we were involved in counter-insurgency operations, which involved Cordon and Search, Patrolling, and Road–opening operations. All these tasks were dependant on receiving appropriate Intelligence inputs– which was generally neither timely or accurate! But we did the best we could. I found the people of Manipur to be highly educated, cultured and friendly. If they could resolve their suspicions amongst each other and their divisions on tribal loyalties more productively, I believe there is no aspect that they cannot achieve. It is sad that till today, in the absence of a political solution and appropriate economic development, the insurgency in this part of our country continues.

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