Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Recollections of an Eventful Army Tenure

Early childhood days and going to NDA

Lt General Chandra Shekhar

I belong to an extended family of a remote village, in the Kumaon hills (now in the newly formed state of Uttrakhand), at  village ‘Paganna’, in the Pithoragarh district, a distance of a few kilometres from Dharchula on the Indo-Nepal border.

I lived in the village till early 1948. In all these early childhood years, I hardly recall meeting my father, who was away on duty with the Bengal Sappers and Miners, of the Indian Army. During the Second World War, he was posted on the Burma Front and later at Colombo and Singapore with, a Field Engineering Company. My father was the eldest son, with a younger sister and five brothers. One of his brothers was in the police, and died in the partition riots of 1947, at Dehradun. Two others also joined the army, and like him both attained the rank of Subedar Major and Honorary Captains. The younger ones were at home, helping out the family in rearing cattle and farming.

My Father, Late Honorary Captain Daya Krishna Joshi

 I recall, we were with our mother only at night before going off to sleep, as women folk in the hills are extremely busy undertaking a variety of house -hold tasks. Life for women, particularly in the hills during the yester years, was tough. They were involved in work all the time – milking the cows, clearing the cattle shed, maintaining the house, cooking, fetching fire-wood or water, besides knitting and washing. I hardly remember playing with my elder sister or younger brothers, specifically, as we lived as joint-families in the house, together with other cousins and elders. The children played collectively, went to the village school or accompanied the elders at times to the mountain meadows with herds of village cattle. The houses were always two-storeyed with slate roofs. The goth - ground floor - had half a dozen or so cows, two oxen, and a few goats. The senior members of the family had cots and the rest of us slept on the floor. Our grandfather, Shri Bishan Dutt Joshi, was the ‘mukhiya’ of the house. He was also the village “Pradhan’’ and a prominent personality. He was consulted for various ceremonies and rituals and had some exclusive religious beliefs and powers. He could it was believed, supposedly cure some chronic ailments, and even snake bites, by reciting some special mantras like a ‘tantric.’

My Grandfather, Shri Bishan Dutt Joshi

During his young days he used to be a mountain guide to the surveying teams of Survey of India, mapping the watershed on the Indo-Tibet border. After retiring from the army my father wisely decided to move to Dehra Dun, primarily for educational considerations, having realised the difficulties in the village at Pithoragarh .It was a difficult period for us as we had to live in a rented house and manage within his pension from the army. My intention for joining the NDA and getting settled in a job quickly so as to help my father financially, further motivated me to prepare hard. I made it to the NDA selections at the very young age of 15 years in my first attempt .Fortunately, my younger brothers were good in the studies and did well on their own to progress in life. In the initial years I, however, contributed to the family budget and towards clearing the loan taken for building our own house at Dehra Dun. My father lived to attain a healthy life of 93 years, had strong religious beliefs, discipline and high moral values. Though short-tempered, he was generous and well meaning. He took to palmistry and yoga, as a hobby and became highly proficient in both.

The land holdings in our village, as usual were small, on terraced slopes or down in the valley. These produced corn, millets, soya bean, and coarse grain, but in small quantities, barely adequate to sustain the household. We had lots of fruit trees – oranges, pears, walnuts and pomegranates in our compound. There was so much fruit that pears were often fed to the cattle as these could not be marketed or preserved. All the young males were away in the Army or doing some other jobs in the plains. It was part and parcel of what is typically called a ‘money-order economy’ of the hills.This continues to be so even today, as I noticed during my recent trip to Nainital and Ranikhet in May 2012, along with my family, inclusive of the three grand-children. Though these days there are much better roads and good connectivity, there is reduced forest cover, with considerable building activity mostly by outsiders. There is little evidence of investment in educational institutions, or in establishing eco-friendly horticulture activities, unlike in the state of Himachal Pradesh, which has shown tremendous progress and planning .The youth go astray after initial education, as there are no openings other than in the armed forces or small jobs in the plains.

My Father and Mother with all their children (I am standing on the extreme right) 

             The first time we moved out from our village, as a family was in February 1948, when my father took us to Dehradun where he was posted as the Subedar Major in the 501 Field Survey Group. I recall the trek that took us three days to reach the railhead at Tanakpur. There were no roads those days. Instead there were only caravan routes. On these routes, there was a stream of moving people, generally a mix of returning soldiers from leave or their dependents, besides the porters and the column of mules with loads on their backs. This journey, more like an expedition, took us, with porters and ponies, to traditional resting places enroute, like ‘Chalthi’ downstream or the scenic’ Champawat’, where during nightfall, the wayside stalls provided us with food and shelter. The children and the elderly were carried piggyback by the Nepali porters, known as ‘dotiyals’ or mounted ponies with frequent halts for tea enroute or for watering the ponies.

We hardly settled in a house anywhere during my early childhood. In typical army style, we relocated frequently as we accompanied our father on his different assignments, or stayed back in the separated quarters in the last location. In 1949, from Dehradun we went to Bangalore. I was too young then to recollect distinctly where exactly he was posted. Perhaps it was to the Madras Engineering Group Centre. I am only aware of this because I used to watch the obstacle course being used by the men. One day, I along with my younger brother, ventured to try out some of the obstacles when there was no one around. While climbing the suspended ladder secured by my brother, I went for a toss and cut my upper lip. This had to be stitched, giving me a scar on the upper lip as my identification mark. Here again, after a short stay of a few months, we moved to Roorkee, where my father was posted at the Bengal Engineering Training Centre, as the Group Subedar Major, for five long years, with two extensions granted in very exceptional cases due to his excellent work.

I joined the Knox Memorial high School, now converted into a Central School. I studied here till the 8th standard before joining the Government High School Roorkee, from where I completed my 10th standard with first good grades, in 1954. In the meantime, my father had retired in 1953 and moved to Dehradun. I moved to my sister’s house in the Central Building Research Institute, adjacent to the then Thompson’s Engineering College, and now IIT. The early years spent at Roorkee Cantonment gave me a glimpse of Army life and an interest in sports. My education at Dehradun was for a brief 18 months at the DAV College, and gave me an opportunity to prepare for the National Defence Academy (NDA). Being the eldest son, I wanted to settle in a job quickly. Joining the NDA became a career option, only due to the awareness created by the smartly attired cadets of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) seen in the town at Dehradun and by interacting with friends similarly inclined, in the college.

I got through in the UPSC Examinations and joined the 15th NDA Course at Khadakvasla in January 1956. I was assigned to George Squadron, where I spent the next three years in six terms. Each term entailed undergoing composite military and academic training followed by assessment tests. We had a very strict squadron commander from the Navy (Sqn. Ldr. P.S. Bahar), who relegated nearly half the course, (a record at the NDA) to repeat the first term, either due to weak performance in the academics or in the physical tests. The training at NDA for three years was a great learning experience, and gave us a very fine background where we got excellent academic, military and physical education. The best part of the NDA training was learning all the basics – what I call ‘life values’, and interaction with fellow cadets from different backgrounds and schools ranging from reputed public schools to regional and vernacular schools as well as the Military Schools. The cadets with the public school background had the initial advantage in the English language and in the elitist sports such as cricket, riding; tennis and squash. This, however, got neutralized after few months due to personal attention and various sports facilities given to us under competent trainers. The NDA provided excellent facilities for sports, besides teaching, science, humanities, the military subjects and inter-service joint training. I had a natural aptitude for sports and physical training. I learnt quickly and represented the NDA in football and my squadron teams in all the other games.

I moved to the IMA at Dehradun, in January 1959, to join the 24 Regular Course, as a Gentlemen Cadet, along with other successful army cadets from the NDA for specialised army training of one year’s duration and was assigned to be part of the Zojila Company, located in the Kingsley Lines rather than the other temporary accommodation for the rest, being the champion company of the term.
As part of the IMA Football Team (I am standing third from right)
Standing A.S. Sandhu, Satish Murgai, Amar Sinha, a Nigerian GC, J.P.Khanduri, Myself, C.B.Khanduri, Ranjit Rishi
Sitting: Our Football Coach, K.S.Sandhu, E.M.Pun, Officer-in-Charge Football, B.R. Ale, H.S. Wadalia, Manuel Diwan

I was selected for the IMA Football and Hockey teams, and visited NDA to play the yearly tournaments The IMA also provided us facilities for organised outdoor treks and hikes during the term break .I was able to participate and lead a trek into the Garwhal hills to the Valley of Flowers and the 'Mana' Pass, during the summer break in June 1959. In December 1959, I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 2/4th Gorkha Rifles, a distinguished infantry battalion with a rich military reputation and fame. The only reason to join the Gorkha unit was my love for football and the smart Gorkha hat. The battalion had on its roll, names like ex-IMA Commandants, Brigs Kingsley and Collins, besides General Joe Lentaigne, the first commandant of the DSSC Wellington. Lt Gen Moti Sager,was the first Indian Commanding officer of the battalion, as prior to 1947, the Indian officers were not posted to the Gorkha units. The famous author, John Masters, was also from my regiment, the 4th Gorkha Rifles. Looking back at my early formative years, I can see how the opportunities and the quality training at the NDA and IMA, and the professional courses in the Army Institutions, make us into energetic, disciplined and motivated leaders.

On the trek to Mana Pass (I am standing at the back, second from right)


  1. Learnt a lot about our 'personal history' including the abilities of my great-grandfather. Enlightening and interesting to know what life in the hills was like, and the earlier landscape of familiar names and places like Roorkee,Champawat and Dehra Dun.

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