Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Command of 50 I Para Brigade

On 15 September 1985, I was visiting 18 Punjab, one of the forward battalions in the 120 Infantry Brigade, on the Line of Control in the Rajouri Sector in J&K. While on this inspection visit, I received my transfer orders to take over as Commander 50 (I) Para Brigade. The transfer orders came as a big surprise to me as I was not a paratrooper. Also, I had already been in command of the Infantry Brigade for about 18 months. In the normal course, I should have gone for some staff job or an instructor’s appointment following the Brigade Command. I therefore, spoke to my GOC, 25 Infantry Division, Major General R. Sharma (‘Kaku’) to get the orders checked for correctness with the Army Head-Quarters (HQ). 
I was informed that the transfer orders were in order and had been issued due to some special circumstances. I had been personally selected by the then COAS, General K.Sundarji. I was instructed by the Corps Commander, Lieutenant General K.K. Hazari, a senior paratrooper himself, to visit his HQ for briefing, as he was aware of the background. He told me in confidence that some of my predecessors in the Para Brigade were allegedly suspected to have been involved in the mismanagement of funds, and there was a need for a new commander who, while having an impeccable personal record, should ideally also not be part of the fraternity to avoid any preconceived biases or prejudices. And so I embarked upon a new experience and yet another challenge, as I received the great honour of leading the only Airborne Brigade of the Indian Army.   

There were some friends who advised me against accepting the appointment as they believed it might be difficult for me to do the Para jumps at my age. I, of course, dismissed such suggestions as un-soldierly and un-officer like. With my fitness levels and my focus, I was quite confident that I would be able to convert to a combat Paratrooper, although technically, at 45 years, I was overage to do my basic Para jumps. Indeed I had always been fascinated by the Paratroopers, and had wanted to train to be one earlier in my service. In 1961, while with my battalion, I had considered opting for a change to the Parachute Regiment. However, my then CO (Lt. Colonel S. S. Malhotra) had advised me against this, as he felt that transferring from such a fine unit of the 4 GR was not the right thing to do; besides the officer state in the Unit at the time did not allow this option. I had deferred to his advice then, keeping the interest of the Battalion at heart. Now that I could fulfil my long-standing wish while taking on the larger task set to me, there was no question in my mind that I could back down from this rare opportunity, however difficult it might seem to be. 
My interest in becoming a paratrooper actually developed due to my close association with some fine officers of the 2 PARA, who were with me at the Snow Warfare School, Gulmarg, now, known as High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS). Amongst these were the two very accomplished mountaineers and my very good friends, Captains B. P. Singh and A. S. Cheema. Interestingly, 2 PARA was one of the battalions with the 50 Para Brigade, along with 3 PARA and 7 PARA, when I assumed the command of the formation in 1985. Having had to move at very short notice from my previous post, I handed over the command of the 120 Infantry Brigade to my Deputy, Col M. S. Malik, and left for Agra after a quick round of farewell trips to 18 PUNJAB, 10 GUARDS, 4 BIHAR and I JAK LI, and the 168 Field Regiment. 
The initial reaction to my arrival at 50 Para Brigade was obviously one of surprise, with a wary coldness, as the Parachute Regiment is an intimate and close-knit formation, and I was an outsider to them. Some of them thought I may not last long in the elite formation and that I might even decline to do the Para jumps. However my predecessor was a very good friend and an excellent Commander, and he tried to dispel any such fears.  I addressed all the officers of the formation and speedily put such apprehensions at rest. I made my personal priorities very clear to everyone. These were twofold. The first was to earn my Para Wings by doing the mandatory five jumps in the earliest possible duration. I was told that the training period laid down for this was three weeks, followed by aptitude tests. I conveyed to all concerned that the luxury of so much time was not available to me. The Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) team from the U.K was scheduled to visit the Brigade on the 1st of October – exactly 10 days after I took over the command on 21st September 1985. Since I did not believe it would be correct to represent the Para Brigade as the Commander without technically qualifying as a paratrooper, the only option available to me according to my own standards, was to finish my mandatory jumps before the visit, and I was determined that I would do so. 
The deviation of rules beyond the authorised age for the new Para-inductees also needed special sanction. This entailed, to begin with, rendering a certificate to the Indian Air Force (IAF), that I was willingly undertaking Para Jumps, at my own risk. I completed my five jumps within a week after I took over the command, and on 27th September qualified as a combat paratrooper. This was very well received in the Para Brigade. They appreciated my commitment and my willingness to assume the responsibilities and duties of a paratrooper as well as my ability to do so. And so I became part of the proud ShatruJeet[1] family, and an equal among the fraternity of the paratroopers. I had an excellent team with Col J. S. Mahalwar as the Deputy, Gundu Rao as the Brigade Major (BM), and Maj Sheo Nan Singh as the Deputy Quarter Master (DQ). Major Jacob as the GSO2 (Air) and Captain De Cruz as GSO3,organised all the air aspects admirably. 
My First Jump 1985

Here, I would like to relate a small incident on the lighter side. As I prepared to leave for my first night-jump, I asked my sahayak, (soldier aide) who was a Gorkha from 3 Para, what it was like to Para jump at night? He told me with a smile and perfect sincerity, “Sir, it is most comfortable. During the day-jumps I have to close my eyes. But at night, I do not - since in any case I cannot see anything!” Though I knew it was not something that I could ever emulate, this brand of practical philosophy managed to amuse and comfort me even in the midst of my preoccupation with the procedure of the night-jump. 
In fact, it is this cheerful ability to overcome ordinary human fears with an extraordinary trust in the orders of his superiors, in higher forces, and in fate that make a Gorkha soldier so special and such a formidable fighting-man. I was suddenly reminded of an apocryphal story about the toughness of a Gorkha Johnnie, by Colonel John Masters of 2/4 G.R. In his book Bugles And the Tiger, he writes of a Gorkha soldier of the 4th Prince of Wales Own Regiment who, while accompanying a mule column, was hit on his head when the mule got restive and kicked out. The result of this contact was that the mule fractured his leg. As for the Gorkha soldier, apparently all that he suffered was a spasm of momentary annoyance at the mule’s indiscretion. Rebuking the mule for his impatience, he merely adjusted the helmet on his head - and carried on! 
The second important priority for me as the new Commander was to restore the image of the Para Brigade, which had taken a bit of a beating due to the financial mismanagement by some of my predecessors, for which a court of enquiry had already been completed. I addressed all the officers and asked them to remain vigilant. I also decided to start on a clean slate; and that I would sort out the irregularities without any blame games in a systematic manner and with no finger-pointing. I directed them to get on with all the planned events and the training schedule in earnestness. I asked my staff - Colonel Mahalwar (Deputy Commander), Major ‘Gundu’ Rao (BM), Major Sheonan Singh (DQ) and Major Jacob (GSO 2 Air) – to monitor the training schedule, and highlighted my priorities while implementing the training instruction of the Command HQ. This was commenced with full enthusiasm by all the units of the formation. To my great satisfaction, the units responded exceedingly well and the Brigade undertook exercises at brigade and battalion level with full complement including heavy drops of loads, at Gwalior, Ex TRI- SHAKTI at Goa and the Brigade Demonstration drop at the Tilpat ranges. 
Preparing to Jump from an AN 32

The formation also undertook trials of new equipment and other Para specific stores as ordered by the Army HQ. During the early part of my tenure, the new parachute (D5) and the new transport fleet of IL 76 (GAJRAJ) including heavy platform drops had been inducted, which entailed converting the entire Brigade from AN 32 Aircrafts and PTR (M) Parachutes to the newer fleet. This would obviously take time and we decided to train one sub-unit per major unit and platoon strength per minor unit of the Brigade. To begin with, I had to undertake the jumps along with my Unit Commanders, which is done as a customary demonstration jump. However, there were two fatalities in quick succession when a sub unit of 3 PARA was converting to the new parachutes. Initially, we could not understand the reason for this. On detailed examination, we discovered that this was because the D-5 parachute is a two-stage chute, where the smaller chute after the jump initiates the deployment of the main chute. Since the barrel of the 7.62 mm Rifle we were using was longer than the AK-47 (which the Russians use) the chord of the smaller chute of the D5 parachute at times would get entangled with the barrel of  the rifles, so that the main chute would fail to open. This led to the ‘Roman Candle Jump’, as the paratrooper failed to react and deploy the reserve parachute. We only realised this after the second such accident occurred, and after repeated checks of all the equipment, consultations with Russian experts, and simulations of the action of the jump on ground. This led to our decision to thereafter jump only with 9 mm carbines till the Brigade was equipped with the AK series rifles ex import. 
Here, I must mention a very fine tradition that the Para Brigade follows. Whenever there is a fatal accident while jumping, in order to restore the confidence and morale of the Brigade, there is a Command Jump led by the Commander and the Commanding Officers - just as the Indian Air Force does in the case of an aircraft crash. The value of retaining such traditions that the Armed Forces still follow, cannot be emphasised enough. It is the spirit that powers these traditions, and the complete camaraderie that is inculcated and honed through them, which make the Indian Armed Forces one of the finest in the world even today.

[1] The symbol and mascot of the formation is the Shatrujeet


  1. Excellent account, Sir.

    One of the reasons for the lack of awareness about the armed forces amongst ordinary Indians is the relative lack of written material in public domain on the services...blogs and entries such as yours help a common man to gain insight into life in a uniform and various issues which effect a soldier and armed forces.

    Many thanks for your contribution and hope to see more such articles.

    Rohit Vats

  2. beautifully written...and as stated above, it is absolutely essential that such write-ups are there in the public domain to inspire a new generation and to also let us the 'civilians' see through the eyes of a soldier...
    thank you and hats off!!
    Deepest regards,
    Haripriya Joshi.

    P.S. please keep writing more....