Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Mango Tree

You may wonder as to why I have chosen such a title for this little incident. I do not want to let the cat out of the bag and spoil the suspense. I'm sure that by the time you finish reading this piece you will know how the mango tree comes into this story. I mentioned in the beginning that this was a ‘little incident’. But it surely was a watershed in my life.

In 1992, I was happily ensconced in the College of Defence Management at Secunderabad as a member of the Faculty of Organizational Behavior and teaching the student officers of the armed forces and central administrative and police services of Long Defence Management Course. Although initially there were surprised looks from the them when they realized that I was a medical doctor from the Army Medical Corps (AMC) teaching them management subjects, soon I was accepted by these highflying senior officers of the armed forces, administrative services and police services who were the students attending the course. Secunderabad is a beautiful cantonment to live and with my two daughters studying in higher classes and the wife employed as a teacher we, as a family, where pretty comfortable.

It was then that the Director General Medical Services (DGMS) of the Indian Army decided to pay a visit to our institution. I must digress a bit here and speak a few words about this general. He was a strikingly handsome man with an extremely fair complexion. A refugee from Pakistan, he had built up his career by sheer hard work and sharp intelligence, which he was endowed with. He was known for his honesty and uprightness and was a notorious and tough disciplinarian. Having had the privilege of knowing him earlier, I was aware of the caring and loving core that this general had carefully concealed under layers of haughty and imperious behavior. My family and I were fortunate to have experienced the compassion and empathy, which this man and his wife were capable of, on more occasions than one. But those instances will form the nucleus for another write up. Reverting back to this incident, the General was received with all the formality and protocol at the College. Being the only AMC officer in the faculty [there was never such an ‘aberration’ before or after me in the College of Defence Management!] I was called by the Commandant, a rear admiral, to meet the General.
After the routine perfunctory small talk the General said, “I want this chap in the Army Headquarters to help me. Admiral, I hope you don't have any problems in letting him go.”
The commandant answered, “Sir! How can I say no to you? But I will leave it to his discretion whether he wants to move or not.”
Without even looking at my face, leave alone asking me, the General said, “OK! That's settled then. The moment I get back to Delhi I will get the necessary orders issued. This will not be a regular normal move because I want him at the earliest.”
Summoning all the courage I could muster, I asked the General as to what was the appointment that he wanted me to join. The handsome face twitched and the left eyebrow was raised. “Something befitting your qualifications and something which will help you in your future. Does that satisfy you?” Obviously, I had no answer and I said, “Yes Sir!”

And so it was that in October 1992 I found myself in the Army Headquarters as the Director of Medical Services [Personnel] in the Office of the DGMS of the Army. In the pecking order of appointments this was the most sought after appointment and was supposed to be the grooming ground for the future DGs of the AMC. This was because the charter of duties of this appointment entailed planning and controlling the postings, promotions and training of more than 5000 doctors of the Indian Army. It was a glamorous appointment and I, like most of the officers, always wanted to hold this appointment. I was acutely aware that the extraordinary interest the General took in moving me from Secunderabad to take over this appointment made me an object antipathy and envy to most of the senior staff members working under the General. He too cautioned me about this undercurrent but told me not to bother about it.

As a matter of routine the DGMS used to be on tour at least 10 days in a month. This was required because the Army medical units and military hospitals were spread out all over the length and breadth of India. Whenever he used to proceed towards a particular region or place it was our duty as his staff officers to give him enough information about the details of the medical units or military hospitals in that area so that he was able to give decisions to the problems posed to him there. In Army parlance this information was called ‘brief’. The majority of problems told to the DGMS during these visits concerned the medical officers. So it was my duty to ensure that he was fully ‘briefed’ and buttressed with enough details in hard copy pertaining to the manpower situation in the units that he was likely to visit. The DGMS used to schedule his visits in such a way that he could utilize the weekends of Saturdays and Sundays and be back in his office on Monday morning.

During April 1993, the DGMS made a trip to the Eastern Command of the Army and, as usual, he returned back on Monday morning. The arrival of the General in the office was always accompanied by a flurry of activity from the time his limousine reached at the front gate. He had to necessarily pass in front of my office on his way to his office and every time he did that he used to either wave his hands or wink at me in acknowledgment of my formal military greetings. When he came back after this trip to the Eastern Command I, as usual, expected the same reciprocation from him when he passed the door of my office. But he did not even care to look at me and proceeded to his office accompanied by his ADC and other personal staff. Within a few minutes the ADC was with me and he said, “Sir! The ‘Old Man’ is quite upset about the details that you had given to him. It seems the data given was not accurate and he had to cut a sorry figure in front of the senior officers of the units that he visited. He is very angry and is calling for a meeting of all senior officers within half an hour.”

I was quite taken aback by this revelation. I called my staff and went through the ‘brief’ I had given to the DGMS prior to his tour. I checked and rechecked all the data and found them to be accurate. I was just about finishing this check with my staff when the call came from the secretary to the DGMS that the meeting was being convened in five minutes. Formal meetings in the Army follow a set pattern especially if held in the senior most officer's office. The attendees make their entry as per their seniority and rank in descending order; and exit also likewise. As I was the junior- most director it was my lot to enter last and also leave last from the meeting. After we had assembled, the DGMS started the meeting by stating that he was generally unhappy about the situation that he saw in most of the units he visited in the Eastern Command. From his demeanor it was clear that he was angry. Incidentally, this gentleman was also quite infamous for his brittle temper. He launched into a tirade against the way his headquarters and we all were functioning and stated in no uncertain terms that he was displeased with it. Then he said, “I am particularly annoyed about the personnel section. The information given to me in my ‘brief’ by the director was inaccurate and incorrect. I cannot accept such a shoddy work”.

I do not know even now as to what snapped in me. Perhaps my huge ego was the dominant cause. Or perhaps it was caused by my knowledge that all the statistics and figures that I gave him in the ‘brief’ were accurate and correct. Whatever it was, I immediately raised my hand and said that I wanted to clarify this point. Seated as I was in the back row, being the junior most director, the DGMS had to strain his neck to look at me. He said, “I have not finished. And I do not like to be interrupted”. He went on asserting that my department has become next to useless as far as he was concerned because he could not rely on the figures given by me. That statement was the proverbial last straw on my back. I stood up and said, “Sir! I HAVE to clarify this point right now”. The General almost shouted, “Sit down!” I said, “Sir! I'm not going to sit down till the time you hear me”. All other officers present were appalled at this insubordination from me, and that too to the DGMS himself. Most of them were inwardly very happy that, as I was the personal choice of the DGMS and therefore his blue-eyed boy, I was getting into an argument with him.

The DGMS became red in his face and said, “This meeting is over!” All of us stood up, put on our caps, saluted and had to get out of the office one by one in the same order of seniority. Therefore, the senior most amongst us who was a major general, left first followed by other senior officers. My turn was the last. And by the time I gave the obligatory salute before leaving the DGMS ordered, “You stay”. I stood there stiffly at attention. The DGMS came from behind his desk and sat down in the sofa and asked me to sit across him in another sofa. I sat on the edge of it without removing my headgear. He said, “Take off your bloody maroon cap and relax!” I did that and made myself a little more comfortable in the sofa. But I was still bristling with anger and I was prepared to tell them that I had enough and wanted to be posted out from his staff. He asked me,  “Tea or coffee?” I said, “Thank you Sir! But I do not want anything”. “Have a bloody cup of tea right now with me. And that's an order!”

Soon his personal, liveried bearer served the tea in his favorite silver tea set. The DGMS sat sipping his tea without a word to me. I too was doing the same and there was an uncomfortable silence between us. Suddenly he asked me, “Prem! You grew up in Kerala didn't you?” Surprised as I was by this question I managed to answer, “Yes Sir”. “There must have been lot of mango trees in your house”. I said, “Yes Sir”. “Did you ever see the mango trees when they had mangoes?” “Yes Sir”. “Have you ever noticed that the branch with the maximum number of mangoes always bends lower than the others?” It took me a few seconds to comprehend his drift. And when the import struck me, I was poleaxed. I sat there with the teacup in hand staring vacantly at him. Realization hit me like a ton of bricks. And suddenly the DGMS said, “Prem! I can see that you have understood what I wanted to convey. You have everything going for you with your qualifications, age, honesty, smartness and hard-working nature. I expect you to sit in my chair as the DGMS of the Indian Army in the years to come. That was the reason that I brought you here from Secunderabad. But don’t be so arrogant. You are like the fruit–laden branch of the mango tree. You have to stoop down lower than others. And if you do that no one can stop you from achieving what you have set out to achieve.” I am not ashamed to admit that tears welled up in my eyes. The General saw this and give me a tissue. He too became a bit emotional and told me that I should forget about what happened but take this lesson home.

This was a turning point in my life. I started making conscious efforts to become more humble than I ever was before this incident. It was not easy; brought up that I was in the Army as a paratrooper who believed that we were ‘Men apart, Everyman an Emperor!”. But, over the years, I have been able to practice this facet and I can tell you that it has always been beneficial to me.

Even now when I am writing this, years after this incident occurred, I remember this mentor of mine with tear filled eyes and pray that in the heaven where he is now he is still mentoring small people like me.

The Mechanic

There are some people who fancy themselves to be wizards with all kinds of machinery. They take delight in knowing the intricacies of all kinds of equipment. What better way than stripping open the machine or equipment, seeing how each part is fitted and aligned and then reassemble it. In most cases these people can be, at best, called as ‘serious amateurs’, even though they consider themselves to be the mantle bearers of Thomas Alva Edison. This story is about such a person who epitomized this entire gang. Or perhaps, he was an extreme example.

In the early part of 1970 I was posted to the military hospital at Ambala. To the six or seven of us who were general duty medical officers [GDMOs], it was part of our duty to give ‘medical cover’ to the units located in the vicinity of Ambala. ‘Medical cover’ in Army lexicon meant that we had to go and stay in that unit and look after the troops who report sick. I had been to several such ‘Temporary Duties’ when one day I was ordered to proceed to ammunition depot located at a place called Lalru. Because of the inherent danger to the public in case of any untoward happenings, all ammunition depots are usually located as far away from habitation as possible. This ammunition depot was a large one catering to the needs of the Western Command of the Indian Army. It takes a special breed of troops from the Army Ordnance Corps to man these depots. Why? Because, firstly, as mentioned earlier, these depots were always located quite far away from any major town/city. Secondly, the ever–present danger of accidents caused by the huge quantity of live ammunition of various kinds stored in these depots made the troops manning them extra sensitive to the aspect of safety. I found that most of these guys were almost paranoid about strictly adhering to all kinds of regulations, instructions etc., sometimes stretching to ludicrous extremes. Perhaps, this is the reason that ensures safe storage of ammunition in the Indian Army. Such depots are scattered all over India and their safety record has been exemplary, to say the least.

I reached this ammunition depot one Sunday afternoon and was accommodated in the Officers’ Mess. As I was aware of the detached location of this Depot I had taken my motorcycle along with me so that I will be able to make occasional forays to Ambala and Chandigarh because Lalru was located midway between these two cities. During dinner that night, I met the officers dining in the mess. There were about eight of them of various ranks from second lieutenant to major. Although everyone appeared to be in high spirits I could sense an underlying vein of isolation and inward–looking behavior amongst most of them.

My work tending to the troops who were sick started in earnest next day, being Monday. After the office hours and the lunch in the mess I reached my room back for the afternoon siesta, which the Army enforces on everyone. The officer occupying the suite of rooms adjacent to mine was a captain and he was a Sikh. He was jovial and took special efforts to make sure that I was comfortable in the mess. He was also the owner of a ramshackle scooter that had seen much better days. Most of the spare time of this gentleman was spent in tinkering with this vintage piece of equipment. Since personal conveyance was not needed to go to the office, the scooters and motorcycles were used exclusively for the periodic visits to the cities mentioned before. When the day came for the captain to go to either of the cities, starting this scooter was a big job. After removing the side panels and making some adjustments inside the engine, the kicking started. On average, it took about 25 to 30 kicks for the engine to start. This was followed by an unholy racket and emission of copious quantities of blue–black smoke from the exhaust pipe. The decibel level of the engine and the thickness of the smoke came down slowly after the captain had revved up the engine a few times. Once this stage was reached he pushed it out of the stand and got on it. Still creating unusual sounds that indicated some major fault in the engine, the scooter carried its master wherever he wanted to go.

After we became friendlier one day I asked the captain as to why he is sticking on with this ancient contraption. He said that this was the first vehicle he bought after getting commissioned in the Army and therefore he had an emotional attachment to it. He claimed that the scooter had never let him down anywhere and that the ride in that scooter was better than any other new and fancy machines. He also added that it was his knowledge of the machine and the constant attention he pays to it that kept the scooter running.

So it was a bit of a surprise to me when one day the captain announced that a new scooter has been allotted to him from the Canteen Stores Department [CSD]. To those of you who do not know, in the 60s and early70s the choice of scooters in India was limited to two brands. Both were of Italian origin being assembled in India. To obtain an allotment from the CSD was in itself akin to getting a blessing from heaven because the price of the scooter was almost 70% less in the CSD than in the outside civil market. Of the two brands of scooters available the more sought-after was a band called 'Vespa'. Subsequently the Indian factory, which was assembling this brand, bought out the principal from Italy. This scooter, in its new avatar, is a common feature of small towns and rural areas of India. In the 60s and early 70s to drive and a 'Vespa' scooter was a matter of pride; it was amplified many times more when the scooter was new.

In a weeks time the captain went and collected his shining, new 'Vespa' scooter and brought it to our mess. It really looked pretty in its sky blue color. As was the routine, we celebrated the occasion with a few more drinks than usual in the mess. Of course, the captain stood the drinks for all of us. I remember that it was also a Saturday evening and because of that some unfettered drinking went on because the next day was a holiday. I woke up on the Sunday morning at about 8 AM to the sound of some activity in the captain's room. I sauntered across to his room sipping my mandatory morning cup of tea to see what was happening there. To my utter surprise I found the new scooter inside his drawing room with the captain sitting on a stool beside it. He was without his turban and looked fully engaged in doing something with the engine of the scooter. Since the scooter was only a day old I asked him as to what was he doing with it. The answer came that he had taken it for a ride in the morning and noticed that there was some extra noise coming from the engine. Therefore, he had opened the side panels and was getting that fault rectified. I was appalled and I suggested that he should take it to the dealer in the city and get it examined because it was brand-new. He looked at me with a condescending smile and said that he knew what he was doing and he will get it rectified. I waited for a few moments more and then came back to my room.

The sounds of tinkering and activity went on till lunchtime and when I went to call him for lunch I found that he had completely dismantled the engine of the new scooter and was re-assembling it! I was lost for words and could only ask him whether he would like his lunch to be served in his room. He thanked me for the offer and told me that he will get the reassembling done by evening and everything will be fine. Sure enough, the evening saw the scooter in one piece even though there were marks of smudge and grease all over its pristine body. However, there was a problem. After reassembling the engine of the scooter the captain was left with three extra parts! When I asked him as to how and why this has happened, he glibly explained that these are unnecessary parts and will not affect the running of the scooter. I could only gape at him. I told him to get this checked up with the dealer as soon as possible. But he was confident that these three parts were not relevant in the main scheme of things, which was running of the scooter.

Nothing much happened during the week and when the weekend came few of us, the captain included, decided to go to Ambala for dinner. We were five and all of us decided to take our own two wheelers. The distance was about 30 km and it was nighttime. After about 10 km there was suddenly a loud sound from the captain's scooter and it stalled. All the efforts by him, aided and abetted by all of us under the streetlights, could not get it started. Ultimately, we pushed it to a nearby house and requested the owner of the house to keep the scooter till the time the captain came to retrieve it. In those days in Punjab there was great regard for the Army and then we identified us the house owner was more than happy to keep the scooter. As the next day was Sunday nothing could be done. On Monday, I took the captain as my pillion-rider to the dealer or the scooter. We managed to extricate one mechanic from there and brought him to the house where we had deposited the scooter. The mechanic had a detailed look at the scooter and immediately said that some parts of the carburetor were missing. I could see a sheepish grin on the face of the captain. He dug into his pockets and produced the three parts that were superfluous when he reassembled the scooter. The mechanic saw these and could not control his laughter. He said, “Captain Sahib! How did you manage to take these out of this new scooter? These are essential parts of the carburetor which ensure that the correct amount of fuel is made available every time. Anyway, now that you have shown me that you have the parts we will have it take the scooter to our workshop and reassemble the carburetor.” We requisitioned a military truck from the Ammunition Depot and transported the scooter to the dealer. The scooter was eventually restored and was brought back a couple of days later.

This incident was talking point in the mess for quite some time, the captain being the butt end of all the jokes. He used to vainly try and argue that what he did was right. Soon he too gave up and accepted his stupidity. I never met this gentleman after I left Lalru, but we used to occasionally keep in touch. In those days, without Internet and mobile telephones, our communication was restricted to letters and greetings on special occasions. He rose to the rank of brigadier and was the commandant of the very same ammunition depot where we met and where this incident took place. Once when I queried through my letters about his propensity for being an ace mechanic he replied that the scooter incident changed him and that he realized that he better leave such technical issues with competent people. Amen!

Improperly Dressed

This is an incident that happened in 1972. We had been the part of the victorious Indian Army, which carved out the nation of Bangladesh out of Pakistan. The ease and fluidity with which the Indian Army achieved this miracle was praised the world over. As a young captain, those were heady times for me with a sense of euphoria at the highest. After the stress and strain of fighting the war for more than a month, the surrender ceremony was quite a morale booster for all the troops, and being a young officer I felt very elated and buoyed by all that was happening all around me. But, soon enough, our formation received orders to move from Bangladesh to the western borders and deploy there facing the Pakistan Army.
As it happens on many occasions, this move from the eastern most part of India to the Western most part was to be done in such a hurry that logistical and administrative problems of great magnitude had to be surmounted. Suffice to say that we soon found ourselves in various trains chugging towards the western border. By February 1972 we were deployed near the western border of India with Pakistan. The nearest village was called Malot, a medium-sized farming village many of which dotted our border with Pakistan. Since our formation was operationally deployed and since we've been moved hastily from the eastern theater we were forced to live under tents. The offices were also under tents. Everything was fine as long as the winter lasted. But with the advent of spring the temperature started to rise up. It was abominably hot during the daytime with the tents offering no comfort in shielding the occupants from the blistering sun. Try as we might, there was no alternative to sit in these so-called offices after about 10 AM.
Our formation headquarters was located near fairly large irrigation canal and that was the only redeeming factor because some amount of respite from the heat could be gained by frequent dips in the canal water. The brigadier, who was our commander, was a person who had different outlook on most things as compared to the rigid, stereotyped senior officers in the army during those days. When the summer started in earnest and the mercury was touching more than 47°C he passed an order that all personnel working in the offices need wear only sleeveless vests with regulation, army issue shorts and boots. Of course, the belt was worn along with the regimental cap. All of us found this attire to be quite comfortable and since we had come after being victorious in a war that lasted more than a month, we thought that we were entitled to have this latitude in functioning.
So it was that after the morning PT, which is the Army’s acronym for physical training, we used to reach the office at about 8 AM dressed in the pattern described above. One day one junior officer from the divisional headquarters belonging to a specialized service came for a routine inspection. He was quite unpleasantly surprised to see all of us in our peculiar attire. He felt that this was a serious breach of discipline and made no bones about his views to all of us. Most of us were quite bemused by this but our commander was quite angry. And what he did is one for the history books! He called his senior staff officer who was a major and had the title of “Brigade Major”, and told him to get this officer to his tent. This was done and the commander asked this officer as to what was his problem and why was he making observations against the dress that all of us were wearing. This officer answered that to the best of his knowledge such an attire was totally against all the army rules and regulations and he felt that, as a staff officer of a higher formation headquarters, it was his bounden duty to inform the commanding general of this breach of discipline. Our commander asked him, “Is that so? In that case we should ensure that all of us are dressed in the same way.” He, then, turned to the Brigade Major and told him “Ravi, make sure this joker is in a presentable dress as all of us are.”
It did not take the Brigade Major more than few minutes to remove the cap and the shirt of the officer. Naturally, there was a bit of struggle and I am told that the commander also helped and assisted the Brigade Major in accomplishing this task of disrobing this unfortunate officer. An Army issue shorts was brought and the officer was forced to remove his trousers and put on this shorts. Once this was done a huge smile broke out on the commander’s face and he told this hapless officer “Now you are looking like one of us. And can you now tell me if this is a proper or improper dress?” The officer was livid with helpless rage but he had to comply with what was done to him. The inspection went on followed by the mandatory lunch. During the lunch the commander fired a passing shot at this officer telling him that if he had any grudge about the incident and, he must report this matter to the commanding general. And since it was done at the behest of the commander all of us should be taken to task.
I do not know what happened afterwards; but we all had a good laugh and more than a few beers about the whole incident. I do not think in the modern Indian Army such commanders exist because these were the good old mavericks who imposed their charismatic personalities on the troops that they commanded which made them truly successful field commanders. Lest I be misconstrued, I hasten to add that the situations obtaining in the battlefields of this day, perhaps, do not warrant such personalized leadership except in the case of the Special Forces.

Monday, 27 June 2011

'Mini UN!'

Indian Armed Forces are considered to be one of the best trained in the world. Being an entirely voluntary service, the professionalism of all the wings of Indian Armed Forces is of an exceptionally high order. This, coupled with the clinical aloofness maintained by the Armed Forces from the boisterous and cacophonic democracy of India, makes the professional standards of the Indian Armed Forces extremely high. To achieve and maintain such very high standards it is necessary to have specialized training institutions for all ranks. There are exceptionally competent training institutions of the Armed Forces scattered all over India each fulfilling a specialized training requirement. Arguably, the most important institution that trains officers from all three wings of the Armed Forces is the Defence Services Staff College located in the picturesque and quaint hill station of Wellington, near Coonoor in the state of Tamil Nadu in India.

This college imparts training in staff duties to selected officers of all three uniformed services and to a few civilian officers from the IAS, IPS etc. Army being the largest component of the defence services, the majority of officers who attend this college are from the army. The competition to gain an entry into this college is very severe. Suffice to say that more than five thousand army officers appear for the entrance examinations every year to fill the 200-odd Army vacancies of this one-year training in the Defence Services Staff College. The training imparted this college has been of such high standards that many other countries depute their officers to attend this course. On an average more than seventy such officers attend this training every year. Almost every country is represented except the Latin American countries and the erstwhile ‘Iron Curtain’ countries.

Our story is about such a staff college course that was conducted from January to December from 1979, and the sequelae of that course. I was privileged to be one of the selected officers to attend this training. Since it is extremely difficult for doctors to qualify in the entrance examination, I was the only doctor amongst three hundred and fifty trainees. We had officers from USA, UK, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada, most of the Middle East countries, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and even from far away countries like Fiji. Staying together and working together for one year establishes strong bonds of friendship between the officers. The nationality, religion, language and differences in uniforms all melt away over the year. The incident that I am going to narrate is unique and this preamble was necessary for the readers to understand it fully.

After the trials, tribulations, highs, low, agonies and ecstasies of a demanding curriculum of one year we all dispersed to various places of duty. The Fijian officer was promoted to Lt Colonel and was appointed as the commanding officer of the Fijian battalion assigned for peacekeeping duties in Lebanon. The US Army officer was moved to Lebanon-Israeli border as an observer. The officer from the Syrian Army, who was a specialist in Air Defence, was located nearby on the Syrian side. Amazingly we had an officer from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who was in charge of the PLO fighters in same area and was located quite close to the Fijian battalion.

In September 1980 an aircraft carrier of the British Royal Navy called ‘HMS Hermes’ docked in Beirut. It may be of interest to note that ‘HMS Hermes’ was later bought by India and refitted and renamed as ‘INS Virat’. On board ‘HMS Hermes’ was a British Royal Naval helicopter pilot who also had attended the training with us in 1979. The Fijian officer took the initiative of getting these officers together in his location. He could achieve this because his battalion was part of the UN peacekeeping force. And so it happened that on a Saturday in September 1980 there was a gathering of most unusual people in the southern border of Lebanon. They met and spend the whole evening together and dispersed after dinner. There could not have been more different group than an US Army officer, a British Naval pilot, a Syrian Air Defence expert, a PLO fighter all being hosted by a Fijian officer.  The only common link was that all of them were trained in the Defence Services Staff Training College of India. That was the bond and that was the pride amongst all of them.

Being the only Doctor amongst all the officers and being a paratrooper I was quite a known figure in our staff college course. The details about this incident were sent to me by the Fijian officer, the US army officer and also by the British Naval Pilot. In those days the only method of communication was by letters. I still have those letters with me, which to me, are quite priceless.

I cannot conclude this incident without mentioning some of the events, which happened to these gentlemen over the years. The Fijian officer rose to the rank of Major General, led a coup in that country became the Prime Minister and ruled Fiji for more than 10 years! Yes, he was Sitiveni Rabuka. The US Army officer became a military aid to President Bush (Senior Bush) and retired from service as a Major General. The British Naval Pilot retired as a Rear Admiral. The Syrian Air defence specialist was sadly killed in Israeli raid at Bekaa valley. I have not been able to trace the PLO officer.

'Introduction to Airborne Troops'

The airborne segments of any army anywhere in the world consider themselves different from other soldiers. With their striking maroon coloured berets, the ‘wings’ of a paratrooper shining from the chest (in the early 70s these were worn on the right sleeve) and ubiquitous cocky attitude, the paratroopers are a class by themselves. Since every paratrooper is a volunteer and since everyone has to successfully complete rigorous physical  and endurance tests, it is not surprising that they consider themselves to be elite of the Army. It is not without reason that Field Marshall Viscount Montgonery  called them ‘Men apart. Every man an Emperor’.

There is another unique characteristics of these men. That is everyone from the general to the jawan exposes himself to the same risk when jumping out of the aircraft . All the parachutes are the same and all the dangers are also the same. This, necessarily, creates a strong bonding between all the paratroopers. Unlike in other branches of the Army there is an exceptional camaraderie between all ranks in the airborne forces. The strict hierarchical rank-bound pecking order of the Army is seldom seen amongst the paratroopers.

It was my life’s ambition to join this elite fraternity. So at the earliest opportunity I volunteered. This was in January 1972. Soon I was unofficially informed that my application was being considered favorably by the higher echelons of the Army bureaucracy. To my surprise, orders soon came posting me as the Regimental Medical Officer of 9 Parachute Commando Battalion. There were only two such battalions in the Indian Army at that time. These days these battalions are called ‘Special Forces’. The battalion to which I was posted, and where I subsequently served for more than three years was the first one to be so designated. It may be of interest to note that the present National Security Guard (NSG) was constituted  in 1984 with the core elements from this battalion. In fact, this battalion is perhaps the most decorated and highly acclaimed in the whole of the Indian Army.

As the orders for my move to a parachute battalion had already been issued the clock started ticking, counting away the days for me to take up the new assignment. I was extremely excited and equally apprehensive about completing successfully the physical tests. I was also very anxious to get a feel of these ‘Red Devils’, as the paratrropers are called the world over. By chance there was an airborne brigade located a few hours away from where I was stationed. I decided to pay a visit to this formation on a weekend. Accordingly I fixed up with the medical element of that formation for an overnight stay and reached that place on a Saturday evening. After getting into my room I was told by the Officers’ Mess Staff  to call the adjutant of the unit. When I called this gentleman he told me to be ready at 7:30 PM in the appropriate dress to go to the Brigade Officers’ Mess. He told me that this will be a good opportunity for me to meet as many officers as possible because there was a cocktail party scheduled to be held there.

At 7:15 PM the adjutant turned up. We walked across to the Officers’ Mess and entered the anteroom. We had just about settled down with a drink each when the brigadier commanding the brigade came in along with his Brigade Major and few other officers. For the uninitiated, Brigade Major is the principal staff officer of the commander of the brigade. I was introduced to the brigadier who immediately cautioned me that the unit I was scheduled to join, 9 Parachute Commando,  was composed of ‘madmen’. He wished me all the best and walked across to the bar along with his officers and they started drinking. The conversation  was basically about an impending airborne exercise. All of a sudden the voices started getting louder and louder. Natural curiosity made my host and I focus our attention to the group at the bar. It was the Brigade Major who was arguing loudly with the brigadier who was his immediate superior. “I am not in agreement with your position Sir!” he said. “To my mind what you are saying is stupid.” The brigadier replied that the Brigade Major did not have experience or knowledge to pass such comments. The Brigade Major retorted that it did not require experience to express opinions on such silly matters. All this while the decibel level was increasing.

Then, to my utter amazement, the Brigade Major chucked the drink that he was holding straight at the brigadier’s face. The whisky and the ice cubes were all over the brigadier’s  face and dress. There was stunned silence. In a twinkle of an eye the brigadier took one step forward and landed a solid punch on the Brigade Major’s face. The young major was literally knocked out and fell like a sack on the floor. The next action by the brigadier was even more surprising. He extended his hand to the fallen major pulled him up and helped him to get on his feet. The commander then asked him, “Now major are you convinced about my position?” “Yes sir!”, Was the answer. “OK that’s fine! Let us drink to that.”

The matter ended there and it was immediately forgotten except that when I met the Brigade Major the next day he had very ugly looking bruise just under his left eye. Years later when I was the commanding officer of the medical element of the same airborne brigade this very same Brigade Major was the Commanding General in that area. Whenever we met we used to talk about this incident and laugh about it.

'Under Fire!'

I joined in the Indian Army basically as a matter of routine. Coming from a family of naval officers, which included my father and three maternal uncles, it was almost a done thing that my younger brother and I join the uniformed services. I remember that, at the behest of one of my uncles, who was at the time an admiral, application forms for joining the Armed Forces Medical Services were sent to me from the Defense Headquarters. Somehow, I did not want to join ‘The men in whites’, and to be known as ‘Pillai's son or Nair's nephew’. Therefore, I wrote all my three choices of the service that I wished to join in the application form as Army, Army and Army. The tumult that ensued in the family is worth describing in another article. Suffice to say that surmounting all these obstacles I found myself as a captain in the Army Medical Corps in November 1969.

After a few months in a military hospital in Punjab I was posted to the eastern sector into a medical battalion of one of the infantry divisions which was facing the then East Pakistan. War clouds were ominously visible over the horizon and it did not require a rocket scientist to discern that there was going to be a war in the near future. I was made the medical officer in charge of an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) attached to an infantry brigade. This entity could hold 20 patients and administer specialized first aid and resuscitation to the wounded before transferring them to the field hospitals located in the rear. It took me some time to get to know the 40-odd persons in this small outfit. We went through innumerable cycles of training which conditioned all of us to act as a cohesive whole. I was well aware that the success of such specialized medical sub-units in war depended totally on smooth teamwork.

The preparatory activities for the imminent hostilities were at full swing throughout the infantry division, of which we were a part. Soon enough, during one November afternoon orders were given to me by the commander of the infantry brigade to move into the then East Pakistan along with a battalion of the Punjab Regiment.  We soon reached the location of this battalion. I went and reported the arrival of my unit to the commanding officer of this battalion. He welcomed me and asked me to be part of the vehicle convoy which was to cross into the then East Pakistan after last light. To the uninitiated, ‘last light’ in Army parlance indicates a few minutes after sunset before the real darkness sets in.

It was then that I heard an ear splitting bang far too close for comfort. This was followed by four or five similar sounds. I suddenly remembered some of the information given to us during our initial military training. One of them was that such very loud sounds are normally artillery firing. It was also drilled into us that the safest way of minimizing physical injury when confronted by artillery shelling is to hit the ground as fast as possible and stay like that till the time the shelling stops. When I heard these sounds I assumed that we had come under enemy shelling and promptly hit the ground. The sounds continued for quite a while. After what seemed an eternity they ceased.

I was about to get up from my prone position when it started all over again. I hugged the ground with fiercer intensity than I was doing before, convinced that we had come under intense enemy bombardment. Suddenly I felt that someone was standing very close to me. I looked up by tilting my face and head to find my Subedar Major standing next to me and requesting me to get up. I was horrified and literally screamed at him to hit the ground. But he kept on nonchalantly standing there with an amused smile on his face and said “Captain Sahib! Please get up!”

In my trepidation I told him, “SM Sahib! Can’t you see that we are being shelled by the enemy?” The smile on his face turned to laughter and he replied, “Captain Sahib! These are our guns firing at the enemy and not vice versa. The gun positions are located just next to us. So get up fast we have to go.”

You can well imagine the pathetic figure I cut in front of the troops who I was supposed to lead into battle. This old soldier, a veteran of World War II, then proceeded to instill some typical military philosophy into my befuddled mind. He told me that, after having gone through more than three wars, he was convinced that there was nobody who was brave. According to him every one was scared. He insisted that what really mattered was how fast and how well one conquered his fear. He also stressed that unless a bullet or a shell was made with your name imprinted on it, it will not hit you. This may sound odd to those of you who have not gone through the unsavory experiences of a war. But this ridiculous sounding wisdom is accepted the world over by all fighting men who have faced bullets from the enemy.

In my case, the shame of this incident prompted me to make assiduous efforts to get over my fear. I must say that I was quite successful in this endeavor. Soon I developed a steely frame of mind where nothing affected me or scared me. And that was what that made me quite a success in the Punjab Regiment battalion to which I was attached. It did not come overnight; but it did not take much time also. Soon I was nicknamed ‘The Mad Doctor’, who did not care about exposing himself to enemy fire when tending to the wounded. I have always considered that title precious and have worn it as a badge of honor because it was given to me by the fighting troops of an iconic regiment like the Punjab Regiment.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

'Wife in the Front Seat'

This incident happened when I was Regimental Medical Officer of 9 Parachute Commando battalion. It was in 1973 and my wife was heavily pregnant with our second child. We were, at that time, located in a beautiful and quaint hill station called Bakloh nestled in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, which overlooked the plains of Punjab. Our officers’ mess was located on a sheer cliff face and, therefore, we could get a fascinating view of the lights glimmering in the little towns which were spread out in the plains up to as far as the eye can discern. It reminded me about as though all the stars in the Milky Way have been laid out on an immense dark blue carpet. The officers’ mess was constructed in the days of the British Raj and, those people really knew how to get the best out of any hill station. There was an immense glass paneled corridor facing the cliff face with wooden paneling and exquisite fixtures. After a day's hard work we all looked forward to spending evenings in this corridor savoring a drink of your choice and admiring the glorious sight that was in front of us. Our perch was indeed so high that one got the feeling that one was sitting in an aircraft or in the gondola of a balloon.

Despite the scenic beauty Bakloh was an isolated place with rudimentary facilities. And so when it came to any kind of reasonable modern medical care we had to, per force, take the recourse to going to the town in the plains. In our case it was the large town of Pathankot, which was basically the last railhead before getting into the enchanted Valley of Kashmir. There was a sizable presence of the Army and the Air Force there. As a natural corollary, that was a fairly well equipped military hospital. And, when we found out that another baby is due there was no other place other than Pathankot to go for my wife's confinement.

The journey from Bakloh where they were located to Pathankot was indeed a backbreaking one given the condition of the army vehicles we were forced to use. The Indian Army has certain quaint rules and regulations which many a times seemed quite ludicrous, especially for young officers like us. One of those rules stipulated that no lady can travel in the front seat of a military vehicle, whatever be the situation. My wife was not a good traveler and, in fact, even now she is not. The pregnancy with its allied problems did not make the situation any better. And so when I had to take her down to the ‘city’ of Pathankot we faced a major problem of sorts. A journey in the rear part of a military vehicle would have perhaps made her part with the baby inside the vehicle. Getting in to the back seat of a military jeep was also a near impossibility for her with her light frame and a huge belly swollen with our child. As there was no other alternative, I decided that I will make her sit in the co-driver's seat and take her down to the military hospital at Pathankot.

There are checks and balances in every system in a place. But we used to feel that in the Indian Army of early 1970s there were far more checks than balances. It was the primary task of the Military Police in those days to nab the so-called offenders of ‘MT Discipline’. ‘MT’ in the Army parlance meant ‘Mechanical Transport’; in common man's dictionary this meant a vehicle. And what was this ‘discipline’ about? It was basically to find out as to which hapless driver was not carrying the necessary papers validating his trip or another poor soul who was exceeding the so-called speed limit, or it could be that the Military Police guy is on duty at every Traffic Check Point was simply feeling at war with the world and was wanting to take out his irk on someone.

There was another curious regulation those days. That was that only officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and above where permitted to drive the military vehicles. Those officers of lesser rank were condemned to bear the drivers who sometimes drove in such a way as to put the fear of God into our minds! It always bugged me that how a higher rank can make you a better driver! I was a mere Captain at that time and, therefore, I was not eligible and entitled to be sitting behind the wheel of a military vehicle. The problem in this instance was that if I did not drive my wife will not be able to sit in the front seat. So in effect, I had to commit a double sin firstly, by driving the vehicle and secondly, by making my wife sit in the passenger seat. There is an ever present, distinctly palpable element of daredevilry and devil-may-care attitude in all of Special Forces personnel. I was no exception. So when the day came for the two of us travel to the military hospital I decided to drive myself with my wife in the passenger seat.

Coming down the steep and winding hilly roads was something, which was not the least enjoyable for my wife in her advanced stage of pregnancy. Slowly and gingerly I maneuvered the jeep down the zigzag roads till the time we hit the comparatively straighter roads of the planes. By the time we neared the military hospital located in the cantonment I sensed that there was something unusual happening in the station. All the paraphernalia of a VIP visit seemed to be on. The Military Police chaps wearing their full regalia were at every major road. These guys always reminded me of the peacock given the way their ceremonial uniforms looked like. Unlike the normal Indian Army vehicles, our vehicles in the Special Forces always had a distinctive light blue numbering on maroon background. Therefore, it was quite easy to spot any vehicle belonging to our unit. While I was driving with my lady in the front seat there where few eyebrows raised of the Military Police personnel. But seeing my red beret, the proud badge of a paratrooper all over the world, they snapped to prim salutes, which yours truly promptly returned while zipping through.

It all went well till we were about a couple of kilometers short of the military hospital. All of a sudden I was confronted with a cavalcade of pilot vehicles, limousines, radio vehicles etc. that normally form the motorcade of senior generals. The blaring siren of the pilot vehicle and the inpatient gesticulations by the Military Police guys in that vehicle forced me to slow down and pull to the kerb. The motorcade zoomed past just giving me time enough to salute the car with the stars & the fluttering flag proclaiming that the occupant was a three-star general. I was about to get back to the main road when, looking at my rearview mirror, I discerned the motorcade coming to a stop because of the bright red lights on the rear of every vehicle. Instinct told me to stop, and I did that. Through the rearview mirror I could see the officer of the pilot vehicle jump out and rush towards the general's car. I did not know what transpired but soon enough he was coming to my Jeep at a trot. He came near me and told me, “The general wants to see you”. He thought, perhaps, I will get down from my Jeep and rush with him to the big man's car. I don't know what came over me at that time for I decided to reverse by Jeep and bring it parallel to the general's vehicle. I got out and gave as smart as salute as I could muster. The rear window of the car rolled down and I saw the face of the commanding general of the region. What pleased me most was that he was wearing the same cap as I was; the maroon colored paratrooper's beret.

“Who are you, young man?” the general asked.

“Captain Kainikkara, Sir! Regimental Medical Officer 9 Parachute Commando.”

“And what do you think you're doing?”

“I'm taking my wife to the military hospital, Sir!”

“Don't you know that it is not permitted for the ladies to be sitting in the front seat of military vehicles?”

“Yes Sir, I know.”

“Then why is she sitting in the front seat?”

I moved aside and pointed to the bulging belly of my wife. The general had a look at her and broke into a broad smile. He said, “Carry on!”

With a huge sigh of relief I went back to the Jeep and proceeded to the military hospital.

It was after a few months that I again came face-to-face with this general. That was when he came on an official visit to my unit. During the course of conversation in the officers' mess he mentioned to my commanding officer that he had met me earlier and proceeded to describe in great detail the whole episode. All of us had a great laugh and the matter ended there.

This kind of bonhomie and camaraderie that epitomizes them can surprise many people who are not conversant with the ethos of the Special Forces of the Indian Army. Years after, when I sit and write this I still feel the excitement and the sense of belonging which binds me to 9 Parachute Commando. I will carry those feelings to my last day.


This happened a long time back. With my wife and a one month old daughter I was on the way to join my new unit which was located in the hills of  Champa Valley in Himachal Pradesh. It was my first posting to an active airborne battalion. The nearest railway station (always called ‘NRS’ in army parlance) was Pathankot. After getting out of the train train one was expected to go and report to the Transit Camp. From there, vehicles used to transport the troops and families to various locations in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir. The reader may kindly note that those were the days when the rail link ended at Pathankot.

So we found ourselves in the Transit Camp at Pathankot on one chilly Wednesday evening in November 1973. After running around to organize hot water and other such essentials for the baby we spent a fairly peaceful night at the Officers’ Mess in the Transit Camp. There I was told that a vehicle will fetch up from the airborne unit in the morning to take us to the location which was a place called Bakloh, about 80 kms away from Pathankot.

The next day morning we got dressed and I went to the office of the Transit Camp to find out about the vehicle which was supposed to come from the unit to fetch us. It was November and Pathankot  can become extremely cold in the winters. When I went to the office I found that the staff had not come for duty. I, therefore, decided to wait outside and use the time to light up a cigarette. In about couple of minutes an oldish looking gentlemen wearing scarf, a tweed coat with leather elbow patches, a golf cap and creased trousers came towards the office. Proud as I was about being selected to join the elite airborne battalion I did not pay much heed to him. He went across to the office and had a peek inside. He turned to me and said “ Nobody In ” I said “Yes”. The gentlemen  then came closer to me and started asking me as to what my name was, where I was going to in what capacity etc, etc.
Out of sheer respect for his age I was quite polite in responding to the questions initially but when the questions became more and more probing and personal, I started getting a little abrupt with my answers. I then decided to learn something about this gentlemen who was questioning me so closely. So I asked him as to what he was and what he did.

“ Well! Son! For most part of the day I play golf. Do you play?” 

“No” I said, “I think it is an old man’s game”.

“You are somewhat right.” However, try it and you may like it. You must be aware that a large percentage of golfers are doctors. So it will go well with your profession”.

When he mentioned the word profession I thought I must ask him about his profession because playing golf did not appear to be a full-time profession. With this in mind I asked him what did he do for a living.

“Son! I already told you most of my time I play golf. In my spare time I command the 25 Division of the Army!.”

I did not know where to run or what to do. I wished I could get buried in the earth and promptly I gave him as smart a salute as possible and stood ramrod straight in attention in front of him. The general started smiling and said ,“It’s alright! Don’t worry! It’s not written in on my forehead that I am the General Officer Commanding this division here. Are you alone? Where’s your family?”

“Sir! My wife and my one-month-old daughter are in the Transit Camp Offficers’ Mess.”

“Did they get something hot to eat? And what about the baby?”
I was hesitant to answer these questions because the arrangements in the Transit Camp Officers’ Mess were far from satisfactory and, in fact, my wife & I did not get a decent breakfast. The General sensed this and said, “OK! Come with me.” And started walking away. I followed him and suddenly I found his station wagon resplendent with two stars and swallow-tail flag announcing his rank and position. He asked me to get in with him and ordered the driver to take us to the Transit Camp Officers’ Mess.

There was utter commotion in the Officers’ Mess when the General’s vehicle was spotted. In a matter of minutes the NCO in Charge of the mess was given the thorough dressing down by the General. He then turned to me and asked, “ Where’s your room? I want to meet your wife.”

I led him to my room, knocked and entered. I tild my wife that the Commanding General wanted to meet her. He came in, wished her with a proper ‘Namaste’ and said, ‘Beta! I’m sorry that you were not comfortable. But things have been sorted out. Have a nice breakast, relax and then only take the trip to Bakloh.” Turning to me  he added, “I will meet you next month in your battalion when I come for  my inspection.”

And he did precisely that. When I was being introduced to him by my commanding officer he said “I know this chap! In fact I saw him before you did.” Then, looking at me he said  “Keep up that aggressive spirit young man! Otherwise, you cannot be a good commando doctor.”

My wife & I always remember that gracious gentleman with impeccable manners & courtesy.

'Flag Meeting'

To those of you who are alien to the military jargon, it will appear quite awkward and funny the way the military mutilates the words to create a language of its own. This language is usually the lingua franca of all those who wear the uniform. Each country and each arm of the armed forces be it Army, Navy, Air force, Marines etc. evolves its own special words and expressions. The armies of the sub continent are no exception to this axiom. The expression ‘Flag Meeting’ is one of them. Simplistically put, it means that it is a meeting in which the national flags of two or more countries were used to identify a special place where commanders of opposing armed forces could meet to discuss territorial matters. Normally such meetings are held when the borders of the countries involved have not been clearly demarcated, especially after a military operation. Such flag meetings were, and still are, held along the Indo-Pak Border. This incident is about one such meeting and the aftermath of that.

It was in 1980 that I was privileged to witness a flag meeting with the Pakistani army unit which was facing us across the borders along the mountainous ridges of Kashmir. I was part of the team of officers taken by the commander of the brigade to meet his counterpart of the Pakistani army. The opposing armies used to take turns alternatively in hosting such meetings. Depending upon the hosting army, the meetings were held either inside Indian territory, or inside Pakistani territory. The flag meetings were also scheduled in such way that after the official matters were discussed there was time for lunch, before returning back.

And so it happened that on an Autumn morning we set course from our brigade headquarters for the flag meeting. We reached our Border Post by about 11.00 AM. The Pakistani Rangers guarding the Border Picket on the Pakistani side were briefed about our arrival and our little convoy of three vehicles was piloted by one of their vehicles. After a short distance of about 3 KMs we had to dismount and go forward on foot to top of a hill where our host, the brigadier commanding the Pakistani brigade was awaiting. Once we reached there. After the salutes and hand-thumping were over between the two commanders, they took turns in introducing members of each party. My medical counterpart turned out to be a great senior colonel and, honestly, I felt a little at odds considering the disparity of age.

The meeting started in earnest after the ubiquitous hot sweet milky tea served in huge enamel mugs. The commander of the Pakistani brigade explained with the help of detailed maps that in one part of the sector he was facing problems because the line of control (LOC) was arching in a peculiar way. It was genuine problem which needed a solution. Once our host had finished his presentation it was the turn of our commander. He too had come armed with maps and photographs to press home our point that in one of the areas we were also faced with a similar situation. The discussions between the team started right in earnest on these two points. We were in the midst of a fairly boisterous discussion when there was a rapping sound on the table loud enough to silence all of us. It was our commander using one of the tea mugs as gavel to attract our attention; just like the way a presiding judge uses his gavel to bring discipline in the court.

We all looked at him when he said ‘Gentlemen! I don’t think we should waste our time discussing about these two issues anymore. I have decided that I am going to allow point 4375 to be handed over to the Pakistani army’. You could hear a pin drop in the tent at that time. All of us in our team were dumbfounded. And most of us were gaping. The brigade major was the first one to find his voice and he said, ‘Sir, it is not within your powers to cede territory to Pakistan. So I suggest you may kindly review your decision.’

The answer to this came from the Pakistani Brigadier, who said, ‘That was a genuine and fine gesture, brigadier. I really appreciate your attitude. I am going to make a similar offer to you.  You can re-occupy point 5893 which has been causing problems to you.’  Uncannily, it was brigadier major of the Pakistan army who piped up first and warned his boss that what he was doing will not be appreciated at the higher levels of hierarchy.

But, both the brigadiers were firm and decided then and there to re-draw the line of control on the map. It was done and we all dutifully clapped when both of them signed on the maps. It was somewhat like the scenes in Hollywood movies where rulers cede territories to one another. A well laid out lunch followed and we all returned in a rosy mood back to our headquarters.

When the details of this deal between these two brigadiers were forwarded to the higher echelons of our army all hell broke loose. The commander who felt that he had done a great job was called up by the commanding general, and administered a ‘royal rocket’. It became clear that the promising career of this brigadier had ground to a screeching halt.

The next flag meeting was after six months. This time it was our turn to host the meeting. The Pakistani side came with only three officers. We noticed that it was a new brigadier in command. The brigade major was the same and so was the captain who was the aide. After the initial formalities a routine meeting was held and a few mundane points were discussed and finalized. Then came the lunch. The brigade major of Pakistani brigade with whom I had struck a friendship in the previous meeting possibly because of my staff college background came to me and said, ‘Hey Doc! You have still got the same commander?’ I said, ‘Yes, but why do you ask? Is it because you have a new commander? He said, ‘Precisely. The previous one was sacked within 48 hours after our last meeting’. I said, ‘Well, your army indeed moves faster than ours. But rest assured Major, our commander also will not go any high up. The only place he is likely to go after this is to his house in Chandigarh’.

We both laughed and the story ended there.

'Double Jeopardy'

It is common knowledge that double jeopardy is a legal impasse wherein one person cannot be punished for the same offence more than once. Smart lawyers exploit this lacuna in the legal system to get their clients out of tricky situations. What I'm going to relate is an incident wherein my commanding officer used this clause to subtly sidestep the draconian rules and regulations and strict protocols, which are characteristic of any armed forces.
It was in 1974, and I was then the RMO of 9 Parachute Commando Battalion. We were located in the beautiful, picturesque, idyllic hill station called Bakloh. It was a very small place that overlooked the plains of Punjab. The panoramic view from the glass paneled dining room all of the officer’s mess which was perched on a sheer cliff face, was breathtaking especially during nights when one could trace the lights of any vehicle starting from the railway station at Pathankot. Bakloh was steeped in history of the Fourth Gurkha rifles. One of the most eminent amongst them was Major John Masters, the famous author. We had the unique privilege of living in the huge bungalow where the major had lived and where he wrote one of his best books “The Bugles and a Tiger”. Sitting in the veranda of this building we could identify the huge tree under which Major John Masters shot the tiger. It was another matter that the bungalow was falling apart and out of the seven bedrooms only three were habitable; which my wife and I and our infant daughter occupied.

Since celebration of New Year's Eve had to be held in a bigger place, Dalhousie being the district headquarters and with better infrastructural facilities was the automatic choice. So, on the 31st December evening we are all trooped to the gymkhana club at Dalhousie. Barring the commanding officer and the second-in-command I was the only other officer who was married at that time. After the backbreaking and tortuous journey of more than 45 minutes we landed up in the club at about 10:30 PM. The revelry was just about starting at that time and we melded into that crowd. There was a string band playing and some couples were already swaying to the music. Being in the foothills of Himalayas, Dalhousie was extremely cold during the winter months. We were almost frozen by the time they reached the club and most of us hit the bar with alacrity. Our three ladies went promptly to the powder room to spruce themselves up.

The drinking started in earnest and soon most of us were feeling quite comfortable with the cold probably because of internal combustion of the alcohol and external help from the numerous fireplaces scattered inside the old club building. The ladies soon joined us and three of us, the commanding officer, the second-in-command and I, took our spouses to the dance floor. Music was passable and we were enjoying ourselves when, all of a sudden, we heard loud voices towards the direction of the bar where the majority of our crowd from 9 Parachute Commando Battalion had sedimented. I could distinctly discern the voices of some of my friends and what I could hear pointed towards a serious altercation. My commanding officer told me to go and have a look as to what was happening there. Escorting my wife back to her seat I went to the bar where I found that a mini brawl had erupted between few of our officers and a group of others. Most of the other group appeared to be officers from other units in the formation. A couple of them appeared to be from the civic street.

Before I could successfully intervene, to my utter horror, I found two of my colleagues daring the other group to speak anything further. This was accompanied by the physical gesture of advancing menacingly towards that group. Being on internal combustion of the alcohol the other group also did not blink. Instead, they started to shout back. It was then only that I came to know the reason for this impasse. While the other group was shouting back they repeatedly mentioned that all paratroopers were stupid and no good; or else how could anyone in a real senses enjoy jumping out of aircraft? This statement was like the proverbial red rag to a bull as far as all paratroopers are concerned. Being one of the same kind I, instead of dousing the flames of anger, became as angry as my friends.

What happened next did not take much time. One of my friends who was a good boxer during his term in the National Defence Academy, stepped forward and landed a haymaker punch on the leading and most vociferous member of the other group. He collapsed like an empty sac. In a twinkle of an eye it became a free-for-all. Blows and punches were exchanged freely. I must admit that I too added my might to the imbroglio. The music stopped, the dancing stopped and everyone rushed to the bar where this drama was being staged. Senior officers intervened and the warring groups including ‘Yours Truly’, were separated. The gent who was floored by the right hook of my colleague also got up. It was then that we learned that he was the son of the commanding general of that station and that he had come from New Delhi to celebrate New Year with his parents at Dalhousie.
Naturally, the general was quite upset; more so when he looked at his son's bruised jaw. He turned to my commanding officer and told him that he wants the ‘culprit’ amongst us to be punished immediately. My commanding officer, the veteran of many a battle like this and a diehard paratrooper, told the general that he will inquire into the matter the next day and take appropriate disciplinary actions if any one of us, his officers, were found culpable. He also told the general that he will keep the general informed about the results of his investigation. As can be made out, the New Year party soon became a damp squib. Some of us tried to make the best out of it and succeeded to some extent. The commanding officer did not speak a word about this incident either during the party or on our journey home.

The next day at about 10 AM the second-in-command informed us that we have been summoned by the commanding officer in his office. Five of us were soon lined up in front of the huge desk behind which he sat. We were all giving exhibitions of the best way to be at ‘attention’. The ‘old man’ [the universal slang by which the commanding officers are referred to in the armed forces] appeared quite grim. In his gravelly voice he asked each one of us as to what happened during the previous night. Since all of us had enough time before we were summoned to his presence, our versions of the incident were remarkably similar. He then turned towards me and told me that he was particularly disappointed with me because he had sent me to find out the facts. Instead I also got embroiled in the incident. With great ceremony he then donned his maroon paratrooper's beret and solemnly told, “Gentlemen! I hereby warn you not to repeat such incidents in future.” Turning towards the second-in-command he barked, “March them out!”

Soon enough the commanding officer was on telephone line with the commanding general. He told the general that he had inquired into the matter and had found five of his officers guilty of misdemeanor and that he had punished them. The general was pleased and wanted to know the details of the punishment given. My commanding officer answered him gravely that all of us were warned by him. The general was not amused and demanded that we be punished more severely. That was the time my commanding officer pulled the rabbit out of his hat. He said, “I'm sorry Sir, but that cannot be done because I have already punished my officers once. I cannot punish them again for the same offense. Sir, you'll appreciate it will then amount to double jeopardy!”

I do not know what happened next but it was an explicit lesson for all of us as to how the standby and protect your junior colleagues. I for one have carried on in the same vein over the years, while wearing the uniform and while in the civic street. And I can state from experience that nothing gives you more pleasure than being the mother hen to your junior colleagues.

'Blood of My Soldiers'

Blood of My Soldiers

I had the privilege of being part of an army which was instrumental in creating a new country. I am referring to the war fought between India and Pakistan in 1971 which resulted in creation of Bangladesh. Such instances do not happen often; and when they happen they are so momentous that most get swept away by the surging tides of events.
As a young rookie captain my view point of these history – changing events was confined to personal experiences.

I was part of an infantry battalion as the Regimental Medical Officer. From the urgency of the massive preparations we all could make out that something major was in the offing. Our anticipation turned correct when on the 26th November 1971 our battalion was ordered to cross into the then East Pakistan. It is difficult to narrate the tense atmosphere before the Battalion moved. All such are generally confined to the hours of darkness; and so was this move.

Suffice to say that by 2 AM we were about seven Km inside, at a location previously selected. The battalion started digging down frantically for we were expecting an attack from the enemy, at first light. And we were proved right. Three companies were deployed in a semicircular pattern with A company facing an open piece of ground in an area surrounded by banana trees and other crops. I was ordered to position myself somewhat near the center where I was to establish the Regiment Aid Post (RAP). To those who are not tuned to the army jargon, RAP is the place where the doctor and the medical personnel will be located during a war. It is one of the unwritten axioms that the RAP should be accorded the maximum possible protection from small arms and artillery fire. In common parlance this meant that the RAP should be located in an underground bunker with adequate overhead protection.

Unfortunately for me the time needed to construct a bunker was not there. Therefore I choose a small patch of land where the surface was not water–logged. It was not by any means an easy task in utter darkness to find this piece of real estate. My staff & I opened up the panniers containing essential drugs, fluids and equipment. By the time we finished this I could see the faint glimmer of the sun rising; which is called by the armed forces all over the world as ‘First Light’. Sure enough in about ten minutes time the shelling started. Initially the shells were landing at a fair distance away. But my experienced havildar (Sergeant Major) cautioned me that it is only a matter of time before the guns find the correct range to hit our position. We were all lying flat on the ground and trying to crawl into any many unfinished trenches if possible.

Being exposed to such life threatening situation for the first time, it took me some time to get my rationality back. And by that time we could hear the unmistakable clanking sounds of the tank tracks from across the area of clearance in front of A Company. Within minutes three tanks appeared out into the open area along with khaki clad infantry soldiers. They were advancing at a leisurely pace. The company facing this attack kept holding their fire till the time the attackers were near a hundred yards. Then all hell broke loose with artillery firing from both sides, manoeuvring of the tanks, the shouts and the battle cries of the attackers, the incessant pinging sounds of the bullets. All of these caused an utter mayhem.

This went on for about twenty minutes and then there was a deafening silence. My experienced havildar told me that the attack has been repulsed and this was the time the casualties will start being brought to the RAP. Initially a couple was brought but soon the numbers increased. Without any overhead cover and without any kind of facilities I had to deal with these injured. The real job of army doctors, which is to give life and limb-saving treatment to the wounded, is something extremely difficult. I am not implying the physical hardships or the danger to life. More than these, it is the choice that one has to make by which treatment is given to only those injured who have a reasonable chance of survival. You can call it either Hobson’s Choice or Sophie’s Choice depending upon your inclination. The army calls this ‘Triage’ and this principle has been adopted by all major hospitals across the world in their emergency rooms. But when one makes such choices it will haunt you over and over again. I can vouch for that!

By the time I could do whatever I was capable to the injured, another attack came in, along the same pattern as the previous one. And so it went on twice more. In other words four attacks were mounted in a span of approximately four hours by the enemy. All these were repulsed but at a heavy cost. Soon, I had more than eighty injured soldiers littered all over a small area. There was no scope for evacuating these wounded because one had to wait till the time it was considered safe to land helicopters and use ambulance cars.

The first ambulance car fetched up at about 1030 hours. Soon others followed. The task of sending these injured soldiers rearwards to the field hospitals is quite difficult indeed and my staff and I were totally engrossed in this when we heard the unmistakable clacketty – clack of helicopters. Two helicopters landed in a small clearing. My staff told me that the Corps Commander, a three star General, had landed. I was far too busy to even see where the General was. In about fifteen minutes, as I was kneeling down and adjusting the intravenous drip on a casualty, I felt some commotion behind my back. I turned and looked over my shoulders to see the General and his staff officer along with my commanding officer standing there. I immediately got up and wished him. There was no question of salute because I was not wearing a cap or a helmet. In a booming voice which seemed to come from somewhere inside that small body the General asked me “Son! How many casualties have you got?” “Sir I don’t have a count but I have send twenty-eight to the field hospital and there are about double the number still lying here.” “Where is your RAP?” was the next question. I looked around and said “You are standing in the RAP, Sir!” The General became quite agitated and started berating the commanding officer for not looking after the essential details of the RAP. “How many did you loose?” was the next question. “None Sir, so far”, But I can’t say about a few of them now”.

General walked around the casualties speaking a word of two with few of them. Suddenly he stopped and turned to me and said “That is a wonderful job you have done” and he extended his hand. On reflex I too did the same when suddenly I looked at my hand. It had the mud and blood caked in layers and was abominably filthy. I was horrified and pulled my hand back. “What happened son”? Was the question. “Too dirty Sir”! Was my instant reaction. “Show me!” With great trepidation I put my hand out. The grip was firm and vice-like. Looking straight into my eyes with the only one eye that he had, the General said, “What you have on your hand is the blood of my soldiers! It is my honor to shake your hand, Son!” Perhaps it was the acute mental stress that I was going through at that time, perhaps it was the severe physical tiredness which caught up with me at that time or perhaps it was the momentous nature of the occasion, I do not know. But my eyes welled up and a couple of the drops came out. I felt embarrassed. Yet the General did not leave my hand. Looking back at his staff officer he said, “Make sure this boy gets rewarded for this excellent work.” Then, coming a few inches closer to me he said, “Son! I’m proud of you!”

That I subsequently got decorated by the President of India for the services I rendered during this war fades into relative unimportance as I consider this statement by this great soldier as the best appreciation I ever received for performance of official duties all through the 24 years I wore the proud uniform of an Indian Army Special Forces Paratrooper. This general later on became the Chief of the Indian Army and so did the staff officer who was with him at that time.