THE MAVERICK'S MAVERICK
This is about gentlemen who I had the privilege of being associated with during my sojourn in the Army. It goes without saying that I will not be mentioning the name of this extraordinary person but those who had come into contact with him will be able to recognize him when I describe his appearance, mien, and unique behavioral patterns. He was well known, or rather notorious, for his unpredictable approach to most of the problems he faced. But the saving grace was that he was an honest, hard-working, brave and sympathetic man whom the troops held in great esteem.
He claimed his pedigree from one of the small erstwhile Rajput ruling families from Gujarat. An imposing and handsome man with bushy eyebrows and fair complexion, he wore his impeccably made uniform with great pride and élan. The distinguishing feature of this worthy was his great mustache. Huge and thick this covered his entire upper lip and spread over to both his cheeks where it was shaped to resemble an upward coil. Army, traditionally, encourages this show of so-called manliness and virility and this kind of outrageous mustache was also appreciated by very many. It is another matter that most of the officers in their heart of hearts thought this to be not acceptable. But there was no rule preventing such a display of hirsutism. So people got away with it.
I recall three instances below that shows how this gent behaved in various situations. After reading them you may also tilt towards what I always felt when interacting with this person that there was a studied method in his madness. All these incidents relate to the time when this officer will was a lieutenant colonel and was commanding an infantry battalion.
One day he decided that the cooks are the most hard-pressed category of people under his command. Factually speaking also this is a truth because the cooks have to invariably get up much earlier than anybody else so that the morning cup of tea is ready for the troops when they awaken before going for physical training. And at night, the cooks where the last to sleep after serving dinner, cleaning the utensils and winding up the kitchens. Coming back to our story, this officer decided to give one day off every week to all the cooks in his infantry battalion. When this order was passed and when it percolated downward there was consternation in most people. One of the junior commissioned officers [JCO] had the temerity to ask him as to who will prepare the food for them in case all the cooks are given a day off simultaneously.
I have to digress a bit here to let the reader know as to what is a JCO. This category of people is peculiar only to the Indian Army and the Pakistan Army. They are a hangover of the days of the British Raj. During those days most of the officers were from Britain whereas all the troops were Indian. This created a wide chasm in communication. In order to tide over this, persons from the zamindar class were recruited into the Army as officers. They were expected to bring their own horses and helpers and provide for them from their pockets. But the superiority of the British officers had to be maintained and, therefore, these gentlemen, though officers were placed a step lower than the British officers as Junior Commissioned Officers [JCO]. Since they were from the privileged class of society it was easier for them to assert their superiority over the troops and thus control them with ease. The British officers used this category of people as the interface between them and the troops. Outwardly they were given trappings of an officer like insignia of the rank, separate mess to dine in etc. and the British officers addressed them as ‘Sahib’. This category of personnel carried on after independence in both the Indian and Pakistani armies, and are still very much there.
So when this JCO expressed his apprehensions the reaction of our hero was to immediately summon all the cooks of the battalion to his office and give them a day off. He then called the senior most JCO and ordered that a 'BARAKHANA' should be held in the battalion within three hours. 'BARAKHANA' is a kind of celebratory feast, which is held to mark occasions like Raising Day of the unit, Battle Honors day etc. in which special food is made and served and all ranks from the commanding officer downwards, participate in the community eating. The literal translation of the word also ‘Big Feast’. Orders by the commanding officer cannot be disregarded or disobeyed. The 'BARAKHANA' was organized within the stipulated time and our hero partook the food. After he had finished he called the same JCO and asked him whether he had any more doubts as to whether food can be produced without the cooks being present or not!
On another occasion our hero had passed the orders in his battalion that any soldier applying for leave should be granted this privilege within 12 hours. Most of the readers may not know but the fact is that obtaining leave when you want it is the biggest motivator for all Army personnel. Our hero had understood this fact and hence he passed this order. After a few days, while on his routine rounds in the battalion, he came upon a soldier who, on questioning, blurted out that even though he had repeatedly requested his JCO he was not granted the leave that he wanted. This officer sanctioned the leave of the soldier on the spot and directed that the JCO responsible for denying this soldier's leave be produced before him immediately. It was then told to him that this JCO was himself on leave. Our man ordered that he should be recalled from leave with immediate effect. When this hapless JCO appeared before him after a few days the officer told him that he was not anymore welcome in the battalion since he had knowingly failed to comply with the commanding officer’s orders. He was given an option either to resign from the Army or accept an express transfer to another battalion. The JCO chose the latter and was moved out of the battalion within 24 hours!
The third incident in which our hero was involved was during a party in the officers' mess of the battalion where he was the commanding officer. The commanding general of the formation was the chief guest. Everything was going smoothly when suddenly the general made some disparaging comments regarding the battalion and the regiment as such. The huge mustache of our hero twitched ominously in anger and he called his adjutant and told, “Get the general's vehicle!” He then turned to the general and told him that he was no longer welcome in the mess as he had made such derogatory statements against the battalion and the regiment. Everyone was aghast. He then added that the general's vehicle was already lined up and he expected the general to leave immediately. The general had no option but to make a hasty exit.
From these incidents that I have narrated you may think that this officer would have gone home in the same rank of lieutenant colonel, which he held while commanding the infantry battalion. You will be surprised there because he rose to the rank of Major General in the Army and was a successful commanding general of an infantry division. Not discounting the element of luck, I feel that such an officer could be promoted only in an organization like the Indian Army of those days where even people with highly angular personalities like our hero were appreciated for their professional capability, honesty, integrity and dedication to the welfare of troops under their command. I am not sure that such an ethos exists in the present day Indian army. Of course, I may be wrong!