Wednesday, 3 August 2011

TALES FROM THE ARMY (CONTINUED)


THE ACR

ACR is an acronym for annual confidential report. It is a yearly assessment given by the senior on the performance of his juniors. In a strictly vertical and hierarchical organization like the Army this report was initiated by the immediate superior officer and was reviewed by the next senior man in the hierarchy. The Armed Forces all over the world attach great importance to this report for the purposes of promotions, specialized assignments, selection for training courses etc. etc. The Indian Army is no exception. In fact, there seems to be a near–total reliance on this report as far as selections for promotion and plum assignments are concerned. It is more or less left to the subjective judgment of the superior officer as to what is his assessment of the performance of the junior officer during the course of one year. Although the Armed Forces make, and keep making, concerted and sincere efforts to eliminate the subjectivity as much as possible, these efforts are not always successful. Elaborate forms are made so that all angles and aspects of the officer's character, basic attributes, official performance etc. are factored in and given numeric values. In addition, the superior officer who is initiating this ACR was also expected to write a ‘pen picture’ of the junior officer. Because of the extraordinary importance of the ACR many superior officers did not hesitate to wield it as a weapon to subdue and subjugate the junior officers. The ever-present danger of ‘a bad ACR’ was like the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over the head of all junior officers, especially those who were career oriented.
Now that I have acquainted you about the overpowering the importance of ACR and the adverse effects of a low marking in the ACR, you will be able to appreciate that most of the career officers in the Armed Forces tend to avoid annoying their immediate superior officer for fear of vindictiveness on his part when initiating the ACR. I have known of more than a handful of excellent officers whose careers were blighted by the spiteful nature of their superior officers who gave them relatively low marks in their ACRs. This subjectivity in assessing the performance of officers is one of the serious flaws affecting the promotion system in the Armed Forces. Continuous efforts are being made to negate this unsavory situation. I too contributed my small measure in this exercise while I was in charge of the personnel section of the Army Medical Corps (AMC) in the Army Headquarters. But still serious mistakes do take place with promising careers ruined based on the whims and fancies and idiosyncrasies of the officers who initiate the ACRs. Of course there are great exceptions to this. And this little piece is about one such gentleman whom I had the privilege of serving under.
This incident happened when I was the Commanding Officer (CO) of 60 Parachute Field Ambulance. This unit, being the only airborne medical unit of the Indian Army, was the integral medical element of the Parachute Brigade. As the CO of 60 PARA, as my unit was universally known, I was the medical advisor to the commander of the Parachute Brigade. Therefore, he was my immediate superior officer to whom I was directly responsible. You can also appreciate that by being my immediate superior officer, the commander was also the initiating officer for my ACR. So it was in the interests of my career that I keep my relationship with this gentleman as best as possible. Although during my tenure as the CO of 60 PARA I had the privilege of having three brigadiers as my commander, this incident pertains to the gentleman who was the second in the list. He was an old colleague from 9 Parachute Commando Battalion where I was the RMO and he was one of the group commanders. Therefore, we were well known to each other. When he took over as the commander of the Parachute Brigade I was, naturally, one of the very happy persons. I must mention here that there are certain special embellishments that the commandos wear in their uniforms as a mark of identification. In the brigade there were only two of us were in that distinguishing emblems. Of course, these emblems were a matter of jealousy for other officers. In his first conference of all the commanding officers he announced that he does not have to interact with me specifically because we both belonged to the Special Forces and knew each other fairly well. Needless to say this kind of mention elevated my stature in the eyes of my peers, by which I mean the other commanding officers. The commander made it a point to show everyone that my wife and I were special people for his wife and himself even in all social occasions. Suffice to say that I had an excellent working as well as social relationship with this thoroughbred soldier.

Things were going on smoothly when one day I got a call from my adjutant who told me that the commander wanted to speak to me. Soon he came on the line and even without any customary pleasantries and launched into a tirade against my unit and me. For the initial few minutes I could not even fathom as to what was the issue because he was pouring it out on me. After a minute or so I could sense his drift and could understand what the problem was. It was only a routine fiasco that happened between my unit and the Parachute Training School (PTS) of the Indian Air Force, which led to the cancellation of the morning training jumps on that day. I had known about it the first thing in the morning in the office. And I was aware that it was caused by the breakdown of the truck that was transporting my troops to the PTS that morning. By the time another truck fetched up in the troops reached the PTS the aircraft had already taken off. I tried to explain the situation to the commander in between his volleys, but was not successful. On the contrary the decibel level of his voice kept increasing till the time he was almost screaming. I too had lost my temper by that time and banged my telephone down. I was fuming with rage and decided to go and meet him in person.

The brigade headquarters where the commander had his office was about 6 km away from my location. I was so angry that I decided to put in my application to be removed immediately from the Parachute Brigade because I was no more a volunteer for airborne duties, and because I did not want to serve under this commander. To those who are not familiar with the ethos of airborne troops in the Indian Army, may I state that this was the ultimate weapon any active paratrooper can use to emphasize his disagreement with the prevailing situation in any airborne unit. It required signing of a specific form in which it was stated that the individual was no more willing for active airborne duties. Since it was imperative that all ranks in an airborne formation had to be active paratroopers any person who was not willing to be an active paratrooper had to be posted out of that formation immediately. I, in my rage, filled up one of these forms called Non-Para Volunteer (NPV) forms, summoned my official vehicle and proceeded to the commander's office.

When I reached his office I told his staff officer that I wanted to meet him immediately. The staff officer went inside the commander's office to announce my request. He came back and told me that the commander was busy and will see me the next day. I was in no mood to hear this kind of officialese. I got up, opened the door to his office and barged in. The commander looked up from the paper that he was perusing and appeared quite surprised to see me. After the mandatory salute I pulled up a chair and sat down. In the strictly hierarchical customs of the Army a junior officer is not supposed to take a seat in the office of a senior officer unless the seat was offered. Before the commander could react to my sitting down without his permission I launched into expressing what I felt about his behavior in the morning on telephone with me. Not letting him speak in between, I told him in no uncertain terms as to what I felt about him, his style of command and his way of speaking on telephone. Being a man with a brittle temper, he too started getting red in the face and commenced interrupting me. Very soon it developed into a shouting match between both of us. The decibel levels also reached quite high. [I was told later on by the staff of the brigade headquarters that we were audible to most officers during the peak of our verbal battle!]

I then produced the signed form that I was carrying in my pocket and gave it to him. He asked me it was my NPV Form as I was no more interested in serving with him and that this was my formal application to be withdrawn from active airborne duties. It was natural that once I am a non-volunteer for airborne duties I had to be posted out immediately. This was especially so because I was the CO of a large unit in the parachute brigade. The commander said, “I'm not accepting this. Take this bloody paper back!” “No, I'm not taking it back. You can do what you want with it but from this instant I’m no more the CO of 60 PARA”, I replied.

I did not wait for his reaction but got up, gave the perfunctory salute to him and stormed out of his office. I was in the same mood even when I reached my unit and my office. A couple of hours went by when my adjutant again told me that the commander wanted to speak to me. I told him to inform the commander that I did not want to speak to him. Nothing happened for another hour. Then I was informed that the commander's vehicle is at my unit gate. By the time I could get out of my office to accord a proper reception to him, the commander had already alighted from this vehicle and was walking towards my office. I greeted him in the appropriate military way and escorted him to my office. He sat down and told me that he had come to take me to the officers' mess for a beer. Still fuming I declined the offer. He then said, “Kenny, it's a bloody order. Be there in the mess within half an hour's time.” He did not wait for my reaction but stood up, put on his cap and walked out of my office with me in tow. He got into his vehicle and zoomed away without a word.

Initially I was in a quandary as to how to react to this invitation. But I decided to take up his invitation and reached the brigade officers' mess in about half an hour's time. I could discern that the commander was already inside the mess because his vehicle was parked in the porch. I went to the bar and found him sitting on a barstool. He ordered beers for both of us. The barman respectfully placed two mugs of beer before us. We said, “Cheers!” and started downing the beer. There was an uneasy silence between both of us. Soon the mugs were empty and were dutifully refilled by the barman. Half way through the second mug of beer the commander said, “Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you come and shout at me in my office? And how dare you sign your NPV form?”
“And who the hell do you think you are?” I asked.
“I am the commander of this bloody brigade and I'm your boss” he said.
“You may be the commander of this brigade but you are no more my boss as I have already signed my NPV form and given to you” I replied.
“This damned piece of paper” he said pulling out my NPV form from his pocket. “I'm going to show you what I am planning to do with this”. He then proceeded to tear it into bits and put it in the ashtray on the bar counter.
“Kenny, you idiot! You and me go a long way back and is this the way to behave with me?” he asked.
“You too should have thought about it when you yelled at me on telephone in the morning”, I countered.
“OK! OK! Let bygones be bygones and let us forget it”, so saying he extended his hand. I took it and we both burst out laughing. He then said, “Let us get our girls!”. We sent our vehicles to get our wives. They soon joined us and our session in the bar went on till 5 PM.

Uneventful and routine days and weeks followed. Soon it was time for the initiation of the ACR. I was acutely aware that some superior officers kept incidents like this in their mind and reflected the effect of these in the ACR when they wrote it. So when the commander called me to see the ACR he has written on me and to sign it, as it was a mandatory requirement, I was more or less reconciled that there will be a blotch in the report. I went to his office. He produced the completed ACR before me. I went to the page where my signature was required, signed it and handed it back to him.
“Don't you want to see what I have written?” he queried.
“No Sir, I am not interested in seeing. It is your prerogative to write whatever you felt like”, I replied.
“I insist that you see it”, he said handing back the ACR to me. I started going through it and found that he had graded me as an ‘exceptionally outstanding officer’, the highest grading which can be given by an initiating officer when writing the ACR. In the ‘pen picture’ he had described to me in glowing terms and had made a categorical statement that he would love to have me by his side as a commanding officer when going into battle. This was the ultimate accolade any commander could give to his commanding officers. I was quite moved by this and I told him, “Sir, I don't think I deserve such a report”.
“It is not for you to decide and this is what I really feel about you”, he retorted. I said thank you and came out of his office.

Years later, when I was in the position to see my entire career dossier I came to know that this ACR by this commander was the best I ever got during my 20–odd years service as a paratrooper in the Indian Army. I remember with great affection and respect this short–statured but large-hearted soldiers' soldier who never carried any grudge in his mind. As he is no more gracing the earth with his presence I pray that his soul is resting in peace and comfort in the heavenly abode.

1 comment:

  1. Sir, great article, I am fascinated with your life story, and writing skills,
    Regards,
    Jaskirat sanghera

    ReplyDelete