The flash back....It all comes back in a flash!!! Your journey, aspirations, struggles, course mates, family and friends – everything engulfs you like the proverbial mist. The feeling when you walked past Khetarpal ground for the first time , the time when you were hanging on the 7th heaven, the feeling which you got when you reached the apex of Singarh fort with big backpacks, , the feeling of comaradrie when you carried the rifle of another course mate who was struggling to climb the Bhadraj peak, the excruciating pain when you continued walking even when your shoes had left your ankles bleeding, the feeling when you stepped on Antim Pag, the feeling when two stars were put on your shoulders by a teary eyed mother - everything comes back in a jiffy.
It comes when you are receiving your discharge certificate from the Chief in Manekshaw hall, or when you wear your uniform for the last time. It keeps on coming when you see your uniform hanging on the wall without donning you the way it used to do for last 25-30 years.
It also comes when the rude reality of No 3 Selection board hits you and you get the infamous tag of non-empanelled. For lucky ones, it comes little later when they see their name not getting listed in Higher Command list. Others get this a bit earlier - while signing a lukewarm CR (Annual Confidential Report) in front of their COs (Commanding Officers), not making to the staff college or when someone spoils their dossier for some stand taken in life.
It may also come when you see a mob of fanatics throwing stones at soldiers, it also comes when your own state uses lathis against your veterans, it also comes when you are not given your due perks by the organisation and it also comes when you see the status of a soldier getting eroded every day and your political dispensation counting the doles being given to the soldiers for sacrificing their lives on the line of duty.
The answer which your esteem demands from you is – Was it worth it?
The Soldier Stands Up
You suddenly remember people fading with flashbacks of their life memoirs, you recall people narrating their ‘after life’ experiences and pinch yourself – Am I fading?? Am I receding into oblivion? Is this the end? But then the soldier in you speaks up – I braved the times when everyone was sulking with fear, I ran the cross-country even when my body gave up, I braved bullets to rescue my friends on the LC (Line of Control), I overcame the harsh weather of high altitudes, I dodged the terrorists in jungles, I overcame the sleepy nights and I will overcome this too.
The ingrained unconsciousness speaks up – A soldier never fails, a soldier never fades, a soldier never gives up, only the direction changes, the soldier still remains a soldier. I have always defied the odds and will do it again – once again; for the last time!!
It’s never the destination which a soldier looks at. He is in the perennial journey, because that’s the way he loves it. It’s the journey which gives him the risks and challenges and it’s the journey which keeps him alive. The journey must never stop for a soldier.
For many of us, the journey begins in NDA (National Defence Academy, Pune). As a young lad of 17-18 years, you don’t even know what are you up to. The feeling of invincibility when you cleared UPSC written exam and your name was announced in the selected list of SSB candidates is just a distant memory when you approach the beautiful location of Kharagwasla. Suddenly, you hear people pointing at a huge dome shaped building in the distance calling it as Sudan block and then you realise that you are here!
You don’t know what do with the number which an officer gives you at the reception of Cadet’s Mess calling it as your academy number. You don’t realise the meaning of ‘Kilo’, ‘Hunter’ or ‘Fox Trot’ when he says that you have been allotted this squadron. You are only jolted from your slumber when you reach the barber shop and see your beloved companion hair deserting you for good. You get so used to this ‘fauji cut’ that you never get the old style again in life. Then the entry in squadron – OMG! What is this? You find few people rolling in bare backs on the tarmac, few are haunching, few are hanging upside down on the walls and few are just running aimlessly.
The cabin, the dresses, the kit, the flanks, the pals, the drill square, PT, equestrian classes, the gole market - everything becomes part of your being with your older self deserting you at a rapid pace. You forget comfortable mornings of your home and get used to getting up much before sun rise, you forget cajoling of your mom to eat ‘something’ and hog ‘anything’ like animals in cadet’s mess, you forget your girlfriends and just remember drill ustaad or the sergeant who is after your life, you forget driving bikes in civvies street and just remember lifting world war II cycles on your head, you forget your family and seek solace in counting sufferings of fellow coursemates and you forget living for comfort and just remember fighting for survival and preservation.
There are few bright spots like social science block where cadets go even without having any class to get a glimpse of few teachers (name withheld as it may cause heartburns to many), cadet’s mess where you actually eat if you are lucky, cafeteria where a brick of ice cream and 50 gulab jamuns are your staple or beautiful liberties to Pune which you remember just for meal at Purab restaurant and a movie.
The counting of DLTGH (days left to go home) is only worthwhile task for many and finally after six grueling months you board NDA express which roasts you for another 4-5 days till you reach Delhi or Jammu. The time passes like a dream and you soon find yourself standing in Khetarpal ground for your PoP (Passing out Parade). There are tears when you bid good bye to your air force and naval coursemates knowing fully well that this may be the last time when you are hugging many of them who were your shadow for these three years. But you have been trained to be a soldier, you can’t stop. You move on teary eyed to next stop of your journey.
The Chetwode Credo
The imposing hills of Mussoorie catch your imagination when you land in Dehradun for your journey at IMA (Indian Military Academy), the academy which is still the cradle of leadership for Indian Armed Forces. The Bhadraj peaks look beautiful and you realise later that you will be the one who will be scaling these peals in famous Bhadraj camp in your last term at IMA.
The Chetwode hall stands imposingly when you enter the main gate and you start feeling the aura of the profession which you have chosen willingly. The Maneskshaw battalion, the firing range, the gadda battalion, the delicious North Indian Mess food – you cherish each moment here. It’s here that you meet your Direct Entry coursemates for the first time. You feel better or sometimes superior but soon find that they are equally tough nuts to crack. The beer sessions of Saturdays, the smoking behind the bathrooms and massage given by barbers, remain deeply entrenched in your memories.
The beautiful memories you associate with Missouri hikes (sarson ka saag with some rum if you are lucky in cold clime) are a thing to cherish. Mid-term and end of term hikes are remembered for naughty getaways. It’s here that you actually feel the pull of Dehradun girls during liberty to the city. The routine of the academy makes you so dammed that you find already beautiful dames of the city as apsaras and many of us do fall here like rishi Vishvamitra.
The duration of one year is too ephemeral for someone from NDA and times flies. The camps are things to remember and it’s here that you find out ‘who is who’. It’s here that you find many high OLQ (officer like qualities) types panting and those who were just an average cadet outshining others. It’s here that you find that who are real soldiers and who are sissies. It’s unfortunate for the org that real soldiers who carried not only LMG (heaviest weapon of the group) and rifles of fellow coursemates who were panting miss out on their promotions as they were real soldiers and those who piggy backed on them make it to highest ranks as they were paper tigers.
Finally, the day comes when your parents arrive for your PoP. You put in your heart and soul in putting up the best show as your mom and dad are watching you marching. You do the convocation ceremony and finally the moment which you cherished for years – Two stars on your soldiers!! You are on the top of the world at this time. No joy is greater than in this universe than those moments for a proud cadet.
It’s also the moment of reckoning – you are now moving to the real world, the real army. Many of you move straight to operational areas where your units are deployed and real action awaits you.
The Action Starts
It’s the beginning of your true life. It’s here that you adopt a new life. It’s actually a rebirth for you. You become the part of life which your unit is associated with. If you join Gurkha regiment, you learn gurkhali customs, traditions, language and way of life. If you join a Dogra unit, you become expert in dogri songs in few years. In fact, officers become Dogras, Maraths Gurkhas depending on their regiments and forget their all previous identities.
You get embedded into your regiments, do your courses and move ahead in the hierarchy. At some point into your life, the loneliness and solitude reminds you of other responsibilities in life and you decide to get married. The beautiful years of married life, small breaks for various courses like JC and preparations for Staff College, keep you oblivious of the time which always keeps moving.
It’s here in the units that you see the real action. Most of the units are deployed in operational areas and you invariably end up in isolated posts maintained just by the grit of jawans or in high altitude where the sinew also freezes. You also get posted to CI (Counter insurgency) areas and are soon behind dreaded terrorists unleashed by our unfriendly neighbor.
It’s here that acts of valour and sacrifice are written and re-written. You read about your friends walking into line of fire to save their fellow soldiers and wonder if that meek and diminutive lad in academy had this much courage in him. You start writing obituaries of your fallen comrades and after few years even have fairly long a list of brave hearts. By the time you reach your retirement age, you look back and miss everyone who have left you in this journey.
The Treasured Soldier
Soldiers are not made in a day. It takes decades to select, train, nurture and groom an officer. The end product of these years is a dedicated, mature, worldly wise, patriotic and willing citizen who has not only given his youth and years to the nation, but is willing to sacrifice whatever is left of him for the nation. The nation need to recognize this soldier and cherish him.
Before the nation, the own organisation need to recognize its officers and their worth. Everyone has gone through the same selection process, the same training and has same ethos. Everyone has the same martial blood and will willingly do any sacrifice for the organisation. The arms and services allotted to him were not given as per his choice but were as per the organizational requirements. He went wherever he was posted to, did whatever task was given to him, did all the training which was required and was always loyal to the organisation. If all that was true, why the apartheid was brought in as a result of AV Singh committee? Why the divisions were created within coursemates and arms just to satisfy the false egos of a few? Why the talent is set aside and why it’s the lanyard which you wear count more than your competence.
If one studies German and French armies prior to the World War 2 or any other army in the history, the fall has always been preceded by reservations, apartheid and sycophancy. When an army starts recognizing lanyard more than its talent, it should be ready to accept the fall. A majority of the officers are already disillusioned with the present system and reforms must be brought in sooner than later.
The organisation need to instill initiative, courage and comradery amongst its officers. Instead of that, the culture which is getting ingrained is of ‘Yes Man’ because they are the ones who are getting rewarded. Anyone questioning the authority is brutally sidelined. The courage comes when you know that those in hierarchy will hold your hand. However, if you are jailed when you fire on terrorists crossing the red lines or are chastised for taking a bold stand, the courage will be talk of history. When a small mistake of a youngster is recorded permanently in his dossier, he will forget about initiative and will always worry about his backside. It’s the corrections and pat on your back which creates the legends. If the same rules were applied to armies of Second World War, Pattons and Guderians would have retired as inconsequential majors. When publishing an article takes six months of clearance, no bright spark will put across his points for betterment of the system.
It’s time to make major course correction in our systems and processes. The hierarchy needs to wake up and recognise the dissent and voice of the masses. Stop the apartheid immediately and recognise the merit. Stop reservations and let your work do the talking. Stop shielding in name of regimental spirit and stop haranguing those who have no one to hold their hand.
It’s still time that we can get back our glory of yesteryears when our commanding officers and generals were not afraid of speaking their mind and taking stand for their soldiers. If the same in not done immediately, more and more soldiers will fade into oblivion without even speaking. We need to stop the exodus of our elite into oblivion and get them back into the system before the glory of our army fades into history.
(A forgotten soldier)