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A cult of toughness and eccentricity
By K.S. Bajwa

THE British officers were well known for their reserve that often bordered on frostiness. They left their role models as their successors, who were catapulted into positions of authority. Since they had not gone through the process of balanced growth and grooming, they hid themselves behind impenetrable facades of icy reserve and projection of rank.

A general was known to have stipulated that junior officers would not raise their eyes before him. Many were the dictums coined and enforced. "Do not speak until spoken to" and "junior officers are to be seen and not heard" became watchwords.

Not knowing any better, many of the senior officers of the early post Independence period were exponents of the cult of toughness. Ruffled feathers and bruised egos were commonplace. Even then some of them met their unexpected matches. A well-known general, who died in harness, had a great reputation for cutting everybody around him down to size. When talking of him, the invariable postscript that his bark was worse than his bite did not help the hapless victim who faced the full onslaught of his fury. While commanding a brigade in the rather isolated Tanghdar valley, he impartially laid down his authority right and left to reduce his commanding officers to the level of mere school children.My heart sank when I was informed that he was coming to visit my company. We were located in bunkers and dugouts on a hillside. There had been fresh snow, but we had taken great pains to clear the snow and spruce up the area. I received the very stern-looking Brigadier on the road and led him up into my location.

Going around one of the platoons, the freshly cleared path was our undoing.

The Brigadier slipped and fell headlong into the deep snow about 10 feet below. Instantly the platoon commander, a canny old jat, who was following the Brigadier, too hurtled head-long into the snow. After we had retrieved the Brigadier and before he could blast off, he asked the old jat how he too had fallen. His reply was "When such an exalted officer fell, how could I remain on my feet?" found the soft core in the Brigadier. The blast never came. After that whenever the tough Brigadier came he would seek out the old jat and both would yarn together. Years later when the battalion was located at Cooch Behar, this Brigadier stopped by while one his way to his headquarters at Shillong, the first person he asked for was the old jat. Perhaps a fall in the snow had penetrated the cultivated facade of toughness, penetrated his soft human core and forged an enduring human equation.

Senior military commanders often display odd behaviour. Eccentricity is what immediately springs to mind. Rarely, however, are these quirks of behaviour cases of genuine eccentricity. Most often these idiosyncracies are a deliberately calculated exercise in image projection; to stand taller than your own inner perception. Personal insecurity, emotional complexes, uncertainty and wear and tear inflicted by a high pressure environment play their part in generating personal oddities.

Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamien was perhaps one of the most renowned recent exponents of calculated off-centre rhythms. His celebrated berret with two badges and his fierce ego trips, have inspired many others including some in the Indian forces to proclaim themselves as so and so of Kargil or such and such of Basantar or Karir.

Fortunately, however, the Indian Armed Forces have not thrown up really outstanding eccentrics though we have had our share of fixations. Carriapa, our first Indian Army Chiefs, detested the sight of hairy and spindly legs. He decreed that henceforth the soldiers will only wear trousers. There, we lost the elegant shorts a restful duo to the Indian summer. Then there was, Thapar, the Corps Commander, who rose to be a cheif enentually. He would see the night away with a whisky glass in hand swaying to the fiery tempo of Punjabi folk songs. His hot favourite was the ever-green "Lathe di chadar ute saleti rang mahiya". All self respecting and aspiring unit and formation commanders had trained their own folk teams or arranged to lay their hands on some especiallyfavoured group whenever the General came visiting. The whole corps echoed to the delightful strains of "Lathe di chadar" and all was well. It was another matter that during his tenure as a chief, the "Lathe di chadar" became the covering of thousands of brave Indian soldiers so callously scrificed in the self invited fight against the Chinese in 1962 in the Eastern Sector. Not much was left to cover our faces in shame at this futile national humiliation.

To a Brigadier, motor vehicle accidents were an anathema. A soft-hearted man with a verytough exterior, he felt deeply grieved, whenever soldiers lost their lives or were hurt in an accident. He also deeply deprecated the loss to government property. A perfectly laudable outlook but, it was his particular approach to counter measures, that really made him stand out.

First, he frowned upon the use of transport and we were a brigade strong on its legs. And when an accident took place, whatever little use of transport was permitted was immediately denied. Vehicles were jacked up on wooden blocks for months on end. Human backs were all that the unit was left with to transport its needs. This was not all. The poor Commanding Officers and his Subedar Major,put on their battle gear including large packs and marched to the brigade headquarters to stand frozen while the brigadier vented his spleen.

In a different class were the two generals — one distrustful of his overloaded memory would jot down aides memoire on little chits of paper sometimes, in the middle of a dinner or a solemn parade and kept pocketing them. At the end of the day, he would empty his pockets out and a heap of chits would be left for his personal staff to decipher.

The other one carried a small notebook at all times. It lay on his bedside table before he went off to sleep. Ever so often, he would wake up and switch on the reading lamp to furiously scribble in the little red book before going back to sleep. Protestations of his hapless wife and, finally, a fairly solemn threat to walk out on him, did not cure him of his nocturnal confidences into his trusty journal. He was otherwise a delightful man, but sheltered within him, were such amusing streaks of odd behaviour.

In the armed forces, the awe of rank and unquestioned authority, perhaps give undue licence. Besides, there is a popular belief that unusual traits of behaviour add to the visible impact of the persona of a senior officer. Who could ever ignore the Brigadier who on his inspection tour would eye critically even a spotlessly clean barrack, march up to the high top shelf, climb up on the bed, run his hand over its invisible top and triumphantly bark at his deferential audience "Dirt!" or the Colonel, who would walk into the officers mess after the evening games, for a cup of tea with his officers switch over to whisky or rum according to the size of his wine bill till then, polish off a bottle and-a-half while holding court and around four in the morning paternally tell the officers, who had been busy swatting mosquitoes from their bare legs "Go and have your dinner boys". No wonder the mess refrigerator was always choked with uneaten dinners!Back

This feature was published on April 25, 1999

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