When we join a new setup certain things strike us as different from what we are used to. We can either make a note to change things which appear as not okay or make efforts to effect the changes straight away. I joined 23 PUNJAB in Dec 98. Capt Sanjay had been my cadet at NDA. He had been the ADC to Gen Bindra, our GOC in Sikkim. He was my important known link in 23 PUNJAB. He was also the leader of the junior officers in the unit and that did help.
4-5 youngsters led by Capt Sanjay took me to a meal at a “dhaba” the evening I landed in the unit. I could sense the energy in them. They were hungry for success and keen to take the battalion high. They needed guidance from me to do so. I felt I was ready to lead them even as the Second-in-Command (2IC).
23 PUNJAB Quite Different from 20 PUNJAB
23 PUNJAB was different from 20 PUNJAB. Major aspects are analyzed below:
Ultra-safe: No PT!
On my first day in office I found that the PT session had been cancelled because in foggy conditions there was a risk of accidents. I spoke to the CO and got his approval for alternative arrangements for PT without risking exposure to road traffic. There would be no more cancellations of PT. PT does not get cancelled where I am in control of things.
Our CO was a meek guy. We got along well. He gave me a very large free-hand in preparing and participating in professional and sports competitions, unit training and administration. For the first time in my professional career I was getting an opportunity to plan and execute things at this level with a considerable amount of time at hand under a stable environment.
Being Bull-dozed by Higher HQ
The staff at Brigade HQ was used to bull-dozing their way through the unit. I slowly curtailed that. Let me give an example. 23 PUNJAB is famous for two major things in our history. One of course is the Laungewala Battle and even before is the story of “Baba Harbhajan Singh”. The link to his story is given : Baba Harbhajan Singh Temple Near Nathu La Pass, Gangtok | Baba Mandir (holidify.com). A local journalist visited my CO and the latter told him about the entire Harbhajan Singh story. This got published on the front page of “Tribune”. In due course a question on the issue was raised in the Parliament. Questions were asked by the Army HQ from us. It was customary for our CO to leave such issues to me to handle. I replied that the CO had an informal chat with a person on the Baba Harbhajan story and did not know that he was a journalist and so should not be held accountable for an act of commission. About one week later I got a call from a Col at the Corps HQ handling the subject. He told me that no one in the Corps HQ believed our story and asked me to come to his office and help him draft an honest reply. I told him that you have got this reply from the Amritsar Division GOC. It would be appropriate to raise such questions with him and that I had no intentions of going to his office either now or later and that he should never call me up on an official matter ever in the future. Within 5 min of getting this call, I called my Cdr and told him as to what had transpired. He had earlier told me on the subject, “I only hope that your CO does not start speaking the truth, once he is pressured.” I had told him, “Let us hope so.” I again got a call from the Col at Corps HQ. He asked me as to why did I report this matter to my Cdr and it was a very wrong thing that I had done? I told him that what I had done was absolutely correct and his conduct was wrong. I later found that this same Col came as a special guest for our “Laungewala Day” celebration and our troops went to maintain his garden. The staff realized that they could extract favours from our CO in his personal capacity but not officially from 23 PUNJAB, because things had changed.
No Company Fund
In 20 PUNJAB we were highly “Atmanirbhar”. We generated funds at company level. I was the leading fund generator. I was accomplished in generating income through means which were often not above board. The NDA taught policy of “beg-borrow or steal” was used practically everywhere. In 23 PUNJAB there was no concept of generating company funds. Depending upon the need, money was given to the companies by the battalion regimental fund. As a consequence, I entered a society which had a sort of centralized election funding after growing up all my life in an India like system where parties generate funds using all sorts of means. I realized very quickly that there were more benefits in this system than demerits. It kept the society much cleaner. I knew a lot of methods of fund generation and could use them to improve the financial health of the unit.
Improving State of Funds
CSD profit was the only source of battalion funds. Jalandhar station has a large number of ex-servicemen and thus sales were good and so also profit. The pipe and jazz band also gave us some profit. I enhanced the soda water factory by adding soft-drinks of multiple flavours.
Improving Quality of Food/Rest for Cooks
To improve the quality of food I started a plan of central procurement of ungrounded condiments by a central board monthly. We then grounded the condiments centrally and gave it to the companies. The bulk handling and procurement of ungrounded condiments reduced the cost greatly and from the savings we could add things like Soya products for vegetarians, vermicelli for sweet dishes and tamarind for “Chutney”. Portable “tandoors” were created and given to the companies to prepare “tandoori-roti” on nominated days. Menu had to be prepared and adhered to by all. Sunday was a holiday for cooks and others did the cooking. Cooks are quite hard pressed in units.
Improved Standard of Training
By laying down tough standards for fitness for all and similarly in promotion cadres for fitness, shooting and knowledge the overall standard of the unit was gradually brought up.
Cross-country/ Shooting Competition
In an inter-company cross-country competition, and an officers & JCOs shooting competition I participated and beat all. A loss in shooting was okay but losing to a 39-year-old guy by young officers in their 20s was an embarrassment. It energized them.
In an attack exercise of the Division with troops I got a good opportunity to train the battalion in tactics and also commanded Charlie Company, the leading assault Company. Cdr witnessed the training of the 3 battalions to determine as to which battalion should lead the assault. The other battalions’ approach was very cautious and characterized by drill square type movements. We were much faster in doing the job. The Cdr chose us to lead the assault. The umpiring staff, interested in showing the performance in a poor light, declared me as a casualty in the beginning of the exercise. Lt Vipin, with less than one month’s service, led the assault very well and our battalion performed creditably.
Kargil War: May 99
The Kargil War resulted in our being deployed in our operational area, South of Amritsar for over 4 months. Some interesting incidents from this period are narrated below:
· Camouflage. I led the battalion in deployment. My CO had ordered that the camouflage should be of the highest order and our GOC who would fly over the defences in the morning should not be able to detect our troops at all. I told him not to worry. He was very happy to note that the camouflage was very good. He then ordered me to take him around the deployment areas. He was shocked to note that we had erected practically no tents and the cook houses and ammunition was stocked mostly in vacant school buildings and empty sheds next to tube wells. Thus no camouflaging was needed!
· Don’t Drown in Sukar-Chak Nala! A large number of border villagers were leaving their homes and moving to relatives located away from the borders. I used to keep advising them not to leave their areas and that we were there for their defence. I stopped one Sikh gentleman who had vacated his house and was moving to the rear. I asked him where he was going? He said, “Assi Lahore jange”. We were standing next to Sukar-Chak Nala. I told him, “Khyal rakhin, Sukar-Chak mein na doob jayin!”
· Pakistan Will Not Attack! I collected villagers of Wan and Rajoke and addressed them to not be scared and that we were there to protect them. I was telling them about safety precautions during shelling and other stuff. The Sarpanch of Rajoke was sitting next to me and so was Sub Maj. He told me that they have seen war earlier and know these things better than me. He requested me to tell the villagers that Pakistan will not attack in this area. I said I will not do so. He was demoralized. My Sub Maj asked me as to why I did not accede to his request. I answered him that when Advani, the HM cannot say so, then who am I? Moreover, I added, that once they know that there will be no war then they will be less cooperative than what they are now. He understood my point.
The deployment was gradually reduced. I found a suitable person to command all the troops deployed in the brigade on the border. Thus I came back home to a permanent location two months after the bulk of the people had done so.
In the initial days of our deployment an important incident occurred. One Jawan of Alfa Company, who had to settle some enmity back home decided to run away with a carbine and ammunition with an intent to commit murder. On the day of the event I was the officiating CO and CO had gone to Jalandhar for some work. In addition to being the 2IC, I was also commanding Charlie Company, located 20 min away from Alfa Company. The Jawan ran away before 5 AM and I received the information around 4 PM. When I informed the officiating Commander, he was very much annoyed. During our talk I accepted that I should never be promoted beyond my present rank. I informed him as to what all I was doing to get the soldier and the weapon and ammunition back. I asked him as a senior what further advice he had for me. He did not have any. I then offered him a piece of advice, “Sir, it is a serious matter, you should inform the GOC”. He gave me a collection of expletives. We later brought the soldier back and he was dismissed from service and got one year of imprisonment in civil jail.
Move to Arunachal Pradesh
I barely got a couple of months at a permanent location at Jalandhar when I got ready to move to Arunachal Pradesh as OC of advance party of our unit in the summer of 2000. I shall discuss my Yangtse tenure in the next blog.