Siachen Experience#2: When I turned Infantarian
At a time when our country is being divided over being Rightist or Leftist regarding events at JNU and with the reservation based caste fault lines opening up in Haryana, I am reminded of a Life’s Lesson I learnt early on. The best Lessons are learnt faster through experience. No amount of courses that you attend prepares you for what you would face later in life, and if you are a fast learner, you come out successful. This is true for every walk of life and more so for us faujis.
Way back in 1994, I went up the Siachen Glacier to be the officer responsible for the Northern Glacier’s Air Defence. I was responsible for the troops and the Air Defence Systems deployed at various places to protect our troops from any misadventure from air. I had the good fortune of walking up with the then Second in Command of a very highly decorated Infantry Battalion. This person was a brilliant Officer who later became a Lt Gen and commanded Delhi Area and was seen few years back, during Republic Day, leading the parade.
After the Battalion completed its tenure of duty, it de-inducted, but I was left behind awaiting my relief who was nowhere to be seen. Another wonderful Battalion replaced the previous one. A fantastic officer Col VG, commanded it. When Battalions move into glacier, they beef up their own officer strength by getting officers posted in from their sister battalions. This unit too had its share of officers posted in from all units. Despite that, when they had to send an officer to all posts, they ran short, partly because of medical casualties that kept occurring.
Soon the only person left behind in the Battalion HQ, a Young officer who was the Adjutant, was required to move ahead to a post. The CO required help to run the HQ. He looked around and found me twiddling my thumbs. He asked me to perform the duties of the Adjutant of the Infantry battalion. Now, I was confused. I was an Air Defence guy, and why would I do someone else’s duty, and that too become an infantry battalion’s Adjutant, sitting atop the highest Battalion HQ in the World? After all, I had my responsibility to look after my own boys.
So I took refuge by saying that I needed my AD Commanding officer’s permission. He was sitting miles away at Leh. I knew communication would be near impossible to get through. But the Infantry CO was smarter than me. He conveyed it to the Siachen Brigade Commander, who was a terror from the Parachute Regiment. The Brigadier must have given a piece of his mind to my CO. In the evening I got a call, in a feeble voice that crackled and was barely audible, from Leh, where I understood that I needed to take on additional responsibility and help the Infantry Unit. Having failed in my attempt, to refuse my CO, I decided that I will NOT do the work as far as possible. After all seniority in the Glacier is decided on the number of days you stayed on top. I was by far the longest serving guy at that moment in Northern Glacier. No CO could bulldoze me around. –with three stars on my shoulder and all of 25 years of age, I was confident of taking on these scheming CO’s.
Next morning, I ambled into the Battalion HQ at my own time, thinking the CO would have figured out a way to sort out his problem of shortage of officers. There was no one in the Fibre Glass Hut except Col VG. He was handling 4 telephones all at the same time and trying to get the strength in each of the patrols, induction/ de-induction parties and other movement details. He looked up, did not utter a word and continued to do the work. This flustered me. I expected him to scold me for not coming on time to take up the assigned role, instead he just respected my decision not to support him, and just asked if I would have a cup of tea. It shamed me to no extent. I just could not see a CO work while I sat around. I walked up to him, and without uttering a word, grabbed the phones from him and started to do the work. I had observed the previous adjutants do their work and I was well versed with the procedure and knew all the people who tele-reported every morning and evening to the Adjt in each Camp – up and down the glacier. As I sat down and expertly did the job, Col VG observed me for some time and then remarked, “You are better than what I thought”. He left me alone thereafter to do my job.
With that started our fine relationship. He trusted me like his own unit officer. I did the job well, sometimes even exceeding my own expectations. I befriended each and every Company Commander who confided in me their problems. I tried solving them. One day one Company Commander told me that their boys were not getting letters from home as quickly as they would like it. The letters travelled from the base camp through people who came up, once in a while, and it was wet or torn or mis-routed by the time it reached the various posts, and of course received very very late. Not every post had the luxury of a helicopter landing with the mail bag. I thought about the eagerness of the company commanders and their men, who must be expecting the letters from their loved ones. Especially of that Company Commander who was newly married.
I hit upon an idea. I had my course mate back in base camp from Army Service Corps who was responsible for supply air drops. I told him I shall organise the Load Manifest Officer of the Unit to deliver packages containing letters sorted out for each post to him at the Base camp. My friend’s duty would be to pack it well and enclose it safely with the supply para drops that would be done by Mi 17 choppers nearer to the post. However there was every possibility of a para drop falling into a crevasse. The Company Commander agreed to this new mode of delivery of letters and said that recovery from crevasses would be his headache if it ever happened. The first drop took place, it was a neat drop. The men of that company were extremely elated to get letters so quickly. So all companies requested me to implement this for their locations as well. And probably for the first time, men in Northern Glacier got their letters on the same or next day as it reached Siachen Base Camp. You can imagine their morale rising higher than the mountains.
Once we were told that all our radio transmissions were being monitored from across the border and that any operation of ours or planned artillery firing was known to them well in advance. One of the Company Commanders in a forward post happened to know Tamil. Therefore for any further operations, we used to speak in Tamil and convey the orders. That way we foxed the Pakis and achieved good results.
My tenure as the AD Gunner Adjutant of an Infantry Battalion came to a close in a month from then, when my relief walked in. I started getting desperate requests from the company commanders to volunteer to stay more and help them. I couldn’t agree to it as I had already stayed 30% more than my share and any further stay would seriously impact my health. We bid good bye with great camaraderie.
Col VG taught me great leadership lessons with his cool mind, calm demeanour and sharp intellect. Through his actions, he taught me that once in uniform, we rise above the petty regimental issues and work as one. He had no issues in accepting me as one of their own. His magnanimity raised the bar. He was able to motivate me to work more than any other person. That is True Leadership that I learnt from experience.
Many many years later, because of this experience, when I was posted in J&K in a counter insurgency outfit, I never asked anyone about their lanyard or parent unit, I just trusted individuals based on their capabilities, as people who would rise above their uniforms / lanyards and serve as one.
And herein lies a message to my countrymen. How wonderful would it be for us to – Rise above ideologies, above parochialism, above sectarianism, above politics of caste, creed, region and religion, and live and love as one- Just One – Indians!
This is my tribute and a Toast to that great Battalion, Col VG, wonderful Officers and men who accepted me as their own. Here is how they would greet you, and I would like to greet you all similarly before I close…….! Jai Badri Vishal!