I was born in a military family a few months before partition of India in 1947. Early years were spent in military cantonments and at the age of nine I was packed off to a residential school which resembled a miniature version of our esteemed National Defence Academy. Strict discipline at every step, special focus on physical and outdoor training with high quality education supported by a variety of extracurricular activities dominated the eight years in school. Food was generally good and sumptuous since military norms were applied for rations. Honesty and integrity still prevailed over dishonesty and corruption among those in authority, therefore students were well looked after. Teachers were not only learned but also adept at either a sport or some other activity like dramatics, debates and writing. Most were very committed and took pains to fill the place of parents as much as they could. However when it came to discipline, they were part of the old school and spared no one – irrespective of lineage. It is therefore not surprising that most students passed out from school as teenagers of character with a ‘work hard and play hard’ approach to life.
A military career was not only the first choice but perhaps the only one for most of us as we reached final year in school. Within weeks of passing out from school one entered the portals of National Defence Academy (NDA) at Khadakvasla. Suddenly words like discipline, physical training and hard work had totally different meanings. Compared to the routine at NDA, school life seemed like a breeze. Competition became a buzz word where each cadet tried to outdo the other at each step. Yet there was no enmity or jealousy when others fared better. One was never tired, irrespective of how little one slept. A senior cadet was always right, even when he was obviously wrong. After a few initial weeks of pain and aches, a ten mile hike with full combat gear became a walk in the park. Drill square was a place where one stomped ever so hard wishing to leave a mark on the hard black tarred surface. The starched crease of uniform shorts was always razor sharp at any time of the day. In first few months the cycle issued for commuting was more fortunate than the cadet himself since for most part of the day the cadet carried it on his head instead of riding it. It was here one learnt the art (or science) of learning academic subjects while dozing in classrooms. Possibly the subconscious mind came to fore to help cadets as excellence in academics was as important as any other military subject or outdoor activity. A few months into this institution and a boy was transformed into a young man ready to face any challenge that the academy threw at him. Three years at NDA, followed by one at Indian Military Academy in Dehradun and the conversion from a boy to a confident Officer and Gentleman was complete.
Yes, life in military was not only good but very purposeful too. Standing watch in freezing temperatures in Nubra Valley in Ladhakh, bordering both Pakistan and China, was no mean task. Braving scorching desert temperatures and getting nearly roasted inside an armoured vehicle in Rajasthan during summer was an experience of a life time. The constant danger of fighting an invisible enemy in Kashmir valley or Manipur and not knowing when one would be hit from which direction were places only for real men. Rescuing civilians from floods, tsunamis and other natural or manmade calamities, when those designated for the same failed, was indeed very satisfying. There was no chest thumping or beating of trumpets to announce to the world about what had been done or accomplished. It was a very simple way of life – a task was accepted, completed successfully and then it was back to the barracks. In between there were periods of tranquillity, learning and fun during some peace postings or while doing training courses in Mhow, Pune or Wellington among a host of other places. Invariably one met old friends in these places and the camaraderie made one forget all those hard times. These breaks also rejuvenated one for another round in Ladakh or North East or the borders along Western and Northern fronts. There was never a dull moment in all the years spent in uniform since one was always learning something new and different. One could hardly have asked for a more fulfilling life.
An important aspect that one did not realise at that age and time was the fact that we had been cocooned in our own small but disciplined and well organised world with very little exposure to the real chaotic world outside the gates of the school, academy and military cantonments. For us life had became binary much before the electronic revolution of the nineties where everything was white or black, right or wrong, on or off and so on. There was hardly any place for different shades of grey in one’s life. Respect towards authority and adherence for law and order came naturally. If comfort was available one relished it. If it was not one never cribbed or groaned and took the discomfort without batting an eyelid. Travelling became a part of life that helped one to see the real India and make a lot of friends from different parts of our diverse country. Where else could a young man still in his twenties hope to see places like Manna Pass in Uttaranchal, Karakoram Pass at a height of 19200 feet in Ladhakh, Nathu La and Moreh in North East or the beautiful desserts of Rajasthan with their gleaming sand dunes on a full moon night? The journeys to these exotically beautiful places took one across the length and breadth of the country by rail, road, horseback and the ever dependable two legs given by the almighty. On rare occasions one even had the privilege to be flown in an air force plane or a helicopter. Work hard, play hard and party hard were the guiding principles of life with honesty and integrity being a given in all walks of life at each step.
So what did the eight years at school, four years of military training and nearly twenty five years in uniform teach one? The first twelve years instilled some deep fundamental values in a young mind that have stood me, and others who went through a similar route, in good stead throughout our lives. The subsequent service in military not only revalidated all these values but also added a few more. Some of the more important values can be summed up as below:
- First and foremost all I know is that I am an Indian and India is my country. At the same time I also learnt that all others living in this nation were as much Indians as I was irrespective of their cast, creed, colour or religion.
- The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.
- When it comes to religion, I understand that in India there are many religions and faiths. No religion is superior to another since all guide you to become a good human being. I learnt that religion is not something one flaunts like an expensive accessory or practices with an ‘in your face’ approach. Today I have the wisdom to visit a temple, church, Gurdwara or a mosque with equal reverence since in the final analysis there is only one God.
- In the world there will always be those who lead and others who are led. I understood that there will be leaders at all levels, sometimes nominated and at times thrown up by circumstances as per need. For a mission or task to be completed, not only leaders at all levels have to do their bit but each member of a team or group has to do his bit. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In other words this implies that while a leader is essential, in reality it is team work that sees you through where each member of the team is equally important – irrespective of his status or position. Therefore never berate your subordinates or feel superior because of your hierarchical position.
- Another important learning was that responsibility and authority always go hand in hand. Practicing authority without taking responsibility or passing responsibility to others without giving due authority is always counterproductive. As a corollary this also means that if you claim credit when things go right, you should be equally ready to take the flak in case they do not. The latter is always more important.
- Military training and life in uniform made one realise that there are routine tasks, difficult tasks and at times extremely tough and dangerous tasks. What one has to realise is that given the will, courage and self belief, there is nothing like an impossible task.
- Ensuring development of one’s subordinates is as important as one’s own development. An organisation is only as good as its people and therefore the need for continuous development at all levels.
- It was a taboo to discuss any matter related to salaries or remuneration since money was never the driving force for a career in military.
- Last but not the least, a man must always respect and be courteous to ladies irrespective of their status.
Then the inevitable day came when one had to shed the uniform and find his way in the civilian world outside. A world where being a Hindu, Muslim or Christian came before being an Indian and societal classifications based on caste, creed or vocation were still relevant. A society where ‘my religion is superior’ has become the catch line and many are ready to sacrifice their all at the behest of some unscrupulous leaders who propound such erroneous teachings. For some it is a taboo to visit another’s place of worship while some others deliberately practice their religion with an ‘in your face’ approach. Political and religious leaders worry only about their personal interests and fortunes at the cost of their own people. If that calls for keeping their flock poor, uneducated and under-developed then so be it. Most leaders and government functionaries only want to exercise authority and exploit their power for personal gains; no one worries about the responsibility that goes with it. When things go wrong they scoot and lay blame on one and sundry but if something is right they are always around to take credit even if they had nothing to do with it. If there is a difficult situation at hand most leaders and those responsible are conspicuous with their absence. They resurface only when normalcy returns to shed crocodile tears. Unethical business leaders usurp thousands of crores of public money by design with connivance of political leaders and those responsible for looking after public money. Corruption, dishonesty and double standards rule but there are very few takers for honesty and sincerity. Chasing money, by means right or wrong, is the most preferred past time. It is indeed a very different world outside.
Initially it is a cultural shock and there is a strong urge to go back. But that option is not available anymore. This gives rise to a conflict between preserving ones values as learnt while in uniform or to do a volte face and follow the maxim ‘while in Rome do as the Romans do’. It is here where the old adage ‘once a soldier, always a soldier’ comes true and the soldier in one prevails. As one goes along one realises that not all is lost. There are some very genuine and sincere people around in all walks of life including politics who also subscribe to ‘nation first’ theory. It is then that a man who has shed his uniform starts looking for avenues to see how he can be more useful and be a part of the ‘nation first’ brigade even in his civvies. Unfortunately that continues to remain a dream for most as there are very few such openings available. Here are men who, while in uniform, were not only good in their assigned military jobs for decades but equally adept at filling in for their civilian counterparts when they failed in their areas of expertise. How else can one explain why military personnel excel in controlling riots when police fails or carry out relief efficiently during natural or manmade calamities when the administration is all at sea or even run power plants, water plants and nuclear establishments if the need so arises? But when the same man retires he is viewed as someone fit only for low key administrative and security duties. This lopsided logic results in most ex-servicemen accepting mundane jobs that hardly do justice to their core values and abilities. These are men who have stared death in the face but refused to blink first – is any other testimonial required? Perhaps it is time that the powers to be find ways to harness and exploit this time tested manpower available year after year in overall interest of the nation.
Finally, it is time the nation ponders over what somebody said long ago “I never wanted a military man but then I met one – and my NEVER changed to ALWAYS.”
Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.