Reminiscence Of An Old Soldier— 2

H Bhuban Singh

Read | Part 1 |Part 3 |Part 4 |

31. 640 NTE together with Supplies and Transport units of Army Service Corps, supporting Field Workshop units of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, two Pioneer Companies, Field Ambulance units of Army Medical Corps, Signal Units for communication and a Garrison Engineer were at Missamari and all these were under Colonel Vijh, Deputy Chief Engineer. Major Dhondy, the GE, was a jolly Parsi of Poona (now Pune).

32. The Officer Commanding of 759 Engr. Plant Platoon, was Capt. V V Soman, an Emergency commissioned officer of Second World War. He was a simple graduate and knew nothing about engineering work. So, he used to send me to Missamari to discuss progress of road construction. Col. Vijh was a bridge-addict and forced me to play bridge, as his foursome of bridge players were short by one. Though he bullied me for making wrong calls, anyhow I picked up the rudiments of the card game of bridge.

33. After working in NEFA for about one year, our unit pulled out to Range Hills, Kirkee, as part of HQ, 624 Army Troop Engineers, commanded by Lt Col JS Saund, a Sikh officer, who married an American lady and then migrated to USA after retirement. Major Dhaliwal, commanding 620 Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was our officiating Comdr. Engrs.

34. I had become a Lieutenant as Gazette notification of antedate of two years’ seniority was published. At this time, National Defense Academy (former JSW – refer para 8) got shifted to Khadakvasla with Major Gen. Habibullah as the first Commandant of NDA. Chief Engineer Southern Command, Poona had ordered 624 ATE to construct a gliderdrome to train cadets in gliding. I was sent to NDA, Khadakvasla, to execute the job.

35. ADC to the Commandant was Lieutenant (Navy) Bahl and film actress, Nutan was Bahl’s fiancée. Nutan used to attend Officers’ Mess parties and I saw Nutan dancing. Ultimately, they got married. Major L S Doss, of perhaps Madras Sappers, was a Squadron Commander. Anyway, after completing the required earthwork, which was inspected by Gen. Habibullah, I was permitted to pull out my detachment of troops back to Range Hills, Kirkee.

36. Sometime in October 1956, Headquarters, Southern Command Poona (Pune) gave 624 ATE, the task of extending Bhuj Civil aerodrome by about 600 yards to enable IAF fighter planes to land and take off because there were border skirmishes between Indian troops and Pakistani troops at the Rann of Kutch. We had to defend. An Infantry Brigade was given the task. It was commanded by Brigadier Ajit Singh Guraiya whose Brigade Headquarters were located at Ahmedabad.

37. Major Dhaliwal of 620 Electrical and Mechanical Company of Corps of Engineers, was our officiating Commander Engineers. I was again selected to execute this task. Our contingent of troops consisted of a Field Platoon of Bengal Engineers commanded by 2/Lt. Gupta, another Field Platoon of Madras Engineers under 2/Lt. Malhotra and an E&M Platoon from 620 E&M Coy of Corps of Engineers and a part of my Plant Platoon, under my overall command. We were about 150 strong.

38. When we reached Bhuj, we reported to the Station Staff Officer and he told us to go straight away to airport and camp there and discuss technical matters with the airport staff. Thereupon, we went to the airport, discussed the details of extension job required and camp-site where we were to stay.

39. In two jeeps, we officers accompanied by JCOs and senior NCOs, went to reconnoitre our campsite, living areas for other ranks, Officers’ Mess, JCO Mess, engineer plant and machinery parking area, vehicle parking area etc. before we moved in. I had a blueprint map supplied by Chief Engineer Southern Command. Having decided on what we are to do and also having decided on our working time, so as not to disturb normal civilian flights, we got on to our job.

40. Because of the fighting, Brigadier Guraya had established a TAC HQ at Bhuj, which was a tiny Princely State ruled by a Maharaja. Brigadier Guraya had deployed a Rajput battalion for the job of defending the Rann of Kutch.

41. The Rann was a treeless, shrub less, white and shining patch of miles of space without any road. Its area from Oxford School Atlas (70 km long and 30 km wide) is about 2100 square kilometers, nearly about the same size as Imphal Valley of Manipur State. During the monsoon, the Arabian Sea used to flood the Rann and deposit salt. When the 6” to 9” layers of salt dried up, the Rann became a white patch and the reflected rays of the sun used to glare our eyes. We had to use dark glasses or snow goggles to protect our eyes from damage by infrared rays of the sun

42. Once the salt layer got broken, vehicles used to sink in the wet and slimy sand. We drove our jeeps following old track marks or by use of compasses at night. Vehicles often got bogged down in the salty sand and we had to retrieve by pulling with another jeep and pushing by manpower if required.

43. We completed our work of extending the runway within about a month’s time. We worked at the break of dawn and stopped work during flight times and resumed work in the afternoon. Dozers and scrappers were the earth-moving machines used. Finally, we laid PSP (Pierced Steel Plank) on the extended runway. Field telephone cables were laid by our men and we got telephone connection with Station Headquarters, Bhuj. Colonel Bose, Deputy Chief Engineer of Southern Command, came to inspect our work. When told that jet fighters of Indian Air Force from Jamnagar had already made successful landings and take-offs, he was pleased. Brigadier Guraya left to become Major General and the first Indian IGAR at Shillong. He took over from the last British IGAR, Colonel Fryer. Now, the post of IGAR has been elevated to DGAR and a Lt. General is overall Chief of AR.

44. While waiting for railway wagons to be placed for loading machineries, earth moving plants and other equipments we went to company locations of the Rajput Regiment facing the Pakistanis. Since the Pakistan Army was a part of Indian Army about eight or nine years back only, their company weapon system like the old .303 rifles, light machine guns, two-inch mortar guns were the same.

45. We teased the Pakistanis by firing a few rounds of our weapons and their immediate response was interestingly belligerent. So the whole night, there would be a sort of Diwali. But since we were inside well-covered bunkers, we were quite safe. It was my first real battle-experience with live rounds, LMG fire and mortar explosions.

46. Our detachment moved back to Kirkee triumphantly in February 1957. We had our regular Commander now. He was Lt. Col. K K Marcus. About five decades later in March 2004, Brigadier E J Kochekan Commander, 9 Sector, Assam Rifles, Kangla, Imphal sent a message to me and expressed his desire to meet me and that he would send an officer to convey me to Kangla. I agreed to the proposal of Brigadier E J Kochekan and went to Kangla Fort on the appointed hour and date.

47. I was ushered inside a waiting room for important visitors, since the Commander was rather busy. Within one or two minutes Brigadier EJ Kochekan came. We met and introduced himself as a nephew of Lt. Col. KK Marcus and told me that Lt. Col. KK Marcus was his uncle, being his father’s elder brother. I expressed surprise as to how a Marcus had a Kochekan as nephew. Brigadiers EJ Kochekan replied that one of the two ‘Ks’ in Col. Marcus’ name was his surname that is Kochekan. I, later on met Major General EJ Kochekan as GOC of a Mountain Division somewhere in Manipur. We used to talk for hours on everything from gardening, flowerpots, social conditions, politics (with restraint from his side), culture, sports etc. etc.

48. Whenever I was in Missamari (refer para 32), I used to or forced to play the card game of bridge. Colonel Marcus was a bridge addict. Since I had rudimentary knowledge of bridge, he compelled me to play. Through Colonel Marcus, I picked up Contract Bridge and after retirement from Army, I managed to represent Manipur State in All-India Bridge tournaments conducted by Bridge Federation of India.

49. The Adjutant of Col. Marcus was Captain Bhagwan Das, who was a local Major and Military Secretary to His Excellency Sir Chandulal Trivedi, ICS KCSI, the Governor of Bombay. The leftover ICS officers were His Excellency Sir Akbar Hydari KCSI, His Excellency LP (Lalan Prasad) Singh, ICS, who was Governor of all seven states (Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh). More about LP Singh will be told later.

50. Sir Chandulal Trivedi and Lady Trivedi were issueless. Since Captain Bhagwan Das was married to Sir Trivedi’s adopted daughter, he was in a roundabout way, a son-in-law. Capt (local Major) Bhagwan Das was their constant dining table companion in the Raj Bhawan. Major Bhagwan Das would always bring a bunch of all the Bombay newspapers with red, blue and green markings indicating that ‘reds’ were MUST READ, the ‘blues’ MAY READ and the ‘greens’ CASUAL GLANCE.

51. While Sir Chandulal Trivedi was glancing through the newspapers with red, blue and green markings, Lady Trivedi would bore her husband with complaints and insinuations on the Government of Bombay Presidency for not supporting the welfare efforts done by Lady Trivedi. They would quarrel on the dining table with Sir Chandulal Trivedi murmuring and grumbling. And sometimes Lady Trivedy would walk out. But Major Bhagwan Das had to remain on the dining table till His Excellency Sir Chandulal Trivedi got up.

52. Capt. Bhagwan Das when posted as Adjutant of 624 ATE, used to call me ‘Bob’ perhaps shortened from Bhuban. The Governor of Bombay Presidency had a summer resort on the hill ranges of Kirkee. Captain Bhagwan Das used to take me in his old Studebaker car to Raj Bhavan, Kirkee and take Raj Bhavan tea and snacks at the bounty of H E Sir Chandulal Trivedi, ICS the Governor.

53. By early 1959, I was promoted to Captain and posted to Technical Development Establishment (TDE) Vehicles, Ahmednagar. TDE (Veh) was headed by Colonel Soli Jambusarwalla of the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as Chief Superintendent and very soon, I was joined by Captain Santosh Kumar Sarkar in the Testing and Proving Section.

54. Captain SK Sarkar is the grandson of Sir Jadunath Sarkar the famous historian of India. He married Reba Bose, daughter of Brigadier Bose, Commandant of CME. Brigadier Bose was the same Colonel Bose, who came to Bhuj to inspect my work as Deputy Chief Engineer of Southern Command. Sarkar and Bose families have become our life-long friends. On retirement, perhaps in 1961, Brigadier Bose became the first Director of Indian Institute of Technology, Powai.

55. Army officers, particularly the Infantry, were referred to and called colloquially as ‘pongos’ by Air Force officers, with whom we often liaise and co-ordinate our tasks, like the extension of Bhuj Airfield and trial landings by IAF jet fighters (para 40). I have not heard a Naval officer calling us Army officers as ‘pongos’, simply because Navy peoples were mostly in the high seas. Also we hardly had opportunity to meet them, on docks and harbors.

56. On being asked what they meant by ‘pongo’, they simply raised their eyebrows and replied that it was derivative of a kind of bird which could not fly – strange for bird which could not fly. I imagined, if or whether the word ‘pongo’ is a derivative of penguin, a biggish bird with little wings, which walked only. In fact, even if a penguin flaps its little wings very violently and fast, the lift force emerging from her wings will be too less to support her nearly ten kg weight.

57. Chambers Dictionary meaning of ‘pongo’ is a monkey or an ape or services slang for foot soldiers. Anyhow, the term as referred to the Army, seemed to have a derisive connotation for a tribe of peoples, which believed in tradition, culture, heritage, history, pride, custom and what not, and thus we are proud to be ‘pongoes’. Now, let me tell you some stories of the Army of early days, which may not be prevailing now.

58. A certain General Officer commanding an Infantry Division was inspecting a battalion of infantry. The Commanding Officer of the battalion was a hugely regimented officer. Generally, all COs were always referred to, as the ‘old man’ in the battalion. They were in fact, old and battle hardened at forty plus or nearing fifty because of frequent war. Even independent Indian Army had so far fought the following internal conflicts / wars:-

(a) Naga insurgency since 14 Aug 1947 (one day before Indian Independence) as Naga independence was declared by AZ Phizo, the Naga rebel leader at the instigation of Mr. Charles Pawsay (later Sir Charles Pawsay). Naga insurgency is still maintained at low level of conflict even now. However, it has lost its sting, because the Nagas had participated in Indian democracy for decades now. (b) Junagadh, a tiny state in Kathiawar (Gujarat) though surrounded by States which had already joined India, did accede to Pakistan by its ruler, Nawab Sir Mahabat Khan Rasul Khanji. Subsequently, because of the noise made by the majority public of Junagadh and by the rulers of neighboring states, particularly the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, and the Indian Army’s show of strength on the border of Junagadh in September 1947, the Nawab fled with his family in a tiny private aircraft belonging to the Nawab to Karachi and the State was ultimately merged into India in November 1947.

(c) Imitating India’s action in Junagadh, Pakistan carried out a full-scale invasion of Jammu and Kashmir on 22 Oct 1947 in the guise of tribal raiders. Maharaja Hari Singh forsook his wavering stand and promptly sought for India’s help. There was, then a Ministry known as Ministry of State (now extinct), which was also under Sardar Bhallabhai Patel, the then Home Minister. Sardar Patel sent Shri VP Menon, Advisor to the Government of India, Ministry of States to meet Maharaja Hari Singh in J&K.

(i) VP Menon hurriedly flew in and got the consent of Maharaja Singh to sign both the Instrument of Accession and the Standstill Agreement and reported the matter to Lord Mountbatten, the Governor General and Viceroy, who refused to send Indian Army without signed and written documents of Instrument of Accession and Standstill Agreement.

(ii) Immediately, VP Menon flew again with all the documents and got the Maharaja’s signatures. In this manner, one day was lost.

(iii) On the next day, IAF transport planes started landing troops with Indian Army. Major General Kulwant Singh’s Division landed at Srinagar Airfield and fanned-out to drive the intruders out who were firing small arms to IAF transport planes but without damage. It was a close shave for India.

(iv) Pandit Nehru then consulted Lord Mountbatten, the Governor General about the illegal invasion by disguised Pakistani soldiers. The Governor General advised him to refer the J&K issue to the United Nations Organization. A few days passed, before the complaint by India to UN Security Council could be lodged and admitted.

(v) In the quick counter attacks by Indian Army, the areas of Gulmarg, Baramullah, Akhnoor, Chhamb etc. were recovered.

(vi) Naturally, cease-fire was clamped by UN Security Council and in the bargain India lost about one-third the original areas of J&K to POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and to the Chinese.

(d) Hyderabad continued to be a thorn in the neck of India, with the Nizam wanting to be independent. So ‘police action’ on Hyderabad was undertaken by the Indian Army led by Major General (later General and Chief of Army Staff) Jayanto Nath Choudhuri in 13 Sept 1949. Military administration of the State was set up on 18 Sept. after the surrender of Hyderabad State Forces. Capt. Hartnet of NCC, Imphal and later Commanding Officer of 1st Bn. of Manipur Rifles belonged to Hyderabad State Forces.

(e) Realizing that India will not tolerate European colonial enclaves, the French willingly gave up Chandarnagar and got it merged into West Bengal and Pondicherry (now, Poducherry) became an Union Territory with a Council of Ministers under a Lieut. Governor, sometime in early 1950s.

(f) The October 1960 Chinese invasion on Tawang, Bomdila, Bhalukpong and Lohit areas and quick withdrawal after one month, just to teach India a lesson took place. The Chinese Red Army had to withdraw since the onset of winter would cut-off their supply line from Tibet and thus invite a counter-attack by Indian Army, or suffer loss of logistic support from mainland China due to snow. The Chinese Army would have starved to their deaths like the Japanese Army suffered in Naga Hills District and Manipur. (Refer para 5, where it was stated that the invading Japanese had to withdraw due to lack of logistic support.)

(g) Despite all these happenings, the Portuguese stuck on to their Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli enclaves. Sometime in 1961, Indian Army rolled into these enclaves and chucked out the Portuguese forcibly.

(h) The Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, in which Indian troops crossed the Ichogil Canal and made incursions inside Pakistani territory.

(i) The 1971 war for liberation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Here again, Indira Gandhi foolishly handed over some 93,000 Pakistani troops including Lt. Gen. Niazi. India could have used these POWs as our bargaining point.

(j) The Kargil War with Pakistan (June-July 1997) (I hope the months and year are correct). Here again Prime Minister AB Vajpayeeji’s train and bus link with Pakistan was a wrong policy. India should not have any diplomatic and other links with Pakistan, who are exporting Talibans to India. Indeed, all nations of the world should cut-off trade, commerce and diplomatic links with Pakistan. They are creating problems to Europe, America, Australia, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. Pakistan should be completely isolated and boycotted.

59. So, even Indian Army of independent India had fought ten wars during the last fifty years (1947-1997) in addition to sending troops to UN contingents all over the world. Therefore, reference to battalion or regimental commanders, as old men was or is still appropriate.

60. Going back to para 57, when the Infantry battalion was being inspected by the GOC, the first thing to do was introduction of all officers and JCOs of the unit by the overused and misused Commanding Officer to the General. At this crucial moment he forgot the name of 2/Lt. Gopal Singh and introduced the officer as 2/Lt. Gulab Singh, in order to give the impression that he knew all the names of his officers and JCOs. Anyway, Gopal sounded like Gulab. The young subaltern shook hands with the VIP without a word of protest.

*The essay is written by H Bhuban Singh.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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