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A Second Front

It has been quite a while since I wrote my last blog. For some reason, I had concluded that there wasn’t enough readership interest in my personal notes and critiques of the country’s system. But recently, a friend of mine who stumbled upon my earlier blogs urged me to continue. Moreover, I had promised in my last blog to write about my experiences as an artillery officer along India’s western border with Pakistan, but I hadn’t kept my word. So finally I made up my mind to venture into writing blogs once again.
My medical leave following the dynamite explosion in which I was injured while at Se La Pass was to last six weeks. I had returned home to Trivandrum sufficiently frost bitten to have my large ear lobes and nose turn dark, and skin pealing like a snake’s scales. It was a central topic in several hilarious conversations with guests when they visited our home, and I had a lot of stories to tell about my adventures in the snow-covered mountains of the Himalayas. Everyone wanted to know whether our army could repel another attack by the Chinese. Being a patriotic soldier, I was quick to assure them, but deep inside I was worried that with our inferior and outdated weapons, we might not be a match against a modern Chinese army.
As my vacation was nearing an end, I received orders to report to Pathankot, a military center in Punjab State, on the way to the Jammu-Kashmir sector. Similar to my earlier journey to Missamari, the last train station in the Eastern Sector, this was another long ride to one of India’s last stations in the West. In my absence, our regiment had already moved across the breadth of northern India and set up its camp on the outskirts of the dusty town of Pathankot – the meeting place of the three states of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.
I was hoping for a “peace posting,” but instead, we were once again put on field duty close to the Pakistan border. The historic town of Jammu was not too far away, but there was nothing much for a young man to look forward to there. As military officers, we didn’t get to socialize with civilians; there were no good eat-in places to hang-out, and no entertainment events to watch. This was an assignment that was to last the next two years.
Unlike my previous posting at NEFA where every day was an adventure, here it was all training and preparing for war against Pakistan if it was to break out (and it did a few years later). We would practice deploying at short notice along the flat terrain, sloppy fields, and short hills within the range of our medium guns to the border camps of the Pakistan military. It was in one of those field exercises that two of our officers got electrocuted when the tall antenna of their jeep hit an overhead high-voltage line. In another incident, a soldier who was psychologically disturbed shot an officer and fled from the camp. The entire regiment was deeply affected by these incidents, and the officers took special care to ensure that the morale of the soldiers did not remain low for too long.
Regardless of the setbacks, we couldn’t afford to be any less vigilant or prepared. Our commanding officer, Lt. Colonel S. L. Rege, often reminded us that we belonged to one of India’s oldest artillery units, carrying the brave traditions of the Marathas with their battle-cry, “Shivaji Maharaj Ke Jai.” He was an exceptional leader who commanded total loyalty with his decisiveness and forthright character.
With two field promotions in quick succession, I rose to the rank of Captain. Soon after, I was appointed as the Adjutant of the regiment – perhaps the youngest captain in the Indian army to hold that position. In the new role, my main responsibility was to ensure that the orders of the commanding officer were executed properly. I gave daily instructions for the regiment, and dealt with every major incident that took place within the units. I was now the custodian of top-secret documents such as “map of enemy territory” and “initial deployment plan,” and the first recipient of communication from Brigade HQ via the red telephone in my office in the event of a breakout of hostilities. Barely twenty years old and inexperienced, initially I was in awe at the critical responsibilities suddenly entrusted upon me. Over time, I got used to the work, careful to keep up the dignity of the office I held. Reporting directly to the commanding officer, I was to embrace the many valuable lessons of life -- loyalty, personal integrity, hard-work, commitment -- over the next year that would shape my own personality and prepare me for my future career as a businessman in America and as a social worker in India.
While we were busy with our own lives, hostile threats and news of troop movements across the border did not go unnoticed. But there was nothing we could do to prevent a conflict. None of the officers looked forward to fighting a war other than to defend in case the Pakistan army chose to attack. The chance to display bravery on the battlefield was not one of my ambitions.
I may get to write more in the future on my experience in the Western Sector during the two years I was posted there, culminating in my leaving the army for a life in America. Ever since, I had tried to leave behind all thoughts of my army life as I felt guilty for having escaped what my fellow comrades had met. But the memories of those who passed through my life – loyal soldiers and fellow officers – still remain etched in my mind that I, for reasons I do not fully understand, long to somehow connect with them. But I know that may never happen, and all I can do now is to pray that life is merciful and gentle for each one.


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