It was the summer of 1994 and my Unit, 17 Kumaon was stationed in Suratgarh, Rajasthan. Just as summer was peaking, the local transformer went out one fine night, with a bang. Fourteen days of hell followed, before they managed to restore the transformer. I remember that in those fourteen days, we would often go to the Officers Mess of 10 Sikh Light Infantry. They had a generator and were fantastic hosts. Other youngsters of my Unit were obsessed with football. They would watch the game with the concentration of a sniper stalking his prey. I, on the other hand, had no interest in football. I still don’t. For me, a sport was all about riding horses and showjumping. When I was commissioned into the infantry, I understood that from now onwards, I was the horse.
Well, I digress.
On one such sojourn to the 10 Sikh Li mess, I ventured a little further and heard the children of an officer speaking in fluent Punjabi. In the army no one thinks twice about these things and they don’t matter. But outside, it can create a controversy. Well, the officer was a Malyalee. And his children were speaking Punjabi inside the unit Gurudwara. They had come for the langar, as all kids do. Spiritual enlightenment was still decades away, if at all.
We had adventures in the blazing deserts of Rajasthan. Mahajan Field Firing Range, a few hours from Bikaner, was our happy hunting grounds. Field exercises were no fun but when the sun went down, the desert would come alive. Snakes and scorpions found their way into our boots. Yes, we had adventures. Staring at Fort Abbas in Pakistan was how evenings were spent. There were no TV sets there.
Shortly, the Unit moved to Gurdaspur. Punjab, glorious Punjab, with its green fields and hospitality was a stark contrast to the large nothingness of Mahajan. Soon, we settled down.
New to the station, 17 Kumaon was itching to celebrate but the one major Kumaoni festival, Dussehra, was still months away. My Paltan is a pure Kumaoni battalion with 100% Hindu troops from the Kumaon region. Officers, as is true for the entire army, are from all over India. Had it been Dussehra, 17 Kumaon would have been decked up like a bride. There would have been “kaal ratri” on the eve of the big day, a “Mandir Parade” on the following morning, followed by the ritual sacrifice, and then the “shastra pooja”. The famous Kumaoni “choliya dance” would have followed. Finally before we all went home, we would have the feast…the massive “bara khana” with the mustard-spiked Kumaoni “raita” as the centerpiece. One spoon of that raita would have your scalp tingling like you had a thousand ants crawling on your skull.
But as I said, Dussehra was still months away.
So, Colonel Lincoln Lewis Andrews, YSM (Yudh Sewa Medal), Commanding Officer of 17 Kumaon decreed that we would celebrate Janmashtami with equal fervor. We would show the Brigade HQs what 17 Kumaon was…our spirit, our traditions and our hospitality.
Officers were invited from the Brigade. The Brigade Commander was tied up elsewhere and sent his regrets, but never mind…everyone present would know that the “bhullas” were second to none. “Bhulla” means younger brother in Kumaoni and that is how troops are addressed in my Unit.
The Unit Mandir was spruced up and on the big day, we assembled at 2330 hrs (11:30 pm) at the Mandir. Col Andrews led the Mandir parade, and with the “arti thali” being passed around, the Mandir was soon reverberating with bhajans. Col Andrews was a boxer, and he sang like one. I was sitting right behind him and had to bear the brunt of his musical talent. But he was the CO and I was then a young Lieutenant. I kept my peace. Another reason I kept my peace was that Capt. RK Anuj, Adjutant of 17 Kumaon, was sitting next to me. He was also my senior subaltern. I had very valid reasons not to air my precious opinion.
17 Kumaon was caught up in the fervor of Janmashtami, and was led from the front by its CO. Whenever the bhajan reached a crescendo, Col Andrews would repeat the lines “Brij mein aayo mere Nand Lala” along with everyone. Suddenly, at 2359 hrs, one minute to midnight, everyone stopped singing.
The Unit Panditji gave a sharp command, “Mandir Parade saavdhan baith”. 17 Kumaon turned into a thousand statues.
Turning to the CO, he saluted and said, “Ram Ram Sahab. Sri Krishna ke janam ki anumati chahta hoon, Shrimaan”. Pandit Ji was asking permission from the CO to allow the birth of Lord Krishna. No one batted an eyelid. This was the Indian Army, after all. Traditions were everything. Izzat. Wafadari. Dastoor.
“Ram Ram, Pandit Ji. Anumati hai”, said the good Colonel, beaming.
A silent signal was given. Far away, half a kilo of plastic explosive went off. The cradle of Lord Krishna was slowly lowered from the ceiling. The hall exploded with bhajans.
It was at 0003 hrs, three minutes past midnight that the Mandir phone rang loudly. The CO was asked to come on the phone. Well, the Brigade Commander basically said that he was back. He had heard so much about the Kumaoni Janmashtami. Would it be possible for him to attend the celebrations?
Col Andrews was a war hero, with a Yudh Sewa Medal in Operation Pawan, Sri Lanka. The LTTE had feared him. But the Brigade Commander’s visit was a bit too much. But what could he do? Lord Krishna had “already been born”.
“You are welcome, Sir”, said Col LL Andrews, his throat obviously dry. There was nothing else to say.
A few minutes later, the Unit Panditji again said, “Mandir parade saavdhan baith”. Marching up to the Brigade Commander, he saluted and smartly said again, “Ram, Ram Sahab. Sri Krishna ke janam ki anumati chahta hoon, Shrimaan”.
This time it was the Brigade Commander who gave permission for the birth of Lord Krishna. The same distant explosion. The same cradle lowered gently.
There was much bonhomie and the “suji ka halwa” prasad was consumed in vast quantities. 17 Kumaon sang bhajans to its heart’s content. Subedar Gopal Singh Soin, the soul of our Mandir functions, raised his right fist and shouted “Kalika Mata ki Jai”. A thousand throats roared the Kumaoni battle cry.
Col. Andrews folded his hands, closed his eyes and whispered “Jai Ram Sarv Shaktiman”. The Mandir Parade was over.
As we stepped outside the Mandir and wore our shoes, I could see Col Andrews chatting with the Brigade Commander. He was beaming with pride.
It was on that day that I learned a valuable lesson. If you are an officer in the Indian Army, the religion you were born into is secondary. The religion of the troops you command is your religion. You live and pray with your men. And when the time comes, you die with them.
When a Hindu officer of the Grenadiers Regiment refuses a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day, because he is fasting for Ramzan, you know you are in the Indian Army. And when all the other officers from different regiments keep down their lemonade glasses in a show of solidarity, it sets you thinking. Who are these men? What are they made of?
I recently tweeted pictures of an Iftar function organized by the army in Kashmir. Trolls reacted the way they mostly do. The Indian Army was accused of minority appeasement, pandering to Muslims, feeding traitors and becoming “sickular”. I was almost made to feel as if the Indian Army was standing for local elections and Muslim votes were critical for electoral victory. I mostly don’t react to trolls when they fire at me. But this was different. If you don’t speak about the Indian Army with the utmost respect, expect a response from me. No attack will go unanswered.
Much as many people may hate it, the truth is that the Indian Army is both secular and liberal. Yes, the same army that has killed thousands of terrorists, defeated and dismembered Pakistan, stared down China and continues to sacrifice lives everyday in the line of duty. Fret as you may, this is carved in stone and defended by 1.2 million men and women with automatic weapons. It is not going to change.
Now, about the Iftar in Kashmir. Every Kashmiri Muslim is not a terrorist or a stone pelter. I go to Kashmir frequently. I do claim to have a little sense of what is going on there. There are many who oppose us. There are many who stand with us. And those who stand with us put their lives in peril to do so. They must be defended, whatever the cost. More importantly, they must be respected.
I am all for throwing stone pelters in jail. I am against ceasefire. I would love to see the Hurriyat leadership in prison till the day the sun rises from the North. I celebrate the killing of every terrorist. I am the strongest possible votary for vertical escalation on the Line of Control.
But the fact remains that Kashmir is a war on terror, not a war on the people. Our morality often exacts a price. So be it. We don’t worship Lord Rama because he was a powerful king. He is God because he is “Maryada Purushottam”. He is the most ideal of men. On the first page of the 2018 Indian Army coffee table book, there is full-page painting of Lord Rama. His morality is our compass. This is “dharma”. This is duty.
The Indian Army is not just a powerful army. It is also a moral army.
Politicians and the media have mangled secularism and liberalism beyond belief. Many Indians believe these ideologies to be architects of India’s impending doom. Nothing is further from the truth. Secularism is simply the separation of religion and the state. Liberalism is simply the ability to accept opinions and behavior different from ours. That’s all. In my book, there is no other definition. Our books, should we choose to look carefully, are exactly the same.
The Indian Army is all about what we value most in our life – honour, brotherhood, integrity, loyalty, faith, courage and morality. It is the defender of all that is right. The truth cannot always be defended with a pen, a banner and a candlelight march. Sometimes, it needs a soldier with a gun.
Ask anyone and they will tell you that our national flag has three colors. But it actually has a fourth color, invisible to the eye…look from the deepest recesses of our collective morality and there it is.
The fourth color in our flag is Olive Green.
Major Gaurav Arya (Veteran)
17th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment
#TheFourthColor #IndianArmy #MajorGauravArya #adgpi