Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The 1971 Reunion--some pixs

Different avatars of the Bhutan Army Chief!!

Har Ek Friend Zaroori Hota Hai--Army style

Ten days ago, on a chilly mid-November evening at Lucknow’s Gorkha Regimental Centre, a unique light and sound show kicked off a reunion of men who were boys 40 years ago!
These boys-turned-men belong to the 39th Course of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and/or the 48th Course of the Indian Military Academy!
Gen. Batoo Tshering, Gen. Ahluwalia, ACM Charlie Browne: course mates all

Gen Ahluwalia & Bhutan Army chief Gen. Batoo Tshering
In many ways, it’s an exceptional batch which passed out of the hallowed academies a fortnight ahead of the schedule since General, later Field Marshal, Sam Maneckshaw wanted all them to straightaway join the war against Pakistan in November/December 1971. 

Two of them died in action, within a fortnight in what is now regarded as India’s finest military victory after Independence.

Four decades later, a handful few are at the zenith of their careers.

Among them: India’s current Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK “Charlie’ Browne, Bhutan’s Army Chief Maj Gen. Batoo Tshering, India’s Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal KK Nowhar, Central Army Commander, Lt. Gen. VK Ahluwalia and C-in-C, Air Force Training Command, Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja, just to name a few. Lt. Gen Shankar Ghosh, Western Army Commander, could not attend the reunion since he was unwell.

But there were others too, hundred plus friends and colleagues, once together at the NDA—all of them still call the Academy the world’s finest training institution--but who retired at various stages of their career from the armed forces but certainly not from the business of life! 

Wing Commander KJ Bhatt, a passionate singer, performer, for instance. Or Brig Rajeev Williams, who handles CSR for a steel major after shedding the uniform but can still hit the right notes with the guitar or the keyboard as he would do during his academy days.
Their joie de verve, their zest for life undiminished.

As these officers and gentlemen—at the apex of their careers—spent two days catching up on the years gone by, long forgotten moments rushing back into their conversation with every peg poured into their glasses, we were sometimes silent bystanders, sometime participants.

Me and my better half Neha were privileged to be there as guests of Central Army Commander Gen. Ahluwalia and the elegant Mrs Ahluwalia. 

In fact we were the only odd couple. At least a decade younger than the assembled gathering and a civilian couple at that, we could have felt awkward but it is a tribute to the spirit of the men in uniform and their wives, especially Gen and Mrs Ahluwalia that we never felt left out.

Gen. BatooTshering (r) sharing a lighter moment with a course met and me
No minute detail escaped the attention of Gen. Ahluwalia’s Staff officers--Brig. Uppal, Col Brijesh Pandey, Lt. Col. Pradeep and the young Maj. Sriram Joshi. 

The get-together kicked off—appropriately—with a heart-felt and beautifully put together and choreographed tribute by the men of the Gorkha Regimental Centre to the martyrs of 1971.

As dusk merged into the night, the spirits soared high. 

Long forgotten faces brought back a flood of nostalgia. Friends and buddies who had done everything together—from the morning PT to front roll and from a hurried breakfast to a tough bout of boxing together—started recalling smallest of incidents even as their wives listened in part bemusement and part detachment.

 For some of these friends have known each other longer than they have known their wives. Some started out together at the age of eight in Sainik Schools and have continued to nurture the friendship half a century later! The bond stronger perhaps than the relationship between husband and wife!

Although many of them have been meeting each other at reunions and regimental get-togethers occasionally, this was a gathering like no other. Buggy rides, a horse race at the Lucknow Race Course, a Shyam-e-Awadh of ghazals, a round of golf and some shopping thrown in, there was a variety of entertainment to keep everyone engaged.
Enjoying an evening of Ghazals

As the final hours ticked by, it was left to Air Chief “Charlie” Browne to belt out Que Sera Sera along with the inimitable KJ Bhatt and the ever-smiling Rajeev Williams to bring the curtains down. 

For the 39th NDA Course this was certainly a reunion to remember. 

For us—me and my wife—a once-in-a-lifetime experience that allowed us a small glimpse into the lives of men in uniform and what they generally are—warm, loyal to friends through thick and thin and full of optimism no matter what the circumstances.

As we said our good byes, I wondered if Airtel borrowed the theme of its latest ad campaign—Har Ek friend Zaroori hota hai—from the camaraderie and bonding that only soldiers seem to develop!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My piece on India-China spat


The cancelation of the latest talks over their disputed border, allegedly due to Chinese pressure on India over the Dalai Lama, is likely to stoke growing tensions.
Clear signs of an approaching chill in India-China relations had been evident for the past couple of months. But the final confirmation that it may have arrived came Friday, when the two sides called off a crucial round of talks on their complicated boundary dispute, just two days before they were to begin in New Delhi.
Although officially both sides maintained that scheduling issues were to blame for the postponement of talks, sources in the Indian establishment said last minute and “unacceptable” demands by Beijing forced New Delhi to call off this round of negotiations.
Both sides have tried to play down the abrupt postponement.
Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said: “We are looking forward to the 15th round of special representative talks in the near future, and the two sides remain in touch to find convenient dates for the meeting.”
In Beijing, too, the China’s Foreign Ministry maintained a similar line. Spokesperson Liu Weimin said: “Currently the two sides are still in touch with the specific arrangements, including the date of the meeting. I don’t have information at this stage.”
The countries’ two special representatives, India’s National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, were supposed to oversee the finalization of the “Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs” resolving disputes in certain pockets on the 4,000 kilometer-plus line of actual control (LAC). The stalled defense dialogue was also expected to restart in the aftermath of the New Delhi meeting.
But it has emerged that one of the key reasons that India has walked away from the talks is that Beijing asked India to prevent the Dalai Lama from speaking at a Global Buddhist Congregation starting in New Delhi on November 27. When India refused, China reportedly demanded cancellation of the conference itself, which India refused outright to do, arguing that it was a religious meet and not a political one.
Analysts in India also feel Beijing has raised the pitch in the wake of a tense East Asia Summit in Bali last week when most ASEAN nations, India and the United States asserted their right for a multi-lateral solution to disputes in the region, including those in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Beijing’s increasing presence in Pakistan-held Kashmir – something that India has objected vigorously to in recent months—is another wrinkle in the already complex relationship.
Belligerent statements in China’s state-run media have, in India’s view, only added to the tension.
“India jitters at the sight of China gaining prestige in Asia, in particular, in South Asia and Southeast Asia, and takes China's ever-growing regional influence in recent years as a strategic encirclement to target and contain India,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on its website earlier this week. Referring to India’s “Look East” policy of consolidating its ties with Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Japan, the commentary said New Delhi is trying to “instigate” China's neighbors to contain its influence. 

But Chinese media is also frustrated at an Indian plan to raise a Mountain Strike Corps (that includes more than 100,000 soldiers) along their border. According to the People’s Daily, the “action is completely not worthwhile. Currently, India has 40,000 troops in the disputed area, and if the further 100,000 is deployed, the total number of the troops will reach 140,000. In an era when precision-guided weapons are developing rapidly, everyone with common sense knows that concentrated troops could be eliminated easily.”
Influential Indian analyst Jayadeva Ranade, a former top official in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, notes: “Interestingly, Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (the China Youth Daily), the Chinese Communist Youth League's official newspaper, first published the article that was later reproduced in the People’s Daily.” According to Ranade, Communist Youth League First Secretary Lu Hao, author of the original article, is reputedly on a fast-track up the ranks of the ruling Communist Party. 
“China's military literature confirms that China intends any future conflict to be of short duration. China’s armed forces will open future conflicts with massive offensive cyber and electronic-jamming operations to cripple the adversary's infrastructure, equipment and command systems,” Ranade wrote in an opinion piece published by DNA. “This will be followed by precision missile attacks to overwhelm the military and political leaderships’ resolve. Ground-based attacks will follow.”
“The latest People’s Daily article underscores this. Recent articles in China’s official media have additionally publicized major military exercises conducted by the People’s Liberation Army in the remote vastness of the Tibetan Plateau opposite India.”
India’s recent forays into Southeast and East Asia, including a resources exploration deal with Vietnam,  haven’t gone down well with Beijing, and have further added to the growing chill in a relationship that appears headed for a period of significant strain if not outright hostility in the coming months. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

What the fauj and parents taught me--from the Salute magazine

Last week, a friend in the Army, reacting to my latest documentary on the endless-and thankless-war that Indian soldiers fight in Kashmir, paid a heartfelt compliment by calling me a ‘soldier-journalist’. Flattered though I was for a moment, the remark also embarrassed me no end. For I have never donned the uniform. To me soldiering is the only profession in which men and women go beyond the call of duty and therefore deserve the highest respect in the society. To me soldiers are a breed apart. In my chosen profession of journalism, this attitude is regarded as partisan. Many feel I am blind to many sins of commission and omission that the armed forces personnel seem to indulge in these days.

The charge may be partially true but I am not ashamed about it mainly because our forces are still way above the rest of the society when it comes to upholding the values of honour, teamwork, professionalism, ethics and camaraderie. But let me also confess: the biggest reason for my soft corner for the forces comes from the fact that I too am a fauji kid and sub-consciously somewhere deep down I still live by a dictum one learnt as a kid: Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana (Do your duty to the best of your
ability and don’t seek rewards).

When I look back, I realise that my father, who retired as a subedar major in 1982 and with him my mother, followed this practice in their daily life and passed it to us three brothers without making a song and dance about it. Throughout my 28-year career as a professional journalist, I have been fortunate that I could follow this principle without even realising that I was practicing what my father did all his professional life. Now, wiser and littlemore experienced than before, I am in a position to analyse some of the reasons behind the moderate success that each of us-three brothers-have managed to achieve in our respective  professions.

Adaptability, my biggest strength, has been a second nature through our growing years thanks to the frequent transfers and constantly changing schools. In the 1960s and the 1970s, ordinary soldiers — and my father was one — had a tough life in the Indian Army. They lived far from their families, toiled hard for a pittance and yet possessed a dignity that is not found in an ordinary civilian. The soldier never complained, never whined and never expected anything in return for what he did. I changed eight schools in 10 years
and studied in three different mediums- English, Marathi and Hindi before entering junior college in 1978.
Sub-consciously, without ever preaching to us, our parents drilled a motto into us: “Take life as it comes.”
And we did.

We met the challenges head on. I remember travelling from Pune to Lekha Bali in Arunachal Pradesh by train in the late 1970s. It used to take us four days and five changes at Kalyan, Allahabad, Baruani,
New Bongaigaon and Rangiya before we could reach the destination.

Reservations were never confirmed.

Dad was never with us.

One lived by one’s wits and survived. Frequent transfers meant frequent dislocations and packings. And unlike today, there were no movers and packers in those pre-liberalisation days. So we learnt to adapt.

To be responsible for our actions. Discipline and punctuality was given.

Colleagues laugh at me when I start getting uncomfortable if I am late for an appointment. They laugh at the fact that  I sleep by 10 pm and up by 5.30 am. But I know no other way. I mentioned adaptability earlier. My parents not only taught us how to adapt and accept but also practiced the principle. The biggest
proof is my being a journalist. In the summer of ’83, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were

I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30 and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold.

I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of combined defence services exam that December.

That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow.

The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for
their sports pages. Having played all games from kabaddi to squash and from kho-kho to cricket as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held.

Five days later, they called me for an interview. With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 700 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday. At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me, “When can you join?”

 My answer was, “Whenever you want.” He said, “Can you join, tonight?”

And I agreed to join that very evening. Then I became a journalist.

Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put  together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am. Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot.

My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a junior commissioned officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father
accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time was “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam.

My parents moved back to Pune soon after but again luck smiled on me. Neha married me in 1988 and continued to encourage me to take risks with life and with career. Never ever complaining that I chose to take up risky assignments touring deep into north eastern states, reported the Kargil war, the Sri Lanka conflict, when I could have played safe and remained a desk bound journo.

Today those risks have paid off.

I can say with a bit of  immodesty that I can compete with the best in business without feeling inferior.