Clement Town Dehradun was a pretty little suburban cantonment. Built on the northern slopes of the Shiwaliks and jostling for space with the Doiwalla reserved forest range, it was a quiet and peaceful settlement. A clean mountain stream named Suswa formed the southern boundary of the cantonment. Originally, the barracks of Clement Town were built to house the Italian prisoners of war in India. The Italian prisoners included the troops captured in North Africa and the families of Italians incarcerated in India on declaration of war between India as a British possession and Italy as a part of the Axis Forces.
The Joint Services Wing was established in a portion of the cantonment that was closest to the stream and the forest beyond. A road that connected the camp to the highway between Dehradun and Saharanpur went past the camp and crossed the stream over a concrete ford and then entered the forest and the hills towards Doiwalla. Actually, a small portion of the camp existed on the other side of the stream and contained the rifle firing range and the MT (Motor Transport) repair section. It also contained our field craft grounds.
Coming north from the stream, a huge mast stood majestically overlooking a big parade ground. This was our Drill Square. There was a flat platform below the Mast that was called the ‘Quarter Deck’. We were taught to follow the service protocol of saluting while entering or leaving the Quarter Deck as is the custom aboard a fighting ship. Adjacent to the Drill Square was our old PT ground that fell into disuse when a new PT ground was developed in 1950. Behind the drill square and the old PT ground, blocks of barracks formed the living quarters for the cadets. One block of barracks housed one squadron. When the 3rd Course joined the JSW in Jan 1950, the fourth squadron was formed. The second mess hall also came into being. A toilet block of four billets was shared between the cadets of two squadrons. Over the last sixty years, Clement Town has changed a lot. I have had to edit the Google Earth picture above quite a bit to show our living quarters, some portions of which do not exist any more.
Behind the cadet’s living quarters, there was a narrow drain. Beyond that drain there was a domestic layout for the married officers of the staff. Living quarters for the JCOs and Other Ranks were located elsewhere in the cantonment. Our class rooms and other facilities were situated further north of the area marked as the New PT Ground.
By looking at the map above it is difficult to visualise the grandeur of the place where we had arrived as a bunch of sixteen-year olds. How does one do justice with mere word to the wonderful climate, to the clean air and to the stupendous view of the mighty snow-clad Himalayan Ranges reflecting the early morning sun from the south on a winter morning? I am tempted to add one more Google Earth depiction that would show the lay of the land. In this map it will be easier to visualise how Clement Town sat next to the low and ancient Shiwalik range and how on facing north and east we were treated to the magnificent spectacle of the snow-capped Himalayas from Bandarpunch to Kedarnath and beyond.
The setup at Clement Town was very clearly a temporary arrangement. There was no intention of setting up a permanent infrastructure there. We lived in hutments and worked in similar surroundings. Policy decision to build the NDA at Khadakvasla had already been taken. We knew that for us it was an existence in barracks only. We however did not mind it at all. We were kept busy from sunrise to dinner time and we loved it. There were however some practical problems. The Commandant’s office was in Prem Nagar, at the ‘Military Wing’. The senior directing staff therefore had to go down to Prem Nagar for meetings and briefings. Life at Clement town for cadets was perhaps more peaceful than the cadets at the Military Wing. So, what do we, the young sixteen year olds of January 1950 remember of that delightful place? It would be difficult to put all the fragments of memory together though I know that it would make a pretty picture if I succeed. There is so much of memory from such a long time ago mixed with subsequent layers of memory with so many people who have lived and loved and played and died with us and around us over these six decades and more. Yes, difficult it will be, but I shall still try because I am tempted by the possible outcome.
I remember my confusion over the language of communication. Hindi was a language totally unknown to me. I had not studied it at school and had no occasion to use it at home. What I had been expose to as Hindi through our cook at Jessore (Jivnaath Dube of Munger) or our household help at Muzaffarpur (Ram Sharan) was more Maithili than Hindi. The two languages I was most familiar with (Bangla and English) did not need verves to be conjugated for gender as Hindi did. In modern Bangla even adjectives and pronouns are free of gender modification. I was there fore being laughed at mercilessly because of mistakes in forming sentences in Hindi correctly. I also took some time in figuring out that Punjabi Bombaiya and various Poorvaia dialects actually are not considered ‘Hindi’. While all these verbal styles were OK for loose talk, only Khadi Boli infused with a little bit of Urdu/Farsi was accepted in the Fauj as Gentle Tongue. (It took almost 20 years after the 50s for the Urdu/Farsi influence to wear off and for Bhojpuri/Awadhi/Bombaiya to muscle in.) I was more comfortable with Sanskrit rather than Farsi, and that did not help.
In those early days immediately after we had gained independence, the composition of the Services was quite different from what it is today. In those days, the bulk of the forces came from the northern states; Punjabi and Dogra, Jat and Rajput. They were supplemented by a large number of Gorkha troops who enjoyed a special relationship. There were a small sprinkling of Assamese, Madrasi (meaning everyone from Andhra or Tamilnadu or Kerala) and a small handful of Maratha and Mahar troops. The eastern and central states were very poorly represented. This situation had been very deliberately brought about by the British after the 1857 uprising. Recruitment was restricted to only those social groups who had found it advantageous to side with the British during the uprising for many complex reasons. For the rest who had revolted, a new nomenclature ‘Non Martial Races’ was coined and applied. The structure of the British Indian forces was tinkered with many times between 1870 and 1922 to design a force structure that would find it difficult to respond to an all-India identity. A ‘regimental identity’ was fostered as the main focus for every regiment. At the same time, each regiment was so structured that social divisions were built in to be exploited if an uprising came about. For example, every Rajput battalion had a company of Punjabi Musalman and a company of Hindutani Musalman troops. The troops were also deeply brainwashed about the inferiority of the so-called non-martial races of India. In January1950, barely two and a half years after independence, the after-effects of this structured social engineering were still very palpable. We were to form the first generation of Free India’s military. We had to create a brand new All India image for ourselves while we had to inherit and digest an existing army built to look after the interests of a colonial subjugator. An evolutionary revolution within the armed forces was to be brought about without degrading its capability in the face of very grave challenges. A tall order, but we were able to fulfil it with élan. We were young but most of us were also idealistic. At the same time, most of us were deficient in our knowledge about ‘other’ parts of India. At Clement town, we had the opportunity to discover the true enormity of our country through our intermingling with our friends from every corner of the land. We all had arrived at clement town with our own bundle of ignorance and load of prejudice behind our firm convictions that values that we brought from home was so great that it would see us through our lives. How long did it take for us to replace all that ignorance with new knowledge about ‘our’ country and ‘our’ society? How long before all our prejudice lay shattered at our feet in the face of all this new information that we became immersed in? How long did it take for us to realize really how immensely diverse yet fundamentally united a society we formed? I do not think any of us would be able to answer these questions precisely even to-day because the answers varied so much between us individually. But ultimately, and very quickly, from a bunch of Bong / Sardi / Bhaiya / Pahadi / Ghati / SIB / Anglo boys we were transformed into a group of young Indian Faujis. It was a marvellous transformation that took place without us ever becoming conscious about it.
While I write about these impressions that have been lying forgotten in the rearmost recesses of my memory a question arises in my mind. All these things that had happened to us would have happened in any case irrespective of where were trained; why should I connect all these memories to Clement Town? Logically, I should make no connection between these boyhood memories and that pretty cantonment town. Yes, but can I separate them emotionally? Unspoken and unsung, that beautiful place had grown on us for the two years that we spent there in our youth. It is now well neigh impossible for any of us to think back of that time and of us in those days and not think of that beautiful place: Clement Town Dehradun.