The Doon Express cruised out of Howrah. As the familiar faces on the platform receded from my view, I looked around trying to find other passengers on a similar journey. It was not difficult to spot the fellow travelers. Fifteen year olds traveling on their own in a first class railway compartment were not a very common sight in 1950. I spotted two in my own compartment. These two were Atindra Kishore Das and Chinmoy Nandi. We introduced ourselves. These two were also cadets for the Air Force stream of the Inter Services Wing of the Armed forces Academy Dehradun. They had been selected by the same selection process as I had been, but they had gone through the Selection Board a couple of batches before I did. I believe that there were about 17,000 candidates that year that had appeared for the test by the UPSC out of which about two thousand were examined by the Services Selection Boards (SSB). Ultimately 90 of us were called up to join the 3rd course of the ISW/AFA. Of these 90, 15 were for the navy and 10 were for the Air Force. That left 65 for the Army Wing.
The AFA had evolved out of the Indian Military Academy that was formed in 1932 at Prem Nagar just outside Dehradun. This establishment of the IMA was a part of the process of letting Indians join the armed forces at officer level that had also brought about the creation of the Indian Air force in the same year. These processes of letting the Indians join the forces as anything other that a foot soldier was a political decision. It came as an unavoidable (perhaps unforeseen) result of the political readjustment that came with the introduction of the new Government of India Acts of 1909 and 1919. The British military establishment was not happy about it. They however had to accept the political decision. The British military arm therefore decided to make this Indian entry into the officer cadre merely symbolic. For instance, after the training of first two batches of pilots for the Air force in 1932 / 33, the rate of entry for Indian Air Force was pegged at just two per six months for the next 7 years. Born on 8 Oct 32, the Air Force had to wait for almost ten years (and a world war) to grow beyond its first and the only squadron. Similarly, the IMA produced only 524 officers between December 1934 and May 1941. The situation of course changed dramatically as the war situation turned ugly for the British forces. Between 1941 and 1945 the IAF grew from one squadron to 10 squadrons. Similarly 3887 cadets were commissioned through the IMA between August 1941 and January 1946. After the war, the political environment changed completely. The British Government decided to transfer political power to Indian hands. An interim government was formed in 1946 with Pandit Nehru at the helm, Sardar Patel handled Home Affairs and Liaqat Ali Khan was given charge of Finance. A year later the country was partitioned into two new dominions of India and Pakistan. The new national government of India decided to train the officers of the three services together for the first years of their initial training. With this intention, the IMA was converted into the Armed Forces Academy or AFA. A new wing called the Inter Services Wing or ISW was created at Clement Town, some ten miles from Prem Nagar. The old IMA now became the Military Wing of the AFA. When this transition took place in January 1949, Brigadier Thakur Mahadeo Singh, the first Indian commandant of the IMA, was still in his chair. He was elevated to the rank of major General with this transition.
My journey from Howrah to Dehradun this time was on a familiar track. Get to bed after the train crosses Burdwan, wake up for morning tea at Dehri on Sone, breakfast served just before reaching Mughalsarai, have lunch by the time Ayodhya passes by, Evening tea near Lucknow, Dinner near Barreily and reach Dehradun in the early hours of day 3. We reached Dehradun on 30th January 1950. Collection of cadets at the railway station was a very organized affair. We were collected, identified, grouped and transported to the academy without any fuss. The trucks deposited us on an open tarmac separated from the main drill square by a road. A magnificent mast overlooked the drill square. The cemented platform below the mast, we learnt later, was the ‘quarter deck’. Some cadet appointments manned a reception desk. We stood in line, surrendered our call-up letters and were handed an arm band in return. I was assigned into ‘Able’ Squadron, No 2 Division. A tall smart fair complexioned cadet stepped forward in front of our group. He was introduced to us as our Squadron Cadet Captain – or SCC. He sported three brass stars on his left breast. His name was Mahendra Pratap. He was a Naval Cadet. Another Cadet sporting two stars on his breast stepped forward and marched the cadets belonging to No 2 div towards the squadron lines. He was VP Yadav – the Division Cadet Captain (DCC) for No 2 Div. Just as we were about to be marched off, a siren blew and we halted. Every one on the field sprang to attention. It was 11 O Clock in the morning of another 30th January and the nation was paying its homage to the Martyrs with a two minute silence. (Does India go through these motions of honour even now? I do not seem to notice it any more in the city life that I live today.)
Today, when I try to recollect my impressions of that January morning I come up with a very mixed bag of recollections. Some snapshots stand out crystal clear in my memory while some others are obscure and hazy. Tantalizing shadows that move across a vividly painted background. Our course comprised of merely ninety cadets: 65 + 15 + 10 for Army Navy and Air Force respectively. Of this lot only about a third had reported that morning. Some had come in a day or two earlier and a few reported later in the evening or on the morning next. Our initial booking in was therefore quite rapid. VP Yadav would have marched just seven or eight of us to the 2 Div billets. Yet, the overall impression in my mind is of having arrived at a huge unknown place where everything I saw was in some sense a bit of a discovery. The size of the drill square and the imposing mast on the quarter deck, the evident purpose and rhythm of movement in every move of the soldiers and SNCOs, the impressive self confidence of the appointment cadets taking charge of the new arrivals impressed me vastly. The biting coldness of the breeze, the sight of the Aravallis rising gently in the south, the glitter of the sun bouncing off the snowcapped Banderpunch range of Himalayas in the north, the mixed use of Hindi, English and a bit of Punjabi all around me made me aware of the fact that indeed I have arrived at a destination quite far removed from what I was used to. I was elated, exited, a bit apprehensive and perhaps a bit unsure, but I was certainly enjoying this bagful of emotions.
The first sign of regimentation that was to form an integral part of my life came in the form of the arm band, a rectangular piece of light blue flannel with the numbers 372 stitched on it. I was the 372nd cadet to join the academy. That number was my new identity. I was required to wear it on my arm at all times except wile I was asleep or in my bath. This was to continue until I passed the so called ‘Drill Square’ test. This piece of my accoutrement was issued to me as a part of my signing in on arrival. I was asked to just put it on and never take it off!
VP Yadav marched us off to the billets after another wail of the siren indicated that the period of remembrance was over. We were allotted beds in rooms meant for four cadets. Two of the beds in my room were occupied by senior cadets. The senior cadet in my room – referred to as our cabin to satisfy naval traditions – turned out to be another Sen. Gour Kanti alias GK Sen was from the first course. The other senior cadet turned out to be one Madan Jit Singh, also of the same course. The fourth bed was allotted to a newcomer like me; a lanky frail looking lad named J M Nayyar. Both the senior cadets as well as Nayyar were Army Cadets. Our regulation black trunks (we had to purchase one before joining the academy) were already parked on the verandah with our personal numbers chalked on. Nayyar and I helped each other to carry those in and place them at the foot of our respective beds. There were four identical wooden cupboards in the room and there were four chests of drawers; one of each for each cadet. On the inner side of the cupboard door was an annotated picture showing how the cupboard was to be arranged. There was a marked place for every thing from handkerchiefs and ties to caps and socks. The shirts and the trousers were to be folded neatly and kept just so while the underclothing were not allowed to be kept anywhere other than their allotted spot – all neatly rolled. These instructions were not some theoretical guidelines. We had to perform – and – on the double. The two seniors stood behind us and made sure that we did perform up to the mark. Poor me! I had never folded a shirt before that day – ever. I had to fold and refold every piece of wear over and over again until GK said OK. I was tired hungry helpless and without a redress. As I finally closed the cupboard door, I was ordered to run to the mess hall or else miss my lunch. Without a second thought I ran.
The huge mess hall was quite imposing if Spartan in its décor. Able and Baker Squadrons shared one mess hall while another similar hall was used by Charlie and Dog squadrons. (The new phonetic code of alpha Bravo Charlie Delta etc. had not come into force as yet. Hence the old phonetic code of ‘Able Baker Charlie Dog’ was in use. Cadets of Dog squadron were of course not amused!) Most of us newbie cadets were not used to western table manners. A senior cadet at each table therefore broke us in and explained the techniques of using the correct implement for each dish and in the correct manner. Fortunately, this little bit of etiquette was not novel for me, having been tutored at home before I was allowed to venture out. The quantity of food on the table was more that adequate, but the taste took some time to be acquired. The officer in charge of the mess was a Sikh officer of huge proportions, both vertically and horizontally. A Major from the ASC, I am quite sure his girth would have exceeded 60 inches. What were really nice about him were his ready smile and his genuine desire to feed the cadets well. I feel somewhat ashamed that I have forgotten his name. Still, I will never forget him!
The second dose of regimentation was administered through an announcement made in the dining hall by a senior cadet during lunch. All cadets of the first term (which meant we the Joe sops) were to obtain a ‘proper’ haircut at the barbershop by this evening. What on earth was a ‘proper’ hair cut? I had just had my hair trimmed before I left home, and I thought they were nice and short already! I could find no one to question. I therefore went to the barber shop with the rest of the guys and had my head almost shaved off. Fortunately I was no Samson; I survived the ordeal effortlessly.
The process of induction seemed never ending on that cold January day. Immediately after our haircut we were called out to be measured for our uniforms. Once that ordeal was over we were required to collect our initial service kit that comprised of Boots, PT Shoes, Putties, FS (Field Service) Caps, Shoulder badges, brass buttons, webbing attachments of various description including back-packs, belts, harnesses, pouches, and anklets. A curious little pouch named ‘house-wife’ containing needles, thread, buttons and pins, was also issued. The issue of service kit was followed by the issue of a bicycle. By this time evening had set in. We were all quite tired. We were asked to get back to our billets, freshen up and assemble at the mess ante room before dinner time.
For ‘freshening-up’ one had to trudge from one’s ‘cabin’ to the amenities blocks, soap brush and paste in hand and a towel on the shoulder. The ‘amenities block’, shared by Able and Baker squadrons lay across a road between the residential billets of the two squadrons. Toilets and baths were in separate barracks. In both the structures, cubicles were separated by half walls. Fortunately some form of privacy was provided as the cubicles had doors that could be closed and locked.
After freshening up we changed into clean clothes and put on our arm bands, were inspected by our room seniors and were then allowed to proceed to the mess anteroom. The combined strength of the three courses at the ISW at that stage was of about four hundred cadets and our mess looked after half that number. The anteroom was therefore soon full and overflowing. We were treated to a short advisory talk by one of the appointment cadets about how we must learn to read the notice board carefully and be aware of our programme at all time. This was followed by another talk by another senior cadet about how to interact with seniors, the gist of which was that we were only to be seen and never to be heard.
At long last it was dinner time. On a day full of novelties, this first dinner was certainly no exception. In contrast to the wholesome lunch that we had had, the dinner was ‘western’. There was a plate of soup which looked like dishwater and tasted horrid to me. The main dish consisted of some insipid boiled vegetables and a bit of pasta in white sauce. Thank God there were stacks of bread and butter on the table. I ate what ever was on my plate because I was hungry, but a deep sense of missing home-cooked daal bhaat moistened my eyes. At long last dinner was over. Tired and sleepy, we went back to our cabins ready to fall into our beds and pass out, but that was not to be. The clothes had to be folded and put away. The cupboard had to be opened for inspection once again by the room senior and only when he was satisfied could we get into the bed. It must have been micro seconds before I was fast asleep after the end of that very eventful first day at the academy.