Cast Off to Kolkata

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My father had his first serious stroke in December 1954.   I was then in the process of moving from the Tigers(Number 1 Squadron Air Force) as a junior pilot to the Flying Instructor’s School at Tambaram near Madras (Chennai) as a pupil instructor. Fortunately for me, the ill effects of the stroke did not last very long.   By the time I got some leave to go and see him after joining No 1 Airforce Flying College  Begumpet as an instructor, late in 1955, he was back on his feet.   He had also regained his speech and in fact he was feeling quite fit and fine.   For the next year or so, he remained in good health as I carried out my duties as a QFI (Qualified Flying Instructor) in Begumpet.   In late 1956, the two Airforce Flying Colleges merged to form the Air Force Flying College at Jodhpur and I moved to Jodhpur.   Along with this move, I became the Assistant Chief ground Instructor.    Squadron Leader JR Bankapore was the CGI and Wing Commander CA Neely (renamed from CA Neelakanthan) was the Chief instructor.   I took my new job seriously and kept both the CGI and the CI happy with my work.   I also flew quite hard.    In spite of holding a demanding full-time job, I flew as much as any other line instructor.    At the work place, it was a happy time for me.   Unfortunately, the situation at home was not happy.   Baba had a cardiac attack in April 57 that left him bedridden.   For the first time in my life, I asked for my full entitlement of annual leave and went home for the months of May and June.   This time Baba’s recovery was slow.   After I came back to Jodhpur he had another setback.  I was force to ask for a month’s furlough and went home again.    The situation did not improve.   I then asked for permission to live out with my parents even though I was unmarried.   There was no response from the Training Command regarding my request.

In the mean while, Pirthi Singh, Jagat Mohlla and I decided to upgrade our categories to A2.    We still held the rank of a flying officer and we wanted to upgrade before the second stripe came about;   getting an A2 as a flying officer would have been something to talk about.   While Pirthi and Jagat sailed through their tests, I messed up my first attempt and had to sit for a retest two weeks later.  By that time however, we had put on our second tape!  We did not manage to become A2 as flying officers.  The news from home continued to be bad.   I applied for permission to live out once again.   This time the response from the Command HQ was prompt.   I was told that since I had upgraded to A2, my services were required at the FIS as an instructor.   Therefore, the letter informed me, my application could not be entertained at this moment.    As an afterthought, the Command HQ asked me to put in the request from FIS after another six months.   My bosses, the CGI and the CI, sympathised with me and allowed me to use the Navigation school’s Dakota trips to Calcutta every once in a while for a quick visit home as long as I remained in Jodhpur.   I moved to FIS on posting in April 1958.

After establishing myself in the FIS and having waited for the required six months, I once again applied permission for living out.   This time I got a reply that was fit for framing up in a gilded frame for preservation as a sample of classic insensitivity.   The letter to my CO asked him to inform me that unmarried officers are not entitled or encouraged to live out, that as a special case I may be permitted to live out for six months only provided that I continue to pay all my mess dues including daily messing charges,   that I shall not be entitled to claim house rent allowance, that I must be prepared to move back into the mess after six months and no plea against moving back will be entertained.

I do not know who drafted this letter or who approved it.   To say that I was dumbstruck would be an understatement.   Within an hour I wrote back withdrawing my application for living out thanking the authorities for their kind consideration and reminding them that as my father was seriously ill, it would not be useful to move him from a small town in Bihar to Madras for just six months.   I also pointed out that as a citizen of India my father did not need any permission from the Air Force to come to Tambaram and live in a hired house while I stayed in the mess.  I was angry and the letter was rude.    Wing commander KL (Kishen) Suri was my CO.    He accepted my letter with a smile and asked me to calm down.    I do not think my application ever left his desk.

Any way, I told my parents that I was ready to get married even though I was somewhat short of 25 years of age.  Till then I had met no one of the fair sex who would set my heart afire; so, I left the matters to my parents.  My marriage was arranged for and conducted in May 59, but my father did not manage to stay under my care.   He had another cerebral stroke and was paralyzed completely.   He could not be moved, even for my own marriage ceremony.   I left my new bride with my parents and came back to Tambaram.

I was now quite desperate to do some thing more for my parents than just help them monetarily.  Of course I also wanted an opportunity to play housie with my cute young wife!  I put in an application for a compassionate posting to Calcutta area.    No 1 Ops Group had just been formed at Rani Kuthi.   Accommodating one Flight Lieutenant there would not have been difficult.   However, the Air Force had other ideas.    My application was rejected on two grounds.   Firstly, I could not be spared from FIS.   Secondly, there were no suitable vacancies in Calcutta area.   By now it was September.   My first Durga Pooja after marriage and I was stuck at Tambaram alone.   My friends within the unit were of course all sensitive to my feelings.   A Harvard ferry to Kanpur came up.    I was immediately slotted for the task and four days casual leave enroute was granted to me without a question.    I routed the ferry via Hakimpet instead of Begumpet as I wanted to meet up with my friends there.   I found Koko Sen at Hakimpet in a rather morose condition.   He had just upgraded his instructional category to A2 and was expecting a posting to FIS.   He had instead been posted to 12 Bengal NCC(Air) Squadron Calcutta.   He did not want to go there.    I jumped at this chance.   Within minutes of my landing at Hakimpet, we sat down and wrote out applications for a mutual exchange of postings.    Koko was keen to go to Tambaram and I needed the Calcutta posting.    By the time I came back from the ferry and a short visit home celebrating Dassera, my posting to 12 Bengal NCC was authorised.

The unit was located within the University campus at Jadavpur.   It was being commanded by Squadron Leader RA(Bob) Rattan.   On arrival I was given the choice of staying at the Fort William mess or staying under my own arrangement until a house could be allotted.   I chose to stay with my mamaji who had enough space to spare a room for me.   Father was totally paralyzed by now and there was no question of moving him out.   I was happy that I was now close enough to him to reach home at a short notice.   In any case, the situation at home demanded my presence frequently.   However, that did not prevent me from getting into my new job will full enthusiasm.

National Cadet Corps was a different world from what I had experienced thus far.  The NCC comes under the DGNCC for operational control and the Army/Navy/Airforce provide and pay for the personnel deputed for running the organisation.    The funding of the day to day functioning however came from the respective state governments.  The clerical staff also belonged to the state bureaucracy.    The transport force was supplied by the ‘Fauj’ but money for fuel and maintenance was supplied by the state government.   The civil/military interface at the unit level was somewhat vague.   The uniformed personnel were under the Army/Navy/Air Force acts operated by the unit commanders, but the civilian clerks, MT Drivers, and other staff could be dealt with only under the corresponding civil service rules.   Most of the unit level commanders were somewhat uncertain about administrating the civil service regulations.   We were not trained for the task.   The situation was aggravated by the absence of adequate administrative literature.   It was no one’s responsibility to supply an administrative information library to the unit.   It was in the interest of the civilian clerical staff to keep the military unit commanders in a state of uncertainty; little help on authentic information about rules and regulation could be extracted from them.   Above all, the organisation was carefully cuddled in layer upon layer of locally nurtured financial corruption.

My first interaction with the new environment came when my boss asked me to take over the charge of training stores for the unit.   The unit had a store keeper.   He was however not to be seen.   In the civilian environment (At least in West Bengal of 1959) government employees could not to be taken to task for small transgression like being absent without leave for ‘small’ periods like a month or so.    I was not willing to accept such a situation.   There was an authorised position in the unit of the ‘Officer in Charge – Training Stores’ and my boss wanted me to assume that charge.   Officially a training store existed.   Physically there was a room marked as ‘Training Stores, but the room was locked.   The head Babu of the office told me that the keys are with the store keeper.  The store-keeper was ‘on leave’ without prior approval for an unknown period of time.

I was not happy with the situation.   I asked officers working in other NCC units found that none of them had discovered the technique to deal with the clerical staff supplied by the government of West Bengal.   I decided not to be put off by this problem.   I had been taught to go back to basics when there seemed to be no solutions available.   I summoned the head clerk and asked him to find a copy of the civil service rules book.   He looked at my face in amazement.   Sir, he said mildly, such books are not available with us and this book cannot be procured for a non civil service officer.   If this babu had thought that he would be able to fob me off with such rubbish, he had another think coming.    The very next day I went down to the Writer’s Building (that housed the secretariat to the government of West Bengal), found the joint director in charge of NCC units and collected a copy of the civil service rules.   I also setup a one on one relationship with that gent.

Back at the unit, I called the head clerk into my office, made sure that he sees the rule book in my hand and ordered him to initiate disciplinary action against the missing clerk.     My Head-Babu seemed very subdued and did what he was told.   In about a week the missing clerk appeared with a transfer order in his hand.    With a big smile he informed me that he has been transferred to another NCC unit located within the same complex.    I was not amused.   I told him that since disciplinary proceedings are pending against him he cannot be released to proceed to another unit on transfer.    He went away without any protestation only to reappear next morning with yet another letter that instructed the unit to relieve the gent in question without delay and transfer any pending papers for him to his next unit for action.   The situation caused me to boil internally in rage.    I let the clerk go and went to my boss, Squadron Leader Bob Rattan, for advice.     I was sure that the letter produced by the man would not stand scrutiny if I challenged it and went after this man with a vengeance.  However, it I followed that path, I would have to be prepared to waste a lot of my time in fruitless legal procedures without any guarantee of success.   I was also sure to lose cooperation at the state secretariat to the detriment of the interests of the unit.    It was not my task to reform the state administration at any level.   It was however my task to ensure that the unit was able to perform well.    By allowing the stupid clerk to leave the unit, even at the cost of some rubbish to perpetuate at the clerical level of the state administration, my own objective will not be harmed.   On the other hand, if I persisted with the aim of teaching a stupid clerk a lesson that he richly deserved, I would have to pay a price with time and diversion of attention from my personal job.  Bob Rattan left it to me to decide what I should do.    It was a clear case of selection and maintenance of aim, something that is taught to us in the service ad-nauseam.  I decided to let the bad apple roll out of the basket back to its pile and carried on.

My acceptance of a posting to an NCC unit was primarily to be near my ailing father.   However, even in an NCC unit, it was not easy to get out of the daily grind and travel 300 kilometres to look up my father often. This conflict between my duty as an officer and my duty as a son kept me pressed tightly till the end of December 1959 when my father passed away.   Two days after my father’s death I put in an application to the Air headquarters informing them that the reason for my compassionate posting did not exist anymore, and I was now free for shouldering any task that I was needed for.    It took ten more months for me to actually move back to the mainstream of the air force and many more events took place in between; but those are different stories.

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4 responses »

  1. Is this what is described as a serio-comic situation?
    Having to deal with such babu-s at every stage of a citizen’s interaction with the government is, in fact, a tragic and utterly frustrating experience. Not to mention the waste of time, energy and often money to get what is one’s right.
    If that’s what the situation was like during Dr Bidhan Roy’s regime, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to imagine how the rot has permeated in to every sphere of governmental activity under Jyoti Basu’s and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s stewardship. In WB, almost all state government employees are now members of a trade union type of association popularly known as the “Co-ordination Committee” that’s beyond all laws and rules. Even High Courts and the Supreme Court can not touch them simply because courts do not have any executive powers. If, say, the HC or SC orders someone arrested and the state govt simply ignores the order, what does one do?
    The ‘post’, however, makes stirring reading. The emotional turmoil of a man torn between his duties as a service officer and those as the son of a dying father have been penned deftly and honestly. I salute you.

  2. Did the NCC unit do any flying/gliding?
    It would be interesting to hear,if any of the cadets went on to join the Air Force,or took up commercial flying as a career.
    The NCC Air Sqn in Delhi sure launched many an aviation career,including mine

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