My Hero – My Commandant

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When I arrived at the ISW-AFA at Clement Town on 30th January 1950, I did not really know the organisation of the institution that I had just joined.    I had learnt the rank structure of the three Services as part of my preparation for interview at the Services Selection Board, but beyond that I did not really know much.     The set up at Clement Town was pretty simple.    The Inter Services Wing (ISW) of the Armed Forces Academy (AFA) was located there.   The other wing of the AFA called the Military Wing was located quite far  away from Clement Town in a place called Prem Nagar.    That campus was pretty and well cared for.    It had beautiful buildings, manicured gardens and neatly laid out fields for sports and games.   It also had a huge drill square facing a magnificent hall called the Chatwood Hall.    I had not had the opportunity to visit the MilWing (as that wing was called)   for a long time after we joined the ISW, but I had seen it earlier and was charmed by it; we had been taken to witness a passing out parade while I was at the Air Force Selection Board in December of 1949.

The ISW was headed by a Deputy Commandant.   We referred to that person as the DepCom.   The DepCom when I joined the ISW was a very smart and young four striper from the Navy named Captain RP Sawhney.   He was very fair-skinned and had a pretty clipped English accent to his speech.  For a long time after joining the ISW, I was under the assumption that he was a Scotsman!     Under the DepCom, the cadets were administered through four Squadrons. The ISW was still in its infancy and was just one year old.   From its inception, it was vigorously modelled as a combined organisation of the three services.   Hence the major administrative unit under the Wing was called a Squadron in the Air Force fashion and not a Company as it was called in the MilWing.  A squadron was commanded by a Major or a Squadron Leader or a Lieutenant Commander. The Squadrons were subdivided into three smaller entities. This smallest administrative entity was not called a flight (as in the Air Force) or a platoon (as in the Army) but a Division (as in the Navy).     The commanders of these Divisions were of the rank of Captain / Flight Lieutenant / Lieutenant IN and were known as Div-Officer.

The officer we saw most often was our Div Officer.    My Div Officer (for Able Squadron Number 2 Div) was one Captain Darshan Singh Dhinsa.   The other two Div Officers for Able Squadron were Flight Lieutenant WVA Lloyd and Lieutenant Kushal Dev Kaushal (IN).   For the first half of 1950 the four squadrons were commanded by   Major GS Saran, Sqn Ldr Mahabir Chand (IAF), Lt Cdr TS D’Almeida (IN) and a Major (from Mahar MG?) whose name escape my memory at this moment. (Shame on me! How could I forget? Air Chief Marshal Latif reminds me that that the very smart Major from Mahar Regiment was none other than General VK Krishna Rao, Hero of Bangaldesh war and later Chief of the Army Staff).  Later that year Squadron Leader Mahabir Chand was posted out and was replaced by then Squadron Leader Idris Latif who became the Squadron Commander of Charlie Squadron.   During my stay at the JSW, Lt Cdr D’Almeda and Sqn Ldr Idris Latif had both become very fond of me.   I exchanged greeting cards with the D’Almeidas for many years after I had left the NDA, and I am blessed with the affection of Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif even now, more than sixty years later.

The post of a Chief Instructor for ISW did not exist in January 1950.    That post was created later when Wing Commander Murkot Rammuni took over as the first CI.  I do not clearly recollect whether that happened in the second half of 1950 or the first half of the next year.

The AFA was commanded by Major General Thakur Mahadeo Singh.   Just before Independence he had become the Commandant of the IMA at Dehradun in the rank of a full colonel, the first Indian to hold that post.   Soon after independence the post was upgraded and he had become a Brigadier.   On 1st January 1949, when IMA was converted into the ‘Military Wing’ of the new entity called the Armed Forces Academy, Thakur Mahadeo Singh became the Commandant of AFA in the rank of a Major General.

By the time I came to the ISW AFA as a cadet in the 3rd course in January 1950, Thakur Mahadeo Singh had been the head of the establishment for a really long time and soon it was time for him to go.   By March 1950 a new Commandant was posted in.   Major General KS Thimayya was the new incumbent.    To us the new commandant was a national hero.   We looked up to him in awe.   My personal contact with the new Commandant was rather unexpected but thrilling.   We had just set-up a Science Club as a part of our extra curricular activity.   Our Teacher Mr. Mathai was the officer in charge of the club.   Over the week-end following the arrival of the new commandant we had organized a festival of science where we were to display many exhibits explaining the scientific base of many day to day activities.  I was very happy to be a part of the show.   My exhibit was a functional siphon running an artificial spring.  While I was arranging my display table, Mr. Mathai walked in and signaled three or four of us from the junior lot to gather around him.    It appeared that the new Commandant had decided to drop in and see the science exhibition.    He was coming from Prem Nagar to Clement Town for the first time on his own.   His ADC was not with him and the General was not familiar with the lay out of the billets.   It was therefore necessary to post a few traffic guides along the way to direct the General in correctly.    We, the few who happened to be near about our teacher at that moment, were selected to be the traffic guides.   We were to take our cycles and position our selves along the route to guide the General in.

Amongst the four or five of us thus chosen, I was perhaps the smallest in size, or perhaps the most easily bullied.   I found myself earmarked for the furthest point on the route.   Like the good boy that I was, I spruced myself up and trundled off as required.   The road junction where I had to stand had no trees or any kind of shade. I parked my cycle slightly away from the junction and positioned myself like a traffic policeman.  In about a quarter of an hour, the Commandant’s staff car came up on the horizon.   I braced up,   assumed a position of ‘Attention’, and offered a smart salute as the car came by, pointing to the desired direction with emphasis.  Quite unexpectedly, the car came to a screeching halt.   I held my posture without moving a muscle.   The window glass rolled down and the big man signaled me to come close to him moving his crooked fore finger.     I dropped my arms and took a couple of quick steps.     ‘What is your name, Cadet’?  The question was distinct but soft.    I managed to respond without stuttering.    ‘Get into the car.  I appoint you as my ADC for the evening’.   Without a word I got into the car and sat next to the driver.   That would be the proper seat for an ADC would it not?   I was not very sure.   I was however very worried about my cycle left unattended by the roadside.    If the cycle got stolen I would be in deep trouble.   I gathered some courage and spoke to the big man.   Sir, I need to arrange for the safe return of my cycle to the Squadron Cycle Shed.    The big man’s eyes twinkled.   How do you propose to manage that?   His voice was playful.    Some how, I found myself quite comfortable in his presence.   ‘May we instruct the next cadet on traffic duty to carry it back sir?’    I had not really planned the answer.   It just stumbled out of my mouth.   The big man nodded without a comment.   Shortly the next cadet on traffic duty became visible.   The Commandant asked the driver to slow down and stop next to that cadet.   The cadet froze with is arm still pointing to the desired direction.   Once again the General called the little boy close.   ‘Do you know Cadet Sen?’ He asked.   ‘Yes Sir’. The answer was direct and loud. ‘Good.   His cycle has been left behind on the road side.  Please have it collected and returned to his Squadron Lines.’   The instructions were precise and were delivered in a low kindly voice.  ‘Yes Sir’.   My friend shouted back, eyeing me curiously through the corner of his eyes.

As we arrived at the venue of the exhibition, the top brass of the ISW were all lined up to receive the new commandant.   I jumped out of the front left seat and ran to a spot a couple of steps behind the rear left seat as the big man stepped out. Finding a junior cadet popping out of the Commandants car made every one rather curious.   Actually, apart from Mr. Mathai no one even knew that some cadets had been posted on the road as traffic guides!   Captain Sawhney stepped forward and greeted the Commandant.   After the normal exchange of salutes and a shake of hands, the General raised his left had towards me and told the DepCom ‘Let me introduce you to my ADC for the evening: Cadet Sen’.   The DepCom did a kind of a double take but managed to hide it well.  The General stepped forward to meet the academic and administrative staff who had lined up.  The DepCom fell in steps with the General on his right.   I followed suit a couple of paces behind the DepCom.

I had not acted as an ADC to any one in the past and I did not know the rules of the game.    I searched hard in my memory to collect all the information I might have stored in my subconscious mind and came up with very little that was cognigible.  I had to play it by the ear and I did so.   I had no means to find out if I was succeeding in my efforts.    An ADC, I told myself, must be available to his boss whenever he wanted anything done and yet be discreetly away from him socially.    I tried to stay in a far corner of the room eyeing the general for any thing that he might need.   There seemed to be nothing that general would need my assistance for.    I suppressed this feeling of redundancy and hung on.

The cadet who had replaced me at the siphon demo made a hash of his explanation in front of the General, and I really wanted to die on the spot.   Thank God my linkage with that demo was not revealed to the big man.   The Commandant gave a lot of his time to the function and went through all the stalls.   At the end of his walk through, the General was invited to a table piled with refreshments.   It looked like a restricted invitation for the senior staff only.   I could not really leave the room, but I tried to efface my presence to the best of my ability, hiding myself in one obscure corner.  I did not succeed in hiding for very long.  Having picked up his plate the Commandant looked around for me and spotted me.    Come on Sen, he told me, you are entitled to your plate. Come and join us.   I did as I was told and found the eats to be delicious. Once I was done with the plate of snacks, I continued to hang around, feeling progressively superfluous.    Had I underestimated the General?  Very soon once again he looked around for me and signaled me gently to come close.  I think it is time for me to go, he said in a low voice as I got to be near him.   I rushed out, signaled the driver to position the car, ran back to the Principal and informed him that the Commandant was about to leave, and came back to the general.   He was by then moving gently to the exit with the DepCom in tow.    The Academic Staff lined up next to the principal at the exit gate.   The general acknowledged every one present and reached his car.   I kept my place behind the DepCom.   At the car-door the General turned back and looked at me.  ‘Thank you Sen for assisting me.  You are now relieved of your task of being the ADC for the evening’.   The General returned the smart salute that I offered and got into his car.   My day was made.

Very few of my friends had noticed my unexpected elevation for the day, and those who did, did not bother to comment.   This lack of response disappointed me, but I was elated enough to ignore the disappointment.

A week or so later there was an official address of the new Commandant to the Officers and Cadets of the ISW.    We all gathered in the cinema hall for the address.  The General’s address was actually a presentation of the Kashmir War of 1948-49 of which he was an important part.   The General, as we all knew, had commanded a Division of the Army in that war with distinction.   Under his command, a threat to te Ladakh sector was neutralized by using tanks in that high mountainous region; some thing that was unimaginable by the Pakistani raiders who were put to flight.   The General was a wonderful speaker.   We just sat there in the hall, mesmerized, as he took us through the history of invasion of Kashmir by Pakistan, the state’s accession to India and our defence of the state.    It was a masterly presentation.

As a cadet form the junior-most course, we were put into the hall almost half an hour before the General had arrived. The seat that I got to sit on was about fifteen rows back from the dais. I had no idea whether the General would be able to recognize my face.   It was of course a vain hope, but I did hope that in that crowd the General would make eye contact with me and perhaps his eyes will sparkle in his recognition of my face!   Alas, what I had hoped for did not happen.

Our training routine at Clement Town was rigorous and it was difficult to realize how the two year there went by.    I was however happy to have my Hero as my Commandant for most of my stay there.    By the time Major General Wadhalia replaced Major General Thimayya as the Commandant of NDA, I was already in my fourth and final term of training at Dehradun.    I had occasion to get to know the new Commandant closely and well, but that of course is another story.

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6 responses »

  1. Perhaps you know that Mr Mathai’s eldest son joined the airforce. I last met him about 10 years ago when he was a group captain

  2. Air Cdre T K Sen’s article has opened up a flood-gate of memory.Deputy Commandant Capt. Reggie Sawney IN had a very impressive personality in addition to a clipped British accent. As I slugged my way through rounds of “Novices Boxing” that all ‘first-termers’ had to go through, I remember his encouraging pat on my back helped to dull the pain of my bleeding nose somewhat.Mrs. Latif, the lady wife of Sqn. Ldr. Idriss Hamid Latif was a fine rider whose riding skills we admired from a distance. I had the good fortune of meeting Air Chief Marshal Latif many years later at the Raj Bhavan in Bombay while he was the Governor of Maharashtra and I was a pilot with Air-India and he spent considerable time reminiscing his days in Clement Town on learning that I was a cadet there back in 1951.

  3. The names are familiar, the memories shared are new, but I do know that Uncle Latif left an imprint on my father’s mind that certainly guided his career and framed some of his philosophies! But what I loved most about this post is the palpable feeling of youth pulled between confidence and uncertainty and the benign understanding of the Commandant as he touched another life and molded it! How wonderful to be thus remembered by your pupils, no matter how remote! As a teacher I hope even one of my students can feel this way about me! It would make twenty years of teaching even more worthwhile!

  4. Back here after a while, to read another beautiful reminiscence. Did Mr. Mathai go on to teach at NDA, Khadakwasla? His son (younger son ?) Ranjan was my senior at school. Ranjan went on to join the Foreign Service. Last I heard, he was at secretary level; and being tipped to takeover from Nirupama Rao.
    Regards.

  5. Just to add a little bit more about two other personalities who appear in the account above. ACM. I.H. Latif occupied the Raj Bhavan in Bombay which had his father in law Nawab Ali Yavar Jung as an earlier occupant. Probably the only instance in Indian history where father-in-law and son-in-law held the same office. There is another aside to ACM. Latif’s term in office. There is a long tradition (started in British times) of the Governor of Maharashtra shifting residence from Bombay to Pune. During these transits by the State helicopter, ACM. Latif noticed the barren country-side that he overflew. He then started a personal project to air drop seeds during these obligatory air journeys. Subsequently (over the years) there has been a fairly good growth of forestation/vegetation below what was the flight-path. In any case, Nawab Ali Yawar Jung was a very active patron of the Bombay Natural History Society and a great support to Dr. Salim Ali, India’s bird-man.

    About Capt. R.P. Sawhney, he went on to retire as V/Adm. Sawhney. After retirement he went on to hold office as Chairman of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust. With the same personality traits as described, however the very feisty labour unions in the Port were impressed; may be another matter.

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