A comrade-in-arms general

  • Col DS Cheema (retd), Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Aug 09, 2014 09:29 IST

On May 22, 1986, the very first day of my commanding a battalion in a high-altitude area, two craftsmen of the recovery company lost their lives retrieving a vehicle from a deep gorge 100 kilometres from Leh. I was busy the entire day handling the unfortunate situation. The accident was a major blow to my morale as a commanding officer.

I could not sleep that night thinking about the turn of events. Early next day, the aide-de-camp rang me up to say the general officer commanding would see me in his office. I started to prepare to brief the GOC on the accident and my plans to prevent it in future.

When I reached the GOC's office, I saw the two staff officers, colonel 'Q' and colonel 'A' sitting with him, which confirmed my worst fears that a stern warning was on the way. In a few minutes, I was left alone face-to-face with the GOC.

For more than half an hour, he kept talking about all things but the accident and the death of two soldiers. When I offered to brief him, he asked me to do so the next day. It helped only to increase the tension. I wanted to check with the two staff officers who had briefed him obviously. They informed me the GOC did not want the discussion for some time purposely and had asked them also to avoid it.

After a couple of days, concluding a meeting with all the brigade commanders and COs, he asked me to stay back. In his usual soft and graceful manner, he explained to me how he had earned umpteen adverse reports from across the Division and learnt to react in a professional manner. I was advised to take all actions necessary for effective functioning without getting bogged down with the past.

The advice was more effective than any reprimand a different officer with lesser people's skills would have delivered.

The general always had his sleeves rolled up, and even in extreme winter on the mountains would not put on any jacket or pullover. Everyone in the Division was curious to know why. One winter, he asked me to accompany him to a forward post at 19,000 feet above the sea level, where the ADC, who was his nephew, tried to give him a jacket to cover his exposed arms. He gave the ADC a cold stare and hit the hand holding the jacket mildly with the regimental cane he always carried. When he saw that the pilot and I had noticed, he just smiled.

A couple of years later, he was posted in Delhi and I had the opportunity to meet him in his office in the last week of November. Besides keeping heaters on in two corners of the room, he was dressed to combat extreme cold weather. I saw the right time to put him a question I could not ask while serving under him.

I gathered that he was part of 13 Kumaon during the Chinese invasion of Rezang La in the Chushul valley of Ladakh, resisting which 114 of the 120 men of C company commanded by major Shaitan Singh (later winner of Param Vir Chakra posthumously) had made the supreme sacrifice. The men did not have any high-altitude clothing and, for arms, carried only 0.303 rifles that would jam in those conditions. It was there that he took the vow to never wear the woollen uniform in front of men deployed in the frontier inhospitable zones. I am proud to have served with a hardcore professional general who loved his team genuinely.

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