Sunday, 26 June 2011

'Double Jeopardy'

It is common knowledge that double jeopardy is a legal impasse wherein one person cannot be punished for the same offence more than once. Smart lawyers exploit this lacuna in the legal system to get their clients out of tricky situations. What I'm going to relate is an incident wherein my commanding officer used this clause to subtly sidestep the draconian rules and regulations and strict protocols, which are characteristic of any armed forces.
It was in 1974, and I was then the RMO of 9 Parachute Commando Battalion. We were located in the beautiful, picturesque, idyllic hill station called Bakloh. It was a very small place that overlooked the plains of Punjab. The panoramic view from the glass paneled dining room all of the officer’s mess which was perched on a sheer cliff face, was breathtaking especially during nights when one could trace the lights of any vehicle starting from the railway station at Pathankot. Bakloh was steeped in history of the Fourth Gurkha rifles. One of the most eminent amongst them was Major John Masters, the famous author. We had the unique privilege of living in the huge bungalow where the major had lived and where he wrote one of his best books “The Bugles and a Tiger”. Sitting in the veranda of this building we could identify the huge tree under which Major John Masters shot the tiger. It was another matter that the bungalow was falling apart and out of the seven bedrooms only three were habitable; which my wife and I and our infant daughter occupied.

Since celebration of New Year's Eve had to be held in a bigger place, Dalhousie being the district headquarters and with better infrastructural facilities was the automatic choice. So, on the 31st December evening we are all trooped to the gymkhana club at Dalhousie. Barring the commanding officer and the second-in-command I was the only other officer who was married at that time. After the backbreaking and tortuous journey of more than 45 minutes we landed up in the club at about 10:30 PM. The revelry was just about starting at that time and we melded into that crowd. There was a string band playing and some couples were already swaying to the music. Being in the foothills of Himalayas, Dalhousie was extremely cold during the winter months. We were almost frozen by the time they reached the club and most of us hit the bar with alacrity. Our three ladies went promptly to the powder room to spruce themselves up.

The drinking started in earnest and soon most of us were feeling quite comfortable with the cold probably because of internal combustion of the alcohol and external help from the numerous fireplaces scattered inside the old club building. The ladies soon joined us and three of us, the commanding officer, the second-in-command and I, took our spouses to the dance floor. Music was passable and we were enjoying ourselves when, all of a sudden, we heard loud voices towards the direction of the bar where the majority of our crowd from 9 Parachute Commando Battalion had sedimented. I could distinctly discern the voices of some of my friends and what I could hear pointed towards a serious altercation. My commanding officer told me to go and have a look as to what was happening there. Escorting my wife back to her seat I went to the bar where I found that a mini brawl had erupted between few of our officers and a group of others. Most of the other group appeared to be officers from other units in the formation. A couple of them appeared to be from the civic street.

Before I could successfully intervene, to my utter horror, I found two of my colleagues daring the other group to speak anything further. This was accompanied by the physical gesture of advancing menacingly towards that group. Being on internal combustion of the alcohol the other group also did not blink. Instead, they started to shout back. It was then only that I came to know the reason for this impasse. While the other group was shouting back they repeatedly mentioned that all paratroopers were stupid and no good; or else how could anyone in a real senses enjoy jumping out of aircraft? This statement was like the proverbial red rag to a bull as far as all paratroopers are concerned. Being one of the same kind I, instead of dousing the flames of anger, became as angry as my friends.

What happened next did not take much time. One of my friends who was a good boxer during his term in the National Defence Academy, stepped forward and landed a haymaker punch on the leading and most vociferous member of the other group. He collapsed like an empty sac. In a twinkle of an eye it became a free-for-all. Blows and punches were exchanged freely. I must admit that I too added my might to the imbroglio. The music stopped, the dancing stopped and everyone rushed to the bar where this drama was being staged. Senior officers intervened and the warring groups including ‘Yours Truly’, were separated. The gent who was floored by the right hook of my colleague also got up. It was then that we learned that he was the son of the commanding general of that station and that he had come from New Delhi to celebrate New Year with his parents at Dalhousie.
Naturally, the general was quite upset; more so when he looked at his son's bruised jaw. He turned to my commanding officer and told him that he wants the ‘culprit’ amongst us to be punished immediately. My commanding officer, the veteran of many a battle like this and a diehard paratrooper, told the general that he will inquire into the matter the next day and take appropriate disciplinary actions if any one of us, his officers, were found culpable. He also told the general that he will keep the general informed about the results of his investigation. As can be made out, the New Year party soon became a damp squib. Some of us tried to make the best out of it and succeeded to some extent. The commanding officer did not speak a word about this incident either during the party or on our journey home.

The next day at about 10 AM the second-in-command informed us that we have been summoned by the commanding officer in his office. Five of us were soon lined up in front of the huge desk behind which he sat. We were all giving exhibitions of the best way to be at ‘attention’. The ‘old man’ [the universal slang by which the commanding officers are referred to in the armed forces] appeared quite grim. In his gravelly voice he asked each one of us as to what happened during the previous night. Since all of us had enough time before we were summoned to his presence, our versions of the incident were remarkably similar. He then turned towards me and told me that he was particularly disappointed with me because he had sent me to find out the facts. Instead I also got embroiled in the incident. With great ceremony he then donned his maroon paratrooper's beret and solemnly told, “Gentlemen! I hereby warn you not to repeat such incidents in future.” Turning towards the second-in-command he barked, “March them out!”

Soon enough the commanding officer was on telephone line with the commanding general. He told the general that he had inquired into the matter and had found five of his officers guilty of misdemeanor and that he had punished them. The general was pleased and wanted to know the details of the punishment given. My commanding officer answered him gravely that all of us were warned by him. The general was not amused and demanded that we be punished more severely. That was the time my commanding officer pulled the rabbit out of his hat. He said, “I'm sorry Sir, but that cannot be done because I have already punished my officers once. I cannot punish them again for the same offense. Sir, you'll appreciate it will then amount to double jeopardy!”

I do not know what happened next but it was an explicit lesson for all of us as to how the standby and protect your junior colleagues. I for one have carried on in the same vein over the years, while wearing the uniform and while in the civic street. And I can state from experience that nothing gives you more pleasure than being the mother hen to your junior colleagues.

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