Sunday, 26 June 2011

'Flag Meeting'

To those of you who are alien to the military jargon, it will appear quite awkward and funny the way the military mutilates the words to create a language of its own. This language is usually the lingua franca of all those who wear the uniform. Each country and each arm of the armed forces be it Army, Navy, Air force, Marines etc. evolves its own special words and expressions. The armies of the sub continent are no exception to this axiom. The expression ‘Flag Meeting’ is one of them. Simplistically put, it means that it is a meeting in which the national flags of two or more countries were used to identify a special place where commanders of opposing armed forces could meet to discuss territorial matters. Normally such meetings are held when the borders of the countries involved have not been clearly demarcated, especially after a military operation. Such flag meetings were, and still are, held along the Indo-Pak Border. This incident is about one such meeting and the aftermath of that.

It was in 1980 that I was privileged to witness a flag meeting with the Pakistani army unit which was facing us across the borders along the mountainous ridges of Kashmir. I was part of the team of officers taken by the commander of the brigade to meet his counterpart of the Pakistani army. The opposing armies used to take turns alternatively in hosting such meetings. Depending upon the hosting army, the meetings were held either inside Indian territory, or inside Pakistani territory. The flag meetings were also scheduled in such way that after the official matters were discussed there was time for lunch, before returning back.

And so it happened that on an Autumn morning we set course from our brigade headquarters for the flag meeting. We reached our Border Post by about 11.00 AM. The Pakistani Rangers guarding the Border Picket on the Pakistani side were briefed about our arrival and our little convoy of three vehicles was piloted by one of their vehicles. After a short distance of about 3 KMs we had to dismount and go forward on foot to top of a hill where our host, the brigadier commanding the Pakistani brigade was awaiting. Once we reached there. After the salutes and hand-thumping were over between the two commanders, they took turns in introducing members of each party. My medical counterpart turned out to be a great senior colonel and, honestly, I felt a little at odds considering the disparity of age.

The meeting started in earnest after the ubiquitous hot sweet milky tea served in huge enamel mugs. The commander of the Pakistani brigade explained with the help of detailed maps that in one part of the sector he was facing problems because the line of control (LOC) was arching in a peculiar way. It was genuine problem which needed a solution. Once our host had finished his presentation it was the turn of our commander. He too had come armed with maps and photographs to press home our point that in one of the areas we were also faced with a similar situation. The discussions between the team started right in earnest on these two points. We were in the midst of a fairly boisterous discussion when there was a rapping sound on the table loud enough to silence all of us. It was our commander using one of the tea mugs as gavel to attract our attention; just like the way a presiding judge uses his gavel to bring discipline in the court.

We all looked at him when he said ‘Gentlemen! I don’t think we should waste our time discussing about these two issues anymore. I have decided that I am going to allow point 4375 to be handed over to the Pakistani army’. You could hear a pin drop in the tent at that time. All of us in our team were dumbfounded. And most of us were gaping. The brigade major was the first one to find his voice and he said, ‘Sir, it is not within your powers to cede territory to Pakistan. So I suggest you may kindly review your decision.’

The answer to this came from the Pakistani Brigadier, who said, ‘That was a genuine and fine gesture, brigadier. I really appreciate your attitude. I am going to make a similar offer to you.  You can re-occupy point 5893 which has been causing problems to you.’  Uncannily, it was brigadier major of the Pakistan army who piped up first and warned his boss that what he was doing will not be appreciated at the higher levels of hierarchy.

But, both the brigadiers were firm and decided then and there to re-draw the line of control on the map. It was done and we all dutifully clapped when both of them signed on the maps. It was somewhat like the scenes in Hollywood movies where rulers cede territories to one another. A well laid out lunch followed and we all returned in a rosy mood back to our headquarters.

When the details of this deal between these two brigadiers were forwarded to the higher echelons of our army all hell broke loose. The commander who felt that he had done a great job was called up by the commanding general, and administered a ‘royal rocket’. It became clear that the promising career of this brigadier had ground to a screeching halt.

The next flag meeting was after six months. This time it was our turn to host the meeting. The Pakistani side came with only three officers. We noticed that it was a new brigadier in command. The brigade major was the same and so was the captain who was the aide. After the initial formalities a routine meeting was held and a few mundane points were discussed and finalized. Then came the lunch. The brigade major of Pakistani brigade with whom I had struck a friendship in the previous meeting possibly because of my staff college background came to me and said, ‘Hey Doc! You have still got the same commander?’ I said, ‘Yes, but why do you ask? Is it because you have a new commander? He said, ‘Precisely. The previous one was sacked within 48 hours after our last meeting’. I said, ‘Well, your army indeed moves faster than ours. But rest assured Major, our commander also will not go any high up. The only place he is likely to go after this is to his house in Chandigarh’.

We both laughed and the story ended there.

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