Indian Armed Forces are considered to be one of the best trained in the world. Being an entirely voluntary service, the professionalism of all the wings of Indian Armed Forces is of an exceptionally high order. This, coupled with the clinical aloofness maintained by the Armed Forces from the boisterous and cacophonic democracy of India, makes the professional standards of the Indian Armed Forces extremely high. To achieve and maintain such very high standards it is necessary to have specialized training institutions for all ranks. There are exceptionally competent training institutions of the Armed Forces scattered all over India each fulfilling a specialized training requirement. Arguably, the most important institution that trains officers from all three wings of the Armed Forces is the Defence Services Staff College located in the picturesque and quaint hill station of Wellington, near Coonoor in the state of Tamil Nadu in India.
This college imparts training in staff duties to selected officers of all three uniformed services and to a few civilian officers from the IAS, IPS etc. Army being the largest component of the defence services, the majority of officers who attend this college are from the army. The competition to gain an entry into this college is very severe. Suffice to say that more than five thousand army officers appear for the entrance examinations every year to fill the 200-odd Army vacancies of this one-year training in the Defence Services Staff College. The training imparted this college has been of such high standards that many other countries depute their officers to attend this course. On an average more than seventy such officers attend this training every year. Almost every country is represented except the Latin American countries and the erstwhile ‘Iron Curtain’ countries.
Our story is about such a staff college course that was conducted from January to December from 1979, and the sequelae of that course. I was privileged to be one of the selected officers to attend this training. Since it is extremely difficult for doctors to qualify in the entrance examination, I was the only doctor amongst three hundred and fifty trainees. We had officers from USA, UK, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada, most of the Middle East countries, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and even from far away countries like Fiji. Staying together and working together for one year establishes strong bonds of friendship between the officers. The nationality, religion, language and differences in uniforms all melt away over the year. The incident that I am going to narrate is unique and this preamble was necessary for the readers to understand it fully.
After the trials, tribulations, highs, low, agonies and ecstasies of a demanding curriculum of one year we all dispersed to various places of duty. The Fijian officer was promoted to Lt Colonel and was appointed as the commanding officer of the Fijian battalion assigned for peacekeeping duties in Lebanon. The US Army officer was moved to Lebanon-Israeli border as an observer. The officer from the Syrian Army, who was a specialist in Air Defence, was located nearby on the Syrian side. Amazingly we had an officer from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who was in charge of the PLO fighters in same area and was located quite close to the Fijian battalion.
In September 1980 an aircraft carrier of the British Royal Navy called ‘HMS Hermes’ docked in Beirut. It may be of interest to note that ‘HMS Hermes’ was later bought by India and refitted and renamed as ‘INS Virat’. On board ‘HMS Hermes’ was a British Royal Naval helicopter pilot who also had attended the training with us in 1979. The Fijian officer took the initiative of getting these officers together in his location. He could achieve this because his battalion was part of the UN peacekeeping force. And so it happened that on a Saturday in September 1980 there was a gathering of most unusual people in the southern border of Lebanon. They met and spend the whole evening together and dispersed after dinner. There could not have been more different group than an US Army officer, a British Naval pilot, a Syrian Air Defence expert, a PLO fighter all being hosted by a Fijian officer. The only common link was that all of them were trained in the Defence Services Staff Training College of India. That was the bond and that was the pride amongst all of them.
Being the only Doctor amongst all the officers and being a paratrooper I was quite a known figure in our staff college course. The details about this incident were sent to me by the Fijian officer, the US army officer and also by the British Naval Pilot. In those days the only method of communication was by letters. I still have those letters with me, which to me, are quite priceless.
I cannot conclude this incident without mentioning some of the events, which happened to these gentlemen over the years. The Fijian officer rose to the rank of Major General, led a coup in that country became the Prime Minister and ruled Fiji for more than 10 years! Yes, he was Sitiveni Rabuka. The US Army officer became a military aid to President Bush (Senior Bush) and retired from service as a Major General. The British Naval Pilot retired as a Rear Admiral. The Syrian Air defence specialist was sadly killed in Israeli raid at Bekaa valley. I have not been able to trace the PLO officer.