Saturday, 2 July 2011

Kitchen Inspection

In the days prior to the 1971 Bangladesh war the Indian Army made meticulous preparations. Ever since the time the Pakistan Army in the erstwhile East Pakistan cracked down upon the people there in late 1970, it was apparent that a drastic solution was the only answer to the increasing burden of the refugees on India. While the political machine was cranking in its own way under the charismatic Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Army was being thoroughly prepared for an offensive against East Pakistan by arguably the best Chief the Indian Army ever had. He was General, later on Field Marshal, Sam Maneckshaw. Infantry and Mountain divisions were being systematically assembled all around East Pakistan borders. I was also a very small cog in this giant machine in my capacity as the officer in charge of an Advanced Dressing Station [ADS] attached to an infantry brigade that formed part of an infantry division. Rigorous training was being imparted for every formation based on the role it was supposed to play when the war started.

After about 4 to 5 months of extremely hard training including various battle drills, our brigade was given a reprieve. We were allocated a huge area of land in a place called Kalyani, in the outskirts of Calcutta, where we were expected to pitch our tents and ‘rest and recoup’. There were three infantry battalions in our brigade. Each of them belonged to very proud infantry regiments with checkered history behind them; some even dating back to more than 300 years.  Infantry regiments in the Indian Army are named based on the region from which the majority of troops come from, or on the religious category of the majority of troops. For example we have Punjab Regiment which means that the majority of the troops are from Punjab or Himachal Pradesh. The class composition was also necessarily either Sikhs or Dogras. Similarly, there is the Madras Regiment composed basically of troops belonging to the four south Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Therefore, each regiment had it's own special characteristics both in behavior and day-to-day activities.  Even the ‘battle cries’ of these regiments were significantly different from each other.  Each of these regiments proudly upheld their heritage, ethos and modus operandi. Their uniforms were also embellished in such ways that the identity of the regiments was strictly maintained. Of course, there were ‘composite’ regiments composed of a mixture of troops from all parts of the country. But, by and large, these were specialized regiments like the Parachute Regiment and Brigade of Guards. Although I used to get initially bewildered, I was convinced later on that the greatest strength of the Indian Army is this unity in diversity. In fact, our nation itself is a shining example of this principle.

Our infantry brigade was deployed under tents. The three infantry battalions formed the three corners of a triangle with the brigade headquarters and supporting units like mine located in the center. For the initial few days the troops were busy in pitching their tents and organizing themselves. It is an age-old dictum that if the troops are not kept fully occupied it will foment trouble. This has been the guiding principle of all armies in the world. Indian Army is no exception. Therefore, once the units were settled it was up to the brigade commander to devise ways and means to keep the troops occupied. It used to be quite a sight when all the troops came out for the morning physical training. To the people who are not familiar with the Army, each infantry battalion during those days had about 900 personnel. These, along with the supporting elements like my unit, made up the strength of roughly 3000 troops all congregated together in that area. Mornings used to resemble a crowded fairground with groups of hundred running and doing the other calisthenics associated with physical training in the Army.

The three infantry battalions we had in our infantry brigade belonged to the Punjab Regiment, the Maratha regiment and the Sikh Light Infantry, Sikh LI for short. As explained earlier the differing composition of troops in each of these battalions meant that there were differences in their behavioral pattern also. The brigade commander used to insist that such differences should not ever be a hindrance in the formation fighting as one. All the commanding officers of these battalions were excellent people and the cooperation between the three battalions was indeed quite remarkable.

One of the methods used to keep the troops occupied is to have various kinds of inspections. Since the entire formation was located under tents it was decided that a ‘kitchen inspection’ would be carried out in the infantry battalions. Troops' kitchens in Army parlance are called ‘cook houses’. Each infantry battalion had 6 of these, one for each company. Since hygiene is given great importance in the Army, my presence as the senior medical officer of the brigade was essential for evaluating these ‘cook houses’. The commander announced that the battalion with the best ‘cook houses’ would be awarded and rewarded appropriately. Therefore, this ‘kitchen inspection’ became somewhat like a competition. A schedule was drawn up and a team constituted and I was part of the team as the medical expert. To our pleasant surprise the brigade commander suddenly announced that he would be personally visiting each ‘cook house’ along with us.

Since there were six ‘cook houses’ to be inspected it was decided that we will visit one infantry battalion every week, spending three days with them thereby inspecting two ‘cook houses’ per day. We started one day with the Punjab battalion. As expected everything was spick and span in all the houses of this proud battalion, which traced its history to more than 300 years. The next week it was the turn of the Maratha battalion. Another ancient battalion, they also put up an immaculate show. The brigade commander was quite pleased with what he was seeing and he seemed to enjoy this reprieve. The third week was the turn of the Sikh LI battalion. As the pedigree of regiments go this regiment was relatively ‘young’. I must digress a bit here to say a few words about Sikh LI regiment. There is no denying that the troops who constitute this regiment are amongst the finest soldiers in the world; very brave, astonishingly fearless to the point of being foolish and extremely resourceful. It was not an easy job for any officer to control these hardy, tough, and down to earth soldiers and to gain their respect and obedience. But once an officer was accepted by these troops it was a pleasure commanding them. All my friends who were officers of this regiment have been unanimous on this point.  Although they were exceptional troops in battle the Sikh LI troops were not well known for their peacetime activities and standards of discipline.

Therefore, when our team went to inspect the ‘cook houses’ of this battalion, we were not anticipating the extremely high standards that we saw in the other two battalions in the previous two weeks. However, we were quite surprised to find all the ‘cook houses’ of this battalion maintained and displayed in high standards of comfort and hygiene. On the third day of our inspection, when we were halfway through the fifth  ‘cook house’, a military jeep screeched to a halt on the track nearby. From it emerged the commanding officer of the Maratha battalion who was himself a Sikh. He seemed quite agitated and had in tow his second-in-command and another officer. He started berating the commanding officer of the Sikh LI stating that the troops of the Sikh LI have made forays into the Maratha location and have pillaged the ‘cook houses’. The brigade commander interfered and then it came to light that since the previous night the embellishments of the ‘cook houses’ of two of the companies of the Maratha battalion have been missing. The commanding officer of the Maratha battalion was livid when he saw that the same items were now forming part of the proud display in the ‘cook houses’ of the Sikh LI battalion. After placating the commanding officer of the Maratha battalion, the brigade commander asked the commanding officer of the Sikh LI battalion the details of this incident. He was unaware and so too were his officers. Finally it came to light that this was a ‘night raid’ conducted by the enlisted men of the Sikh LI battalion who literally moved the embellishments of the two ‘cook houses’ during the night from the Maratha battalion location to the Sikh LI battalion location.

I do not know what happened later on but the brigade commander bust out laughing and said that even if the cook houses of the Sikh LI battalion were not in the same league as that of the other two battalions, he intended to give a consolation price to the battalion for the ingenuity shown in removing the embellishments of the cook houses lock stock and barrel surreptitiously! He also jokingly chided the commanding officer of the Maratha battalion for the lax security of his unit.

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