Brothers in arms

Published : Oct 24, 2008 00:00 IST

The war memorial at the IMA, Dehra Dun.-COURTESY: IMA

The war memorial at the IMA, Dehra Dun.-COURTESY: IMA

Gentlemen Cadets of the IMAs Third Regular Course, which celebrated its Diamond Jubilee recently, take a walk down memory lane.

CAMARADERIE, goodwill and an overwhelming sense of lives lived well were in abundance at the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Third Regular Course of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehra Dun. The Third Course has a unique history and the stories told by its officers go beyond personal recollections and experiences. At one level they are historical anecdotes and at another they are part of a collective memory that binds the former Gentlemen Cadets together.

The meeting of more than 60 officers and their families at the IMA on September 12 went beyond a social gathering. It was a celebration of those who had served during a historical juncture in Indias past. Hundred and eighty-five cadets were commissioned from the IMA on September 12, 1948. The numbers would have been larger, but 67 of their course mates had opted for Pakistan and finished their training at the newly created Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) in Kakul.

The Third Course was shaped by historical events in which it could not help but be immersed. It was the smallest batch ever to graduate from the IMA because of Partition. The uniqueness of the course is also seen in its truncated duration: it was cut short from two years to 21 months in response to urgent military needs of the country and a shortfall of officers in the Army. On passing out, the cadets immediately joined battalions and regiments at the front line. Moreover, while still in training they were deployed for patrolling and suppression of violent activities. Indeed, the IMA is believed to be the only military academy in the world that has used its cadets for maintaining internal security.

The history of the Third Course is closely linked with Partition. About 800 metres down the road from the IMA was a camp of about 10,000 Sikh and Hindu refugees from Pakistan. In the week after Independence, anti-Muslim riots began in Dehra Dun and the IMA suddenly found itself involved in preserving internal security. Lieutenant General Mathew Thomas of the Third Course recalls cadets patrolling on foot and in Bren gun carriers, carrying out ambushes, from August to September 1947.

By October, life in the Academy returned to normal. Some cadets had opted for Pakistan but would leave only after they completed their course. The British officers were making plans for their repatriation. But then there was another bombshell. Lt. Gen. Thomas recounted it thus: It appeared that the fledgling Pakistani government had made representations to [General] Auchinleck regarding the safety of its cadets at the IMA. There was the possibility of hostilities breaking out between the two countries, and they [the Pakistani authorities] felt they could no longer leave them at Dehra Dun. Auchinleck could not deny their request.

The transfer of the officers and cadets to Pakistan was codenamed Operation Exodus and remained cloaked in secrecy until the last minute. Colonel Giridhari Singh of the Third Course, and later founder of a business conglomerate, recalled the moment when the cadets were watching a hockey match and Brigadier Barltrop, the Commandant, entered the field from the goal end and signalled to the umpire, Major Wilson, to see him. We knew at once that all was not well. It was 5 p.m. on October 17, 1947, when all the cadets were told of the plan. It was met with stunned silence. Eight hours later, after midnight, the Pakistani contingent moved out of the IMA gates with a few belongings (the rest were sent on later) and drove to the Saharanpur air base where 10 Dakotas of the 31 Squadron of the Royal Air Force flew them to Lahore.

The parting was hurried but emotional. Giridhari Singh says he remembered Captain Gilani addressing us with tears streaming down his face. And Thomas remembers emotional farewells, exchange of gifts, borrowings of suitcases and promises to keep in touch Sadly these were to end in smoke because the two dominions would soon be at war. The departure of 67 cadets 66 Muslims and one Christian was carried out with such secrecy that the next morning the bearers were surprised to see their Gentlemen Cadets missing.

Partition also divided the IMAs assets. The guideline was a 70:30 ratio between India and Pakistan. This Herculean task had its lighter moments. Major Tikka Khan, one of the instructors, was given the task of dividing the library. When he came to the encyclopaedias, Tikka Khan suggested that every alternate volume be given to Pakistan. Fortunately the idea was recognised as absurd and the encyclopaedia sets were divided more sensibly. That is just one story about Khan, better known as the Butcher of Bangladesh (and later the Butcher of Baluchistan) and infamous for atrocities such as throwing infants up into the air and catching them on bayonets as they fell.

Trouble on the northern borders and a shortfall of Army officers resulted in the Indian government pushing for the Third Course to be commissioned even earlier than December 1948. A compromise date was reached and 185 cadets passed out of the IMA on September 12, 1948. Most of the newly commissioned officers went straight into action. Those in the Infantry were sent to Kashmir. Those in the Armoured Corps saw action in Operation Polo for the liberation of Hyderabad.

The India-Pakistan war of 1971 brought the IMA and PMA course mates together again. At that time Lt. Gen. H. Kaul was commanding an armoured brigade in the western sector. By the time ceasefire was declared, Kaul knew that the Pakistani brigade commander was a former Third Course mate. Still camped along the Bein river, Kaul sent word inviting him to lunch. A while later Kaul saw a white flag approaching. It was a Pakistani second lieutenant who said the brigade commander would be unable to accept the invitation. He had apparently been removed from command. Many months later, Kaul was commanding a division in Madhya Pradesh when he got to know that another Third Course mate was in a PoW (prisoner of war) camp in Jabalpur. I met him and took him out to lunch. We went without an escort since we met as friends and he treated me like a brother, he recalled.

Others of the Third Course relate similar incidents. Brigadier Balbir Singh Dayal describes how the Third Course kinship helped during the post-1971 delineation of the line of control in the Kargil sector. Dayal says he found the Pakistani sector commander to be officious until a point when he suddenly smiled and asked if Dayal was from the Third Course. Once this was established, Dayal says he and the Pakistani officer, Brigadier Safdar Hussain Khan, reminisced about the IMA while young officers of both sides looked on in amazement. The atmosphere in subsequent meetings had genuine comradeship and fellow feeling and this amicability and understanding due to the common bond of the Third Course helped in a successful and extremely satisfactory delineation work in the northern sector of Jammu and Kashmir, said Dayal.

The two officers did their bit in keeping up the spirit that their Commandant Brig. A.B. Barltrop had urged when he announced the partition of the IMA in a Special Order of the Day dated October 14, 1947.

He wrote: I should like to say a word about the future relations between the Pakistan and the Indian Military Academies. All cadet training establishments the world over have a natural affinity, and it is consequently essential that there should exist between the PMA and the IMA a state of close cooperation and friendship. I am convinced that the officer cadre of both armies have a great part to play in restoring the happy human relationships which are so sorely needed in this country and which have deteriorated so sadly and inevitably as a result of the events of the past two weeks.

The Third Course has done its alma mater proud, producing 12 Lieutenant Generals, 22 Major Generals, 10 Param Vishisht Seva Medals, five Mahavir Chakras (one posthumous), 15 Ati Vishisht Seva Medals, five Vishisht Seva Medals, three Vir Chakras, two Sena Medals and one Padma Shree. There have been two Army commanders, two commandants of the IMA and one Governor.

The cadets who left for Pakistan formed the First Course of the PMA. Gentleman Cadet No. 391 at the IMA, who became Cadet No. 1 at the PMA, Rahim Uddin Khan, rose to the rank of General and became Joint Chief of Staff in Pakistan and, later, Governor of one of the provinces. Lt. Gen. Saeed Qadir became a Minister and a Senator. Captain Shakir Ullah Durrani became the Governor of Islamabad.

The officers who had left also had successful careers. Major Tikka Khan became the Chief of Army Staff and Major A.B. Rahman became the Governor of Punjab, Pakistan.

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