One may forget many a things in life but that which is experienced first, remains etched in memory, till the very last. The first school, first house, first car, first scooter etc continue to remain in the memory un-erased. The year was 1987; I was fresh from the Indian Military Academy and was on my maiden posting at a place called “Bum La”, on the Indo-China border, in Arunachal Pradesh, the land of astounding beauty. Bum La was around 14000 feet above the MSL and was characterized by nerve-wracking weather conditions, round the year. Not a blade of grass grows at such heights and all that a soldier had for company were few feet of snow and a couple of yaks!
My first army unit was an Infantry Battalion that had deservedly won its spurs in the battle of Akhaura (Bangladesh Operations-1971) by ensuring the fall of Akhaura town after a fierce battle over three days. Lieutenant Colonel MM Ravi, VrC (One of the three officers who were awarded Veer Chakra in that battle), was my first CO. He was a charismatic officer from Coorg, and like most warriors of his clan, he was a very jovial person. He was an epicenter of the unit and everyone, in the unit, loved and admired him. Commanding Officer (CO), of a unit, in the army, enjoys an exalted status. Military leaders have gone on to say that the unit is an extended shadow of the commanding officer: that is the kind of influence he has on his men. But, interestingly, in many cases, the COs are like mothers-in-law; most of the officers find the COs of the other units better than their own!!
This wasn’t the case in our unit; he was a soldier’s soldier. The commanding officer was simple, but had a spine: His ability to take stand on issues was legendary!! One thing he demonstrated to us was not only to speak but also speak up! He was conscious of being a no-nonsensical officer and enjoyed the reputation of living with that label. He often took ‘pangas’ with his superiors but never with his subordinates. However, in the uniformed forces, such a trait comes at a cost, not many can afford!!
Be it our ritualistic handball in four feet snow or innumerable rounds of game of bridge, he never liked to lose. The “bridge bug” bit us all, however, the CO was a tyro on the bridge table. Despite being a novice, defeat was one thing that he hated to taste. Bridge is also known as a trick-taking game and our challenge was to ensure that the CO received a lucky windfall, each time the cards were dealt: One can be happy only if the top man is happy!! Quite opposed to the prevalent belief, it is not chess but bridge that is considered as an ultimate “war game” by the men in the military. This is because, while all the pieces are visible on the chess table, a bridge player has to play the game without being aware of what the opponent has in his hand and in his mind: Akin to what happens in the military operations. Bridge is also all about deception, feints, lies, ploys and pretentions. In fact, few of the great bridge players are great liars—as are brilliant military leaders and diplomats and politicians.
The CO may not have been good at “playing the cards” but he was extremely charming when it came to “playing the people”. Much is made these days of MBWA – Management By Walking Around: He was a relentless practitioner of this idea. Not content with staying in the headquarters, he made frequent visits to the snow-clad mountaintops that were held by our troops. He managed his troops by climbing around (MBCA)! He did not say it in so many words, but his message to his officers was unambiguous, “Trust the Troops.”
If any of the unit members made a mistake, as a CO, he accepted it as his own. As a CO, he didn’t just take the decisions; he took the responsibility and also embraced it!! “If you lived for your troops during peace, the troops would die for you during war”, was a simple message from the CO who was a ‘Company Commander’ during the 1971 operations.
“You fight for me and I will fight for you”, that, in sum, symbolizes true leadership in a combat environment.