A couple of years ago, I was at a seminar
where many eminent people from different walks of Indian life had gathered to
share their thoughts on India’s Strategic Culture. The discussion, which began
with great bonhomie, metamorphosed into an animated debate. There were those
who eulogised all great Indians from Manu
to Manmohan Singh. They recalled with reverence Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Rani
Laxmibai and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. They spoke in praise of Ashoka and
Chandragupta Maurya; Mohanjodaro and Harappa; Nalanda and Takshila…. They were
convinced that Chanakya and his Arthashatra were as great (read,
“greater”) than Sun Tzu and his Art of War. They talked of the wars
India has won against Pakistan including the surrender of 93,000 Pakistanis
(1971). They skipped the Sino-India War (1962) and went gaga over India’s Space
and Nuclear capabilities and its rich and varied culture and heritage…. “Wow! What
a Strategic Culture!”
People on the opposite bench spoke of the so
many times India has been invaded. They recalled some names with a lot of
venom––Genghis Khan, Timur, Ghazni, Ghauri and the East India Company…. They argued
that the Kashmir issue was poorly handled in 1947; we are still paying the cost
of bad decisions. They held Prime
Minister Nehru responsible for the debacle in 1962. They argued that the Indian
Airlines Flight IC 814 shouldn’t have been allowed to leave India; there was no
question of releasing Masood Azhar. On the issue of the rescue of President MA
Gayoom of the Maldives (Operation Cactus, November 1988), they were sure that
India (like the US, the UK, and Pakistan etc.) shouldn’t have extended military
assistance––the returns were not commensurate with the risk involved. For sure,
India was the proverbial cat’s paw that pulled the chestnuts out of the fire
for the Maldivians. In Kargil, India was caught napping…. “Does India have a
Strategic Culture at all?”
In the Q&A hour, intellectuals raised doubts, asked questions and commented. I kept mum for I didn’t want to prove my ignorance. I felt relieved when the learned chair concluded that it was important to define the term “Strategic Culture” before one could talk about “India’s” Strategic Culture and there was no clear definition of that term. My relief knew no bounds when, during the high tea after the event I interacted with people and discovered that most of us (if not all) were sailing in the same boat.
Discussion, and the debate over, I consigned “Strategic Culture” to some far recesses of my mind for I had more pressing issues to turn to; we all have pressing issues, including children. Publication of my book was top on my list of priorities at that time.
Today everyone, literally everyone, is
talking (on television, texting, tweeting, whatsapping…) about India’s Strategic
Culture, or some such thing––the same debate and the same arguments have
resurfaced. Only the discussants are more vociferous, more clamorous and very
I wonder: “At this point in time, is a
definition of Strategic Culture or a knowledge of India’s Strategic Culture
important? Is it going to help in any way? Is this the time to think of
doctrines, recall principles of war, military strategy––the theory?”
I am reminded of a young cricketer at the
nets a day before a major game. Just when he hit the ball over the boundary,
his coach came to him and said that that was not the way to hit the ball. He
reprimanded him for his wrong technique and started teaching him the ‘textbook’
way of doing what he was doing.
“But where’s the ball, coach?” the player
asked as he looked at the ball being recovered from the spectator stand.
In tune with what I said the other day, I add:“The time to learn theory has long gone; it is time to act. Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture will be an exercise in futility. Let those on the stage perform unhindered. Let others just W-A-T-C-H. Those of us who have performed our acts really well (when we were on the stage) will be approached for direction, if deemed necessary.”
Among others, a phoenix that rises after almost
every terror strike is the issue of hijack of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814
(Airbus A300) en route from Kathmandu to Delhi on December 24, 1999. The crisis
ended after India agreed to release Masood Azhar, along with some other
terrorists. The released terrorists were later implicated in other acts of terror,
like the gruesome murder of Daniel Pearl (2002) and the Mumbai Terror Strike (2008).
Therefore, after Pulwama, a recall of Kandahar
appears to be a natural public impulse. The decision of the Bajpai Government to
barter Masood Azhar for the passengers and the crew is being criticised yet
again. Many are suggesting that India should not have let go of Masood; it is being
lamented that India is paying the cost for that ‘wrong’ decision. It is fashionable to cite the example of Israel in
dealing with terror strikes and their policy of never-succumbing-to-the-demand of the terrorists to release their
brethren in return for Israeli hostages.
The fact is that Israel does have a rigid
policy on the subject. Israel has dealt with situations on case-to-case basis. Kozo Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army
fighting for the PLO was caught alive by the Israeli security forces after the
Lod Airport Massacre in 1972 (17 killed; 22 injured). Although sentenced to
life imprisonment he (along with some PLO members) was bartered for a few Israeli
soldiers held by the PLO.
In another case, Israel had almost agreed to
release PLO men in its jails in return for the hundred odd Air France passengers
(mostly Israeli) held hostage at Entebbe Airport (Uganda 1976). But the delay
in the return of Idi Amin (the Ugandan dictator who was away) to Kampala gave
them an opportunity to plan and carry out the daring raid to rescue the
hostages (the daring Entebbe Raid). The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin,
was supported by the entire parliament.
The Israeli leadership decides when, and when
not, it is in Israel’s interest to accede to the demands of the terrorists and
acts accordingly. The public and the opposition parties do not question the
wisdom of the leadership––they do not pester the leadership either way.
Returning to Kandahar, the Indian leadership
did what it considered best under those circumstances. Post Pulwama, it is unfair
to criticise the then government and the security forces for their actions. Kandahar
is past––lessons have been learnt and ways of dealing with similar situations
in the future have been worked out.
In the current situation, all political
parties have shown remarkable maturity by extending support to the government.
It would be best to leave the government and the military leadership (who are
in the know of things) to decide the best course of action.
A parting thought.
For Israeli state, it is a question of
survival; they have reason to respond to situations the way they do. They also
have full support of major world powers in everything they do. Our leadership
and military has to go it alone. We’ll do well not to breathe down their necks
as they plan and execute an appropriate response. Let’s not indulge in
candlelight marches, burn tyres, and block roads to pressurise those who need
to remain calm at this juncture. Think of it: such actions only cause global
warming, traffic snarls and loss of productivity. Still worse, they might force
a knee-jerk reaction.
give the government and the military the elbowroom to act freely.
Look around, and you find romantic feelings and relations accoutred by expensive cars, precious diamond rings, nice clothes and fashionable restaurants, and sometimes, even by cruises in the Caribbean. Besides, the expression of love, affection and care is generally confined to a day in a year, the Valentine’s Day.
Doesn’t really appeal, at least, to me.
Is it a case of sour grapes? Is it because I can’t afford all of those material
things to express my feelings? May be. But do I envy those who can? No,
Valentine’s Day for Chhaya and I…
My memory goes back to the period of nine months for which we were engaged before we got married––some people use the term courtship to describe that period. We used to (actually) pen a letter almost daily, for in those days, there were no mobile (smart) phones, no WhatsApp; STD calls were costly. On Sundays––because on Sundays the call tariffs were less––we would book a call through the Telephone Exchange and wait for a greater part of the day to speak for just about three minutes (with people waiting in queue, giving smiles that made one feel uneasy). There was no Internet, no Skype or FaceTime. It wasn’t possible to shuttle often between Agra and Ujjain––600 kms plied by some very slow moving trains. And although seniors always cooperated, leave was a privilege, not a right. These periods of temporary separation were a norm even later, when I was posted in the exotic east (Tezpur, Assam) and still later, in Bangalore and in Chandinagar.
So, for Chhaya and I, Valentine’s Day used to be any day of the year we were together––any number of times. I remember, once during our courtship I had taken a small (brass) mirror for her tote bag. It was not the mirror but the message that I wrote for her that she fell for; and still treasures it. It read: “It’s my heart; you’ll always find yourself in it.”
I am nearing my 60th birthday
(Chhaya? She is still young)…
We still do not wait for the Valentine’s Day
to express our feelings of love and care for each other. A small thing that I
do in return for everything (“everything” just cannot convey the feeling) she
does to make our humble abode a sweet
home is to prepare the bed tea/ coffee every morning. She loves coffee; I
am fond of tea and we have it with biscuits. Lately we have been eating cream
She is still half asleep when she kisses me, “Good Morning.” When she does open her eyes, she finds what I call ‘a-refreshing-cup-of-coffee’ because she seldom complains about the coffee. And, if and when she does have something adverse to talk about, she blames the brand or the vintage of the coffee, or even the quality of the milk, rather than my preparation. But, early last week, she started complaining about the cream in the biscuits. Saying that there was something bad about it, she would claw it away with her nails before eating them. This had gone on for about a week––a not too pleasant beginning of her day. Until yesterday…
While getting the tray laden with coffee/ tea and biscuits, I realised that the cream in the biscuit would again be the irritant to start her day with. “How can I change that,” I thought, as I headed towards the bedroom. Then I turned back, scraped the cream of the biscuits neatly with a knife and placed red hearts (drawn with a sketch pen on small bits of paper) between the biscuits (in place of the cream) and headed back to the bedroom. After the usual Good Morning hug, still in half sleep, she picked up a biscuit and tried to claw away the cream. In its stead in her nails came a little heart. Surprised, she opened her eyes, rubbed them to see that small piece of paper. Then she looked at me wide-eyed.
I have no words to describe the expression of
love in those eyes. Suffice it to say that the love she expressed in her eyes
was far greater and more intense than the one she expressed when I got her an
exclusive diamond ring on her birthday a few years ago.
WeTwo celebrated our last Valentine’s Day at 6 am on February the 13th,
The question relating to parachute emergency is put in interesting ways: “What if your main parachute doesn’t open? What if your reserve parachute also does not open? Has your parachute ever failed? How did it feel like to be in that situation?” Questions of that ilk take me back to a sunny October morning nearly thirty years ago. The memory is still vivid because it was a matter of my life and I had but a few seconds to decide and act.
It was a Skydiving Demonstration at Air Force Station, Ambala. The AN-32 aircraft with Akashganga, the Skydiving Team of the IAF on board, was cruising at 225 kmph 6000 feet above the ground level. I was a member of the team. The team leader gave thumbs up––the universal sign conveying readiness when the aircraft was overhead the spectator stand. Then he opened the barrier at the aft end of the aircraft and roared, “Go!” On that command, the team members jumped out of the aircraft one after the other in quick succession. I, being the lightest, was the last to exit the aircraft. Within seconds, we reached our terminal velocities and were falling at 120-200 feet per second. We had been assigned different (staggered) parachute opening heights to avoid a melee at the time of landing on the target––a circle of 15 metres diameter in front of the enthusiastic crowd.
The Strato Cloud parachute that I was jumping with had a canopy shaped like the wing of an aircraft. Once deployed, it behaved like a glider. Rather than descending vertically, it could glide (with a good glide ratio of 3) and speed, 40-50kmph. Its high manoeuvrability and high sensitivity to controls enabled experienced jumpers to execute pinpoint landings. At the same time, mishandling of the controls could lead to serious injuries at the time of landing.
The spectators looked skywards and counted the jumpers who appeared like tiny specks falling from the aircraft. They held their breaths waiting for the parachutes to open. The jumpers falling below me deployed their parachutes at their assigned heights. I too threw away the pilot chute (a small parachute which initiates the opening sequence of a parachute). In a second and a half, my parachute was filled with air. And then…began an ordeal, the memory of which, even today sends a chill down my spine.
The suspension lines on one side of my parachute were jumbled up and the canopy was badly distorted. The partially deployed parachute began turning to the right. My effort to recover the situation by tugging at the suspension lines was in vain; I could not untangle them. Soon the turns became vicious and I felt like a stone at the end of a sling spiralling down at a tremendous speed. In a last-ditch effort I pulled the suspension lines down to stop the turns. Thanks to the gruelling training under Sergeant R Singh, I had developed strong muscles to deal with such situations. My effort met with partial success. The turns slowed down to a stop (almost) but now the parachute headed for an incipient stall––a condition in which there could be a sudden loss of height (40 to 50 feet). Holding on to the lines could result in a stall. I was still at 4500 feet above the ground level. A stall close to the ground would be disastrous. I recalled with horror, an accident involving Warrant Officer Augustine who had been sentenced to the confines of a wheel chair due to a heavy landing in a similar situation.
There was a surge of adrenaline and yet my mind went on some quick errands. I was reminded of our son eliciting a promise from me while bidding me bye that morning to make a paper bird for him that could flap its wings. I wondered whether I would see him ever again, let alone teach him origami. Then I recalled Squadron Leader Ajgaonkar’s ordeal a year or so ago. He had promptly deployed his reserve parachute and landed safely. “Never Say Die” was the gospel he had passed on to us. “Am I in the same situation?” I asked myself. “His was a high-speed emergency––a total failure, no parachute at all. Mine was a slow speed emergency; I had at least a partially functioning canopy over my head. What if I jettisoned the malfunctioning main parachute and the reserve parachute also had a problem?” That silly thought had a numbing effect.
Mudit…origami…Augustine in wheelchair…Ajgaonkar…. All those thoughts whizzed past in a jiffy as I struggled to revive the parachute to a fully inflated state as per the Standard Operating Procedure.
There was an eerie feeling of stillness. Had time coagulated? No, it was just an illusion. Time, and height above the ground–the two most precious things for me at that instant–was fast running out. The impartiality of the earth’s gravity was evident in the rate at which the (unwinding) needle of my altimeter was sweeping the face of the instrument.
“Should I risk a stall with a jumbled main canopy, or jettison it and go for the reserve parachute?” The reserve parachute was smaller in size and low on performance. We used to joke: “The main parachute is meant for a safe landing; the reserve–to ensure survivability with possible disability.” The dilemma was damning. I was a mere 2500 feet above the ground and approaching it at a breakneck speed. I was left with a few precious seconds in which, to decide, and cram deliberate action on which, would depend my life and safety of my limbs. I pulled down my goggles, which had become foggy due to excessive sweating.
Suddenly everything became tranquil. Reason elbowed away the silly thoughts from my mind. There was every reason to rely on the reserve parachute that had been packed by the most proficient hands and overseen by the most careful eyes; those of the Safety Equipment Workers of the Paratroopers’ Training School. There was every reason to rely on the training I had undergone and feel in control of the situation.
I took the most vital decision in that situation––the decision to jettison the main parachute and pull open the reserve parachute. A tug at the cutaway handle got me rid of the malfunctioning main canopy. With the Newton’s Law of Gravitation at work I went hurtling down, as I got detached from the malfunctioning parachute. Again I was approaching Mother Earth at a very high speed, and accelerating. Then, without further delay, I pulled the ripcord handle of the reserve parachute. Sight of a fully deployed reserve parachute was a great relief.
I was now just about 2000 feet above the ground level. Joy rioted in my heart; the wind with prankish flurry caused the stabilisers of the parachute to flap rhythmically. Their flutter was music to my ears. Since I had lost a lot of height, I executed a tight circuit and headed for the landing area. I felt victorious and exhausted as I landed on the target.
As I removed my helmet and unfastened the parachute harness, I realised that the enthusiasm, and the frolicking associated with a skydiving demonstration by the Akashganga Team was conspicuously missing among the spectators. In its place was a lingering melancholy. The main canopy that I had jettisoned a while ago had fallen a mile away from the spectators. They took it to be a total failure of the parachute and perhaps a fatal accident. Concern for the safety of the unknown skydiver had cast a shadow of gloom. They heaved a sigh of relief when they came to know the fact.
In the flight back from Ambala, I went through the day’s events. Mind flew ahead of the aircraft and I wanted to be with my family soon. “How would I disclose the incident to my wife without causing anxiety?” I wondered.
Chhaya was awaiting me at home at lunch with a plate of Russian Salad and a smile. Being a parachute jumper herself, she took the incident in a stride. I devoured the Russian Salad and was soon off for another Skydiving Demonstration in Agra.
And now, the answer to the interesting question: “What if the reserve parachute also does not open?” Wing Commander AK Singh, a colleague parachute Jump Instructor has an answer: “If your main parachute fails and the reserve also does not open then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.”
My meeting with him was incidental. It (just)
When I was posted to Tezpur in the December
of 2000, I had to leave behind my family in Delhi to avoid disruption in our
son’s studies. He was in the XI standard then, and had to appear in the board
exams in the following year.
In the Exotic
East it was rather difficult for a forced
bachelor (that is the term commonly used in the Air Force for an Air
Warrior separated temporarily from his family) to spend the time after work
hours. I had taken to serious golfing
to put my spare time to good use but then, there were days when weather stymied
It was one of those days when, although it
was not raining, the golf course was flooded and I had little to do. So I
started my scooter and headed aimlessly towards the sleepy town of Tezpur. I
stopped en route to visit Sapan Das. I thought I’d buy one of those wooden
rhinos sold at his complex. Normally I would have requested one of my
colleagues to buy one for me.
Hidden from view, a little off the road among
the trees was his set up. A better word would be ‘Ashram’––‘Ashram’,
because he used to sculpt his masterpieces in that serene environment. He had
mastered the art of carving a rhino in wood. It would not be an exaggeration to
say that he could carve a rhino with his eyes closed. All his creations were
identical to the minutest detail––only the size varied.
Everyone posted in the region used to buy one
for self and more for gifting. It was almost a ritual, and I had gone there to
In his hamlet among the trees, there was a
low platform, half the size of a volleyball court, covered with a thatched
roof. He sat there on the floor engrossed in chiselling a piece of wood. He
greeted me with a smile and pointed at a cane chair opposite him.
“Dada, I have come to buy a rhino,” I said,
as I sat down.
“Sure Sir, please choose one from those kept
on the shelves,” he pointed at a rack. It amazed me that he was looking at me
while his deft fingers worked unceasingly on his next masterpiece. Awestruck, I
postponed the selection of a piece and sat down again in the chair and started
observing the master.
I sat mesmerised for the greater part of an
The spell broke when Sapan Das took a break.
Otherwise a quiet person, he opened up when I made small talk over a cup of
tea. He had won several national and international awards for his work. He had
also been training youth in the area. A large number of them were learning the
art from him. I sat for another hour looking at him work. I bought a rhino and
returned to the Air Force Station only to come back to Sapan’s abode the next
Golf, my passion, had taken a back seat.
My second day at his premises: he was amused
at me watching him work so intently. Soon it became a routine. I would visit
him whenever time permitted and just watched him work. It used to be a soothing
experience; next best to a round of Yoga.
Then, one day, I asked him, “Dada, why do you
carve only rhinos? Why not any other thing?”
“Because it represents our region; it
symbolises Assam. Besides, it sells and generates funds for me to train these
“For a change, why don’t you carve something
“What else?” He was quizzical.
“I’ll get something for you.”
The next day, I brought a clay dog for him to
copy. For him, it was a refreshing change. He got down happily to carving a
replica. While he did so, I took a piece of wood with his permission and tried
my hand at woodcarving with my Swiss Knife. This amused Sapan Das to no end. He
encouraged me by giving me a chisel and a larger piece of wood to carry to my
room and work on it in my own time.
A few days later, when I went to collect the
wooden dog, I surprised Sapan Das with my work––a statue of Ganesha. He was mighty happy with my
maiden effort. He appreciated my work and wax-polished it for me.
I continued visiting Sapan for the rest of my
stay in Tezpur.
Observing me learning woodcarving, one of my men too got interested. He was talented and picked up the art really fast. I was delighted when he carved a miniature replica of Sapan’s iconic rhino, and presented it to me. Still later, he carved a large, 18-inch statue of Ganesha––an absolutely professional work by an amateur.
Sapan Das is one of the most unforgettable characters I have met in my life. Time spent at his abode, was time well spent. There I learnt that there was life beyond work and golf.
We, humans like challenges. The children like
them even more, particularly when they appear to be within their capacity to
meet. Last summer, I was assigned the duty of engaging our grandnephew and
grandniece––Aarav (5) and Dhwani (6)––while their parents went visiting their
Although I accepted the assignment, I was a bit tired and wanted to take a nap before I could join them. But it didn’t work out my way and there I was, trying to keep the two kids entertained. I yawned like a dog as I narrated fairy tales, and tales of adventure to them. Soon they lost interest and became fidgety.
When sleep seemed to get the better of me, I came
up with a stratagem. I promised to show them a magic trick provided they
counted the hair on my head. They found the challenge amusing. Hesitant first,
they looked at my balding head and spared a thought to considering the exciting
proposal. Together they felt confident of counting the very few hair on my
scalp. Then, of course, there was the lure of the Magic Trick that would
The deal was done; I dozed off as soon as
they began counting.
Poor little things! I must have slept for the
greater part of an hour as they went through the exercise (read “ordeal”). They
were still counting when I got up: “…2347, 2348, 2349, …”
Now it was my turn to fulfil my part of the
agreement––to show them a magic trick. “Do you know Gandhiji?” I started with a
preamble, as I had to keep them engaged for another hour before their parents
returned. And then, without waiting for an answer, I described the greatness of
the Father of the Nation. I took time
to narrate the life of the great saint and the freedom struggle of India. I
ended my monologue with: “Now I’ll show you his power.”
I took out a crisp two-thousand-rupee
currency note and flashed it for them to see. “Whose picture do you see on that
“Gandhiji,” they chorused.
Then I slipped the currency note in a long
envelope as they watched curiously. I had cut windows in the envelope for the
kids to be able to see the currency note kept inside. I held the envelope in
front for them to see. With a pair of scissors in the other hand I said, “Now
I’ll cut through the envelope but the currency note with the picture of Mahatma
Gandhi will remain intact….” With a pause, I added, “That is the power of the
“Abracadabra! Here I go!” With more theatrics,
I chopped the envelope into two pieces and, lo and behold, the Mahatma remained
unscathed. The note was still in one piece. The two clapped with joy.
It was a win-win situation. The kids thoroughly enjoyed my sleight of hand. They also had a gala time counting the hair on my head. I enjoyed my siesta. Above all, they learnt a few things about the Mahatma and India’s freedom struggle. Since the lesson was associated with spectacular magic, they’ll remember it for long.
The mission to rescue the Maldivian President (Operation
Cactus, November 1988) was a race against time. The Indian troops had to cover
2600 kms (Agra to Hulule) and find him in the capital, Malé before the rebels
could spot him on that small island measuring barely two square kilometres. If
the rebels, led by Abdullah Luthufee were to find him before the Indian troops,
and if they could gain control of Malé, then the rescue operation by the
Indians would be construed as an act of
aggression against a sovereign state. Besides, when the IAF aircraft landed
at Hulule airport, a single gun-toting rebel lying in wait by the runway could
have caused catastrophic damage to the rescue force.
India could have ill afforded a debacle in the Maldives following
its setbacks in Sri Lanka in the preceding year. The stakes were very high. Most pundits, and strategic thinkers would have forecast failure on the
eve of the Operation, yet the spectacular success of the Operation was met with
There was an opinion galore: Some compared Operation Cactus with the ‘Charge
of the Light Brigade albeit with a twist in the tail, others found
parallels with the kinds of Operation
Eiche (the rescue of Benito Mussolini by the German paratroopers in 1943)
and Operation Jonathan (popularly
remembered as the Entebbe Raid––the
rescue of over a hundred hostages by the Israelis in 1976).
Brigadier FFC Bulsara, the dynamic commander, who led the paratroopers in
that Operation knew what his men had gone through and had recommended names of
a few individuals for recognition of their gallantry. Grudgingly, very few of
them were doled out decorations––hardly any for gallantry. Bulsara was
observant enough to recognise the contribution of the then Indian High
Commissioner, Mr AK Banerjee also. The diplomat had mustered the courage to
join the task force (with apprehensions, of course) on the mission impossible. Needless
to say, his presence did make a difference. But, Bulsara’s recommendation went
unheeded. At a later date, he lamented the apathy of those at the helm for
ignoring the deserving.
As it seems, body bags elicit greater awe and emotion than victorious troops. In fact, when they head for the war-zone, people often bid the soldiers to ‘lay down their lives’ for the sake of the country. Perhaps, a tweak in the attitude towards the soldiers (and war-fighting) will make a huge difference to their morale (and to the outcome of their endeavour). “Annihilate the enemy and return victorious!” will surely be a better wish for a soldier than “die for the country.” Likewise, a greeting: “You fought well! We are proud of you!” might be a pleasant recognition of his effort.