Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture

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!”

Chanakya

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.

Until Pulwama…

Rummaging Pulwama

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 aggressive.

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.”

Kandahar Hijack: A Revisit in the Aftermath of Pulwama

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).

Hijacked Indian Airlines Airbus 300 at Kandahar

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.

Pulwama Terror Strike

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. Let’s give the government and the military the elbowroom to act freely.

WeTwo & Valentine’s Day at 60

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, certainly not.

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.

To Chhaya with Love

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 biscuits.

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.

WeTwo at 60

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, 2019.

The next? Anytime soon!

To all you there: “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

When the Parachute Fails…i

Two questions often asked of me relate to: First, my maiden parachute descent and second, a possible parachuting emergency––a parachute failure, to be precise––that I might have faced. I have written about my first jump from an aircraft, in an earlier post.

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.

And then…

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.

Never say die

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.

Beyond Work & Golf

Sapan Das.

My meeting with him was incidental. It (just) happened.

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 that effort.

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.

Sapan’s Masterpiece

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 fulfil it.

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 hour.

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 day.

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 children.”

“For a change, why don’t you carve something else?”

“What else?” He was quizzical.

“I’ll get something for you.”

Sapan’s New Creation

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.

My Maiden Effort

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.

A Professional Work by an Amateur

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.