OP BLUE STAR & AFTER : ANGUISH OF A COMMANDING OFFICER

OP BLUE STAR & AFTER : ANGUISH OF A COMMANDING OFFICER

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“Gathering Pebbles” is a string of actual grass root events in the life of a Commanding Officer who was commissioned into that Battalion, fought the 1971 war in that Battalion and was now tasked to be its last Commanding Officer and preside over the Battalions Disbandment!

It’s a touching tale of what a good leader can do channelise his command…….My gratitude to Col Karam Singh Virk for sharing his experience and allowing me this narration.

The Army & the Regiment have hedged these events for long, Let us tell and learn from them, so that never may such a fate befall any other organisation.( Little long but bear with me right through) !!

GATHERING PEBBLES

By Brig IS Gakhal – as narrated by Col Karam Singh Virk, CO 9 Sikh

1. Operation Blue Star was dreadful time. I was ensconced in the shadow of Hemkunth sahib commanding ‘Towering Twenty’ Battalion (16 Jan- 25 Oct 1984) when I was suddenly ordered to move without relief to take over 9 Sikh, part of which had deserted the lines. Lt Col IS Saberwal had been moved out in June itself.

Early morning of 01 Nov 1984 as my train streamed into Ganganagar railway station, a transistor blaring on the platform informed me of the arson around Delhi and killing selectively off the trains.

I heaved a sigh of relief having escaped death along the journey. The reception party from 9 Sikh received me and we drove off to Lalgarh Jattan(LGJ), the battalion location.

At LGJ were those personnel who had not deserted the battalion that fateful night of June 84.

Mostly, JCOs, senior NCOs, Non Combatant Employees, Sahayaks and a smattering of Jawan’s who either did not desert or found their way back.

The motley strength was not more than 160. Many Officers had been moved out and replaced by fresh postings.

My posting order designated me as Commanding Officer 9 Sikh, but my command was rater truncated. The 9 Sikh strength was split at three locations as follows:

> LGJ: 160 all ranks.

> Suratgarh: All detainees placed under 15 Bihar under another Brigade of 24 Division.(Strength: approx 400)

> Bikaner: All ranks of 9 Sikh who were not in the unit on that day, largely personnel on Leave, courses, attachments/ detachments (Strength: 130)

2. There were other peculiarities. The quarter guard, Kote’s and Magazine of the battalion was manned by a Gorkha Battalion.

The Battalion was in a disarmed state. In the entire formation the very mention of 9 Sikh was enough to silence conversations.

I gradually gathered the state of the Battalion, and it depressed me to see such a fine Battalion come to this pass. The detainees had become lawless, caged behind barbed wire guarded by LMG mounted towers.

They moved around in civvies, with beards left loose and saffron half turbans. The sentries and Commanding Officers of 15 Bihar were abused, whenever they approached the area.

All that the detainees did was gamble, grumble and intimidate. A field Gurdwara that was set up on the campus had become their rallying point.

All this did not please me, and I wondered what I would do with this unruly mob as and when they were reverted to my charge.

Being constrained for manpower and by the urge to gather my command it was essential that those in Bikaner revert to me at the earliest.

Having assessed the situation I sought an interaction with my brigade commander. My request was summed up as follows:

> My command to be concentrated at LGJ, by permitting strength held at Bikaner to join up at LGJ.

> A Sanik Sammelan of the detainees to be addressed by me to establish rapport.

3. The Commander was of the opinion that both requests were beyond his purview, but he did organize for me to meet the General Officer Commanding ( GOC) 24 Div.

Expectedly, the GOC was not amenable to both my requests, till I showed him my Move Order that stated that I was to be Commanding Officer 9 Sikh and therefore responsible for the entire strength.

I requested that either my command be placed under me or the move order be amended to state “CO, 9 Sikh less detainees and personnel at Bikaner”.

I did impress upon the GOC that I would address the detainees as formation representative and be able to provide information on the detainees Psyche to the chain of command.

Further, the detainees need to be disciplined as it was not in military ethos for detainees to heap abuse on their guards who were doing their duty.

It was during the evening session with the GOC that he finally relented and agreed to my requests. I then explained my plan for my interaction with the detainees.

I would first kit the detainees in Uniform followed by a visit by Subedar Major(SM) to explain the procedure, before the actual event.

I also requested the GOC to have the event recorded by 15 Bihar. I felt that I had made an important breakthrough in consolidating my command.

4. On the appointed day after all preparatory ground work accompanied by CO 15 Bihar and both Subedar Major’s I took the report from Havaldar Major Niranjan Singh “Dholi'(He was the official Bhangra drum player of the Bn).

The men in their uniforms (without belts) sat in neat rows in front of me. CO Bihar was seated alongside me. I allowed the men to have their say one by one.

The refrain was common, sacrilege of Harmandir sahib and news of ill-treatment of women folk emotionally charged the men who took the unwarranted actions.

When questioned by me that what exactly the aim was, I was informed “to free Harmandir sahib’. It was now my turn to do some tough talking.

“ Tusi saray failure ho, agar tuhada mudda Harmandir Sahib paunchna si, tan tusi pahuncay kyu nahi, tay rah wich hee kyun hatiyar siitdittay” (All of you are failures ! If your aim was to free Harimandir sahib, why did you not reach the destination and surrendered en-route)? Their answer was that they were way laid. My next retort made them hang their heads;

“ Agar tusi pahunch nahi sakay tay tusi zinda kyaon wapis ayay, tusi sare failure ho. Kee 9 Sikh nay kadi peeth deekayee jo tusi kaydee ho kay baithay ho”.

(If you did not reach your destination why have you returned alive as prisoners, has 9 Sikh ever showed its back in crisis is this what you learnt in all these years).

The effect was showing their eyes were avoiding my gaze. A Naik who had largely served as helper in the Gurdwara stood up and retorted that since religion was under threat he reacted emotionally.

“Tu Sarhali ton hain, tay minu ehbhee pata tu 1971 wich bee picchay rear wich see, agar tara baap tay tera bhara Harmandir sahib nahi pahunchay tay tuu unhanton upar hogaya ki apne jumawari chhad kay bhagoda ho gayay”.

(You are from Sarhali village, very close to Amritsar, and I also know that during 1971 war you were in the rear, if your father and brothers have not reached Harmandir sahib what prompted you to leave your responsibility and desert).

I then explained to them that they had collectively made a grave mistake, but by their current indiscipline and unruly behavior they are collectively compounding their one mistake.

Here in after, no cards, no abusing no un-soldierly behavior, military education classes and other military procedures to start immediately. Lastly, I impressed upon them that inquires and recording of evidence would soon commence.

It would be un-soldierly to blame others; you made a mistake, own up and face the consequences. I was now more than certain that chain of command had been established.

The men now had their commanding officer. Hereafter, the detainees had a proper military schedule and discipline was enforced.

5. One of the issues that the detainees repeatedly raised was that they must be permitted to meet their families at a laid down frequency, a right given to even those on death sentence. I took up the issue through proper channels.

Luckily, I chanced upon a news item & photo of Satwant Singh’s (assassin of Mrs. Gandhi) mother serving food to him, Charles Sobraj and Harshad Mehta on a grassy patch around Tihar Jail.

I used this photo to reinforce my request, that if such criminals can be allowed to interact with their families then surely my soldiers also deserve similar consideration.

The issue was finally resolved after my interaction with the Corps Commander. In my own humble way I had managed to bring a semblance of balance to the lives and functioning of 9 Sikh detainees, who formed a major portion of my command.

6. The brigade sports were under way, and I requested that 9 Sikh be permitted to field its teams. The commander reluctantly agreed, but asked me are you sure you want to do this with more than half your battalion not available to you.

I merely said that we would do with what we have. The other two battalions, Grenadiers & Gorkha were formidable foes, excelling in their sports specialty.

Since we were not allowed ant weapons training was limited, we focused on sports, winning the brigade, Hockey, basketball, boxing and Cross country events with our motley strength.

Football was the only victory that Gorkha’s took home from us. The spirit of 9 Sikh was on full display, much to the amazement of commanders in the chain.

7. In early 1985 orders for the disbandment of 9 Sikh were received, much to our disappointment. Personally for me it was devastating.

I had joined the Battalion as 2/Lt on its raising at Meerut, fought the 1971 war with the Battalion, repaired their fractured reputation and now had to preside over its disbandment.

But the unit had faltered and must pay for the consequences. All that remains for me to do is enumerate the possible causes that led to the catastrophe that visited 9 Sikh, much to the disappointment of all.

I wish to share these observations so that such event must never come to pass in the Sikh regiment in the future. My analysis of the causes:

> Weak leadership, authoritative, self centered and glory seeking. Ambitious without matching professional and administrative capability.

> Overemphasis on religion.

> Manpower resource misused for personal elevation by leadership.

> Welfare and well being of troops totally ignored.

> Leave and other entitlements of troops not attended to.

> Breakdown of communications between Leaders and the led.

> Selective implementation of discipline and perks.

> Training and motivational aspects ignored.
> Activities within unit of suspicious nature not monitored.

> Interference in the unit administration by unauthorized power centre.

8. May the fate of 9 Sikh never visit any battalion of the Sikh Regiment. An outstanding battalion let down by its command elements which today finds itself in suspended animation.