By Sanjay Kumar
Officers Training Academy, Gaya: It was an early December morning, our first day at Officers Training Academy, (OTA) when we met Gentleman Cadet Vikas Panicker, not his real name, of course. It was a cold foggy morning but the cadets were all lined for the 15km speed march. Fitted with a backpack and a rifle slung over his shoulders, Vikas cut a smart figure, like most GCs do.
“Look, I have to pass this speed march in excellent category otherwise there will be unofficial punishment later at night,” he said referring to front-rolling on muster ground, on a cold winter night. “I request you to keep your questions for after the march.”
There was no option but to wait for two hours, the duration of the march. Just as well, as we (I and my photographer Sumit Verma) used the time to explore the surroundings. OTA Gaya, the third and latest pre-commission training academy of Indian Army, is situated near the historic ‘Bodhgaya’, where Prince Siddharth attained enlightenment and became Buddha. Symbolically at least, there couldn’t have been a better site to transform greenhorns into professional soldiers, with or without enlightenment. It commenced training earlier this year on 18 July 2011 and is currently home to 149 GCs. Over time, once the construction of all facilities and state-of-the-art infrastructure is complete, the number is likely to increase to 750 GCs. Right now, it is mostly making use of structures of its old avatar, which was the recruit training centre of Army Service Corps (ASC), North.
FORCE had the privilege of spending a few days at the academy, interacting with the Commandant, the faculty and the GCs. That’s how we met Vikas, who comes from a small town in Andhra Pradesh called Suryapet. His parents are farmers and most of his education has been on scholarships. In other circumstances, two hours would have dragged on interminably. Not at OTA. Before we knew, the march was over and jubilant cadets were trooping back. Vikas made the excellent category, but was totally exhausted. By the time we reached him, he was still out of breath. “I came in excellent,” he declared. “Let me have some lemon juice and halwa.”
Finally, our time came. Who are the people who join the army these days?
“I think that in the recent years, those who join the army mostly come from rural areas. The city boys opt for IITs and IIMs. Even the number of officers’ children joining the army is going down with most GC’s coming from JCO’s (Junior Commissioned Officer) and other ranks background,” he said. Before we could have moved further, he interrupted, “I have to go back to my company now. We can meet in the evening around the games time or during the study period.”
We could not meet him during the day as the afternoon rest was followed by a cross country practice. But we did get lucky as we tracked him between his practice and dinner time. By the time we caught up with him, it was already 8:45 in the night. With only 15 minutes left for the Battalion mess dinner time to get over, (it seemed unfair to ask him to spare time for us. But he said, looking over his shoulder to check if the mess was still open, “I just have 10 minutes.” We couldn’t resist asking that if he spoke to us for 10 minutes, how he would finish his dinner in five minutes.
“Five minutes is a lot of time sir,” he said. “I can finish my dinner in two minutes also. I can divide one piece of paneer in 100 parts, I can have dal with fork and can drink three jugs of water in one go,” he said. Clearly, being a GC is not easy.
Making use of the allotted 10 minutes, we asked him about his interests and if he got any time to pursue them. “I am interested in golf and surfing the Internet, especially sites like Facebook, Twitter etc,” he said. “But the social networking sites are banned in the academy. If one is caught surfing them, one is punished. But, I still manage to update my status on FB through my cell phone which I have hidden in my room. Cell phones are also banned, by the way, in academy,” he said adjusting his mufti.
Sometime during the conversation, he saw a copy of FORCE magazine in my hand. “Can I have a copy of this?” he asked. “I like reading, but I don’t get too much time here,” he said. “In the academy, clearing physical tests are most important if you want to pass out on time without getting relegated.”
Vikas is well aware of the fact that one’s course grading depends a lot on one’s academics, which further decide whether you will be subsequently chosen as an instructor or to lead a higher command. “Everyone used to tell me before I joined the army that if you are not great with studies, army is a good option. But the truth is that you have to study a lot. But, if you are good in PT and drill, you might get more time to study,” he said, adding as an afterthought, “I have to go now.” We noticed that he did not have a wristwatch. How does he keep track of time then? “Welcome to the academy,” he said waltzing off. “Wristwatch is a second term privilege.”
The next day started with early morning drill and PT. We met him later at breakfast. “I was late for the parade today by one minute. I have a march up in the afternoon to the adjutant,” he said, adding in a hushed tone, “Today, I will not be able to have lunch.” That’s tough, we commiserated. What then, is the day at the Academy like?
“A usual day starts with morning ODT’s (Out Door Training) such as PT, drill or swimming depending on the time-table. This is followed by academic classes or LDM (lecture cum demonstrations). Afternoon is reserved for games such as hockey, football or basketball, followed by a study hour and finally lights out. But this is on paper. The study hour is usually the relaxation time, provided you have played well in the games. Else, you would be getting punished somewhere,” he said, still sounding a bit sullen.
He always knew that the academy would be tough. The physical agility and mental robustness play a huge role in moulding a rookie into a good GC and eventually, a good officer. “But there are some hidden sides to the academy. The real training is not the morning PT or Drill. With that kind of PT, one would never be able to pass the physical tests of the academy. It is the training at night by officers and seniors which help you pass these tests. The authority to punish you also lies with seniors and drill Sahab (Drill instructor),” he said.
“I have to run now otherwise I will be late for the academic classes. Today’s quota of punishment is already full,” he said suddenly making a dash towards his bike, which is actually a bicycle, but they are supposed to call it a bike. Before pedalling off, he shouted, “Apart from that, you need to be careful about stress fractures and take adequate precaution to stay away from them. Doing well in army depends on your body and its resilience. The courses like Commandos or Ghataks are designed to test you physical ability. So, you should pass out from the Academy with all body parts working in full flow.” Summary — physical fitness plus mental agility equals gentlemen cadet.
We met him again during the study period (one hour from 6:30 to 7:30 in evening). Our first visit to the GC’s cabin surprised us. The GC cabin, as he referred to his accommodation, was a well organised room without a speck of dust in it. He looked both relieved and pleased at our observation. “My march-up got postponed. Adjutant is not in the town for two days,” he said with a wink. “In academy, the rule is simple. Punishment delayed is punishment denied,” he grinned broadly. Well then, this was a good time to chat. Vikas was in great spirits. He spoke about why he chose army as a profession and why he did not have a girl friend.
“Today, army offers a much better future, especially after the coming of the Sixth Pay Commission,” he said. “Of course, job security is also one of the factors. Besides that, you get to improve your leadership and interpersonal skills apart from having an adventurous life which is not possible outside. Army lifestyle, its culture and ethos, deep camaraderie which you develop with your course mates and seniors are other factors of inspiration. And when you retire, you can start a second career in the corporate world,” he said pausing to dwell a little more on his answer.
“I forgot to mention the most important part,” he said, as if remembering suddenly. While conducting counter insurgency operations in Kashmir or the Northeast, one gets closer to the reality of life and death, besides experiencing power firsthand. No other profession gives you this exposure, I believe.”
Are women still attracted to men in uniform? Now the meeting is getting interesting, he chuckled. Initially, he thought that women were attracted to men in uniform, as the line ‘ladkiyan to vardi walo par marti hain’ (women are attracted to men in uniform) from the blockbuster film ‘Rang De Basanti’ suggested, but his perception changed within a few days of the academy. “They might be interested initially but the thought of long distance relationship scares them away,” he said. “If you are posted in J&K and she is working in Delhi, one of you will have to leave the job to stay together, and usually it is the girl who would be expected to do so. Hence, they rather put their money on a guy who has a regular job and is available on a day-to-day basis. They would want to travel to places like Paris, London, Salzburg or any exotic location than remote areas in India.”
Moreover, if one has a girl friend, at the time of declassification, one would like to choose an arm like ASC or AOC (Army Ordnance Corps), where one can spend more time with the family. In that sense, the girlfriend also becomes part of one’s decision on which arm to choose. Though in monetary term, army pays quite well with additional opportunity of UN peacekeeping operations but then, demands of the society have also multiplied. “So, it is a sad scene that ways,” concluded Vikas. “But as the academy teaches us, never say never. I am still waiting for my Romila Dutta (fictitious character of a journalist in Hindi movie Lakshya), and will get her in the near future,” he said with a giggle. By now, it was his dinner time, and in all the platoons of his company ‘Alpha’ there were announcements ‘first termers please fall-in front of SUO (Senior Under Officer) cabin for orders.’ The day was over for us. He said while leaving for the fall-in, “Next term I will be the senior. Life will be different.”
It was our final day at the academy. We had to interview the commandant in the afternoon, so the time given to us to meet the GC for the last time was in the games period. He was in the first string of the basketball team. He proudly told us, “I have played nationals. I am among the top 10 players in the country in my age group.” Do you ever think that you could become the Chief of Indian Army one day? The question got him by surprise. He mulled over the question for a few seconds. “No,” he said finally. “One can never think of that. In the armed services, the growth pyramid is steep at the top. Of the entire batch, just one per cent rise to the highest ranks. There are many things attached to your growth in army apart from your good performance in various courses. Don’t mention this, but the fact is you need to be in the good books of your seniors and specifically your Commanding Officer (CO) to maintain excellent ACRs (Annual Confidential Report). Hence, our motto is, always stay out of trouble or in other words, keep your head down and do not open your mouth unnecessarily. The right side depends on which side is your CO standing. Wherever he stands, that is the right side,” he said cheekily. “So, it all depends on how things work out five to 10 years from now. If it does not go the way you want, it is better to take VRS (Voluntary Retirement Scheme) once your pensionable service is complete and join the private sector. Life is dynamic and army is not the end of life.”
Even before the question formed on our lips, Vikas started to answer. “Navy and the air force are quite good options but they never inspired me. There is something different about army. One day you might be posted in remote corner of Assam and next day you might be having a drink with your CO in the Capital of the country. Besides, in navy and IAF, there are chances that you will get posted in metros or good cities. But in the army you have an opportunity to see both the countryside and the cities,” he said.
His seniors were calling him for the match. Before joining them, he added, “And moreover, from my childhood I have been interested in sports and adventure activities. The opportunity to meet or follow in the footsteps of Olympic silver medallist Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore also acts as an inspiration. Who knows, I might be the next.” His eyes were twinkling as he joined the group.
Some questions still remained. But one thing was clear. The GC of today has changed a lot. He is well aware of his surroundings. He knows what it takes to rise in the army and where to act smart. He is clear in his thoughts that there are plenty of options outside. Clearly, army today is not the end of life it is just the beginning.