Books | Honour Above All

An extract from Lt Gen. Zameeruddin Shah’s memoirs

The Sarkari Mussalman: The Life and Travails of a Soldier Educationist

In this chapter I will not discuss the, oft discussed, theoretical aspects of ‘Battle Fatigue’. I will make observations from my own experience. I am convinced that battle fatigue is largely self-inflicted. I spent many years in operational areas and, luckily, never felt the heat or was a victim of despondency. This is infectious and I never allowed it to permeate to my command either. I enjoyed the work I did and persons who have served with me will vouch that they did too. Our first commitment was the job in hand and was the major focus of our attention. The little spare time was devoted to reading, shikar (till it was banned), fishing and playing games especially tennis, golf and water sports. I also dabbled in writing poetry, regrettably in English only. I wish I had given more attention to Urdu ‘Shair Shayerie’.

In the old days, field tenures were spent largely on border guarding, with intermittent bouts of firing. Not anymore. Now they are battle zones and prolonged exposure subjects troops to intense battle fatigue. It largely depends on officers to ward it off and keep it at bay. After exacting operational commitments units deserve peace time tenures which should strictly be for training, rest and recuperation and not broken by frequent commitments on ‘Aid to Civil Authorities’ and calls for the army on the slightest pretext. The most debasing, debilitating and disliked of these is quelling communal riots. I feel that the second line, the Para Military Forces, should shoulder more such responsibilities.

There has also been a tendency of wastage of time on long-winded conferences at all levels. Commanding officers spend many hours away from their units in discussions at Brigade HQ. I preferred to visit units myself and see things, first hand. Instructions were given verbally on the spot, not through long winding narratives and written orders. I had a major problem in command of my battery when, as a major, I was perpetually ‘press ganged’ for work in the Division or Brigade HQ. What about my command? ‘Do it in your spare time’, I used to be told.

The problem is accentuated by shortage of officers in Battalions/Regiments. This really shouldn’t be a problem at all. The Israeli Army has the lowest officer to men ratio but has performed creditably. The problem lies in non-delegation of responsibility to the second rung of leadership, the Junior Commissioned Officers. This is first-rate leadership material, risen from the ranks, but not gainfully employed. The ‘Zero Error Syndrome’ makes it imperative that everything becomes officer-centric. I had to put an end to Commanding Officers accompanying patrols and ambushes as they explained they could not continuously tax the same few officers available in the units.

Another aspect on which I have my own opinions is the time spent on operational discussions. I generally found them a waste of time and was branded as over cautious. I have already described how, in Operations ‘Cactus Lily’ in 1971 and ‘Parakram’ in2001-2 the offensive operational plans in the West, which must have evolved after countless hours of discussion and wargaming, were discarded in view of actualities on the ground. I was fortunate that my ‘command’ tenures of a brigade, division and corps were spent in operational areas where what counted was performance of the formation on the ground. I should think we did well or I would have been wasted out. I was spared the agony of writing or participating in exercises and war games which I found unrealistic and consuming too much time. This is better spent with troops.

I was to assume command over the North East Corps in September 2005 and the night before I took over I was having dinner with the outgoing Corps Commander, Lt Gen Daljit Singh when our conversation was interrupted by a telephone call. The General went ashen in the face. An ambush had been sprung by a Manipuri terrorist gang (KYKL) on a patrol of a highly rated battalion in Bishenpur district of Manipur and 10 of our soldiers had been killed. This unit was on its way out to a peace station and complacency, induced by battle fatigue, had set in with needless loss of lives. This has happened ever so often. The insurgents know when to strike and units at the ‘fag end’ of their tenures are the usual targets. This happened earlier in Nagaland at Fakmile which I have already described in an earlier chapter on the North East. Is there a need to shorten tenures of units committed in areas of high-intensity operations? The flip side is that familiarization and ‘Bedding In’ require considerable time. I was initially against the concept of Rashtriya Rifle (RR) battalions. Continuity and familiarity with terrain and people is their greatest asset and these RR Battalions have proved their worth. There is regular turnover of a portion of the personnel but the majority remain and retention of the detailed background knowledge is ensured. There are no complications of induction/ de-induction and starting over afresh in a new area of operations.

A major factor affecting morale is the tardy response to problems of the defence services by civilian authority. Civil administration must be made accountable to inaction on the requests made by servicemen. Now everything rests on personal liaison. Massive upgradation of appointments in the civil administration has skewed the working relationship with the Army. Now a DIG has to be approached in a district HQ instead of the old ‘Kaptan Saheb’ who would invariably respond to a letter written by a Commanding Officer. The downward slide of the status of Service men is to a large extent responsible for inattention to soldiers’ problems. The media has covered the rising loss of life due to suicides. These are generally not due to service matters but domestic problems gnawing at the morale of soldiers. There must be a mechanism at the Area HQ level to report such cases of callousness and remedy inaction on the part of civil administration.

It is a great tradition in the Infantry that officers learn and speak in the regimental language. The other Arms and Services need to foster this tradition. I spent many years in Rajasthan, learnt the language and also learnt how to tie a ‘safa’ and twirl two swords, a lost martial art. If one doesn’t learn the language at least learn some folk songs of the men. I attached a lot of importance to singing. All seasoned armies had singing, en masse, as an important part of military routine. I believe that the way a person sings is the barometer of his soul. During my visits to units, I encouraged this activity and closely observed how the men sang. If the singing was full throated and with gusto I would know that everything was alright. I also observed if officers joined the men in singing. Men just love the officers who join in this merriment.

I found games to be an ideal antidote for relieving built up tensions in men. I have been accused of laying too much stress on the value of games. Games are an essential part of soldiering and the Army rightly places importance on this important facet of life. Team games are important but so are games which officers can play to foster camaraderie. I will touch upon the sensitive subject of golf being projected as elitist and now fashionable to deride. Reports indicate that it has been banned in Kashmir Valley. Maybe someone overdid it in Uri. When I demitted command of my corps in North East there were unfair remarks that ‘too much time was being devoted to golf’ in my formation. When one lives in a fortified camp, which my Corps HQ was, what else was there to do during the short leisure hours available? The choice was between an afternoon siesta or golf. I chose the latter and encouraged others also. It gave them a chance to come out of their offices, interact with one another and let off steam. Striking a ball hard, with a club, was therapy. During my service, I have designed three ‘Improvised Golf Courses’ the details of which are given in my book.

Humour is another tool to dissipate tensions. It is the spice of life. The men do not appreciate cartoon type humour but jokes in their vernacular carry the day. The officers, on the other hand, could do with a little bit of laughter. In my book, I have attached some cartoons made by army friends to show how much talent we have and how we appreciate the funny side of life.

In the old days officers participated in adventure activities, wrote about their experiences, cultivated hobbies and participated in shikar. This was the best training ground for a soldier. It taught marksmanship, tracking, sense of direction, sharpened reflexes and inculcated guts. Shikar is now banned, and rightly so, and a substitute for it can’t be replicated. Officers must be encouraged to participate in adventure sports, competitive shooting and travel.

The young officers of today are intelligent, hardworking and raring to go, though a little over ambitious. A soldier must have ambition. Mine was to command my Regiment and I treated every subsequent promotion as a bonus. The energies of our young officers have to be channelised in the right direction. They have to be taught that happiness and contentment is a state of mind. One can be miserable even in Paradise — if one wants to be. They have to be taught that the army is no profession for a money-making mind. It is a vocation for a person who wants to pursue an honourable way of making a living. No job can offer a better quality of life.

The Sarkari Mussalman: The Life and Travails of a Soldier Educationist
Lt Gen. Zameeruddin Shah PVSM, SM, VSM (retd)
Konark Publishers, Rs 695, Pg 216


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