Before one goes through the views presented by esteemed veterans of the iconic ‘Born to Battle’ course about their alma mater, one must first be guided through the history of this legendary course, and its unparalleled contribution to the combined might of the Indian Armed Forces.
The Old Guard: Born to Battle
In June of 1967, 250 bright young boys entered the famed National Defence Academy (with the 38 NDA Course), also known as the ‘Cradle of Leadership’, to be nurtured as men and groomed as ‘Officers and Gentlemen’. After three gruelling years at the NDA, where they forged bonds of friendship, camaraderie, and brotherhood, followed by a year at the Indian Military Academy as 47 Regular Course with 31 Technical Graduates Course/Naval Academy as 38 Naval Course/AF Academy as 107 PC (IAF), they devoted the next few decades to their true calling—The Profession of Arms.
Within six months of commissioning, before most could even complete their Young Officers course (YOs), they were deployed into the cauldron of battle to serve their motherland in the ultimate call of duty to participate in the 1971 war against Pakistan and liberate a nation from tyranny. Officers of the course lived up to their respective alma maters—NDA, IMA, and NAVAC & AFA—and did their country proud. Five officers were martyred during the operations. In recognition of the contribution of these young men who went straight to battle, they [the 38 NDA] rightly designated themselves as the 'Born to Battle’ course. '
All Gave Some, Some Gave All
While everyone from the course witnessed a trial by fire, and are legends in their own regard, two names perhaps stand out, and are therefore, worth mentioning for the benefit of the present generation of officers and fighting men.
2/Lt. Arun Khetarpal, Poona Horse: He was primarily responsible for repulsing a fierce counterattack at the Basantar River and after having destroyed five enemy tanks, he laid down his life. The nation acknowledged his valour and awarded him the PVC posthumously. Apart from him, four officers were awarded the Sena Medal (Gallantry).
Col. NJC Nair KC, CO 16 Maratha LI: In December 1993 during CI Operations in Nagaland, Col. NJC Nair (a recipient of Kirti Chakra), CO 16 MLI, led his troops to successfully break an ambush and paid the ultimate price and decorated posthumously with the Ashok Chakra. Hence, the ‘Born to Battle’ course has the unique distinction of being the only course to have been awarded the highest awards for gallantry both, in War and Peace. During the 1971 War, three officers were also awarded the Shaurya Chakra and 4 Sena Medals (Gallantry).
A Tradition of Excellence, Beyond the Battlefield
The 47 Regular Course (38 NDA & 47 Direct Entry) have approx. 100 officers who attained Flag Rank with 18 Officers of 3 stars. The 38 NDA/107 PC IAF course mates had a record 5 officers attaining Air Marshal Rank with 4 C in C’s. NDA/IMA/OTA Commandants. The course provided Commandants to NDA, IMA & OTA (Air Marshal TS Randhawa , Lt Gen. RS Sujlana & Lt Gen. Gautam Banerjee respectively) CISC, IDS Air Marshal SC Mukul was appointed as CISC (HQ IDS)
Flash Forward, Half a Century!
38th Course NDA Alumni of the three services were to reunite at NDA, their alma mater during the second week of June 2020 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of their passing out of NDA fifty years back. Unfortunately COVID-19 forced the postponement of this landmark event. During this reunion one of the events that was customarily scheduled to be held was the address to the 38th course veterans by the Commandant on training at the academy. The 38th course veterans were looking forward to this event as an update about the academy from the time they left NDA fifty years ago.
Most of the veterans remember with nostalgia the memorable three years they spent at NDA from June 1967 to May 1970. Unfortunately,these veterans make comments about NDA with that 50 years old reference and their fading memory. Most of them do not have domain knowledge of present day training at the NDA. But being the NDA alumni they seem to know all about it.
Although, many of the 38 course veterans have served at NDA as instructors and held coveted posts including that of Commandant they too have left the academy 12 years back and despite short visits to the academy thereafter they would still not have the adequate domain knowledge and perspective to make comments on NDA with any authority.
The 38 course was fortunate to meet at NDA twice before during their reunions in June 2007 and June 2017 and were briefed by the then Commandants Air Mshl TS Randhawa (2007) and Air Mshl JS Kler (2017). Hence, their knowledge about would not really be that old or outdated.
Since the 38 course would not be listening to the Commandant as scheduled in June 2020, some of these coursemates have taken the pains to express some of the positive changes that NDA has undergone due to the initiatives of a few good officers. Air Mshl TS Randhawa, the former Commandant also had the opportunity to interact with a few officers who had passed out during the last decade. However, the domain knowledge is not necessarily updated with the existing ground position at NDA. Notwithstanding, it is hoped that our observations and perceptions aren't that wrong or outdated and the NDA now has much better training and academic standards.
38 Course Reviews their Alma Mater
Vice Admiral SCS Bangara, Commandant NDA, during 2002-04, got clearance from COSC on two issues. A review of all training at NDA and a Vision Document for the NDA. Based on this two studies were carried out by two three Star officers along with their teams. Both team Leaders were thorough professionals with a solid reputation in their service of being Top Class Officers.
The first study was on all activities except Academic and the other was on the Academic Syllabus. Air Mshl Randhawa went to NDA about 2 years plus after these studies had been approved by the COSC and also worked at the IDS HQ as ACIDS (TRADOC) before taking over as Commandant. His responsibilities included looking after all Tri-Service training institutes. So with that background he was aware of the recommendation and how much had been introduced and what needed to be done.
The recommendations are not being mentioned but there was a vast improvement in training standards by Jan 2007 when Air Mshl Randhawa took over. The changes based on the recommendation of the two committees had given strength to training at the ‘Cradle of Military Leadership’. Some aspects are believed to have made this difference while some did not improve despite all efforts by HQ IDS and NDA.
The academic curriculum underwent a vast change. The important changes related to a major increase in the military content in the syllabus. The new syllabus was approved by the Academic Council which has members from JNU. It took time to implement because of the necessity to delete superfluous text and replace it with military aspects. Lesson plans had to be made. Shortage of teaching staff delayed it further. Teaching aids had to be upgraded. Finally during 2007-08 it was auctioned.
Online examinations were started albeit only in the computer lab initially and only for term exams. The good old methods where instructors gave cadets important chapters to study and most questions would normally be from those were no longer valid. Multiple choice questions made the cadets study for a change.
The first time that was done, many duffers came out crying on completion of the exam. Interestingly the CGPAs went up. The min CGPA required to clear the term exams was raised for better academic standards. While this input is based on study done shortly after the introduction of the new syllabus , further inputs are necessary to verify this further. It is our considered opinion that the standards would have improved.
Now BSc has been introduced. Compulsory for Naval and AF cadets and optional for the Army cadets. This would have taken time to settle down but in the long run it will improve Academic Qualification and Knowledge. Here it is pertinent to mention that when we were working out the requirements for BSc a team led by the Deputy Commandant along with the Principal and allied teaching staff went to IIT Powai, Mumbai to look at the labs as we had to upgrade ours. Surprisingly very little changes had to be made as the standard of the present labs were very good.
The academic staff was always in short supply. Despite the best efforts of HQ IDS and NDA was nowhere close to their requirements. Filling these vacancies is by UPSC and they are never in a hurry. Even to get a new Principal it took the entire tenure of Air Mshl Randhawa and yet he was unsuccessful. However, the Service HQ provided extra Academic Instructors (Officers), above NDA strength which definitely helped. Never 100% but better than before.
Boot Camp, one of the wonderful recommendations was to hold a Boot Camp for first termers. Train them separately for four weeks. This was a great initiative. It helped the first termers break in. Many objectives were achieved in this period. Importantly when they started to merge with the rest they were able to meet the demands of the academy. Fewer stress fractures. Gained some stamina considering their physical state on joining. They were shown the whole academy. All the clubs are functioning. And a lot more. Most learned to swim from scratch and achieved high standards. Overall a great good for the first termers.
People have an impression that the standards they were subjected to have been lowered. Quite to the contrary nearly every standard has been enhanced. Some mention Cross country runs used to be about 7 km. This is now in the region of 12 km. During 2007-08 it was 10 km. Swimming pass grade was 100 m earlier and no test after the fourth term.In 2007-08 it was 100m in the first term and 500m in the sixth term. Besides the 10m jump.
PT standards have also increased. PT Blazers and Blues please excuse. Those clearing their PT tests by mid term would get an opportunity to clear the next higher terms tests. If those are cleared then instead of regular PT he could play individual sports /games, like Tennis, Squash, etc or go swimming during the regular PT periods. Another factor was introduced where a cadet could carry forward two PT tests to the next term. He has to clear this by the mid term. This was only for cadets upto the third term. This helped reduction in relegations.
Inter Sqn PT Competition
Marks are allotted to each cadet for passing PT tests. Now a cadet is permitted to appear for higher tests. Every higher test passed got him and the Sqn additional marks. The system rewarded the good cadets. The ones whose performance was lagging were given mentors from the Sqn under a Div O. They were helped to pass the PT tests. A Sqn gained additional marks by their cadets doing more higher tests, so the competition was given a positive spin.
It was necessary to learn everything about two troop games for every cadet. Individual proficiency notwithstanding. This would help him in his service where he would have to organise and participate in such events.Selected cadets underwent training under PT Ustads on organising, conducting and referring to all competitions at the NDA. The Appointments conducted all Inter Sqn competitions. The Officers and Ustads assisting them where required. Hardly any disputes. All settled by themselves.
Individual service training is generally upgraded regularly. Anything new in service which has to be learned at the basic stage is introduced. The Head of Training Teams during 2007-08 were dynamic officers. Special Forces officers are part of the Army training Team. Similarly the training of Naval and AF cadets is upgraded frequently. This is in keeping with the min standards required at the finishing academies.
Officer Like Qualities
Most cadets learned about OLQ on arrival at the NDA, except those from RIMC, KG and Sainik Schools. This is developed over the six terms. Most cadets are assessed as Above the Average on this quality. Coming from vastly different backgrounds it takes time for them to imbibe the spirit of OLQ. But a cadet is aware of the qualities required for a good OLQ.
An ex-NDA officer who shows poor OLQ qualities at the senior ranks for which the blame it put on NDA training is stretching the argument too far. What about in service training on OLQ? When both are considered his in service training period is far longer. Many examples can be quoted. But we will take a basic one. Service Transport. Almost every young officer in the Army uses service transport as a right. In the AF it is almost non-existent till Command.
A bit more relaxed now, but that was the ethos when we served as junior officers. Consider Regimental Loyalty. Similarly there are many such factors in the other services that impinge on OLQ. Point to ponder. We have no comments, but to attribute the lack of OLQ qualities on NDA , for errors at a higher rank, in our opinion is very unfair.
An Honour code for NDA cadets was introduced by Adm Arun Prakash (1998-99). It is a wonderful code and a great addition to the NDA prayer. The US training academies, all of them have one,but with a difference. They ask their cadets to report on rule breakers, while the NDA code asks cadets to improve the rules breaker themselves. This is here to stay and has proved very beneficial for the cadets. Incidentally the AF also has an Honour Code introduced by ACM AY Tipnis.
The demands on infrastructure are large and always inadequate funds. The story of Revenue vs Capital works. At the NDA there is an inspection by the Commandant every year. He visits all Sqns, Messes, QMs Fort, etc. Thereafter priority is decided. The amount of work being done in the Sqns depends largely on this inspection and the recommendations of the Brig Adm. Errors in priority are rare after such visits. But to ensure that the entire infrastructure of NDA remains TipTop condition would not be possible. Works of NDA are processed by HQ SC. It has its own priorities in forwarding works to the Army HQ.
We wouldn't like to comment on this aspect. However all the cadets who arrive at the academy are all aware and an ethnic mix from different backgrounds. The thing that stands out in them is their Motivation. Generally of a very high level. Encouraging to see their willingness to learn and excel. Looking back we don’t think we had that kind of motivation when we joined. So that is a great plus. Of the weaknesses, physical fitness ,language, etiquette and hygiene are some that need attention. But NDA is capable of improving all these facets.
A word on those who actually change these cadets in junior officers. The criteria for DS selection is similar for all services. Yet in the segment of officers who arrive are battle hardened Army Officers, just wet behind the ears Naval officers and the relaxed, maybe too much, AF officers. How quickly they get into their roles is surprising. There is a sense of purpose in them. They feel personally responsible for making good cadets out of the lot they get.
They make all efforts to provide the best possible cadets to the finishing academies. Whether it’s the Div O, Sqn Cdr, Bn Cdr, Training Teams they all provide excellent training to the cadets. I wonder how people talk of poor standards with DS like the ones sent to NDA. There is so much more to pen. On Parades, changed training methods, language labs, working of clubs, sports teams, competitions also social interaction, High Tea at the Commandant’s house, NDAAA etc..
Several articles on NDA have been circulating on the print, online and social media. This is not a Response to any of those articles but just a feedback that we wish to give to NDA and all concerned with NDA, whether serving or veterans as we always feel concerned about our alma mater and wish it grows and keeps pace with the times for challenges of 21st century.
Veterans from the Born to Battle Course Comment
Col. Joseph Samuel, Air OP Arty/AAC
"It's imperative that all aspects of military training have to undergo sea changes to keep up with technology. However, some things don't change very much. And that's the human aspect of how to deal with people. The best example of that can be gauged from how we still love to keep in touch, and when in need, go out of the way to help each other"
Col. Yeshwant Umralkar, AOC, Polyglot
“A subject close to my heart, languages. I believe as compared to our times, the number of foreign languages being taught in the Academy has dwindled. I am told European languages like German, French have been dropped. Persian has been replaced by Urdu. I wish they had kept all the three (unless more have been axed) languages. Languages broaden the horizon.”
Maj. Jawahar Thota, AAC
"For the Navy & Air Force cadets having to obtain a BSc is required. In the Army those aspiring to join, Engrs, Signals, EME would opt for BSc, I presume. I would also suggest the Army Aviation Corps as well. Flying in the modern machines is getting to be more technical. I have in my 40 years in the cockpit graduated from the HT-2, Chetak & Cheetah, to the Bell 222, the S-76 C+ and finally to the AW-139, which I converted to in 2009 at the age of 59 years!”
“I must confess, it was hard work, and a lot of burning the midnight oil, trying to learn all the systems, and passing all exams, and simulator check rides. The NDA training, and spirit got me through. And the commando slogan, 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going'. I excelled in all tests and exams. All the training in RIMC, NDA, IMA and Army made me what I achieved in life. I salute all the organisations."
Brig. DN Verma, Inf (JAK Rif)
"In the training curriculum the cadets should be armed with maturity for a young officer to merge with the subordinate ranks so well that they can open up to him on all issues freely. In getting to know the enemy, the syllabus could include the Mandarin language and history as a should know input."
Col. Amitabh Shastri, Signals
“Teaching of foreign languages needs to be viewed from a long term strategic perspective. I recall that once, while serving in an intelligence unit, they needed a Pashto language expert for verification and deciphering. It was surprising to learn there was only one qualified officer in the whole Army and while the requirement was urgent, it took two weeks to get him to visit our unit. Not that I am saying that Pushto should be introduced there; languages likely to be encountered should be considered.”
Capt. Dave Bhasin, Inf (6/11 GR)
"When I joined NDA I could sing the national anthem but had no idea what Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha meant till I had friends like Rajpal from Punjab, Patil from Maharashtra, BK Sinha from Bihar, Narain Singh from Rajasthan, Menon from Kerala and Gopinath from Karnataka. That's what a grand institution NDA was which brought us all diverse young men together to become lifelong friends. Somebody never got enough credit for making this happen."
(Views expressed by the author are based on inputs received from various respondents from the 'Born to Battle Course', and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India.')