On 13 June 1971, 349 Gentlemen Cadets from the famed ‘Born to Battle’ course graduated from the Indian Military Academy, that which is nestled on the foothills of the Himalayas whence they found themselves thrust into combat operations during the I971 Indo-Pak war for the liberation of Bangladesh. Five decades have surpassed since the course walked towards the ‘antim pag’; Thrust into what they call “A trial by fire”
Veterans from the course recount tales of valour, pride, friendship, and loss from the battlefield in this series, which chronicles the lives of the 307 young men from the 47th regular, and 42 from the 31st Technical Course who helped deliver a watershed victory for the nation half a century ago, thereafter, changing the geopolitical face of the subcontinent.
Mission Victory India flags off this series by interacting with Lieutenant General Dalip Bhardwaj (Retd), the ‘Sword of Honour’ of the course who went to rise up the ranks as Director General Mechanised Forces (DGMF). The General fondly recounts his training at the cradles of military leadership and a strong friendship forged with Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, who was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest award for gallantry for his heroic exploits at the ‘Battle of Basantar’ at the ripe young age of 21.
Lt Gen. Bhardwaj began the conversation by fondly recounting the day of his commissioning into the Indian Army, “The Pipping Ceremony at IMA was no doubt, momentous, romantic and had a flavour of its own. After four years of hard training, this was the final event that all Gentleman Cadets looked forward to. We were fortunate that our numbers were manageable and hence the event was conducted inside the Chetwode Hall named after Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode, the Commander-in-Chief at the time IMA was inaugurated. The hall is relatively small, but it has an elevated viewing gallery all around. The Inter Battalion Boxing Championship is also conducted in this hall, and I had the proud privilege of winning the championship here… its awesome!
“For the December 1970 batch Pipping Ceremony, I was detailed as an usherer and so I knew how it was conducted and how to sneak in the extra guest! From Sherwood College we had a large number joining the Army together and rowdy lot we were! To top it all one of our classmates from school Pushpinder Bedi dropped a term and was doing the ushering duties for our course. His main task was to block a corner in front of the hall for the gang from Sherwood and smuggle in the bottle of Champagne with glasses!
“So well before mid-night we all got together, Inderjit Singh, Narender Sheoran, Harkirat Singh, Subir Chakraborty, Ramu Budhwar and Robin Gangly along with our parents. As all our parents were present and knew each other for years, on this momentous occasion none of us brought our girlfriends along! As it was the summer term, we were dressed in our ceremonial summer mess dress ‘White Patrols’ awaiting the Commandants arrival just a few minutes before mid-night.
“At the stroke of the mid-night hour the lights were turned off and when they came on the band struck the song ‘Congratulations’ and our parents had the honour to remove the covering over that wonderful, sparkling lonely single star and you were commissioned ‘Second Lieutenant’ in the prestigious Indian Army…what a major step, the start of a wonderful journey,” narrated Lt Gen. Bharadwaj with pride.
“Chaos followed, hugs and kisses and Pushpinder doing the honours with the Champagne, the Commandant Gen Rajender Prasad and his wife specially came down to mingle with and congratulate us followed by all our instructors. What a great moment it was. For me especially as I had been awarded the Sword of Honour at the parade in the morning! Then the dancing started, and the decibel of war hoops increased by the minute. Having escorted our parents back to their accommodation. Then the party began in earnest as we all realised that we need to savour these precious moments as we were not sure when would we meet again. That momentous and romantic night is etched in our minds to be relived at every get together,” added the General with a nostalgic smile on his face.
When asked what sets the ‘Born to Battle’ course apart, the Sword of Honour recipient iterated, “Let me be clear… all courses are good, as they comprise of young men coming from the same stock and have undergone the same curriculum during their training. Yet our course is special as for the past four years you were forged from a young boy to an officer in the crucibles of leadership… The National Defence Academy and The Indian Military Academy. Four years of training going through thick and thin, the good times and the bad times, supporting each other, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows…there are no secrets to hide, you are bonded for life.
“The academy un-obtrusively taught us to develop bonds, the friendship we developed over those four years have lasted us a lifetime. Even our wives and children have learnt the same lingo, heard our exploits numerous times, and can narrate the same jokes! So, your course mates with wives and children are one big family on whom you can blindly rely upon for help and support if you ever required it,” explained the ‘71 war veteran.
“The 38th NDA Course graduating to 47 Regular/31Tech in IMA is special as it is 'MY COURSE' apart from doing very well at both the academies. We started with a bang as soon after the euphoria of commission was yet to die down, dark clouds of war were looming over the horizon. Most of us were yet to do our Young Officers course but the excitement of participating in war was unparallel so we donned our battle dress to serve the nation and in a bloody war. We lost many of our comrades on land and at sea. Hence, we are known as the Born to Battle Course. Each one who laid down their lives did so with honour,” he explained.
“Those of us who were fortunate to return remember it with sobriety and of course as victors. Our buddy Arun Khetarpal made the ultimate sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds, yet he held his own and gave the Pakis a bloody nose in the Battle of Basantar. For his outstanding courage displayed he was awarded the Nation’s highest gallantry award The Param Vir Chakra (Posthumous). Yet again another of our course mate Col NJC Nair, KC in 1993 led his troops of Marathas in a charge to break an ambush in the Northeast and in doing so laid down his life. He was awarded the nation’s highest gallantry award during peace, Ashok Chakra (Posthumous). Prior to this in 1983 he was awarded the Kirti Chakra for gallantry in counter-insurgency operations in Mizoram (Hence the course has the unique and singular honour of holding both the highest gallantry awards in war and peace. Both posthumously,” said General Bhardwaj with both, a sense of pride and sorrow.
“That night we all congregated at the bar and brought the roof down, fully aware that some of us may not be there for the next head count.”
He went on to highlight the achievements of his course mates in both the military and in life after service,“As all courses we too have done well with many officers achieving the General officers’ rank. However, equally commendable is the laurels won by our colleagues who decided to leave the Army early and pursue their vocation in other fields. Just to mention a few, we have Capt GR Gopinath who founded Air Deccan and to support him he took along Samuel, Pooviah and Vishnu Rawal all course mates. Together they pioneered the advent of budget airlines.
“In the field of education, we have several stalwarts, Col Vinod Marwah setting up a college for MBA in Pune along with a school for the juniors, Col (Dr) SPS Bedi excelled, Col KJS Brar set up an institution for education and alongside looked after special children and Col Ravi Pillai reviving and enhancing education in schools and skill development. Gen Raj Sujlana was specially selected as Chairman Punjab Public Service Commission, Air Marshal Mukerji was nominated as President Air Force Association (Haryana Br) and Gen IJ Singh was elected as President Delhi Gymkhana Club. But most of all it is the bonding which stands out as our greatest strength.”
Looking back at a lifetime in war and peace, the now 71-year-old veteran recounted, “When we were in the final term in the IMA, I was appointed as The Senior Under Officer of Sangro Company. Just next to our company lines was the newly laid out Russian OT Course which had become quite a fad. The competition was for the final course and the aim was who could cross all the obstacles in the fastest time and win the coveted individual prize. The main prize however was a team event, for the full company comprising of approx. 20 gentleman cadets. Despite my Company Commander trying to goad me to go for the individual prize, it did not inspire me, as during those four years of training the one aspect you always remembered was that you are part of a team, and you carried every one along.”
“What was of consequence in the ultimate analysis was how well did you perform as a team. This is the main difference between a good company/battalion or a bad one. Individuals do not count it is always teamwork,” he said in true soldierly fashion.
The General took the occasion to recount his blossoming friendship with ’71 war hero 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, “It all started in 1953, apparently Arun’s father (Maj ML Khetarpal) and my father (Sqn Ldr VN Bhardwaj) did their staff college course in Wellington together in 1953 and were neighbours. But of course, none of us remember those days. Arun went to do his schooling in Lawrence School Sanawar, and I went to Sherwood College Nainital. We met at the New Delhi Railway Station on our way to NDA when our parents came to drop us and were told of the previous connection.
“Arun was in Fox Sqn, and I was in Charlie Sqn, and we continued our association. Both were appointed as Sqn Cadet Captains of our respective squadrons in our final term. It is to Arun’s credit that under his watch Fox became the champion Sqn. Both of us being tall and good in drill, invariably in NDA and IMA we used to be in the squad for cane and mike orderlies. In our final term at the IMA, Arun was given the privilege of carrying the Presidents Colours and I Commanded the Passing out Parade. Both of us were commissioned into the Armoured Corps, Arun in Poona Horse, and I to 62 Cavalry.
“In Oct 1971, fourteen of us who were commissioned to the Armoured Corps arrived at Nagar to do our Young Officers Course. However, within a few days we were informed of the imminent commencement of hostilities and our Regiments needed us! What a great feeling as now we were not going to be left out of battle. That night we all congregated at the bar and brought the roof down, fully aware that some of us may not be there for the next head count,” recalled the war veteran in vivid detail.
“It was Arun who shouldered that responsibility and true to character he led his tank troop from the front, undaunted, unwilling to give an inch and made the Pakis pay a heavy price. He laid down his life for the honour of the Nation and Poona Horse…he did us proud and was awarded the nation’s highest award for gallantry in wartime! Even after 50 years we remember the magnanimity with which he lived and his ultimate sacrifice!” Said the General before signing off.
About Lt Gen. Dalip Bhardwaj, PVSM, VSM (Retd)
The war veteran has a highly distinguised service experience which includes the command of an Armoured Regiment, Independent Armoured Brigade and an Infantry Division (approx 15000 personnel). He has had extensive international experience and was nominated to attend a long course in Leningrad (former USSR) in 1982 and was selected to lead the first Indian Contingent to the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Lebanon in 1998-99. Prior to his retirement in October 2010, he held the appointment of Director General Mechanised Forces