CO Saheb And His Paltan - The Soldiers on the Ground
Psychographics of a Commanding Officer
The Generals are too distant, the Brigade Commander a stamp of authority recognised by the formation flag, but it is the ‘CO Saheb’ who is the ultimate authority known by face, words and emotions.
Strange is the regionalism of the Indian Army, where a precocious young boy from Suryapet district in Telangana, becomes a proud ‘Bihari’ officer in the truest traditions of a Purbaiya warrior. The nation bows its head in reverence to the ultimate price paid by the indefatigable 16th battalion of the Bihar Regiment, led by Colonel Santosh Babu and his fierce warriors who went down fighting in the spirit of India’s tribal freedom fighter and folk hero to the regiment, Birsa Munda (the regimental war cry is Birsa Munda ki Jai and Jai Bajrang Bali).
General Norman Schwarzkopf famously said about Military leaders, ‘It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle’ – the Indian Army prides on walking the talk of this dictum, as Colonel Santosh Babu follows the much beaten track made by the likes of Col Ashutosh Sharma, Col MN Rai, Col Santosh Mahadik and countless others.
If the Military is an institution, then the post of the ‘Commanding Officer’ is the ‘institution within an institution’, as no matter how high a person rises in hierarchy, the honour and dignity of Commanding your battalion, is unmatched amongst all experiences. As the proverbial ‘Tiger’ or the more affectionate ‘Old Man’ of the battalion – the Commanding Officer is freighted with untellable responsibility of the troops under command.
The ecosystem of a battalion or in its expansive form, a regiment, is based on the valour and perceived ‘izzat’ that is vested in its visible elements like the uniform and in its unique flag, insignia, hackle, lanyard, beret, war cries etc., and in its human form, in the ‘Commanding Officer’, who is the repository and personification of those regimental values and traditions.
As the Commanding Officer, he or she is necessarily ‘looked-up-to’ not just in deference of the rank, but in respect of, that position that can order the troops to undertake unimaginable violence and put their own lives at the risk towards honouring that ‘word’ – such a commitment is reserved only for the ‘CO Saheb’ and not even for the mighty Generals.
The highest career obligation and privilege of wearing the uniform and bearing arms is to be able to live up to that onerous responsibility of trust. A trust of life that demands reciprocal sensitivity and sense of ‘living-up-to’, which the former US Secretary of State and Four Star General, Colin Powel, had described eloquently, ‘The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership’.
Colonell Santosh Babu goes to his ‘Valhalla’ as most warriors do, knowing that he did everything himself, that he asked of those he commanded!
From the battleground, drill square, quarter guard, barracks to the officer’s mess, the presence of the Commanding Officer is palpable and omnipresent. The entire physical, cultural, social and psychological composition of the battalion is either enhanced or subdued by the personality of the Commanding Officer, especially so, in the battleground. Very often the battle is won in the mind as opposed to on the ground, which usually follows, as the steely heroics of Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai MVC (Commanding Officer, 1 Sikh), Lt Col Hanut Singh MVC (Commanding Officer, Poona Horse) or Lt Col Desmond Hayed MVC (Commanding Officer, 3 Jat) to name a few, confirm.
The conduct, forbearance and impression of the Commanding Officer can be indelible, institutionalised and revered for generations, as the Commanding Officer of my own battalion, late Field Marshal KM Cariappa (Commanding Officer of the illustrious 17th battalion of the Rajput Regiment) would bear testimony.
Kipper’s fine legacy is kept alive in the Regimentation and it nourishes those who today wear that fiery-red Rajput Safa, with much aplomb and justifiable pride. There is an unsaid pride in ensuring that even those who have hung their uniform are always able to start a social conversation with ‘Meri paltan…..’, as neither does the rank ever retire, nor the unmatched honour of having Commanded your battalion.
Soldiers are simple folks who are spared the societal ‘divides’, bigotry and supremacism that is rife in civilian domains, as each soldier vests his singular identity in the paltan to which he or she gets commissioned, with the Commanding Officer, as his or her conscience keeper.
In the unforgiving terrains of Galwan and thousands of kilometers away from their respective homes in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Punjab or Haryana the soldiers of this institution, walked the talk of Indian Army’s motto, ‘Service before Self’. It is not empty bluster but a part of the institutional DNA that was reflective in the reclamation of the almost-impossible task of taking back the heights in Kargil or giving the Chinese a flavour of the changed destiny in 1967 at Nathu La and Cho La. It is to the credit of combat leaders like Lt General Sagat Singh who imbued and infused a certain characteristic into the Indian Armed Forces, that defies all odds.
It is often questioned if the Commanding Officer of a unit needs to personally lead an operation, risking his own life, and there are good reasons for and against the same – however everything accounted, the institution of Indian Armed Forces frequently does the impossible, only because of what the likes of Col Santosh Babu do, when duty beckons.
ymologically, to ‘command’ in battle is to be seen upfront, in the line of fire – anywhere else, maybe to ‘manage’, but not ‘command’. Roger Nye the celebrated Military historian and scholar notes in The Challenges of Command, ‘Those who command Soldiers in combat understand both why men fight and why they do not run away. The wellsprings of the warrior spirit come not only from the aggressive, animalistic depths of a man’s nature, but also from his most philosophical and idealistic yearnings. Courage, like bravery, has been the first requirement of the Soldier since the most primitive days’.
It is from this fount of soldering nobility that Commanding Officers like Santosh Babu and his troops from 16 Bihar and other battalions and regiments, originate – it is their collective actions that ensure the sovereignty of India, not because of what the Government does for them, but despite it.