Exhilaration and Stupidity in Equal Measure at the 18th NDA Course
Diamond Jubilee of Passing Out from IMA
All NDA-wallahs think that theirs was the best course and within the course, their Squadron (Sqn) mates had the greatest bonding, like in ‘one for all and all for one’. We in ‘G for George’ Squadron were no exception. I am talking of the period June 1957 when we joined as boys still wet behind the ears to June 1960 when we passed out, after being molded, changed, twisted out of shape and having imbibed all the character, professional and academic qualities, before heading for our respective service academies for the last leg of our pre-commission training.
The George Sqn motto: ‘Through Gaiety and Gallantry to Glory’ still raises goose-bumps when we think of those days!
We were young, most around 19 years old and full of pep, with fire in our bellies and the desire to do something different and adventurous. At that age, whims and fancies used to become more important than realistic assessments, at least for some of us!
On a balmy afternoon in Dec 1959, while some of us were lounging around, with nothing specific in mind, except the ensuing passing out parade (POP) and dreams of the long winter term break that would commence in a week or so that our imagination went into overdrive.
For Fifth-Termers in NDA, the POP is no big deal. They are not the one’s passing out, so there is no anticipation of crossing a frontier, as it usually is in the hearts and minds of the Sixth-Termers. Having bashed the drill square for nearly two and a half years and taken part in countless rehearsals of the POP, it was difficult to conjure up much excitement.
Anyway, there we were – the somewhat laid back and cynical cadets (with some exceptions, of course) of 18th Course ‘G’ Squadron, whiling away a lazy afternoon. Then someone said how nice it would be if one could skip the POP and reach home for the term break one whole day before the others!
That was the kernel that started germinating in the minds of a few of us. For a cadet to get an extra day of leave at home was an exhilarating prospect, but we all realized that of course it was just a dream, far removed from reality. The pragmatic ones amongst us soon scrubbed the idea, pointing out the pitfalls, as well as the fact that it had never been done before; but then, not everyone was endowed with a pragmatic disposition, at least not then!
The idea kept tweaking the minds of the few non-pragmatic guys. It germinated rapidly and was soon being articulated as an achievable plan, provided full support of the course was available and there were no premature disclosures. Even a staff college graduate could not have appreciated a situation and produced a workable plan that fast. NDA training seemed to have paid, albeit in an oblique and blunderous way!
Another rehearsal of the POP next morning, with a somewhat easy day following it, resulted in more confabulations and the subdued talk soon came out in the open. Why just dream about an extra day at home, why not do something about it, uttered one of the non-pragmatic Georgians, in a conclave of nearly all course mates of ‘G’ Squadron.
A few, whose penchant for being blabbermouths was well known, were deliberately kept out. Some pooh-poohed the idea on the spot, others were not hesitant to call us crazy, but some tried to absorb the idea with a cool mind, carefully analyzing the pros and cons. The more they reflected on it, the more interesting, adventurous and daring it became, setting the adrenalin pumping.
Thereafter, there was no stopping the three protagonists, who seemed to have committed themselves wholeheartedly to the plan and were determined to see it through. A meeting of all course mates of ‘G’ Squadron, barring the few blabbermouths, was convened that night, near the witching hour, better known as “Lights Out” and the entire plan was unveiled in detail for the first time.
The following were the essential ingredients of the plan, which had been conceived over the previous two days: -
- Three of us whose homes were in the same direction, would head for home, a day earlier than the entire Academy. They would naturally skip the POP.
- They would move out in the afternoon on the penultimate day of the fifth term, unobtrusively dressed in civilian clothes, carrying nothing but their railway warrants and the NDA blazer, suitably camouflaged by rolling it inside out and carefully ensuring that neither the NDA crest nor the label “Phelps and Co.” were visible.
- Their luggage would be handed over to course mates bound for the same stations travelling in the NDA Military Special Train and would be collected from them by the stalwarts who had escaped or rather sneaked out a day before the POP and had already completed one extra day of the term break!
- The rest of the course would ensure that they are neither missed by the drill staff at the POP, nor by the company quarter master havildar, who collected items issued at the beginning of the term, including cycles, contents of the cabin and items of web equipment. The officer instructors were not considered a problem; being gentlemen, they were easy to hoodwink, especially as they were busy with the ensuing POP!
A stunned silence ensued at the audacity of the escape plan. “You stupid fools” was perhaps the least offensive phrase used, amongst many others like ‘hara-kiri’, ‘off your rockers’, ‘you must be stark raving mad’ and so on. The obvious pitfalls of being caught, like facing certain relegation if not withdrawal from the Academy, were thrown at the faces of the three naïve musketeers.
However, the eventual outcome was a reluctant acceptance, which was collectively stated by the Georgians of 18th course in these words “if you are bent on going ahead with this suicidal venture and will not listen to reason, go ahead. The rest of the course would do their utmost to ensure that the escapade remains a secret”.
Well-spoken indeed, for it remained a secret for decades, till it was selectively divulged at the two Golden Jubilee celebrations for NDA and IMA.
This is the background of how the plan was formulated and how three cadets of the fifth term of ‘G’ Squadron of the 18th NDA course ‘escaped’ from NDA one full day ahead of the POP of December 1960.
The three cadets did escape as planned and their comrades covered for them so well that no one, not even our course mates from other squadrons were any wiser. It was also happenstance and not by design that the three were from different services – one army, one navy and one air force! Probably the earliest case of jointness in the Indian Military!
I will now switch to ‘first person narrative’ to narrate the adventures and the misadventures that befell the three protagonists! What transpired needs to commence with the dictum: “No plan survives the first shot”, as said by that great soldier, von Moltke. That was precisely the case with our adventure, although we were far removed from any type of gun fire.
We left the Sqn casually and unobtrusively, one by one, using the uneven ground and the dry nullah in between the Sqn and the Gol Market and managed to catch the bus to Kirkee unobserved. We kept our fingers crossed till the bus crossed the Pashan Gate, leaving NDA behind and heaved a collective sigh of relief. However, when we reached the Kirkee Railway Station to exchange our railway warrants for tickets, our luck ran out, as the train going to Bombay was about to leave and we were yet to exchange our Railway Warrants for tickets!
There was a sinking feeling, but undeterred we decided to reach Bombay by road, but lady luck again let us down, for the next bus was hours away and hence would not reach in time for catching our train. We quickly reviewed the situation and decided to get a lift in a truck. After flagging off many, one agreed to drop us at what the driver called ‘Kalyan Fatta’, which we understood as the railway crossing near the Kalyan Railway Station.
It suited our now revised plan, for time was insufficient to reach Bombay to catch our train, while reaching Kalyan would enable us to catch another train going north. Since time was against us, we kept coaxing the driver to go faster, but he did not oblige. Two of us (occasional smokers as smoking for cadets was banned in NDA) were carrying a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes between us to celebrate the occasion, but in spite of offering them to the driver, which he never refused, he did not speed up!
It was sometime after midnight that the driver stopped the truck and announced that we had reached ‘Kalyan Fatta’. We looked around and saw only wilderness and darkness! On quering as to where the railway station was, the drivers reply stunned us as he explained that this is where the smaller road to Kalyan took off, which was a couple of miles away!
To cut a long story short, we refused to get down and insisted that he drop us at a suburban railway station of Bombay, or else…Our sudden change of demeanour convinced him that we meant business, so he reluctantly took us to a local station close to Dadar, from where we caught a local train to Bombay VT, reaching there in the wee hours of the morning when our mates back at NDA were probably getting ready for the POP!
Having missed our train, there was nothing to do except wait the whole day and catch the Frontier Mail in the evening. We then stopped a passing barber and he gave us all a shave; after all, how could an NDA cadet not be spruced up early in the morning?
We had a reservation problem when we tried to board the Frontier Mail in the evening, as the Ticket Collector told us there were no unreserved seats in the first class! However, our persuasive powers with two passengers occupying a coupe worked and they allowed us in their compartment.
Those were the days when the Railways did nit provide beddings, so as the train headed north, the winter cold kept us awake, as the NDA Blazer was not designed for the cold nights of northern India. During the next day we thawed out and learnt how Bridge is really played from one of the passengers and how we played in NDA.
During the journey we did reflect on how we would be reaching our destinations more or less at the same time as those who were travelling in comparative luxury in the NDA Special for Punjab.
That readers was our fizzled-out caper, but the silver lining was that our sqn course mates had out-smarted every official and our secret remained safe with us!
Before I end this piece, let me highlight three issues. Firstly, this is not fiction but fact; it really happened as narrated. Secondly, it was the most foolish act any one in his senses could have committed. That we did so either reflects on our lack of grey matter or our disdain for the ordinary or both!! Thirdly, unless you take risks, life will be staid and boring, but all risks must be calculated risks, which have good chances of success. The old adage, “nothing ventured nothing gained” is apt and should not be discarded.
Now, a word about the protagonists. Starting with the Navy, the first musketeer was Cdr Pradeep Sinha, IN, who had left the Navy early and was an executive with Maruti Udhyog for many years. The second was Sqn Ldr PPS Gill from the Air Force, who was decorated with a Vir Chakra during the 1971 War with Pakistan and who later joined Air India, flew wide bodied jets all over the world and retired as a Senior Capt of Air India. The third, from the Army was the writer of this missive!
Looking closely as to how their careers progressed thereafter, perhaps they were not entirely devoid of grey matter after all!!
Finally, our advise to the cadets of all Military Academies: “Do not be foolish like us; the times have changed and many other adventures await you”.
Lt General Vijay Oberoi is former Army Vice Chief.
Cover Photograph Representational