Winter of 1979
Amritsar Railway Station
The sun was shining brightly. A young Gorkhali officer in combat uniform and DMS boots stood at the platform stomping his feet impatiently. He was Second Lieutenant Umed Singh Thapa of 5/11 Gorkha Rifles. He had come to receive 2Lt Bipin Rawat, the new twenty-one-year-old officer joining their unit and had removed his epaulettes, showing his rank, for a reason. Since Bipin was the son of Brigadier Laxman Singh Rawat, former Commanding Officer of 5/11 GR, and had also been awarded the Sword of Honour for topping his course at the Indian Military Academy, the unit officers had decided that he needed to be cured of any airs he might have developed and had to be brought back to mother earth.
A mischievous plan had been hatched to rag Bipin, and it was now being put into action. It also added some excitement to the lives of the officers and men, who were a little bored with their staid regimental tenure at Khasa, a small army cantonment near the Wagah border, about 14 km from Amritsar. Thapa had driven down to the railway station in a jeep, bringing along a one-tonne (truck) for Bipin Rawat’s luggage. Being a Gorkhali, he had been chosen to pose as Bipin’s sahayak (helper).
With narrow, twinkling eyes and a guileless smile, Thapa was tailormade for the role. All he had to do was remove his rank insignia. He had been tasked to receive Bipin and steal his identity card. A delighted Thapa had rubbed his hands in glee and immediately agreed. The then Commanding Officer of 5/11, Lt Col (later Brigadier) Ravi Devasar, was out of the unit location for some official work that day and completely unaware of the mischief brewing behind his back.
There was the wail of a horn, and Thapa looked up to find a train thundering down the tracks. The noisy steam engine rushed past him, pulling along its cavalcade of bogies. As the train whined to a stop, Thapa hastily put on his jungle cap and, reminding the four Gorkha troops with him to not address him as ‘Sahab’ in front of Bipin, started walking along the platform to look for his guest. ‘Pahilo kaksako dibba,’ he called out, pointing towards the first class carriage from where a smartly uniformed and slim Pahadi officer was stepping down-beads of perspiration on his face, cheeks red from the effort of pulling down his shining black steel box, which now rested on the platform. Stencilled on the side of the box, in bold white font, was ‘2Lt Bipin Rawat, Indian Military Academy, Dehradun to Amritsar’. It left no doubts about the identity of the officer who, at that moment, was busy dragging down a heavy khaki canvas bedroll with thick leather straps.
Thapa broke into a quick sprint and was there by Bipin’s side in a flash. ‘Ram Ram, hajur!’ he bellowed, clicking his heels together and bringing his arms smartly to attention. ‘Ma timro sahayak hun (I am your sahayak.’) Bipin saluted him back. ‘Tapaiko I card deno parcha. Adjutant Sahab le mangarnu bhaeko cha (You will need to give me your identity card. Adjutant Sahab has asked for it),’ Thapa informed Bipin in Nepali, blinking innocently. By then, the other soldiers had picked up the luggage waiting on the platform. Bipin reached into his pocket and handed over his identity card to Thapa. Thapa led him to the jeep waiting outside and, instructing the driver to drive the ‘new saab’ to the unit location, assured Bipin that he would follow in the one-tonne along with the luggage.
In twenty minutes, the jeep had driven into the unit location, where the sentry on duty quickly gave a call to the main office, announcing the new sahab’s arrival. 2Lt (later Lt Gen.) Rakesh Sharma, also a participant in the mischievous plan, scampered across the corridor to ensconce himself firmly in the unit adjutant’s chair just before Bipin marched in. He greeted Sharma with a crisp salute. ‘2Lt Bipin Rawat reporting, sir!’ he said.
‘Good morning, Rawat!’ Sharma replied, looking up from the papers he had pretended to be busy signing. ‘Welcome to the unit! Let me see your identity card, please.’
A puzzled Bipin replied that he had already handed over his ID card to his sahayak, who, he was told, would be delivering it to the adjutant.
‘No one has given it to me,’ Sharma exclaimed, looking a little miffed. ‘Who is your sahayak?’ When Bipin looked unsure, Sharma summoned the boys who had gone to pick him up from the railway station. ‘Which of them is your sahayak?’ he asked. A bewildered Bipin could not identify the man, since all the fair and slim Gorkha boys looked similar to him. Also, Thapa had not made an appearance at all in the identification parade.
A seemingly exasperated Rakesh Sharma sat tapping his fingers on the table impatiently as Bipin confessed he could not identify the man. ‘Well! You seem to have lost your ID card. That is very careless of you.
I am taking this very seriously,’ Sharma told Bipin coldly, hiding a smile. ‘I will have to march you up to the Commanding Officer.’ A nervous Bipin was taken to the CO’s office, where, in the absence of Col Devasar, Senior Captain Madan Gopal was comfortably seated on the CO’s chair with a stern expression on his face and a Lt Colonel’s brand-new epaulettes (borrowed that same morning from the unit Baniya) sparkling from his shoulders. ‘You are a Sword of Honour from the academy, right?’ he asked after the introduction had been made, nodding grimly at the mention of the missing ID card.
When Bipin answered that he had topped his course, Gopal told him that Bipin would have to complete the Battle Physical Efficiency Test (a two-mile run) to prove how fit he was. ‘Since you are the best in your course, we expect you to finish in the excellent category,’ Gopal said.
Bipin was driven down to the highway in his uniform, handed over a 4 kg self-loading rifle (SLR) and told to run towards the Wagah border, all the way to the turning point, and to return only after collecting a ticket from the kanchas (boys) manning it. The two-mile stretch was the unit’s regular cross-country route and pre-marked, he was told. Though tired and frustrated, and with an angry winter sun bearing down hotly upon his head, Bipin made no excuses and immediately set off on a quick sprint, returning with the required ticket.
He was surprised to find that he had not been able to meet the ‘Excellent’ finish time of fourteen minutes and forty-five seconds. The run had taken him longer than that. He did not know that the crafty ragging team had got the ticket collection post shifted by 400 yards so he had to run an extra distance, which increased his timing. He was again marched up to the CO, who glared at him darkly this time. ‘I must say that I am disappointed in you, Rawat. It is shocking to find that a Sword of Honour could not make it to the Excellent category,’ Madan Gopal growled at the shamefaced Bipin. ‘Just because your father is a Brigadier and an ex-CO doesn’t mean you will now take it easy and can sleepwalk through your regimental tenure. Pull up your socks!’
The adjutant marched a morose Bipin out of the CO’s office and told him to report for physical examination to the Military Inspection (MI) Room, where yet another trickster, 2Lt Utpal Roy, sat with a borrowed Army Medical Corps badge on his uniform and a stethoscope hanging casually around his neck. He was raring to show off his own acting skills.
‘Who are you? I’ve never seen you before,’ he snapped, playing the absent-minded unit doctor, the moment Bipin walked in. ‘I am 2Lt Bipin Rawat, sir. I have just been posted in,’ Bipin replied. ‘You don’t look happy, my boy. What’s the problem?’ Roy asked, shining a flashlight into Bipin’s eyes while pretending to do an ophthalmic examination.
‘No, sir, I am not happy,’ Bipin replied.
‘Hmmm!’ Roy mumbled, asking him to open his mouth wide and stick out his tongue. After peering down Bipin’s throat for what seemed like an eternity, Roy took the spatula off his patient’s tongue and asked him to close him mouth. ‘And why are you not happy, my dear?’ he asked, raising his eyebrows.
His dam of tolerance broken, Bipin gave the overtly sympathetic Roy a blow-by-blow account of what had transpired with him. Being a second-generation officer, familiar with the ways of the army, he was smart enough to understand that he was being ragged but had completely run out of patience. ‘Is this how a young officer should be treated, sir?’ he asked, looking harassed.
Roy clicked his tongue in disapproval. ‘Shameful indeed! These Gorkhas, I tell you! Why did you join this unit at all, my boy? You shouldn’t have,’ he muttered sympathetically.
The gullible Bipin immediately opened up his heart to the kind doctor, the only nice person he had met that day. ‘I wanted to join Mechanized Infantry, sir,’ he said. ‘And being the course topper, I would have got it too. But Uncle Heera [Lt General R.D. Heera, then Colonel of the regiment] insisted that I should opt for 5/11 GR, since my father had commanded it,’ he replied honestly. Roy nodded in sympathy and, after pretending to check Bipin’s chest with the stethoscope he had till then forgotten to use, told him that all was well, the medical examination was over, and he could go to his room.
At lunch that afternoon, CO Col Devasar returned to the unit and a dining-in was hosted for the new joiner. When Bipin walked into the mess, the other officers were already there, this time in their proper uniforms, wearing their right ranks. He was greeted with warm handshakes. As he stood in the gathering with a glass of chilled beer in his hand, the culprits of the morning misadventure walked up to him one by one, introducing themselves, mischievous smiles lighting up their young faces.
Bipin was surprised to find Thapa, his missing sahayak, turning up with shining single stars upon his shoulders. 2Lt Rakesh Sharma took Bipin’s ID card out of his pocket and handed it over with a deadpan look on his face. They were both from Dehradun, both Pisceans with just a year’s difference in their ages and their birthdays falling a day apart (Bipin’s birthday was on 16 March and Rakesh’s on 15 March).
‘Welcome to 5/11 GR, Bipin. Don’t lose your ID card again,’ Sharma said and finally broke into the laughter he had been controlling since morning.
‘Thank you, sir,’ Bipin replied with a smile spreading slowly across his face. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two of them.