He is a young man from a village, somewhere in the dusty plains of the subcontinent or from a village deep in the mountains. He is ordinary, barely past school. He comes in many versions. A Sikh from Punjab. A Jat from the former united Punjab and Haryana. A Dogra from Kashmir. A Gurkha from Nepal. A Rajput from from Rajasthan. A Maratha from the coast or the central plains. Or a short dark Madrasi from Tamil Nadu. A very ordinary man.
Usually, there has been a military tradition in the family. He has always signed up to serve. It was John Company three hundred years ago. Then for the Rani from Vilayat. And then for the Indian Army. His father, grandfather, uncles and brothers have probably served in the same regiment. He has worshipped at the same regimental shrine, eaten in the same regimental bada khana.
He has saluted young English officers who lived and worked with them, speaking their language. Much later he salutes young IMA graduates who have taken the place of the Sandhurst elite, speaking the same English and speaking the language of the regiment in much the same fashion.
He has marched when asked without murmur or protest through desert and forest. Sleep when asked to sleep, fight when asked to fight. His faith in his commanding officer and the regimental NCO is childlike in simplicity and completeness. All he asks is that he be treated well and looked after well.
He joined the Company first as security personnel. The pay was good, and the Company appreciated his work. Later, as the security guard became Company soldier, he stayed on – better pay, better work and a sense of adventure. And of course, the discipline that was matched by fair treatment. For him, it was a choice between service in the forces of a local prince, or service with the Company. Not for him to ponder the global forces at play. He just did his job, and was increasingly appreciated for courage and commitment.
And so it came to pass, that this young man found himself at the centre of events. At Buxar and then at Plassey, small company armies made up largely of people like him, defeated much larger armies and helped seal the Company’s position as a political power. He helped defeat the French, and then ended the reign of Tipu Sultan. At Assaye, he forded the Kailna River only to be met by the full force of hundreds of Maratha cannon. At the orders of Wellesley, he fixed bayonets and marched into the cannonade and hastened the defeat of the Marathas.
He marched up to Afghanistan in each disastrous British foray to tame Kabul, and retreated and died in numbers due to the cold and the deadly Afghan jezail. At the residency in Kabul the Afghan marvelled at how well these Indian men fought for the firangi and wondered what drove them to such loyalty.
He mutinied against the Company in Meerut and marched to Delhi to persuade a reluctant Zafar to abandon poetry and take the throne. He rode down from the plains of the Punjab to beat back the mutineers. His brother mutineers were strung up along the road from Delhi to Agra as an example to his fellow troops
He shipped off to France and Basra in large numbers. In the bitter cold at Ypres and Neuve Chapelle he fought the Kaiser’s Prussians with vigour, eating chapatis in the trenches. He fought the Ottomans up from Basra along the Tigris, and starved and died at Kut when the Turks surrounded the British Army.
He volunteered the second time a Teutonic migration was attempted. This time he fought Rommel in Bir Hakeim, Tobruk and El Alamein. He chased the Italians under the Duke of Aosta across Africa and fought so well old Duke insisted on surrendering to the CO of the Kings Indian Rifles. He fought his way from Sicily via Montecassino – elderly Italians recall watching serried ranks of Sardars marching into Rome.
He defended Singapore and Malaya against the Japanese. When the Japanese took Singapore half of his compatriot turned to the other side and formed the Indian National Army under Netaji, and fought with the Japanese to the Burmese border. Their compatriots were waiting for them at Kohima and Imphal under the British flag. And British and Indian, and Japanese and Indian, tore into each other with great ferocity at the tennis court in Kohima. Namak was involved – Indian fought Indian to the death.
Two years later he had to chose sides – the new States of India and Pakistan. And he fought his brother soldier in the icy reaches of Kashmir shortly thereafter.
He stood in the high reaches of the Himalayas against the Chinese armed with bolt action rifles and canvas shoes, defending a misguided forward policy. A better lead, better prepared and better armed enemy swept him from the border not before he took more Chinese lives than his side gave.
He fought Pakistani invaders at Kashmir and Chamb in 1965, and crossed the Icchogil Canal and threatened to take Lahore. He took part in the biggest tank battles since Kursk. He liberated a country and protected the former oppressors and their enemies from the vengeful oppressed, as he executed the largest POW capture in history.
He stands watch at the Line of Control to stop intruders dressed as civilians crossing the border to kill and maim. He patrols the eastern reaches of the country where a restive population fights integration with the Republic. He serves six month stretches at the highest, coldest battlefield in the world at Siachen, where a misguided attempt to relieve yourself results in frostbite.
He scaled vertical cliff faces at Kargil to dislodge invaders pouring fire on them from above. He battled his way up the fire-scarred stairways of the Taj and the Jewish House.
In all this, he remains a simple man. He obeys orders for a pittance of a salary. He joins at 19 and provided he is not killed or maimed, leaves at 35. A life yawns open before him. He launches tea stalls or kiosks. He goes back to farming. He joins security companies and becomes a security guard. At his simple home, picture of him as a young man with regimental badge hanging on a wall somewhere, campaign strips and medals. His medals are often sold for a song. Sometimes he sits on his charpoy or mitham, and he tells stories of his battles to young men and beams with pride at his exploits.
If killed he become a mere statistic. A simple funeral, a small widow’s pension. And then on to the next generation who sign on to the family regiment.
An ordinary man.
2 thoughts on “An Ordinary Man”
Its hard to find something more deplorable and more noble at the same time. War is one of the most despicable acts of mankind. Nothing but horror has resulted from war.
And yet, the “ordinary” man who you have so well saluted here, is amongst the most noble of men (and now women too). Following orders, they do all that you have so eloquently described.
The pox on the leaders who start wars.
Thanks Ramesh for visiting and your usual generous comments. Sadly, men will fight and kill each other as they have done. And from this abhorrent instinct nobility comes out. All part and parcel of being a human being I suppose.