By R Hariharan –
It didn’t matter if one were a student, journalist or a businessman. When the time came in 1962, we all offered our services to the country. Such was the overriding spirit of nationalism which drove us at that time. Now, things have drastically changed
The 50th anniversary of the 1962 India-China war this year, roused a lot of passions in the country. Much of it was hot air, interspersed with some critical analyses of the war and its aftermath. The analyses focused on the strategic inadequacies of the national leadership, in handling national security, that continues to this day. Even the national leaders’ suspicion of the Armed Forces’ leadership still persists, as seen in Parliament during the General VK Singh episode.
But the 1962 war is unique in the way it aroused the feeling of patriotism across the nation. Youths quit their jobs to join the Army by the hundreds when its reputation had taken a beating at the hands of the Chinese Army. I was one of those who decided to do so in a matter of minutes, with a casualness that astounds me to this day. I was then working as a sub-editor at the Press Trust of India in what was then Bombay. Journalism was my chosen career. I had worked for two years to earn enough to finance my study of journalism at Madras University. I had done an apprenticeship with a newspaper and loved the smell of fresh copies of newspaper spewed out of the rotary machines. Working in a news agency had its own challenges as there were deadlines to be met every two hours.
Our family was steeped in the Swadeshi movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s charisma — with a few relatives, including my father, even courting imprisonment during the freedom struggle. The youthful charm of Jawaharlal Nehru had mesmerised the newly independent nation and I was happy to be a victim. I remember being impressed with the Cheshire cat smile of Chou-en Lai as he paraded in the company of Nehru in Chennai, while shouts of“Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” rent the air.
I was editing the ticker tape messages as they trickled in at the Reuters desk at the PTI office in Flora Fountain when the Portuguese Army fell to the onslaught of the Indian Army in Goa in 1961. Fifty one years later, I still remember the proudest moment when Reuters beamed worldwide the shortest message in my journalistic career: “Indian Army captures Goa”. The three of us in the graveyard shift toasted the Indian Army with Duke’s Cola (prohibition ruled Bombay those days).
But when the very same Army failed to live up to its reputation in 1962, we were angry at the national leadership under Nehru for the failure. In particular, then Defence Minister Krishna Menon, the bête noire of journalists of that period, was branded a Grade A villain. Our faith in Nehru’s leadership took a beating along with that of the Indian Army’s reputation.
Even before that, journalists were already primed to lose faith in China’s repeated avowal of eternal friendship, after the Dalai Lama and his followers sought refuge in India in 1959. In the months that followed, the Chinese were showing their fangs along the McMahon Line. A few months before the 1962 war, I had met some members of the Tibetan leadership in Bombay. I was moved when I heard their first-hand account of Chinese atrocities in Tibet. In fact, I offered to join them and help their global campaign. A wise elder of the Dalai Lama’s entourage smiled at me and advised me not to do so. He said I could do more as a press man. I could help them spread their cause world over. The meeting left a lasting impression in me. So I was a deeply troubled man when the Indian Army was beaten from the McMahon Line to Tezpur. Even some of my fellow journalists who usually spouted Marxism (as it was in fashion those days) were silenced for a change at the ‘betrayal’ of the Chinese.
On December 3, 1962, I, along with my colleague KR Ramanujam, after finishing our evening, took a walk along Colaba Causeway, savouring its colour. On the way, we saw a call for the youth to join the Army as officers, written in chalk on a blackboard displayed outside the Army’s Bombay Sub Area Headquarters. It asked the aspirants to come for an interview the following day. Both Ramanujam and I decided to go for the interview without realising the magnitude of our decision.
The next day there was a motley crowd of about 40 guys including an income tax officer, a few undergraduates, two businessmen, a railway employee, and of course the two hacks from PTI, at the military headquarters. Among those present was the grey-eyed son of NV Gadgil, then a Governor. The Indian Army must have been in dire need of officers because we were interviewed for barely 10 minutes by a limping Territorial Army Major. Then, there was a cursory physical examination. We were told to await our call for the final selection by a services selection board. Of course, both us quickly forgot all about it.
Two days later, both of us got a telegram asking us to immediately appear before the Services Selection Board in Bangalore. For the first time in my life, I faced psychological, intelligence and aptitude tests and a challenging group test. In the final interview, the chairman of the Board appeared intrigued by my reply to his question: Why did I want to quit a ‘good job’ to join the Army? I gave a spiel about patriotism and national duty. We had a nasty medical examination, after a critical examination of all the hidden parts. Both Ramanujam and I were selected along with a few others from Bombay.
When I returned to Bombay, there was a telegram waiting for me to report (in the Army you don’t join but report) at the Officers Training Academy in then Madras. I joined a shabby bunch of civilians standing in disorder “like a bunch of pregnant ducks”, as one sneering Captain told us to start the Army’s process of turning us into “civilised soldiers”. After two years in the Army, I opted for a career as a regular commissioned officer. Ramanujam did otherwise; he went back to his desk at PTI.
Looking back at it all now, would I take a life-changing decision to join the Army in flat five minutes? Sadly, I realised I may not. In 1962, we, and the nation, believed in something very different. Patriotism was a serious national motivation for the youth at that time. Now it’s all different and I am not blaming the youth for it.
Years later, my son went through the same selection routine before he joined the National Defence Academy. When he left for the SSB selection, I briefed him about the all-important interview there. I told him he should be prepared to answer a question on why he wanted to join the Army. He asked me, what my reply to the question was when I had faced the Board. I said “patriotism”. My son laughed and said, “Dad, if I say that, people will laugh now. Nobody would believe me.” When he returned successfully, I asked about his answer to the same question. His reply was that he liked the outdoor life that the Army offered particularly, the opportunities for riding (he is a lover of horses) — all at a reasonable pay. And he was selected!
Could it have happened if he had given ‘patriotism’ as the reason? I have my doubts. It is a cameo of how the nation and the people have changed since 1962. Patriotism has become suspect, after politicians have consistently degraded it in the last six decades; if you use it now, you might be branded parochial. How can we recapture the spirit of it? We came to terms with 1962 in our time and proved ourselves in 1971. Now it is a challenge for the youth to do so.
*The writer is a retired Military Intelligence officer and associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies