Afrid Afroz, 21, who was adjudged best cadet at the NDA's 144th course, will join the Indian Air Force and hopes to be a fighter pilot.
At the grand end-of-course special dinner, cadets were thumping the table as the names of the medal winners were announced by the commandant of the National Defence Academy in Pune. Bronze... silver... gold.
Battalion Cadet Captain Afrid Afroz knew he would be in the top five, but did not know that he would win the President's Gold Medal for being the best overall cadet in academics and sports of the 144th course that graduated in June 2023.
As his name was announced, his squadron mates erupted in cheers, cadets from neighbouring tables slapped the table, congratulating him with glint in their eyes and smiles on their faces as he stood up.
After dinner, the officers who served as instructors came up to him and patted his back -- the equitation officer being the first.
Afrid was a proficient polo player and had passed out with a half blue in riding. He was part of the NDA team that took part in the Junior National Equitation competition and the Army Equestrian Championship. He was also awarded a half blue in PT.
He was awarded the Gold medal for being the best overall cadet and another medal for best all round air force cadet. Battalion Cadet Captains are appointed Academy Cadet Captain -- the senior-most appointment -- in rotation for a period of 3-4 weeks.
The first person he called as soon as he stepped out of the mess after dinner was his elder sister Saima, an engineer at Infosys. She was on her way home from work and was 'over the moon' with joy.
The closest sibling to him in age, they had studied in the same schools for seven years in Patiala. "My sister was the one who first told me about the Rashtriya Indian Military College in Dehradun when we were studying at the Army Public School, Patiala. She encouraged me to get admission there. I thought she should be the first to know that I had won the gold medal," says Afrid who will join the Air Force Academy in Telangana at the end of the month and hopes to fly frontline fighter aircraft in the years ahead.
The RIMC is a premier institution in Dehradun that prepares boys to join the NDA. Selection is done through an all-India competitive exam. A maximum of two cadets can be selected from a given state. Punjab has only one vacancy. Larger states like UP, MP, Bihar have two seats.
Afrid was selected in his second attempt. He joined RIMC in Class 8 and was amongst the top performers. He was selected for the NDA on his first attempt and entered the Academy during the pandemic in 2020.
"His receiving the gold medal has had a ripple effect on our family. We are still living the moment," says Saima over the phone from Hyderabad where their father is a professor in the Department of Comparative Religions at Maulana Azad University.
"The cadets have such a tough training schedule and he completed it with excellence. NDA, RIMC and the defence training system have groomed him to face the world," she says, every word generously laced with pride.
The family was at the passing out parade, only the eldest brother Inaam, a manager at the Trident, Patiala, could not make it. He had been updating his WhatsApp status with videos and images of the passing out parade to keep abreast with the grand moment in the family's life.
"I wanted to make my parents proud and was happy that I could give them that moment. They saw me marching, receiving the gold medal and met the Chief of Defence Staff General Anil Chauhan, the chief guest -- all this made me feel that a dream had been accomplished," says Afrid whose achievement has brought a cheer to relatives and friends in Patiala where he spent his childhood.
"He is going to serve our country and there is no honour higher or bigger than that," says father Dr Mohammad Habib whose brother recently retired from the army and whose nephew is deployed in Kashmir.
"The passing out parade was glorious. I could see India's pride reflected in the cadets. The future of India's defence was marching in front of us," says Dr Habib over the phone on his return to Hyderabad after attending the passing out parade.
During the three week holiday, Afrid will spend time with his family. He also intends to visit the two schools he attended in Patiala and RIMC, Dehardun. He wants to especially thank its then Commandant Colonel Vivek Sharma.
The 144th course entered the NDA during the pandemic, which resulted in e-learning capsules and curtailed physical activity in keeping with Covid guidelines. The batch was kept isolated and distributed across the 16 squadrons once Covid rules were relaxed and training began at full throttle.
NDA cadets will tell you that the 4th term is most hectic, which includes Camp Rover considered the hardest outdoor training camp in the world for boys of that age group. The fourth termers are the main workforce of the squadrons.
"You are accountable for yourself, your juniors and your squadron," says Afrid who was appointed battalion cadet captain in the 6th term.
In the 5-6th term, cadets begin specialised training of their respective services -- army, navy, air force.
"We are trained in such a way that we start feeling a part of our service. As the senior most-course, we have to liaison between the administration and the cadets and are directly responsible for the performance of our juniors and the squadron," says Afrid, adding, "We also have to remain dedicated to our own performance."
The 6th term includes the challenging Camp Torna with the difficult Josh Run which is 26 km on the map, but 40-45 km on ground. "Our map reader was very good and navigated the terrain well. We came 2nd in the run and overall," adds Afrid.
After spending three years training, toiling, learning and building life-long bonds together, the cadets of the 144th course parted ways last week. They will go on to the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun [Army], the Indian Naval Academy, Ezhimala, and the Air Force Training Academy, Dundigal.
"As a course we have parted ways, but as they say, 'We part to meet and meet to part'. These are phases that make life interesting," says Afrid, who will do two-stage training on trainer aircraft spread over a year.
The first stage will include training on the Pilatus PC 7 and stage 2 -- the Kiran aircraft in Hakimpet, Hyderabad.
"Military flying needs special kind of skill sets and is extremely challenging. I have always felt a passion for flying," he says.
"He was always interested in flying and military life, and the sentiment of serving the nation has been a part of our family," says Dr Habib. While some professors at the university told him that the fauj and the life of an air force pilot was fraught with risk, he would tell them what his son often said:
'Death can come on ground, at sea or in the air. It will come when it has to come.'
"We have never imposed our wish on him and he has chosen his own path. It is a path of keeping the borders of our country and its citizens safe -- what could be more glorious than that?" says Dr Habib, the proud father, as his youngest child gets ready to don the uniform and serve the Motherland.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com