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The Course Mate Who Will Be Chief

Last updated on: April 30, 2022 08:01 IST
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'As a course mate who has followed closely this star on the Bombay Sappers firmament, my heart swells with pride to see his extraordinary brilliance and focus; his commitment and his dedication; his hard work; and his technical as well as tactical knowledge,' says Colonel K Thammayya Udupa (retd) of his batchmate General Manoj Pande who will take over as chief of the army staff on May 1.

IMAGE: Lieutenant General Manoj C Pande, left, watches Tiranga Mountain Rescue team leader Hemant Sachdev presenting Defence Minister Rajnath Singh a memento, April 26, 2022. Photograph: Amlan Paliwal/ANI Photo

On Friday, January 13, 1983, 16 of us newly commissioned officers reached the Bombay Engineer Group and Centre at Kirkee (now known as Khadki) from various parts of India, after availing the mandatory 21 days of post commissioning leave.

Barely a month back we were all in the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun.

On December 10, 1982 the IMA had completed 50 years of its formal inauguration. That day we had proudly participated in the golden jubilee ceremonial parade. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the chief guest.

14 days later, on December 24, 1982, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was the Reviewing Officer for our Passing Out Parade. 484 of us were commissioned into the Indian Army.

And now the 16 of us who were commissioned into THE BOMBAY SAPPERS -- one of the three Groups of the Corps of Engineers -- had reached our Regimental Centre.

We were to spend just 17 days there, that is up to January 30, 1983. Thereafter we were to proceed to the College of Military Engineering (CME) located close by at Dapodi in Pune itself.

We were to undergo the Young Officers (Engineers) Course from January 31, 1983 to July 23, 1983.

Those 17 days at our Regimental Centre were basically to give us a feel of our Corps and to help us learn about the Group's history and its rich traditions.

We were also expected to have a glimpse at the basic training that the soldier recruits of our Corps went through, how they lived and how they trained.

IMAGE: The scroll of honour at the College of Military Engineering, Pune, mentioning the names of the Silver Grenade awardees. Photograph: Kind courtesy Subedar Major B S Kadam

A K Singh, Jaspal Reen, Pankaj Mital and I were from not just the same company at the IMA, but from the same platoon. We knew each other closely.

Ajay Sharma, Arun Sharma, Ashish Ghosh, D S Dahiya, Hari Easwaran, H S Sidhu, Manoj C Pande, M Srinivasan, Rajeev Malik, R K Sharma, Salil Tiwari and S Gautama were from the other companies at the IMA and I had no recollection of having interacted with any of them during our extremely busy and hectic training days at the Academy.

As such, this short stay at our Regimental Centre also provided us an opportunity to know each other.

We would, hereinafter, be the 16 Bombay Sappers course mates of the December 1982 batch, all through our lives.

The American writer James Thurber had famously said, 'Two is company, four is a party, three is a crowd.' And here we were four times four!

The exuberance of youth combined with the high spirits as newly commissioned officers made us quite boisterous.

We had stars on our shoulders which made us officers. But neither did we have an office nor were there any men under our command.

With such a heady cocktail there was plenty of din and noise in the accommodation provided to us.

In all this chatter, by the end of the second day, I was able to make my own impressions of the entire batch.

My very first recollection that day, of the one-sixteenth of us who is to become the 29th Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in a couple of days' time, is that he was the quietest of the lot.

Whenever he spoke, his tone was soft, but his words were measured and to the point. There was nothing, just nothing flippant about his demeanour.

An important facet of his personality would be revealed to me a few days later.

As is the tradition all over the armed forces, officers who report on posting to any unit are welcomed formally into its officers mess in a 'Dining In' party.

The dining-in of newly commissioned officers is thus the first dining-in of their military career.

The Officers Mess at the Bombay Engineer Group (BEG) at Khadki is awe inspiring.

There is grandeur and a touch of class everywhere, in every item of its property and in every brick and stone. Add to it the rich legacy of years of valour, and history of service to the nation.

THE BOMBAY SAPPERS is the only Engineer Group which has a Victoria Cross (Second Lieutenant (later Lieutenant General) Premindra Singh Bhagat), a Param Vir Chakra (Second Lieutenant (later Major) Rama Raghoba Rane (and an Ashok Chakra (Naib Subedar Gurnam Singh (posthumous)).

Any newly commissioned officer entering the BEG Officers Mess is weighed down by the thought of having to live up to such a formidable legacy.

That evening we were the guests of Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) M S Gosain, the Commandant of the BEG and all its officers.

We were made to feel very comfortable; we were pampered and that extra care was taken to make us feel that we were all part of the family of THE BOMBAY SAPPERS.

Then came dinner time. We entered the sprawling main dining hall in which the best cutlery and crockery had been laid out.

No sooner did we occupy our seats as per the seating plan than something happened which was not within familiar territory for me.

I looked up stealthily when this unusual sound started and noticed that from the ceiling of the dining hall there was a network of ropes to which was hanging horizontally a long wooden pole.

There were hooks embedded on the lower portion of this pole. By these hooks was hanging vertically an exquisitely stitched cloth. (See picture)

IMAGE: The dining hall at the Officers Mess BEG and Centre, Khadki.
The dining hall at the Officers Mess BEG and Centre, Khadki, is the only Officers Mess in India having the pankha just over the dining table.
During the early days when there was no electricity, the pankha was operated by men sitting outside. Now it is by means of an electric motor.Photograph: Kind courtesy Subedar Major B S Kadam

The sound which had attracted my attention was the labyrinth of ropes moving in a well coordinated manner to swing the pole -- and thus the cloth -- in a simple harmonic motion providing the effects of a fan to those seated on the table.

This continued as long as we were having our food and stopped just before the Commandant got up for the customary after-dinner toast.

Actually this had almost ruined my dinner. I was from a non-military background and had never been to any military officers's mess earlier.

Here was this strange contraption about which I had no knowledge, a contraption meant to do what is expected of an electric ceiling fan. But what was providing the movement to it?

All through the dinner, I kept asking myself, "Where are all these ropes leading to? How is this powered, since there seems to be no electric connection anywhere?"

And then a painful thought crossed my mind, "Do these ropes lead to somewhere behind the wall where some human beings are manually pulling these?" I had visions of some wretched men, labouring there almost slave like, for the sake of our comfort.

I started feeling miserable thereafter.

Dinner came to an end and after the formal breaking off we were walking back to our accommodation in small groups of threes and fours.

Manoj and I were in one such group. My mind was still on the slaves when he broached the same subject and expressed the pain he was feeling imagining who would be doing this for our comfort.

It was then that someone who had already seen this earlier piped in that we were getting emotional for nothing.

He explained to us that the Officers Mess was constructed before the advent of electricity. What we had just seen was the pankha installed during the pre-electricity era, meant to keep the dining hall cool.

He added that in those days, yes, the pankha was indeed operated by men who were positioned outside and would pedal with their feet to provide the simple harmonic motion to it.

Those were the days of British rule and the rulers could get away doing any such thing. But now there was no human effort of that kind involved as an electric motor was doing the job.

It was a huge relief to Manoj and me. I do remember Manoj exclaiming, "The thought of some men doing all this for our sake was weighing heavily on me."

That is what characterises Manoj who has always been a leader with compassion in his heart for fellow human beings.

Another character defining incident happened in those 17 days.

Today, the career management of all army officers is centralised in the Military Secretary's (MS) Branch at the Army Headquarters. So even the postings of newly commissioned officers happens through the MS Branch.

Not so in 1982-1983 when we became commissioned officers. The MS Branch allotted us the Corps and the Group. The initial years of our service were thereafter managed by the Group.

The Group Adjutant had the responsibility of allotting a regiment to each of us. Or, to put it in the appropriate terminology, each of us was to be empanelled to an engineer regiment each.

All 16 of us were eagerly waiting to know the regiment which we would be allotted to. That would be where we would be headed to, on completion of our YOs course.

That would be our lifelong home and that would be where our careers would take shape.

One evening Lieutenant Colonel (later Colonel) Vivek Bopaiah made the announcement.

I was allotted the 109 Engineer Regiment. My joy knew no bounds. I felt that I had won a jackpot, because my regiment was then located in Pune itself, within the CME.

Just around the time that I was expected to formally join it in July that year, it was slated to move on an operational role to the field in the North East.

आम के आम गुठिलयों के दाम, a double bonanza for me -- having the regiment next door during the course and moving to field at the end of the course.

In the place vacated by my regiment at CME Pune was to come the 110 Engineer Regiment which was then in the field. Manoj was allotted the 110 Engineer Regiment.

A large percentage of officers would be delighted to be posted to Pune.

Pune is easily one of the best military stations in India. And anyone who has been to CME Pune would swear that there is no military training establishment as well laid out or as well organised or as this and as that, as CME.

Yet, yet here was Second Lieutenant Manoj with single digit days of service, absolutely crestfallen when he was allotted ONE ONE ZERO.

Colonel Bopaiah gave him a patient hearing.

Manoj's argument was quite disarmingly simple. He had spent three years only recently in Pune, as a cadet at the NDA.

He was about to spend another six months in Pune doing the YOs course.

He would join this regiment in Pune on completion of his YOs course and be in the unit in Pune for two to three years. Then he would be nominated to attend the three-year B Tech degree course at CME itself.

Thus, from the time of his commissioning till the end of his degree course, a period of almost five and a half to six years he would be in Pune itself. Instead, he requested that he be posted to any unit in a field area, to get an exposure of field, before compulsorily coming back to CME, Pune, for the degree course.

To the surprise of some of us in the batch who had felt that Colonel Bopaiah would not relent, Manoj emerged successful in his mission. That's how he was allotted the 267 Engineer Regiment which was then in a field area.

This episode speaks volumes of Manoj's character.

Firstly, right from the early days of his military career he has been highly focussed and has willingly chosen the path less trodden.

Years later when the time came, he accepted the challenge to go out of the Corps, from Engineers to the General Cadre which has led him to the coveted appointment of COAS. This is a road no Engineer officer had been able to travel so far.

The credit of shattering this one glass ceiling which had eluded the Sappers will always be that of Manoj.

We hope that in the years to come the path that he has pioneered will motivate more Sapper officers to pursue the dream of becoming COAS.

Secondly, his legendary persuasive skills! From General Manoj Pande you can surely learn one important aspect of life -- one does not have to speak a lot, or speak out loud, or at a high pitch and volume. You can be soft and brief, but you should have depth -- tremendous depth of knowledge and tremendous self belief in what you say and do.

On January 30, 1983, in the evening the 16 of us moved out from BEG and reported to CME for our YOs course which was to commence the next day. The total strength of the YOs course, which included five foreign officers was 63.

Day One onwards Manoj was consistently brilliant throughout the course.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Subedar Major B S Kadam

The student officer standing first in the order of merit in the Engineer YOs course is awarded the 'Silver Grenade'. And no prizes for guessing, the Silver Grenade winner of Engineers 76th YOs course was Manoj.

The YOs course came to an end on July 23, 1983 and all of us went our different ways.

In these 39 years, I would have met Manoj maybe not more than five or six times. Most of these would have been fleeting moments. I am not from the National Defence Academy Khadakvasla (NDA) nor was I with Manoj in the same company or battalion in IMA. There was no opportunity for both of us to serve together.

As such, I am not in that exalted league of officers who can claim to know him (and his family) better than they know themselves; those who can tell you which is his favourite movie, or what are his favourite dishes and so on. In fact I cannot even claim to be a close friend of Manoj.

But as a course mate and as one of those 16 and one who has followed closely this star in THE BOMBAY SAPPERS firmament, my heart has always swelled with pride seeing his extraordinary brilliance and focus; his commitment and his dedication; his hard work; and his technical as well as tactical knowledge. It is phenomenally heartening to see where he has reached.

On December 10, 1982 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had addressed us after reviewing the Golden Jubilee parade, she would not have known that one amongst those standing there would become the COAS thirty nine-and-a-half years down the line. Or did she have some such inkling?

"Military leadership is essentially the projection of the personality and character of the leader, who along with his men represents one of the most ancient, most natural and most effective of all human relationships," she said.

"Most Generals like other leaders have been thoughtful people, who have been able to change history because of their understanding of it.

"As modern defence is total, modern officers must be acquainted with all that affects a nation, with all that strengthens it and raises its morale.

"They must know psychology, economics and technology, no less than what is called military science proper.

"They must keep up with changes in ideas and technologies because change and ever faster change is the only changeless fact of life.

"For effective leadership, training is essential but there must also be an inner quality and strength, personality and breadth of vision."

Thirty nine-and-a-half years later, we have an Army Chief who I can say is exactly in the mould of Indira Gandhi's description of a modern officer and a General.

General Manoj Chandrashekhar Pande, we are immensely proud of you and we wish you all the very best!

Colonel K Thammayya Udupa (retired) is a B Tech (Electrical) from KREC (now NITK) Surathkal. He was commissioned into the Corps of Engineers (The Bombay Sappers) in December 1982. He commanded a RAPID Engineer Regiment and took premature retirement from the Indian Army in April 2007.
Post retirement he served in the Indian Institute of Management-Indore.
He lives in Udupi-Manipal and can be contacted at

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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