A Tribute to Field Marshal KM Cariappa on the occasion of the Army Day on Jan 15
(The views expressed in the below article are that of Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao, former Principal Information Officer, Government of India.)
India will be observing Army Day on January 15, as it was on this day in 1949, when Field Marshal Kodandera Madappa Cariappa took over as the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from General Roy Butcher, a British Army Officer.
Many of us who had the opportunity of serving with the Indian Army had read about Field Marshal Cariappa and the role he had played in consolidation of the Indian Army, establishing high traditions.
I first came into contact with him in 1958 when I was working as the Assistant Editor of the Sainik Samachar, the multi-lingual weekly journal of the Armed Forces, earlier known as the Fauji Akhbar, which enjoyed the status of being the premier journal available in the reading rooms for the soldiers.
A month after my taking over as the Assistant Editor, I was told to cover a meeting of the Ex-Servicemens’ Association at the National Stadium which was being presided over by General Cariappa. The meeting was being held at the National Stadium, near the India Gate in the capital. I went to the venue about ten minutes earlier. I was introduced to General Cariappa. General Cariappa asked me my full name, where I came from and what was my educational and service background.
While making his initial statement to the retired soldiers, I was pleasantly surprised when he said that the Assistant Editor of the Fauji Akhbar was there, and mentioned that I was a post-graduate and that I would give good coverage for the meeting. He called me to sit by his side during the rest of the meeting. When I left the meeting, he asked me to take interest in matters relating to retired soldiers. I was touched by his sense of involvement with the welfare of the troops.
The next encounter that I had with him was in 1963. I was posted in Jammu and Kashmir and had donned the uniform with the rank of a Captain. My assignment was to cover the activities of the XV Corps-the troops on the Pathankot-Jammu-Srinagar-Leh-Chushul areas. I used to be on the road at least twenty days in a month, visiting Army units or conducting senior journalists who were keen to observe and write how the Indian Army was being reorganised and re-equipped to face the Chinese in addition to the Pakistan Army. In the spring of 1963, I was asked to conduct B. G. Verghese (who passed away last year) who was then a senior correspondent of the Times of India to various units in Ladakh. I had arranged the itinerary for him, taking him from Leh to Chushul along the Indus and driving up the Chang-la, the highest pass in the region. I had almost completed my task.
On the last morning, as I was getting ready to proceed with Verghese for the next appointment, the unit in which I was staying got a message that I should get in touch with the Divisional Headquarters. I rang up the General Staff Officer to find out what was the requirement. He heaved a sigh of relief and said that the Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, was in Leh and he wanted me around as General Cariappa was visiting the area.
I took George Verghese along with me and went to the Division Headquarters. I was ushered into the presence of Lt. Gen Bikram Singh, who was sitting on the lawns of the Alpha Mess, located near the Division Headquarters. He asked me what was I doing. I explained my assignment that I was conducting a senior correspondent of the Times of India. He snapped back: "When the former Commander in Chief of the Indian Army is here, you have no business to muck around with civilians. Get out. You will get no facility from the Division and you may walk to Srinagar or wherever you want with that civilian."
Crestfallen, I was climbing the steps back to the mess when I saw General Cariappa coming down. He said, ‘Hey Rao, what are you doing here’. I muttered that I was conducting a correspondent of the Times of India to brief him about the Army defences in Ladakh. General Cariappa said. ‘good you are here’. He patted my shoulder and introduced me to Lt. General Bikram Singh as a bright young Public Relations Officer.
Lt. General Bikram Singh nodded in acquaintance and told me to join him when the Commander-in-Chief was addressing the troops. Gone was his anger against me. Meanwhile, I arranged for an escort from the Divisional Headquarters for George Verghese. General Cariappa was from the Rajput Regiment and so was Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh. The speech of General Cariappa was heard with rapt attention. It was not in chaste Hindustani, but very motivating for the soldiers.
He told the soldiers that he had brought with him Kala Mirch-black pepper-from Coorg which will keep them warm in the high altitude and create the right mood to fight the Chinese. He went round the parade ground distributing black pepper to each row of the soldiers. He asked them about their food, general comforts, whether they received letters from home and when he met Sikhs and Punjabis, inquired whether they got mustard oil. He knew the habits of soldiers of the Indian Army.
After the function, I got myself dropped at the Signal Centre to file my report to Delhi. As I got down from the jeep, General Cariappa said he was going to visit Kargil and asked me whether I was coming. Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh said yes and told me to file a good report.
Next day, we landed in a propeller driven aircraft at a makeshift airstrip at Kargil. On arrival at Kargil, General Cariappa addressed the troops more or less on the same lines as he did in Leh and finished the stock of black pepper that he had brought from Coorg.
I remember the little flutter in the Kargil mess that morning, when he asked for a ‘tailor kit’. He wanted thread and a needle. I managed it for him. He had a couple of buttons loose in his shirt. Patiently, he mended his shirt and got it pressed and wore it. All his clothes were in a small overnight bag. He was ‘properly dressed’ in a three-piece suit, when he sat down for his breakfast or dinner. From Kargil, I travelled with General Cariappa in the non-pressurised aircraft to Jammu. It was during this tour with General Cariappa that I heard many stories about his contribution to the Army.
General Cariappa was the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Command during the Jammu and Kashmir operations. General Roy Butcher, who was then the Commander-in-Chief, had tried his best to tie General Cariappa’s hands in 1948 by not approving plans to evict Pakistani ‘raiders’ from some sensitive areas. General Cariappa, as GOC-in-C, quietly decided to clear the Pakistani raiders from Jammu – Naushera axis. He also directed the operations for recapture of Zoji la Drass and Kargil.
He was then fighting on two fronts, the Army Headquarters led by General Roy Butcher and the Pakistani Army led by General Messervy.
Only recently, British records of that period have been declassified. Not many know that General Roy Butcher was more loyal to the King of England than the Government of India. He used to send messages to the British Government through the British High Commissioner over the head of the Defence Minister. He also advised the Indian Cabinet against launching the operation against the Nizam’s forces in Hyderabad.
He is reported to have said: "As your C-in-C, I ask you not to start the operations." And he offered his resignation if his advice was not heeded. There was a general silence while a distressed and worried Jawaharlal Nehru looked around. Sardar Patel, who was the Home Minister, remarked: "You may resign, General Bucher, but the police action will start tomorrow."
An angry Bucher stormed out of the meeting. All these indicated the importance for the Indian Army to have an Indian Army Chief. General Cariappa as Commander-in-Chief turned the imperial army into a national army. He raised the Brigade of Guards and the Parachute Regiments on an all-India caste composition and directed the raising of the National Cadet Corps and the Territorial Army.
General Cariappa was keen that Army Officers, on retirement, should have a say in the affairs of the nation. He did contest the elections in Bombay, but lost. I last saw General Cariappa in 1986 when the rank of Field Marshal was conferred on him. When the order was read in the Rashtrapati Bhavan before President Zail Singh handed over the baton, considering his age, he was offered a chair to sit down, but he preferred to stand-ramrod straight.
Not many remember that Field Marshal Ayub Khan served under General Cariappa in the British Indian Army. When his son Flt. Lt. K. C. "Nanda" Cariappa (who later rose to the rank of an Air Marshal) was taken prisoner after his Hunter aircraft was shot down during the 1965 war, Field Marshal Ayub Khan contacted General Cariappa in Mercara and offered to release his son.
The reply of General Cariappa was: "He is my son no longer… He is the child of this country, a soldier fighting for his motherland like a true patriot. My many thanks for your kind gesture, but I request you to release all or release none. Give him no special treatment."
A great deal of credit goes to Field Marshal Cariappa to have made the Indian Army truly Indian. Today, the nation can take pride in the role played by the Army in guarding it against external threats and insurgency promoted by hostile elements.