The Indian Army has a long tradition of excellence in sports.
Most modern sports were introduced into India by the British Indian Army and sports competitions have been an integral part of the Indian Army. Until the 1970s, in the sporting arena, the Indian Army dominated other competitors. Given the importance attached to these competitions, units started maintaining ‘gladiators’ – men who were spared the rigours of military training to focus only on sports. This inspired jealousy from ordinary soldiers and organisational criticism due to loss of training time. There was an outcry to ban sports competitions and focus only on sports per se for wellness.
There was merit in this argument, but only to a point. As a rule, units that did well on the sports field also did well in the war. However, the Indian Army, in its wisdom, decided to do away with the sports competitions up to the divisional level and introduced a system of trials in which only selected, talented sportsmen participated. Competitions were restricted to Army Command level.
As highlighted in an earlier column, my unit, 4 Sikh, maintained teams for almost all sports and nearly 10 per cent of manpower was committed to work only for glory from sports. Yours truly was a fairly good sportsmen excelling in athletics, football, basketball and swimming and made the unit team on merit; not by default, I might add. (It was mandatory for one officer to be a playing member of each team.)
This aspect has an interesting background. Until the 1950s, the standard of officers in sports was exceptionally high. The Indian Military Academy hockey team in 1940s always had two or three Olympians and a score of national level sportsmen in other games. In the 1950s, the National Defence Academy football team played the final of the Durand Cup and the hockey team regularly won the Agha Khan Gold Cup. As a result, in some games, officers dominated the unit teams. To encourage the soldiers, a rule was made that not more than five officers will participate as part of a team. Ironically, the officer standards in sports started falling and by 1970, it had to be made mandatory for minimum one officer to be a playing member.
Interestingly, the lack of interest shown by the officers not only led to thickening midriff and paunches, but also contributed to dilution of leadership qualities.
The 4 Sikh was dominating the sports scene in 93 Infantry Brigade, located at Poonch. In December 1969, news arrived that 2 Rajputana Rifles (Raj Rif), known for its sporting prowess, was joining the brigade in five months’ time. The other units were 6 Sikh, 8 J&K Militia and 3 Madras. Both 6 Sikh and 3 Madras – while not matching the all-round capabilities of 4 Sikh – specialised in boxing, basketball and football. While matching 4 Sikh in most sports, 2 Raj Rif were far better in athletics and swimming, boasting of three national level athletes and India’s water polo captain, Nb Sub Chand Ram.
A ‘Council of War’ was held in 4 Sikh and after a SWOT analysis, it was concluded that to win the Brigade Sports Banner, we had to win the athletics and swimming competitions. We had a weak swimming team, but we had five months. It was peak winter then and the swimming pool located in the erstwhile Raja of Poonch’s palace was closed. There was a mini hydel power plant near the palace, based on a small canal, which had a reservoir 30 meters square. Despite ice cold water, practice began in right earnest and in five months’ time, we had prepared a fairly good team.
In May 1970, 2 Raj Rif arrived in Poonch. Since their previous location was in Ladakh, their sportsmen had been sent to the Regimental Centre at Delhi Cantonment, which had excellent sports facilities. The swimming team arrived two days before the competition, all set to give 4 Sikh a drubbing. The pool was also filled by the same canal water that filled the reservoir and since it was snow melting season, the water was extremely cold. This factor and our diligent training in winters carried the day. We won hands down. And to add insult to the injury, we beat them in Water Polo, much to the chagrin of the great Chand Ram. After the competition, Commanding Officer 2 Raj Rif publicly vowed to avenge the defeat in athletics, which was to decide the fate of the sports banner.
The athletic stadium located in the heart of the Poonch valley is probably the most scenic in the country. It’s at an altitude of 4,000 feet on the banks of Betar Nala and is surrounded by 6,000 – 7,000 feet high mountain ridges. Five kilometres to the North West was the formidable Pritam post (named after Sher Bachha Brig Pritam Singh) of Pakistan which overlooked the Valley. Though vulnerable to observed mortar and artillery fire, the stadium was kept active for the sake of moral ascendency. Haji Pir Pass could be seen to the North on a clear day.
The competition with 2 Raj Rif was running neck to neck and it finally hinged on two events – the 110-metre high hurdles and the hop step and jump. We had the edge in high hurdles and 2 Raj Rif, in hop step and jump. Much to our surprise, the old war horse and coach of 2 Raj Rif, Subedar Bhanwar Singh, once a national level athlete, won the high hurdles by a whisker. Celebrations began in the rival camp. I was participating in the hop step and jump and as Bhanwar Singh went past me he could not resist a jibe – “Khel khatam ho gaya hai, Laftain Sahib. 2 Raj Rif apne itihas mein sirf ek baar athletics hari hai, 13 saal pahle 18 Sikh [known for the best athletics team in the Indian Army] se. Aur 4 Sikh, 18 Sikh nahin hai (Raj Rif has lost in athletics just once, 13 years ago and that too to 18 Sikh. And 4 Sikh is not 18 Sikh).”
I was aware of this as my father was Commanding 18 Sikh in 1957 and 2 Raj Rif had lost by a solitary point. The 2 Raj Rif athlete was leading in the hop step and jump when my last jump was announced. With adrenaline pumping in my blood and smarting under the taunt of Bhanwar Singh, I took off backed by the roar of 4 Sikh supporters. I put in all I had. The hop was longer than usual, but somehow I retained my balance; the step was made shorter but the jump in ‘hang’ style was perfect. All held their breath as the judges measured the jump. It was my best jump ever: 47 feet. I had won the event by three inches. We won the overall competition by a solitary point.
Bhanwar Sigh was crestfallen with tears rolling down his eyes. I comforted him with my arm around his shoulder and mentioned that when 2 Raj Rif lost athletics the last time in 1957 to 18 Sikh, my father Colonel Shamsher Singh, was the Commanding Officer and as a nine-year-old, I had taken his autograph. Bhanwar hugged me and apologised for the taunt and said, “Main toh pahle he soch raha tha ki Laftain Sahib kuch ‘hat ke’ hain (I was thinking, this officer is a little different).” Such was the stuff our sportsmen were made of. Despite the changed Army Sports Policy, 4 Sikh and 2 Raj Rif continued to produce outstanding sportsmen in the years to come.
Early in the morning on 13 June 1999, when I was the Brigadier General Staff of 12 Corps, the Duty Officer informed me that Tololing, our first success in Kargil, had been captured by a Raj Rif Battalion. Instinctively, I asked, “Was it 2 Raj Rif ?” It was! The 2 Raj Rif won many more laurels in Kargil and would emerge as one of the most decorated units of the war. The dusty playing fields of Indian Army have indeed made an immense contribution towards our success in battle.
As the Director General of Military Training in 2003, I was able to convince the Chief of Army Staff to revert back to the old sports policy. When I commanded 192 Mountain Brigade in Batalik Sector soon after the Kargil War, 2 Raj Rif served under my command. Only the Subedar Major, also an athlete, was in service in 1970.
Yes, he did remember me.