Many, many years ago, while still in service, I achieved a lifelong ambition to be elected Colonel of the Regiment, now 226 years old. I happened to be visiting the 16th Battalion, which was then commanded by burly Dharam Pal Thapar whose daughter is one of the first women to be commissioned into the Army. I chanced upon her during a visit to Jangi Paltan where she was doing her attachment. The 16th under the redoubtable Bal Moghe had earlier served under me in the Dagger Division. Its HQ was in Naugam and it was responsible for Tutmari Gali, the entrance to the Lipa Valley. The location of the ‘Solveen’ (the 16th) during this visit was in Khasa on the Amritsar – Lahore GT Road of Kipling fame. Every evening, sensitive noses are assailed by the malodorous ‘scent’ of molasses which seems to have c o n t i n u e d unabated from the days when I was BM 123 Brigade of a border brigade in Amritsar. 1951 is aeons ago!
After a rather energetic basketball game, no holds barred, we were served piping hot pakoras and tea. What caught my eye was the crockery – white ceramic pottery with the regimental crest and the title of the battalion in light infantry green. Enquiries revealed that it had been ordered in Kerala. By whom, I wondered, as one heard only of Bengal Pottery. A slim young officer was produced before me. He had earlier played basketball with me, no holds barred. He appeared to be rather shy but by no means awed to be called up before the Colonel of the Regiment. He was 2 Lt NJ Nair. He kept wondering what crime he had committed but his fears were set to rest. He was the one responsible for ordering this crockery all the way from Kerala, his home state. I promptly ordered a tea service putting the fear of God into this strip of a YO warning him what would happen if the set did not materialise. He faced me unflinchingly and said that it would. And it did fetch up. I was very impressed with this young man, a product of the NDA and IMA and predicted in my mind a bright future for him in the regiment and the army.
NJ matured well, totally dedicated to soldiering in all its manifold facets, command, staff and instructional. He proved to be an exemplary infantry and r e g i m e n t a l officer. I recall meeting him at the Staff College after I had retired. I had gone to Wellington to deliver a talk on the environment. There were many other Maratha LI officers doing the course but only one NJ who was up at the hour of 4 a.m., to see his ex Colonel of the Regiment off by car to Coimbatore!! And he was correctly suited and booted. Later, on reverting to the battalion, he did a stint with IMTRAT, Bhutan. I recall receiving an invitation to do a trip there so that I could enjoy nature at its best. When he reverted to his beloved ‘Solveen’, he earned a well deserved Kirti Chakra for relentlessly stalking a hard core hostile in riverine terrain for 15 days. He got his man but, in the bargain, was seriously wounded in the encounter. He eventually achieved his life time ambition of commanding the ‘Solveen’. His letter to me on achieving this ambition tells of the depth of his emotions. The battalion was then deployed in the eastern sector on counter insurgency operations. He and his boys were constantly on the go. The last letter written to me in November 1993 was ominous in content. It said: “Sir, let me reassure you what I shall always lead from the front and never let you down (he meant the Regiment)”.
A month later came the tragic news that he was killed in a well set ambush, not taking cover behind the vehicle he and his men were travelling in. He was up front directing fire on the heavy machine gun used with such devastating effect, trying desperately hard to save his men. He paid the ultimate price, his life. He ensured this gun was silenced. But at what cost?
Many will recall the Republic Day parade, 1994 when his young widow climbed the stairs to receive from the President of India the highest decoration for supreme valour outside a battlefield, the coveted Ashoka Chakra. What a proud moment it must have been for his five year old son, Shivaji, to see his father’s supreme gallantry recognised by the whole nation. That he will follow his father’s footsteps there can be little doubt. But to me, an old soldier of the Regiment, his memory can never fade. I have with me till today three crested Kerala pottery quarter plates, used daily, the remnants of the set procured for me in Khasa by NJ!
The author was the former Colonel of the Regiment, GOC of a division and a national hockey team selector