It was the summer of ’68 and the 40th Course had just joined the NDA. I was part of this very elitist group and was allotted Delta Squadron. That was when I first met Gurmeet Kanwal, a tall lanky Sardar with just a whiff of a beard appearing under his chin and a fellow first termer in Delta.
Nothing really remarkable about him as he was just like any other teenager in the NDA, except for the fact that he had a remarkable composure. And when we got to know him better, during the first term itself, all of us knew that we had an intellectual as a course mate. Our association was to last all of 52 years, till his passing away in the wee hours of the morning of 16 March 2020.
At that very young age in the NDA, despite the rigours of academy life, Gurmeet exhibited an iron will and a flair for writing and analysis. I was to learn later that he exhibited the same ability in school too. But more than his scholarly aptitude, what distinguished him, was his innate humanity, his sense of propriety and fair play, which made him a popular member of the team.
He was, to all intents and purpose, a man of integrity, who would never compromise on principles. And he carried this value system into his service career and then beyond into retirement.
Commissioned into the Gunners, he excelled as a young officer. This was the time he started writing articles for military journals and soon became well known in military circles in India and abroad, for his depth of knowledge, his professional acumen and his literary skills. The fact that he was considered one of India’s leading strategic thinkers was not the result of cursory reading, but the application of mind, over decades, into matters which concerned the military and the defence and security of the nation.
He excelled in every venture and in every assignment he undertook, but that was only to be expected. That is why he tenanted the most coveted appointments in the Indian Army. But as a Brigadier, he put in his papers on a point of principle. He was an officer and a gentleman in the finest tradition of the forces, and he called it a day when he was unfairly targeted over something which he did not do.
Post-retirement, he delved full time into his passion and along with stalwarts like Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam and Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, became well known for his brilliant analysis of strategic issues and matters concerning the Armed Forces of India.
I joined him again a few months after I had retired. He was the Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and he took me on as his Additional Director. That was my first exposure of working in a think tank and it was Gurmeet who mentored me all the way.
All that I had to do was to observe, assimilate and watch the functioning of a great mind. And it was his efforts which brought CLAWS on to the international map as a think tank of consequence. I was deeply honoured to assume the mantle of Director after he relinquished the post.
Ill health plagued him for the last decade or so, but could never put him down. Even after a stroke and a cardiac arrest and being confined to a wheelchair, he soldiered on from his bed, writing copious articles, the last one just a week before he passed away.
At his cremation on the evening of 16 March, the strategic community was there in full strength to bid farewell to one of their tallest stalwarts. Also present in large numbers were his course mates, members from the media where his son worked as also a large number of serving officers, all gathered together to pay their last respects.
His wife and children, plus many other close family members and other well-wishers were there too and while the family was totally filled with grief, they must have taken comfort from the fact that Gurmeet was so well-loved and respected by all those who knew him.
Wreaths were laid on behalf of the Army Chief, the DG Artillery and many others. I offered my humble floral tributes and saluted my friend of many years. A wave of sadness swept over me, to see the passing away of a gallant soldier. Life is so finite, the ultimate truth. But even when the funeral pyre was lit, a thought struck me. We never really die, because we live on in memories. Goodbye Gurmeet. I will miss you as will countless others. Om Shanti, Om Shanti, Om Shanti.