Irecently attended a unit reunion where young officers with barely six days service mingled intimately with ramrod stiff colonels with more than six decades of regimental affiliation. Amidst much bonhomie and exchange of nostalgic anecdotes the warmth of the extended yet cohesive family spirit was heartwarming. Middle aged ladies who had joined the unit as young brides affectionately hugged and paid respects to the older ladies, who had once been their CO’s wives and had welcomed them and initiated them into the fold of the close-knit unit life. I feel that for the infantry which relies so heavily on espirit -de – corps and motivation to overcome the travails it faces, the regimental system provides it the perfect foil to mould and temper the camaraderie and trust so vital in waging and winning wars.
Some researchers have gone to the extent to say that the regimental system was perhaps one of the main factors in the British victory in the Falklands. It may be recalled that the British had to travel 8000 miles across the oceans to do an opposed amphibious assault without air superiority, yet defeated the Argentinean army which is constituted on the continental (industrial) concept.
The French word regiment came into proper usage in the 16th century wherein retinues followed Knights into battle and units were named after their commanding colonels and were normally disbanded after a campaign. Based on this tradition regiments often recruited from their regions known as cantons. The oldest known regiments some of which still exist till date are; Swedish life Guards 1521 and the British Honourable Artillery Company 1537, the oldest being a regiment established in Spain in 1248. In the olden days regiments generally had a maximum of 2 to 4 battalions and recruited from the same region for added cohesion. The colonel of the regiment was the elder statesman who inspired and guided the regiment as also oversaw their training, dress, accruements and traditions. This tradition thankfully survives till today.
The Indian infantry regimental system is of course the legacy of the British who created the same, based on the now outdated notion of martial races. Fortunately the system in India evolved over time and we moved from fixed class to mixed class and finally graduated to the all India class system. The concept of Nam, Namak and Nishan truly epitomizes the very soul of the Infantry regimental system. The izzat of the paltan being foremost is drilled into the mind of each soldier and the respect and reverence granted to regimental colours is possibly second only to the tricolor. The first initiation of a person into the way of life of the army takes place at the regimental centre. Here the tough initial training and traditions of the regiment are handed down to the next generation of soldiers creating a strong and unshakeable life long bond. Twenty or more years later the same battle hardened soldier returns to his alma mater; the regimental centre, to hang up his uniform and go home. But the relationship endures much beyond, not only lasting a lifetime but often spanning many generations.
It is therefore vital that this time and war tested structure is preserved, strengthened and made relevant in the modern context. Periodically, people with limited understanding of the underlying ethos of the regimental system come up with suggestions of new regiments on regional cum caste and ethnic basis. This is unacceptable and has been rightly rejected outright by the army hierarchy. The Infantry regimental system is the bedrock of our organizational structure which has stood the acid test of many challenges in wars and peace over many decades. It symbolizes the heart, soul and perhaps the very spirit of the Indian Infantry. It is therefore our duty to nurture and cherish this unique institution for the continued well being of our gallant army!
Lt Gen Sudhir Sharma,PVSM, AVSM, YSM, VSM,(Retd) is the Chairman of MitKat Advisory Services, India’s leading premium risk consultancy. He hails from the Brigade of Guards.