A slim, ramrod straight man in immaculate Army uniform along with a boy not yet in his teens and a sprightly little girl were perhaps the first visitors at the Gandhi Samadhi, on 15 January 1949. And paying floral homage to the Father of the Nation was the paramount act in the personal conduct of the first Indian C-in-C of the Army,
General KM Cariappa (“Kipper” to his friends and peers)! There were no ceremonial trappings or Guard of Honour even when he simply walked into the appointed high office, after dropping his children home.
The Government of India on their part had not been lacking in grace as evidenced from Sardar Patel’s letter “…your record of achievements inspire our confidence in your ability to lead your men at such a critical period of the country’s history and I can assure you that we on our part will extend to you all goodwill and cooperation in the discharge of your responsibilities…”
Now General Cariappa would in the true sense of the current “Make-in-India” idiom, be among the country’s best products! Born and schooled at Mercara village in Coorg (Karnataka) and after a brief exposure at the Presidency College Madras, he qualified for the first batch to enter the “Temporary School for Indian Cadets, at the Daly College, Indore on 01 June 1918”. Commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Indian Army on 01 December 1919 he aggregated two decades of baptism under battlefield-fire on the restive North-West Frontier, concomitantly became the first Indian to graduate from the Defence Service Staff College, Quetta and later also the Imperial Defence College, London.
As may be imagined, he had distinguished in varied command and staff assignments during WW II in Iraq, Iran and throughout the Burma campaign, closing that phase of soldiering with “Mentioned in Despatch” thrice.
When in October 1947 Pakistan ignited the J&K War, Maj Gen Cariappa was neck-deep in the Army Reorganisation Committee but in January 1948 he was promoted to command the newly created Western Command and conduct the J&K War, at a time when the fall of Ladakh seemed imminent. The very next day he was at Srinagar providing inspiring leadership to senior commanders and staff with a forceful resolve that “We will not allow General Tariq to capture Leh.
We have got to stop this and we will stop it…we have decided to take tanks up the Zoji Pass…a kind of operation which has never been done before…we will have a good shot at it,” a rare voice recording preserved in archives. The rest is history.
The full measure of General Cariappa as man and Army Chief perhaps best emerges from an hour-long conversation with P.U. Oza, a journalist who published a full-bodied text “Meet India’s New Commander-in-Chief” on 15 January 1949.
When asked what he thought of Indian soldier, General Cariappa’s instant response was “Magnificent! Second to none!…in Kashmir Southerners and Northerners alike were running up and down the snow-covered heights of 16,000- 17,000 ft, unfazed…At home, the soldier is simple, almost like a child. In the battlefield, he is a veritable tiger, inspiring awe and fear. As a victor, he is restrained, unassuming, kind to his foe, devoid of any feeling of undue arrogance towards his captive…”
To Oza’s enquiry of the desirability of soldiers having political leanings, “the C-in-C would like the public to understand that the Army must remain aloof from and be above politics…he would like to give the forces every opportunity to keep themselves informed on political affairs. But they must not go beyond as any participation in politics becomes a dangerous canker…”
Oza concludes with the nugget that “Cariappa would like the Indian Army to be the best in the world based on “highest standards of loyalty, a supreme sense of duty and selflessness in the service of the Country, subordinating all interests, personal and sectarian…”
And the boy who was with the C-in-C at the Gandhi Samadhi on 15 January 1949 is a chip off the block, a battle-hardened, distinguished fighter pilot of the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars, a veteran Air Marshal and author of a charming biography “Field Marshal KMCariappa” which provided me all the insights narrated above.
A version of this article first appeared inthe Hindu of 26 Jan 2020.