I had the great honour and privilege of taking over as the Colonel of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment from the first incumbent, the illustrious and charismatic Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji, when he retired as COAS on 31 May 1988. I was then commanding the Mechanised Division.
My association with the mechanisation process goes back to the time I commanded 20 Maratha LI, which was the Battalion I was commissioned into, and to which I reverted in November 1973 after going through the 1971 War for the Liberation of Bangladesh as a rifle company commander with 1 Maratha LI (Jangi Paltan) and soon thereafter, commanding that Battalion. After two glorious innings covering a three and a half year period in command of the two battalions, I was posted as GSO-1 of 54 Infantry Division; in the days when the headquarters had only two senior staff officers, the GSO-1 and the AA&QMG to assist the GOC of the Division. As it happened, my first meeting with Gen Sundarji took place in that assignment in 1976, when he visited the station as a member of the Expert Committee headed by Gen KV Krishna Rao, with Gen ML Chibber as the other member. Besides having a session with my boss, the GOC, the Committee insisted on roping me in for a detailed discussion and debate over a couple of sessions on aspects of reorganising and re-equipping of the Indian Army, they had been mandated to examine and make recommendations on. It was indeed a fascinating experience for a young Lt Col (that I then was) to be privy to the deliberations of three outstanding senior generals of the Indian Army of that time, on the serious issue of the direction in which the Indian Army needed to move to cope with the times; particularly in terms of mechanisation. As we are now aware, the recommendations of that Expert Committee set the stage for many of the initiatives that were put in place in the late 1970s and early 1980s; including the formation of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment.
Orders for the raising of the Regiment and setting up of the Regimental Centre were issued in early 1979 when I was doing the Higher Command Course. Soon thereafter, Gen Sundarji arrived as the Commandant of the College of Combat, taking over from Gen Himmat Singh. Needless to say, besides putting the Higher Command Course through its paces during the war games and simulation exercises, Gen Sundarji often drew me and Ranjit Banerjee (who was also doing the course), into discussions pertaining to the raising of the Regiment. This was particularly so when Brig Mike Menon who was given the onerous task of setting up the Regimental Centre visited Mhow for discussions with the Colonel of the Regiment. I still vividly recall the discussions we had, and can only say that one was indeed lucky to be witness to the dedication, commitment, determination and intensity of individuals like Gen Sundarji and Mike Menon. The former of course added lustre to the experience by the professionalism, depth of knowledge and understanding of the challenges. What added pleasure to the experience was the atmosphere in which all the discussions took place: quick wit, humour, camaraderie, and mutual respect; and of course, the occasional binge. I can state without any equivocation whatsoever that the foundations of the Regiment are so strong because we had individuals like Gen Sundarji and Brig Mike Menon to steer us through the teething stages.
In January 1982 I had the unique honour and privilege of raising 88 (Independent) Mechanised Brigade Group, during which I had to oversee the conversion of the 13th and 14th Battalions from standard infantry to mechanised infantry. A task made easy by the commitment, hard work and dedication of all ranks of the two battalions with the support of the Regimental Centre and the then ‘Colonel’. It is a tribute to the efforts of both the Battalions, that I was able to put the Brigade Group successfully through its paces in a major exercise ‘DIG VIJAY’ within a year and a half of raising/conversion. In the process, 88 Mechanised Brigade Group provided the nucleus for the raising of the Mechanised Division. In a few years, I returned to command the Division, at which stage I also took over the baton from Gen Sundarji.
On 1st June 1988 the Regiment had to come to terms with the fact that the person at the ‘helm’ did not have the clout (or the charisma and competence) of his predecessor. As often happens in any organisation and most certainly so in the Indian Army, the moment an individual in total authority like the Chief of the Army Staff, relinquishes charge, and is replaced by a ‘not-so-senior-person’, all the erstwhile ‘yes men’ suddenly find their voices and their capacity for expression of divergent views. Thankfully, because of the background I had as set out in the earlier paragraphs, I was able to steer the Regiment without too much turbulence.
One of the major challenges that had to be effectively managed was of building and sustaining the ethos of the relatively new arrangement. As I constantly reminded my colleagues, our units needed to retain their basic infantry capabilities, while at the same time acquiring the capacity to match the armoured regiments in the conduct of mechanised warfare. We therefore had to be twice as good as our infantry and armoured corps counterparts. A tall order, that I must say, was largely achieved through the dedication, commitment, sustained hard work and perseverance, of all ranks of the Regiment. It was indeed immensely satisfying to see the outstanding efforts put in by the Regimental Centre and all the battalions to achieve the high standards of performance we had set for ourselves. Needless to say, in the process, we had to deal with the envy, and consequent pin-pricks generated, by some sections in the infantry and the armoured corps; a situation, I dare say, probably continues even today, almost four decades on. That we were able to deal with the situation and persist in our efforts, speaks volumes for the maturity and composure of all ranks of the Regiment. An even more formidable challenge that emerged was in dealing with the strident calls by a number of the then senior officers of various regiments whose battalions had been absorbed into the Mechanised Infantry Regiment; demanding a reversal of the decision on the formation of the Regiment, and reversion of battalions to the rolls of their earlier regiments. I had no hesitation in ‘digging in my heels’ and not accepting any reversion of status.
A third major challenge arose towards the closing stages of my tenure as the Colonel of the Regiment. I was informed by the Military Secretary that the induction of ‘high grade’ officers into the Mechanised Infantry Regiment from other regiments when Gen Sundarji was the Chief, had led to a situation of ‘unmanageable plenty’ in the 10 to 12 year service group within the Regiment, that would have led to stagnation and block the promotion prospects of otherwise deserving officers when they come up for promotion to Colonel. The only remedy that the Military Secretary could offer was to transfer a few of the ‘high grade’ officers to some of the infantry regiments that had a deficiency in that category. After some deliberation, I decided that rather than burden my successor at the commencement of his tenure with the onus for what would always be an unpleasant decision, it would be better that I take it and face the ‘flak’ that was not long in coming. No other regiment would have accepted less than ‘high grade’ officers on transfer. Needless to say, the decision was received with great dismay by those who were affected, and I still recall many of them confronting me at the Regimental Centre at my farewell, accusing me of ‘disowning’ them. I would like to believe that at least some of them, in later years, would have recognised merit in the decision that was taken in the larger interests of the organisation and their own interests.