Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir – BLOWBACK: Part V of V

Preamble. LOC Kashmir will offer autobiographical short fiction in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the 740 kilometer Line of Control dividing the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir. Approximately 500,000 Indian and 300,000 Pakistani armed and battle-hardened troops face each other across their gun-sights. Both sides indulge in infiltration and aggressive patrolling. Exchanges of fire occur with regular frequency. This is where and how I spent my late teens, as a young officer in the wake of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, before having to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. I wish to see peace in beautiful Kashmir during my lifetime, even though I am not very hopeful.


Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir – BLOWBACK:  Part V of V

The Indian General Officer Commanding (GOC) had got onto the hotline with my GOC, commanding the 23rd Division of World War II fame, carrying battle honors such as Imphal and Operation Zipper, upheld in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars. Within the hour, we were on stand-down while I waited for the inevitable rocket to be fired up my backside. Nothing happened for a week — not a word from my Regimental Commanding Officer (CO). My men were proud, but worried for me. It was evident in their eyes. I braved it out until I was called to the CO’s office.
“Gill, I have to convey the GOC’s extreme displeasure.”
“Although understandable, your decision was reckless and foolhardy!”
“Sir — but I would like to express my disagreement with this judgment.”
 “I put my ass on the line to save your Commission. Now shut up and don’t offer your opinion.” He growled with a gleam in his eyes. “You are being sent to the Army School of Physical Training for an Officer’s PT Course.”
The Army School of Physical Training (ASPT) was a career-enhancing opportunity for a noncommissioned officer (NCO). After completing his contract, he could find a job as a fitness coach in a school. It was a dead end for commissioned officers. They were sent there when career-friendly courses were considered to be too challenging, or they were in disfavor with their superiors.
My men didn’t know that and thought it was a big deal.
And they were pleased as pie.
They had been gorging on buffalo meat for weeks. The company fund had swelled from the sale of the skins and I had already spent it on something they’d been hankering after. When they visited older units, they were served their meals in the troops’ langar mess on crockery embossed with the regimental crest. Our unit’s battalion fund or company funds couldn’t afford that luxury and they felt a mite deprived. Now, when my men’s guests and cousins from other units dropped by in the company langar, they would eat off spanking Pakpur crockery, shiny cutlery and drink from glittering glasses. We could have bought an embossed set but that would have sparked unhealthy inter-company rivalry and put the other unit officers on the spot. There were already a few unsavory mutterings.
Siddique, my batman orderly was worried.
“Saab, at the PT School, while the officers are training, their batmen are put on fatigue duties.”
I grunted. “I’ll think of something.”
He brightened up. He had faith in me.
Soldiers of all ranks require a movement order to go from one unit to another. I asked the head clerk for two blank copies of Siddique’s movement order.  His eyebrows went up imperceptibly but he complied. Usually it was filled out for an officer’s signature. On the office copy, his rank was sipahi, or private. On the outgoing copy, I filled in his rank as Lance Naik, or Lance Corporal. The Head Clerk’s eyes twinkled as he stamped both copies.
Gill Saab!” he sighed with heavy emphasis.
Siddique was delighted, bought himself a Lance Naik’s stripe and had his picture taken.
A hundred and ten kilometers north of Islamabad, the ASPT, Kakul, is nestled amidst the Sarban hills of Abbotabad. The officer instructors teach theory and supervise the physical training dispensed by NCOs and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) on the PT ground. It is a very tough course. Before we saw a single officer, we were made to fall in by the grim-faced senior JCO Instructor backed by his full complement of NCO instructors.
They eyed us like hungry sharks.
“I am Subedar Sharbat Khan,” the JCO roared in his Raanghardh accent. “Your Chief JCO instructor. My instructors and I have respect but no pity, no sympathy. We do not run a hospital or a Recuperative Care Center.
“We will not salute you, but come to shun. You will not salute us, but come to shun. Clear?”
“Yes Saab!” we roared back.
“You will address NCO instructors as staff and JCO instructors as Saab. They will address you as Sir or Saab.
“We know the human body better than any doctor. We know where to give you pain. We will give you pain. There are two chains over the squat toilets — one for flushing. The other one to help you stand up in the first week. If any Saab can stand up in the first week without using this chain, report it to us so we can put our belts on the CO Saab’s table!”  Putting the belt on the CO’s table is an NCO’s or JCO’s way of offering his resignation.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen in the first week, after which I decided that there was no point getting jittery over a career-dead course and started taking it easy. I took no notes in class and was laid-back on the PT ground. Siddique, as a Lance Naik, was enjoying commanding fatigue parties all day long.
Captain Zaidi bhai had a motorbike but at the end of the day just dropped off to sleep. He was generous.
So, most evenings my buddy Captain Manzar and I would borrow Zaidi bhai’s bike and putt-putt to the Abbottabad Officer’s Club to sip a few vodkas in a picturesque colonial setting —polished wood, glistening marble, trophy-hung walls, turbaned and liveried waiters. We would then toddle over to Abbottabad High Street for bespoke lamb balti and sing mahyaas all the way back to the ASPT.
My punishment for cattle rustling was a pleasant time of much sweat, tiredness, fresh mountain air, vodka and stir-fried lamb in the company of carefree professional warriors in search of excellence.
End V of V.


  1. Gill, very clever of you to save your batman Siddique from fatigue by ‘making’ him a Lance Naik. I think ASPT was located at the same place (Tobe Camp) where we were trained from Nov 1971 to July 1972. I have liked all V episodes of this story of your life as a young officer.


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