Infantry napkinsby Brig Ajay Raina (retd); Courtesy Tribune Chandigarh
IT was in the mid-seventies, after becoming a commissioned officer, I joined my battalion in Jammu and Kashmir. It was the post-1971 war period and both armies had some calming influence after an intense war. The leadership on both sides had a sobering effect too and it reflected in the conduct of the opposing armies. Though hostilities did occur occasionally, as there were some nasty incidents of shooting and killing but by and large peace did prevail, most of the time, on the LOC.
Keeping vigil on the LOC can become monotonous. At places, opposing posts are so close to each other that sentries are at hearing distances. To break the monotony, sentries on the vigil duty, inside well-fortified vantage points, at times even conversed with each other. I happened to be posted at one such post.
One bright day there was a flurry of activity on the Pakistani side. All of us were curious to observe that cleaning and painting of the post. Whoever we could observe was in neat uniform. The noise and the smoke from the cookhouse was more than usual. Our sentry, on vigil, could not control himself and enquired the fellow soldier on duty on the other side as to what was going on. Pat came the reply that their company commander was coming to visit. In chaste Haryanvi our soldier replied that "our company commander keeps idling here (at the post) only". Everybody, confined to the restricted area of the post, heard it and this became a battalion joke. So much for the officer-men relations and attitude of the opposing armies!
Many years down the line, in the mid-nineties, this time as an infantry battalion commander, I again got an opportunity to serve in the sector. This area is close to the one where our two soldiers were recently killed and brutalised. Those were the challenging times too with no ceasefire agreement in place, an assertive military dictatorship in Pakistan, no border-fencing, no multilayered defences well into hinterland and not-so-modern weapons and gadgetry. The media was also not so proactive in those areas then. Therefore news never filtered across of the intensity of the conflict. However, the environment was always professionally managed, without giving an inch. The Indian Army always knew how to deal and give it back, without escalating the situation, as the self-serving Pakistani army does not understand any other language.
One fine day the brigade commander came on a visit and was at a forward post by mid-day. After the customary briefing and pep talk to soldiers, it was the interaction time. The dignitary was taken to the common area, away from direct observation and fire of the enemy, for a working lunch with the troops. After lunch he was presented neatly cut and folded old newspaper pages on a platter. Slightly taken aback, he wanted to know the purpose. “Infantry napkins, sir,” was the prompt reply of the young company commander. Amused and appreciative, the commander used one and thanked the rank and file for the good work in the area. It is well established internationally that the western frontier of India is the most dangerous frontier in the world.
Soon the visitors left with a deep sense of gratitude towards men and officers guarding the LoC without any fuss or demand, under the shadow of lurking danger, where a slight mistake or error of judgement can so easily cost you life or limb. Indian Army soldiers do not complain normally but when they do, there would be something seriously amiss. You can only ignore at your peril.