(This is a story of leadership told by *Subedar Major Darbara Singh* to NDA cadets in the mid eighties:)
NDA Cadets from the early to mid eighties will remember the imposing frame of SM Darbara Singh. During the rehearsal for the Passing out Parade in 1985, the cadets were in a particularly rebellious mood. The noise did not die down even when the Nishan was brought into the QM fort, and this was a serious matter indeed, for the Nishan is held in high esteem by the cadet community.
The insult to the Nishan did not go down well with Subedar Major Darbara Singh. With his measured steps he stepped up to the podium and with a voice heavy with anger and gruff with emotions, he asked the cadets to lend him their ears.
Subedar Major Darbara Singh “Cadets, I have served in the Indian Army for 23 years. I have seen the 1962 operations, the 1965 and 1971 wars as a combatant. The Nishan that you have not acknowledged today, stands for me and countless others who have taken up the profession of arms and given their youth and lives for the honour of being given an opportunity to salute the Nishan, as the symbol of the supreme sacrifice made by our martyrs.
I will tell you a story that might indicate to you the feelings that we soldiers have for the Nishan. The SM drew a deep breath and continued, In this very academy we have a hut of remembrance, where the names of all the former alumni of this institution who have fallen in action are inscribed on the wall, I have been in this academy for the past three years and I have been able to enter that hut only once.
Because written on the wall is one name, Lt Palta of the 9th Battalion the Sikh regiment.
During the 1962 China War, my Paltan was posted in the Tawang sector. I was deployed right on the border, and my section commander was the same Lt Palta whose name is there on the wall in the hut of remembrance.
On the fateful day of 15 Nov 1962, the Chinese attacked our post and we were told to fight back to the last man, last bullet. Lt Palta was personally leading the fight back. It was a harrowing time, we were outnumbered, out gunned and desperately short of ammunition.
Yet we soldiered on , because Lt Palta did not know any other way.
Sometime during the night. Lt Palta was hit in the face by a mortar, the explosion severed his head from his body and the headless body was thrown on me. The enemy overran the post as soon as the officer was dead and I, 17 years old with 11 months of service, fighting a bloody skirmish with the enemy and out of ammunition, was hiding under the dead body of my section commander.
The blood from Lt Palta’s body soaked my beard and chest and the enemy, thinking that I was dead, did not bother to even take me as a POW. Through the night I lay there, in the tattered remains of my post, freezing in the Himalayan cold.
All my comrades dead, and the dead body of that heroic officer shielding me. It took me three days to wash off the blood from my face, but in my mind, the blood of Lt Palta is still there, warm and caking slowly.
I will carry this blood to my funeral pyre.” The SM’s voice became gruffer with verbalized emotion, “When I entered the hut of remembrance the first time, I saw Lt Palta’s name and picture on the wall.
In an instance I was transported back in time to 1962 and felt his cold stiff body on top of mine and his blood congealing on my face. Till date I haven’t been able to enter the hut again.
” Cadets, its for officers like these that the academy has been given the Nishan. It has been won by the blood of ex NDAofficers and it stands for all that is good and pure in these kalyugi times; I will not permit you to insult the Nishan and Lt Palta as long as I have breath.”
So saying the SM stepped off the dais and strode out of the QM fort in fragile silence. The silence of the QM fort was shattered only by the echoing word of of command of the parade commander some eight minutes later, ordering the passing out parade to coil its sinuous way out of the QM fort in to the drill square.
The Nishan is nothing but a piece of cloth for those who see it as such, but for Subedar Major Darbara Singh of the Ninth Battalion of the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army, and countless others like him, it stood for Lt Palta and a cold winter night when a young Lieutenant died trying to protect and lead his men in to battle and to supreme honour.
It stood for a quintessential Indian army officer, who, even when dead, continued to shield a young frightened soldier who was out of ammunition and at the end of his wits.
A breed of officers who gave these grizzled old men the self-esteem and sense of izzat, of belonging to a family, of mattering, of esprit-de-corps, and in the end, a way of life. And that, in my opinion is true leadership.
Edit: The original article by Sandeep Chowdhary was published in Infantry Journal, 2013