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Opinion | The romance of a ‘paltan’

At war, the 'izzat' of the 'paltan' is often more important than the love for country. After a soldier dies, the blood of his 'paltan' runs through the veins of his family

A still from J.P.Dutta’s ‘Paltan’, based on the 1967 India-China battle of Nathu La.
A still from J.P.Dutta’s ‘Paltan’, based on the 1967 India-China battle of Nathu La.

The story of Indian military history and the extraordinary loyalty that soldiers profess to the army is the story of its paltans (battalions or regiments) and their izzat or honour. Like Major Shaitan Singh and 120 jawans of Charlie Company of the 13 Kumaon battalion, which fought back thousands of Chinese soldiers and killed 1,300 in the battle of Rezang La in 1962.

If that battle inspired the 1964 film Haqeeqat (one of the six survivors told journalist Shekhar Gupta in an interview that he walked out halfway when he saw the film-maker had replaced the Kumaon battalion with one from Punjab), director J.P. Dutta’s Paltan, which released last week, draws from another dramatic high-altitude skirmish with China.

In 1967, Maj. Gen. Sagat Singh of 17 Mountain Division refused to vacate a post at Nathu La on the Indo-Tibetan border even after another Indian division at Jelep La to the east obeyed orders and stepped back. We won that round.

“It was thanks to Sagat Singh that we realized China is no superman and that we are not pushovers. The morale of the Indian Army went up," says Retd Maj. Gen. Randhir Sinh who wrote A Talent For War: The Military Biography Of Lt Gen Sagat Singh and describes him as the most successful war-time general post-independence India has produced. In Dutta’s film, the tall, fit army officer with a magnetic personality and light grey eyes is played by Jackie Shroff.

In Sagat Singh’s distinguished military career, the Nathu La incident came between the liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule in 1961 and the surrender of Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh war. The author and his subject fought together in Dhaka and their families stayed friends in the years after.

Paltans have inspired innumerable films, books and, of course, commemorative postage stamps. Coming up is a biopic of 13 JAK Rif’s Vikram Batra, who became a household name after the Kargil war; three separate films have been announced on the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi when 21 Sikh soldiers of what is now the fourth battalion of the Sikh Regiment fought 10,000 Afghans.

Probably the most romantic are the tales from the Gorkha battalions. Some 250,000 served in 42 battalions during World War II and received 2,734 bravery awards, according to John Parker’s The Gurkhas.

A paltan easily holds enough stories for a 162-episode television series like the one that’s now playing on Doordarshan. Paltan is actually a rerun of a 2015 show, and centres around the daily life of a mechanized infantry paltan posted near the Line of Control, producer Achint Ganguly says. The makers picked this battalion for its mixed cultural flavour; most of the army’s infantry regiments have a fixed regional/caste composition.

For those who find military terminology confusing, army formations are organized into platoons, companies, battalions/regiments and brigades, like matryoshka dolls of increasing size placed one into the other. A paltan is a battalion, a self-contained, composite unit with an area of responsibility (AOR) and a commanding officer (CO). Every paltan is fully equipped down to its own doctor and priest. From its regiment, it inherits its language, uniform, greeting, drinking songs, motto and battle cry. At war, the izzat of the paltan is often more important than the love for country.

Paltans can have their own special names, such as Nabha Akal for 14 Punjab or Kali Chindi for the 2 Rajput battalion. Retd Brigadier Narendra Kumar Gupta, who commanded the latter in the 1980s, recalls how 2 Rajput got the name. It was 1944 and Gorkha soldiers had been unable to crack the defences of the Japanese perched on a seemingly invincible hill in Burma (now Myanmar). Eventually the task was handed to 2 Rajput. The Gorkha CO was sceptical. If you capture it, I’ll give you my backing, he told the Rajputs. Backing or chindi refers to the cloth backing under the shoulder titles an officer wears on his uniform. When 2 Rajput captured the hill, the Gorkha officer took off the black backing and handed it over. While the rest of the Rajput Regiment wears a blue backing, this battalion has a kali chindi.

“Right from the time a young recruit joins the battalion and his CO pins on his stripes to the time he dies and his last rites are performed by the Subedar Major, a paltan is a soldier’s real home, a place where he spends 10 months of the year, living in barracks with little or no privacy," says Retd Capt. Raghu Raman.

A battalion never forgets its soldiers. A few years ago, veterans from the elite 1 Para parachuted to celebrate the 250th Raising Day (the anniversary of its formation) of their unit. “The paltan is a very romantic vision of camaraderie," says Retd Col. Manoj Keshwar of 102 Engineering Regiment. Members of his unit call themselves Victorians because its history includes the only Indian commision officer to get a Victoria Cross. “We reach out to every living person who has ever served in the unit on Raising Day. We bring together all the veterans and relive their stories."

After a soldier dies, the blood of his paltan runs through the veins of his family. Nearly two decades after the Kargil War killed his father, a son joins the same battalion. A sister who lost her brother in battle several years ago, sends rakhis to his entire battalion.

The ties can stretch across countries too. Last year, brothers James, David and Hugh came from Scotland to celebrate their family history. Their father Peter Hugh Rattray was the last British commander of 3 Sikh, then known as 45 Rattray’s Sikhs regiment. Three Rattrays served in this regiment.

Battalions build memorials for their fallen soldiers, ensure their families are financially secure and often sponsor the education of their children. “My paltan is my life and death," says Gupta. “You identify your whole being with your battalion. I retired in 1985 but I know that if I ever need anything, the whole paltan will come here to stand by me. In which other organization today do you find this kind of response to a retired person?"

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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