Of Teachers, Gurus and Ustads

Kesari Singh

Thakur Kesari Singh is an alumnus of St. Xavier's School, Jaipur and a veteran of the Sikh Regiment, the most decorated regiment of the Indian Army. He holds an M.Sc. degree in Defence Studies.

The Kabir Doha “Guru gobind dou khade, kaake lagoon pay? Balihari guru, aapne gobind diyo batay.” (“Whose feet should I touch — the teacher who has taught me about God, or God himself — if both are standing in front of me?”) says it all and defines in totality the importance a teacher or a Guru holds in Hindu philosophy. The complete Bhagavad Geeta is the gist of a teacher’s preachings and a disciple’s karma.

There is no end to learning. One learns from one’s teacher or by one’s experience. A teacher is involved in your life at every stage. It could be in your upbringing, education, sports, career and so on.

When you join a military training academy as a Gentleman Cadet (GC) your instructors (teachers) for basic weapon, drill, physical and field craft training are non-commissioned officers (NCOs). These NCOs are selected from the best available in their trade in the army. As cadets we address them as ‘Ustads’. At the Officers Training School (OTS) now Officers Training Academy (OTA) at Madras (now Chennai), Havaldar Joginder Singh (JS) of The Sikh Regiment was my weapon training instructor.

Bayonet Fighting (BF) is the toughest and physically most demanding branch of weapon training. The ustad ensures that the students undergo a rigorous routine of physical activities to the extent that they are so mentally motivated that they start considering anything and everything in their surroundings as their enemy. Only then are they made to bayonet the dummy depicting an enemy soldier. The cadets are made to run, crawl, squat, haunch and so on with their complete paraphernalia. This in the common parlance of both, the teacher and the taught was known as ’ragda’ (rigour).

Joginder Singh [JS in short] always started his BF sessions with runs which left you gasping for breath. This was followed by jumping on your haunches, crawling some more running and then on to actual bayoneting the dummies. During one of these BF periods JS ordered our squad (10 Cadets) in a deafening crackle and said “Bayen dekhen, Pipal ka ped. Squad dehne se jayega aur bayen se ayega. Pehle do GC rakhoonga baki wapas jayenge. Go!”(Squad, look to your left and see a Pipal tree. Go from its left and come back from its right. I’ll keep the first two Gentlemen Cadets, rest will go back again.) This meant that either you ran fast and came in within the first two or you kept on going again and again; the last pair ultimately covering five rounds. Some keen type Kumars [smart alecs] did run fast to come in the first two while the second category tried but was always in the middle. They wanted to be in the first two but couldn’t, as others were better; and then there were the ones like me who believed that when the thing is inevitable why not enjoy it.

In one such session, I tried to pull a fast one on JS. I did go from the left of the tree but did not come back from the right and hid behind the tree instead, intending to join the squad on its third round. But I had forgotten that my ustad is an ustad . He had already seen this happening in two courses earlier and was quite conversant with such tricks. So for the second round JS chose a neem tree on the other side of the ground instead. The result was that I got some extra ragda during the period and two Extra Drills (ED) as bonus.

Now ED was a unique phenomenon in the academy. The punished attended an extra period of strenuous drill. These ED were awarded at will by all and sundry of the instructor clan. Every cadet hated ED as it was either during the resting period or when the good guys were away on liberty out passes enjoying a good movie or exploring culinary joints. Once you were awarded an ED it was like entering a pond of quick sand; you never got out of it. At the end of the ED period when you, totally exhausted, were thanking your stars that it was over, you were invariably told that one/two more ED had been awarded to you. This account of EDs with more credits and less negatives continued till one passed out of the academy. I passed out with seven EDs to my credit, most of these having been awarded by JS. After the Passing Out Parade these EDs in our credit accounts were ultimately written off by the Commandant as bad debts.

By the time I reached my last few weeks at OTS, I thought that I was very fit, happy with my professional competence and rearing to go to war. But I had a vacillating opinion of JS. I thought he was a very tough instructor and if only turn outs and bearings could get you promotions he would retire as a General. However I thought he was a heartless, pitiless ruffian devoid of all sentiments. I never saw him smiling and felt that something human was missing in him. Or was it?

Two days before our Passing Out Parade we were allotted our regiments and battalions. It was a coincidence that I was to be commissioned in 17th Battalion of The Sikh Regiment to which my Ustad, JS, also belonged.

On the penultimate day I was just leaving my living barrack to make purchases for the pipping ceremony when I saw JS waiting for me at the entrance. He was as usual smartly dressed but unusually calm and poised. He stepped forward and said ”Sat Sri Akal, sahib. 17 Sikh mein apka swagat hai.” (”Hello, sir. Welcome to the 17th Sikh.”)

He then handed over a big envelope to me. I opened the envelope and found a set of complete regimental accouterments (regimetal lanyard, belt, shoulder badges, and beret) in it. There was also a small two-page brochure containing Regimental History in brief. He further said “Yeh hamara tradition hai”. (“This is our tradition.”) I felt a sudden rush of adrenaline in my system. The first spark of esprit de corps had been kindled. Lo and behold! JS was even smiling. Was JS just a Training Robot ? No, I was wrong.

When the 1971 war was on, JS had been posted back to the battalion from OTS and was posted to my Company as MMG detachment commander. On 13th December 1971 I was to go on a raid and JS was part of my raiding team. It was to be a silent raid where firing of weapons was to be avoided till as late as possible and maximum use of bayonets was to be made. At the end of my briefing of my team I looked sternly at JS and said “Ustad (the word came out automatically) aaj apki bayonet fighting rang dikhayegi?” (“Ustad, will your bayonet show its fighting colours today?”) It was a question. JS gave a thundering reply at the top pitch of his voice “Saab, bedar! Beparwah! Bepachtawa!” (“Sir, without fear! Without concern! Without regret!”) It was the basic motto of BF.

Throughout the war, whenever I was in the enemy territory I moved around fearlessly and carefree. It was because of the confidence inculcated in me by all my teachers and gurus in general and JS (Ustad) in particular. As the saying goes “The more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war.” Thank you JS for all the ragda.

Infantry is the ultimate in any battle and the bayonet its unique symbol. It has also played a significant role in the 17th Sikh’s history. In 1953 in the jungles of Shivpuri, the 17th Sikh was asked to neutralize a man-eater tigress which had terrorized the local civilians. During a beat to flush out the man-eater, the tigress attacked Havaldar Sucha Singh of the battalion. Havaldar Sucha Singh was not shaken and he bravely bayoneted the tigress and killed it. The battalion is since then known as The Tiger Battalion.

Colonel Kesari Singh with a silver trophy showing Havaldar Sucha Singh bayoneting a man-eating tigress, a legendary act that caused the 17th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment, Indian Army to be nicknamed The Tiger Battalion.


Recently we all saw the Rio Olympics 2016 final badminton match between PV Sindhu and her opponent for the gold medal. I wonder how many of us really studied and understood the feelings of the two coaches (the teachers) — Gopichand and his Spanish counterpart — during the match. I wish I could decipher their feelings after every point won or lost! Very difficult to gauge, I reckon. This reminds me of a stanza from an old Talat Mahmood song:-

Jo taar se nikli hai dhun wo sabne suni hai.

Jo saaz pe guzri wo kisko pata hai?

(Everyone has heard the tune from the strings of a musical instrument.

But who knows what the instrument itself endured?)

To all my teachers, gurus and ustads, "Sadar pranam. Sat sri akal." ("I greet you with respect. God is the Ultimate Truth".)


From the heart for a ustad!

Gentleman Cadet training reminds me of Hollywood Movie " An Officer and Gentleman" starring Richard Gere

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