Senior Sub

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My Senior Subaltern

by J. Chanda


IC 53143F Maj Navneet Vats was my senior subaltern. For the uninitiated, the word subaltern means ‘a junior officer below rank of captain’. Traditionally, in the army, a ‘senior sub’ ( as a subaltern is often called), means the person who guides you around from the moment you first step into the Battalion. Since he is generally your immediate senior and only a few months/year senior to you—he also becomes a good friend.  For me, he was my best friend and a pain in the ass, an elder brother and a bullshitter, a person who generally made your life miserable and at the same time who  smothered  you with care. Navi sir was all this and much more.


I knew him from the Indian Military Academy since he was a well known and hard core Gorkha Rifles optee thanks to the influence of his Platoon Commander there, then Captain Ashwini Cheema of 2/3 Gorkha Rifles. Captain Cheema was the epitome of an experienced soldier having served in Sri Lanka with the 9 Para Commandos. Captain Cheema knew that I was a second generation candidate for both 2/3 Gorkha Rifles and 4/3 Gorkha Rifles (my father had commanded both the units) and we, Navi sir and I were on his watch list to ensure that we do not stray off into the ‘glamorous’ Armoured Corps or the ‘safe’ Army Service Corps etc! There was no fear of that since we were both hard core infantarians. Hence we both knew that the other was joining the Regiment as well. At the Academy we used to often meet during the cross country runs and we were traditional rivals in the Inter Battalion Debate competitions.


His entry in to the Phor Thud ( Gorkha Rifle battalions spell their battalions numbers the way their men pronounce it, thus 4/3 Gorkha Rifles is called Four Third, pronounced and spelt Phor Thud) was chaotic. He had got commissioned into 2/3 Gorkha Rifles (Captain Cheema’s unit) We met after it was known that he was going to 2/3 Gorkha Rifles and I congratulated him.  On return to the Indian Military Academy from term break, I was surprised to hear from Captain Cheema complaining that the posting order had changed and he had been posted to 4/3 Gorkha Rifles. This was probably due to the efforts of Colonel RP Singh, then Commanding Officer of 4/3Gorkha Rifles. Six months later, I too joined the Phor Thud and  thus Navi sir became my senior sub.


In life, Navi sir was either loved or hated, There were no ‘in – betweens’. To the majority of his course mates and his students etc he was ‘Mr Unpopular’. To us, once we got used to tackling him- he was ‘Mr Entertainment’. The trick was not to take him too seriously and if he got too carried  away – we ganged up against him. We loved him because there was never  dull moment with him around. He was the Master of Hyperbole. As he himself put it in a rare moment of candour- he suffered from VD- verbal diarrhoea!


Officers of Phor Thud are traditionally called Broncos. Maj Navneet was the epitome of a Bronco-a  young, wild and unbroken horse. He had flamboyance coupled with an extremely sound command over the language. He was verbose and eloquent. He commanded immense respect from officers and men alike for his ability for hard work and professionalism. He attained instructor grading in the Medium Machine Gun and Automatic Grenade Launcher Course, the Commando Course (where he was subsequently posted as an instructor) and the Anti Tank Guided Missile Course.  


He complemented his intellectual capabilities with an amazing physique. He was physically extremely supple, a fall out of having spent his childhood pursuing Taekwondo. And he used to put himself through a punishing schedule of weight training. I have actually seen him go into a sulk and pump iron continuously for hours and then fall sick due to exhaustion!


He was also extremely misunderstood. His bark was far worse then his bite. He strove to attain perfection in all he sought to do. Where he could not, he would rave, rant and finally sulk. When Rahul Verma (my junior subaltern), Surya and other officers would sit down and discuss things, the topic would generally always veer around to how to tackle Navi sir. Many such discussions later we came to the consensus that he was infact, unconsciously  trying to cover up for the inadequacies of  Nimish, his younger brother; a special child. I still do not know whether this was indeed the fact or not.


When a fearless man does a brave deed, he is courageous; but true courage is when a man overcomes his own fears and does those very things he fears. Very few people were privy to the fears of Major Navneet Vats. Only we, those closest  to him, knew that he felt fear like none of us could imagine. His fears were both rational and irrational. And every time he went on an operation, he was in fact conquering his fears. His manifestation of his fears were channelised  into immense preparation and rehearsals before any operation.


He passed away, the way he lived. Fighting. He had been posted to 32 Rastriya Rifles, and was commanding his company at Khreuh, near Srinagar. On 19 November 2003, an encounter  started near the Indiranagar Telephone Exchange at Srinagar due to which the exchange gutted completely. By evening it was clear that things were going awry. The Commanding Officer of the unit , the Second-in-Command and another two officers had been injured. Maj Vats and his column was called in as reinforcements. Early next morning he commenced search of the building in which the terrorists were suspected to have been hiding . It was over in moments. The terrorist died immediately and Maj Vats succumbed to his injuries a few moments later.


Today when I see Inayat, his three year old daughter pout-the familiar scowl of my beloved Senior Sub floats before my eyes.


He lives – my Senior Sub lives…………