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Even Usain Bolt can’t match the speed of Army cadets’ daily duties at Indian Military Academy

In 'The Force Behind the Forces', Swapnil Pandey shows why she thinks the Indian military is the best in the world.

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As soon as Priya stepped into the Academy, her hair was chopped off for the classic crew cut, along with sixty-three other Lady Cadets and 300 Gentlemen Cadets, who joined the OTA, Chennai. The Lady Cadets were divided into two Companies, Zojila and Phillora. Do you remember the intense inter-house rivalries in the Harry Potter stories, where the houses are just not houses but the identities of the students for which they fight fiercely? The same goes for the Companies in military academies. The Companies participate in various inter-company events competitively, and maintain proper decorum and discipline to win the coveted banner at the end of the term. It is a matter of do-or-die for the Companies.

In Indian Military Academies, you stop existing as an individual; cadets aim to foster the feeling of camaraderie and better relations with their peers. The right conduct and high merit of a cadet impact the whole Company, and a lousy performance brings a series of severe punishments. In the times to come Lady Cadet (LC) Priya Semwal was going to take Zojila Company to new heights. Major Sushmita Gaur, Major Priya Semwal’s course mate, said to me, ‘Frankly, we all thought Priya would take advantage of her status as a war widow. She was offered several privileges, such as an accommodation inside the Academy to allow her to live with her daughter, relaxed training, etcetera. We all knew it had only been a few months since her husband passed away, and she was grieving. But, to our dismay, she rejected assistance, including the accommodation in the premises to live with her daughter, and requested the authorities to treat her like any other cadet. Initially, she had to struggle a lot with her communication skills and other things, but watching
her I learnt that winners never give up. She earned the prestigious appointment as a Corporal in the junior term soon.

‘You know Semwal’s best quality? She was a tremendous leader, and she kept the whole Company together. Being the Corporal she underwent punishments, sometimes even on behalf of others, but she accepted them enthusiastically. There were times when bajari was put inside her T-shirt, and she was asked to roll on the ground. She ended up bleeding profusely. But she would finish the drill spiritedly. Eventually all our seniors, Directing Staff (DS), and saab log ended up praising her, and pushed our limits citing her courage and performance. It was as if the word “no” never existed in her dictionary.’

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The OTA days were unlike anything Priya had experienced before. Everything was challenging, but she was determined to prove that she deserved to wear the uniform because she had earned it through her blood, toil, and sweat, and not because of mercy.

The days would start early—at 5.30 a.m.—and basically never end. The gruelling physical training exercises, academic studies, punishments, sports, and competitions, hardly left time even to sleep. The cadets perpetually lived in a state of sleep deprivation. Priya smiles every time she remembers her training days. When I asked her to provide me with an  anecdote from the OTA days, she laughingly shared an incident about how a Lady Cadet was once found missing during weapon training.

‘The firing range was outside the OTA,’ she said. ‘Once we reached the place, I started counting and found a Lady Cadet missing. I was the Corporal, and it was the Corporal’s duty to ensure everybody’s presence. When JCO Saab found out about it, he said I was good for nothing, and he would ensure my Company got the strictest of punishments. He also asked me to roll over the stones, while he ordered the rest of the Company to find her. They all started searching for her frantically. Then Saab received a call from MT (Military Transport) that a Lady Cadet had returned sleeping on the bus. (Cadets in military academies are so sleep-deprived, they can sleep anywhere any time). She was sent to the firing range again and, once she reached, the whole Company was made to roll on the ground. After the firing practice, when we returned to our barracks, we found our seniors waiting for us with another set of punishments which continued for several days.’ She laughed so much that tears appeared in her eyes. ‘Oh, I miss those days.’

She went on to describe how the regular days would start with ‘muster fall-in’ or early morning roll call, followed by the morning parade comprising PT and drill, after which all the cadets would rush back to their Companies, shower, change, have their breakfast, and rush again to attend their first class—all within half an hour, which was an impossible task, considering the Company location, dormitories, drill square, the mess, and the classrooms, were separated from each other by at least two or three kilometres.

‘Ma’am, that harrowing schedule taught us a lot about life, especially how time management is everything,’ said Priya.

I could see her eyes shining with pride. She mentioned how the DS would always check for military bearing and discipline. The campus was filled with figures of authority. Officers, JCOs, Ustads, or seniors, roamed the campus with prying eyes for random offences by cadets—such as over speeding while riding the bike, single mounting (not moving around on the bike with a squad), improper turnout, improper saluting, wiping sweat during the drill, and many similar offences, which would invite a series of punishments.

But that was not the end. The late hours of the night brought forth another facet of the training, where the senior Lady Cadets made sure to teach them some lessons in humility and discipline by giving them more punishments. Those punishments were given over the
slightest of mistakes. They would order the juniors to perform various rigorous egg rolls, back rolls, front rolls, side rolls, cream rolls, bajari order, brick order, murga patti, maharaja, helicopter, whiskey, star jumps, and other exercises. These fancy names involved manoeuvring the body at all possible angles while rolling on rugged ground, standing on one foot, performing a headstand, and other torturous activities that would easily be categorized as third degree if the police inflicted them. But they also made for memories of a lifetime for the cadets. After the punishment, just before dawn, they would start preparing for yet another day at the Academy. The wee hours of the morning were also the time to finish their assignments and projects.

I have heard millions of Academy stories from my husband, and many other Army officers just like Priya Semwal, and they have all made me believe that even Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, cannot match the speed at which the poor cadets perform their daily duties. No wonder our soldiers are the best in the world. The pressure tactics back at the Academies turn them into men and women of steel physically and mentally. They learn that nothing is impossible. By the end of the term, Priya, and two other Lady Cadets, were the only ones to clear ATP (All Test Pass) at their first attempt.

This excerpt from ‘The Force Behind the Forces’ by Swapnil Pandey (she tweets @swapy6) has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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