In this interview series we ask questions to people who are making a difference in our society, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.
Brigadier Manoharan Venkatraman is a veteran of the Indian Army, he is a graduate of Madras University and Indian Military Academy. He has served in areas such as Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and also in a UN military mission in Angola, Africa. He retired in 2008 after 33 years of service and shared with us his experiences in the army.
Following are his responses to our questions.
- Tell us something about yourself?
I am from a small town along the coast in Tamilnadu. My father was a very junior level state government employee with no land or other property. He retired from service when I had still 3 years of schooling left. Inspite of his fragile finances, he ensured the basic needs of the family without borrowing a penny from anyone. So we grew up without any luxury! I did my complete schooling in a Government School in the same town and those days the only medium of instruction was vernacular, Tamil. I was not among the brilliant students but I was quite ahead of many. I then joined in Commerce stream in Vivekananda College, Madras. (now known as Chennai). They recognised my humble family background and admitted me in Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home where all expenses, including fees and books, were borne by the Mission. I was also an NCC cadet from school days and my NCC officer in the College encouraged and trained me to apply for Commission in the Army. I appeared for UPSC entrance examination, was successful in the interview and joined Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun immediately on completion of my Degree course. Well, after that it was a long, exciting and satisfying career in the Army. After retirement from Army I also served in Punjab National Bank, Delhi as Chief Security Officer. Now I am finally retired and living in Hyderabad. Ramakrishna Mission and the Army have taught me to live within ones own means and face hardships with a smile. So I am a contended man.
- Why did you choose to serve in the army?
As a student of commerce, the options those days were just three. Either you did PG in commerce and took up teaching as a career, did CA or sought job in a bank. The first two took anywhere from 3 to 5 years more of studying. My family conditions demanded that I get employed the soonest after graduation. In the meanwhile, as I have said earlier, my NCC officer in the college had constantly motivated me to join Army as a Commissioned Officer. I was also very enthusiastic about joining the Forces as, besides the pride of uniform and status, the pay and privileges of an Army Officer were at that time comparable to any central civil services. Thus I took the decision during my second year of graduation and appeared in UPSC examination after a lot of preparation specially in mathematics, GK and current affairs. I was very fortunate to clear the exam and was selected after SSB interview even before I sat for my final B Com papers in April 1974. I joined the Indian Military Academy in July the same year once my exam results were promulgated. So my decision to join Army was informed by an array of factors.
- What are the qualities that Indian army instilled in you as a person?
The most important quality is self discipline. It includes many aspects such as dignified conduct, serious and sincere approach to work, moral courage, respect for time, obedience to superiors and to remain physically and mentally fit and alert – to just name a few. Army toughened us physically and mentlly to face a challenging career. It also trained us to accept hardships and discomfort as part of life and improvise where and when necessary. Above all it instilled a sense of comradiere without which forces can not accomplish their tasks. In short, Army maks a person very self confident to face any adverse situation.
- Would you like to tell our readers about some of the action that you have seen?
Our nation has not fought a conventional open war with any adversary after 1971. I joined Army in 1974 so I had no opportunity to take part in any war. However, right from my earlier days in the Army, I had been regularly posted to areas afected by insurgency or terrorism like Nagaland, Manipur and J&K. I have taken part in a number of cordon & search and pursuit operations some of which were successful. In one case our party had a chance encounter with a group of terrorists in Kashmir jungles one late afternoon and the outcome could have been adverse but for the swift action and presence of mind of the leading soldiers while the rest of our team fanned out to the flanks to engage the terrorists.
Brig. Venkatraman during his mission to Angola
- Knowing very well the risks involved, how do soldiers find courage in the line of fire; how does one motivates himself as well as others?
A soldier was asked after the Kargil conflict the same question. He said that he did it for his comrades who were also in the line of fire. It is commitment to comradirie that motivates a soldier to brave the risks of combat. To achieve this commitment, officers as leaders must demonstrate through personal example that they will lead their troops into combat from the front. Courage is not about ‘not knowing fear’ but ‘overcoming fear’ by constant training and conditioning the body and mind to respond to crisis.
- How does army fosters teamwork among its ranks?
The intial training for all ranks in the army such as physical training (PT), drill or arms and tactical training, is always conducted in groups. The PT includes team exercises and team games as well. Army also lays lot of emphasis on sports, specially team games like football, hockey, basketball etc which besides toughening the body and mind instill a sense of ‘Team Spirit’. In fact the most aggressively contested sports competitions are at the company and battalion levels which are basic modules of a combat force. Thus one learns very early the importance of performing every task as a team. Even the weakest member strives to put in his best for the sake of the honour of the team. Though individual members of a team are rewarded for better performance, the team gets due recognition as well and the team as a whole takes pride in the achievements of its individual members.
- With threats like terrorism, do we need to rethink our strategic approach in your opinion?
I am no expert in this matter, but having been involved in comating terrorism in the field, I feel we as a nation have failed to find a political solution to the flash point of J&K. We continue to remain in a denial mode and refuse to accept that we have a problem in J&K and keep blaming the adversary for all our woes. Our policy of appeasement at the expense of development of rest of the country has not yielded any positive change in the situation on ground in the last 30 years, rather it has worsened. Terrorism can not be combated by armed forces alone – Army Paramilitary and CPO forces have been operating in J&K for nearly 30 years with no end in sight. Willing support of the people is very important and I am afraid we have only been successful in alienating them. Our policy makers and administarion would do well to take a fresh look into the entire matter and find a non-military solution. The country can not allow itself to bleed eternally because of intractable policies.
- Do you think as a country and society, we do enough for our soldiers and veterans? What are the problems that concern our defense personnel most?
I would rather ask if as a country and society, are we doing enough for the people as a whole. India has one of the largest standing Armed Forces in the world and it is a force entirely comprising volunteers. There is no compulsary military service like in Singapore, one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the world today. In India, service in the Forces is just another career. Any nation honours its people and organisations with awards and rewards depending upon their contribution at the time of need and not for ever. Army, which has been raised, trained and taught to fight external aggression finds itself today engaged in a prolonged confrontation with own countrymen. Not an easy job, but our nation has still to become a rich economy to shower continuous benevolence on the Forces in particular. Besides the regular army, other Central Police Organisations (CPOs) like BSF, CRPF and ITBP are also engaged in combating terrorism. There are severe limits to what our Govt can do to take care of such a large fighting force. It takes thousands of crores annually to just keep our Forces trained and equipped even during so called peace time. Given these constraints, I feel that a soldier today is honourably paid and taken care of. Regarding problems, yes, there are many. A soldier wants to keep his or her family in the place of posting but it is not always possible given the nature of duties. Most of the soldiers being from rural areas, there are attendant social and domestic issues which can not be addressed or solved by the commanders in the field. Army has though been intensively engaged in educating the familes, mostly from rural and conservative areas, to develop appropriate skills and be self reliant. If some officers and soldiers, whether serving or retired, are only complaining about the pay and status, I think their perception is faulted.
- Youngsters these days rush to become doctors, engineers etc. why they should consider armed forces as a career option?
Present generation of youth are under tremendous pressure to become rich and famous overnight! Becoming an engineer or doctor, in their view, is the best route. One should also consider the social angle. Doctors and engineers hope to be on high demand in the marriage market. These are just illusions for which the parents are equally responsible. Fancy education, in the absence of attitude and aptitude, is no guarantee for a successful life. Career in the Armed Forces is NOT ABOUT MONEY. It is about dignity and honour. Compared to my early days, the pay package and perks of the officers and soldiers have improved considerably. One can not expect the Govt to pay the men in uniform on par with big corporates, but again what percentage of the corporate employees earn huge salaries? All things considered, I would say that a career as officer in the armed forces is among the best today.
- Your message for our readers?
I appeal to all the readers to live life to the full by being productive and useful to self as well as the country. Develop and hone your skills. A large number of ‘educated’ youth today are otherwise unemployable for want of basic knowledge and related skills in their field. Improve your attitude towards others as each one of us has his/her own share of joy and sorrow in life. Do not shy away from any opportunity just because it is disguised as hard work. A ship is safe in the harbour but that is not what ships are built for. So, leave the ‘comfort zone’ and be ready to face hardships. Easy life is actually the reward for hard work. Wealth, specially which is easily and quickly aquired, is not known for bringing long lasting happiness to mankind. Lead a healthy life and progress into the future. Please become wise before becoming old!. I wish all of you the best in your pursuits.