THE WEEK Archives: Outdated customs of the armed forces that refused to die

To the Indian soldier, the customs have deep meanings and associations

rajputana-rifles-sanjay-ahlawat A reunion of the Rajputana Rifles in 2001. Reunion is the day on which 'old foggies' meet together with those still serving. Elaborate rituals (like puja at the regimental shrine) mix well with informal get-togethers | Sanjay Ahlawat

This story was published in THE WEEK issue dated January 28, 2001. After the removal of 'Abide with Me' from Beating Retreat, R. Prasannan wrote a column (issue dated February 13, 2022) on respecting Army sentiments, which you can read here.

To the uninitiated, it may seem an act of disloyalty—drinking a toast to the Supreme Commander sitting down. They do it in the navy because a king of England permitted it. 

To us, superstitious civvies, right foot forward is auspicious. But soldiers step off with the left foot. Left-right-left is the norm, because that is how Roman legionnaires went to war. Maroon may be considered a garish colour, too girlish for the tough image of a paratrooper, but he's possessive about the maroon cap suggested by novelist Daphne de Maurier. 

Officers of an armoured unit wear their shoulder straps back to front because more than a hundred years ago, a cavalry officer arrived thus on parade in a hurry. 

Officers of the Rajputana Rifles Regimental Centre wear a red and gold knot at the end of the lanyard. It was earned not in battle, but thanks to a particularly good dinner given to Field Marshal Sir William Slim. 

In the world of the brass hats—colonial to the core—an idiosyncrasy often spawns a custom. While many customs have tales of valour and sacrifice to back them, many others have been earned after a hearty champagne dinner or rum call. 

Every inch of their uniform—especially the bright ceremonials—has a story to tell. Observes N. Kunju, a retired subedar-major who is a 'dissident' writer on military matters: "If a British Commander-in-chief of the Indian army were to walk out of his grave to review the Indian army, he would find it just as British as he left it, perhaps more British than the British army." 

Most military brass have no qualms about it. Often it is these customs and traditions, strange to the civilian eye but solemn to the soldier, that keep the man in the uniform going in the unexciting times of peace. In war they keep him fighting at the front. The fiery regimental spirit fondly polished over decades and centuries possesses him in the face of the enemy. As veterans say. no soldier is fighting for the country. He fights for the regiment, his battalion, his company, his platoon, his section, his comrade. The honour of all these abstractions are ideogrammed on every inch of his ceremonial uniform and etched in his mind. 

There is much debate about whether the colonial practice of regimenting on ethnic (read caste) lines, perfected by Sir Frederick Roberts, in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny, is in tune with the secular values of the country. And the patriotic soldier still swears by the battle honours won against Tipu, or Holkar or the Rani of Jhansi. Till a few years ago the commandant of the Rajput Regimental Centre displayed on his car and office a blue pennant with an image of the Bailly Gate, the gateway of the Lucknow Residency captured from the 1857 'mutineers'. The image was replaced by the regimental crest. 

madras-regiment-sanjay-ahlawat Jawans of 2 Madras Regiment celebrate the 'Bada Khana' with a traditional rum peg on the 225th Raising Day | Sanjay Ahlawat

The Rajputana Rifles' crest is the Maltese Cross with an olive wreath around it and crossed yamadhars (Rajput daggers) above it. Also the crest of British rifle regiments, the Maltese cross was adopted by the mounted cavalry of the Hanoverian army because their commander was related to the then grand master of the Knights of Malta. The only post-Independence change was that the yamadhars replaced the crown. 

The Madras regiment's elephant crest was won after the Madras army's daring action under Wellesley against the Peshwa's army at Assaye—a battle he once described as tougher than Waterloo. 

The Grenadiers' badge bears the White Horse of Hanover. The Jat Regiment has refused to part with the Roman numeral IX even though it no longer occupies the ninth position in the regimental hierarchy unlike in the 1920s. The 3rd Sikh uses the 45th Rattray's Sikhs' silver bugles; the 4th prefers the old XXXVI Sikhs' devices. Kumaon bears the Russel demi-lion. 

Most colonial customs and associations continue. Except perhaps for the replacing of beefsteak and bacon with pulao and puries, little has changed. 

In the eighties one chief is said to have tried to replace the ceremonial straight sword with the Indian curved tulwar, which made its exit with the chief. 

Old British tunes like Abide With Me and the Scottish favourite Auld Lang Syne are played, as much as Saare Jehaan Se Achcha, by bands wearing leopard skins since the British army employed (not in India) similarly-clad West Indians in 1843. Ask why the colonial tunes still linger and the clipped English reply is: "Even Mahatma Gandhi thought Abide With Me is a jolly good one." 

Regimental bonding still inspires old British officers to fly across continents to attend obscure reunions. Major Ted Morrow, who served with the 2nd battalion Rajputana Rifles and its machine-gun battalion, was in Delhi in November to attend the regiment's 12th reunion. Morrow is active in the UK Raj Rif Association, and hundreds of Englishmen still write letters or exchange e-mail greetings on raising days and on anniversaries of the battle victories of Indian battalions. 

Brigadier Nandlal Kapur, 79, who retired in 1968 and settled in South Africa, attended the Rajputana Rifles reunion with the other 'old faujis' who had captured Ruweisat post in Montgomery's El Alamein victory over Rommel. "My battalion, the 4th Rajputana Rifles, was the most decorated one in World War 11," said Kapur, not hiding his pride. "This regiment brought me up. So I came to see it." 

Troopers of the 4th Horse (old Hodson's Horse) lined up in ceremonial dress outside the Cathedral Church of Redemption in Delhi on November 30 to honour 90-year-old Brigadier Bill Magan, their old regimental officer. He came with his wife Maxine, whom he had married in the cathedral 60 years ago as a captain. 

Records of the Sikh regiment mention the touching meeting between 74-year-old Lt.-Gen. Sir Reginald Savory and Lance Naik Bhola Nath of the 14th Sikhs when President Zakir Hussain gave colours to the regiment in 1968. Meeting after 52 years, the knighted general and the peasant recalled their action in Gallipoli in 1915 where both were wounded. Regimental records, however cliche-ridden, echo many such reunion stories. 

bagpipes-arvind-jain Playing bagpipes is a Scottish tradition | Arvind Jain

The last British soldier left India with the Somerset Light Infantry, but Indian army regiments had British generals as colonel-commandants for many more years. The practice of designating a general officer who had served with any of the battalions of the regiment as colonel-commandant continues. Of course, they are all Indians now. The idea is that an avuncular figure, not directly in command, would take a personal interest in the welfare of the regiment, its troops and its widows. 

So when 2 Madras had their raising day bash on December 13 (it was raised in 1776 as 15 Carnatic Infantry at Thanjavur and underwent many nomenclature changes), Lt.Gen. A.S. Rao, director-general of the National Cadet Corps, went around the tents, recalling his days with the regiment and cheering the thambis into higher 'spirits'. Present were also the father-son duo Lt.-Col. (retd) L.R. Route and Col. R.L. Route, both of whom had commanded the battalion. The elder Route says he was born to serve the battalion. "December 13 is my birthday, too." 

Though reformists allege that the colonel-commandant practice is wasteful and that the battalion commander can look after the troops' welfare, most senior officers swear by the practice. "I visit all units," said Lt.-Gen. R.S. Kadian, colonel-commandant of the Rajputana Rifles. "This is the oldest rifle regiment; its first unit was raised on January 10, 1775. I check if anything further has to be done to maintain troop motivation, morale and other things. I also recommend remedial measures, if needed." 

Civilian observers are often mystified by how the force can swear by colonial motifs. But Rajputana Riflemen are as proud of Captain Wood, who won the first Victoria Cross in the Indian Army in 1856 (battle of Bushire), as of the four Maha Vir Chakras in the 1999 Operation Vijay and of Captain Hanifuddin after whom the Turtuk sub-sector is named. "We are apolitical," said Brig. Kapur. "We had no problems in switching loyalty from the Crown to the President. We serve the supreme commander. It was the King once. Now it is the President."

In other words, little has changed except the nomenclature of the supreme commander. Naval officers continue the practice of sitting down when raising the toast to the President. While the origin of the custom is lost in history, the most popular story is of King George IV, who dined on board when he w as a regent. As the officers rose to call the toast, he said: "Gentlemen, pray be seated. Your loyalty is beyond suspicion." Another is that King William IV hit his head against the low ceiling on board and decreed sitting toasts. A third tale has its origin in the Glorious Revolution. Officers loyal to the dethroned James II used to take their pistols to the mess and sit on them to prevent them being taken away by the loyalists of Mary and William of Orange. The custom of the toast itself is said to have originated during the English civil war as a declaration of loyalty among the Cavaliers. 

Yet the officers could be rather protective about the custom of sitdown toast. When INS Tir visited Saigon in 1958, both the Vietnamese protocol officers and Indian diplomats insisted that everyone remain standing in the presence of President Diem, who was visiting the captain's cabin. But Commander Mehta maintained he would sip champagne seated. The commander had his way as Indian diplomats sweated in their shoes. 

The naval ensign retains the red cross of St. George, patron-saint of England. The navy would not part with it for "it is a symbol of the Indian Navy's association with Commonwealth navies". While ships visiting foreign ports offer a 21-gun salute to the flag of the host country, the firing is dispensed with if the host is a Commonwealth country. Firing guns in salute is said to have started during early European seafaring days as an indication that the ship is making a friendly entry and has discharged all ammunition. The origin of the hand salute also indicates that the saluting person has no weapon in hand. The naval salute, which conceals the palm, has a more practical reason—to hide the palm soiled by work on board. 

The guard of honour is meant to convey to the guest that he may dispense with his troops and inspect for his personal satisfaction the fine soldiery set up to guard him. Over the years, the services have evolved finer details—a head of state receives a 150-member guard, a Prime Minister 100 and others 50. 

dining-out-officer-vp-malik-indian-army Gen. V.P. Malik being dined out. Dining out is custom in messes when officers leave the unit or retire. After the dinner, the departing officer is lifted out in a chair | Indian Army

The air force has comparatively fewer ceremonial hang-ups. Being a 20th-century service, it is yet to acquire the 'aristocracy' of the 'colonial' army and the 'imperial' navy, but is also inventing customs. So unlike in the army and the navy, junior officers move into the dining room in the air force messes when dinner is announced, but after dinner they stay in the ante-room till the seniors and guests leave. 

The air force's fly-past is a custom that originated in World War days. Formations returning after operations used to fly past the base to enable those on the ground to count them and estimate losses. It is now part of every major national and service celebrations, the most noted being the Republic Day parade. 

The R-Day parade, much maligned now because of the traffic inconvenience it causes in Delhi, has a deeper meaning to the services than a mere show of colour. "It is the armed forces conveying to the supreme commander that they are at his beck and call as ever and in fine state to go to battle," said an army officer connected with the R-Day ceremonies. "They are also displaying their newly acquired weapons for him. Then they entertain him, with a musical extravaganza and beat retreat." 

One of the main attractions of the R-Day parade is the 61st Cavalry, the only surviving horse cavalry unit in the world. The other mounted unit, the President's Bodyguard, considers itself the most senior regiment in the Indian Army, having been raised by Warren Hastings at Varanasi in 1776. 

The Beating Retreat ceremony of the Indian armed forces is today hailed as the most magnificent display of martial music and colours in the world. As Gen. Shankar Roychoudhary observed while releasing the first military music cassette a few years ago, "not even the British army is maintaining its musical tradition as we are doing." Carrying drums and bugles to battle is a tradition that began thousands of years ago. 

There is much criticism that the Indian army uses colonial instruments like bagpipes, but military historians are quick to point out that the tradition of going to battle with bagpipes could very well have started in India. The earliest mention of it is in Cannon's Historical record of the 71st Regiment. It went to the Battle of Porto Novo in 1781 against Hyder Ali playing bagpipes. Sir Eyre Coote, greatly pleased with the battalion's fighting spirit, told a piper in the heat of battle: "Well done, my brave fellow, you shall have silver pipes when the battle is over." And he kept his word. So the 71st is the only regiment that has silver pipes in the army.

At parades, too, marching paces are not the same for all units. Foot guards march 116 paces to the minute and infantry march at 120. The rifle and light infantry regiments were raised for quick movement and proved their worth in the Peninsular War of 1808-1814. To further lighten their load they carried bugles instead of the heavier drum. Even today only rifle regiments have bugles and all of them, except the Sikh Light, carry a bugle image on their cap badge. Since they were raised for quick movement, they are never called to attention; they march on from the 'at ease' position. 

The regimental bugle call of the Raj Rifles was adopted in March 1902 and was initially that of the company of the 104th Wellesley's Rifles. The 104th Wellesley's Rifles had moved to Fort Sandeman in relief of 103rd Rifles, which had taken part in the Waziristan blockade. The meeting of the link battalions furnished an opportunity for discussing many points of mutual interest and it was decided to adopt a similar regimental bugle call. 

Rifle regiments were also originally meant for stealth and were given black buttons, badges and belts instead of shining metallic ones. Even today, they wear black, including the shoulder ranks, while others use metal pieces. Buttons are of white metal for cavalry, black for rifles and yellow metal for all others. The distinction is followed in leather accessories, like belts, as well. Rifle regiments wear black; others brown. Cavalry and rifles wear cross-belts while others have Sam Browne belts, named after Sir Samuel Browne, who lost an arm and wore a waist belt supported by a light strap from the shoulder to carry his sword. Only the 1 Gorkha Rifles wear brown leather belt and boots because in one action all their officers, except one medical officer who had brown belt and boots, were killed.

The line infantry, except for the rifle regiments, display their battle honours in their colours. The armour or tank units are considered successors to the horse and are still called cavalry. In line with their mounted tradition, armour units display their battle honours on their standards and guidons. The artillery, however, have no colours. Their guns are regarded as colours and saluted on parade. The practice of treating guns as colours started when cannons were precious possessions and had to be prevented from falling into enemy hands, much like colours. 

The 16th Light is considered the most senior cavalry (tank) regiment and it alone is permitted to carry two standards on parade. Standards were presented to it in Trichnopoly in 1788 on the orders of Sir Archibald Campbell, commander-in-chief of the Madras army, for its services in the war against Hyder Ali. They were abolished in 1869 when the Madras army withdrew standards and guidons from all cavalry units. This led to much heartburn and finally, following special sanction, the Prince of Wales presented new standards in 1922 at Rawalpindi. These standards were replaced in 1976 with new ones given by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

The navy used flags for communication. Ships do not fly flags, but 'wear' them. When a ship is decorated with flags on ceremonies, they are 'dressed'—as they are going to be at the International Fleet Review in Mumbai next month. 

The red tabs, worn on the collar by colonels and higher ranks, have their origin in the mediaeval age of knights. The tabs are officially called Gorget Patches, the gorget being piece of armour that protected the knight's throat. The practice was picked up again during the 1899-1902 war in South Africa where red tabs were introduced to distinguish senior officers from the khaki crowd. Sashes used to be worn around the waist (sometimes from the shoulder) for carrying wounded pals. Since the load had to be light and strong, silk was used and is still worn as part of ceremonial dress. While the Rifles have sashes in black the others wear crimson. 

The ceremonial head-dress for the Garhwal and Gorkha Rifles is the double felt hat. Berets are black for armour corps, olive green for most others, and maroon for airborne (parachute) regiments, the last of which has a story behind it. It is said Sir Frederick Browning, who raised the first airborne division, found troop morale down one day in North Africa. His wife, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, suggested they be given new hats of maroon. 

The colour of the parachute worn on the left pocket denotes the number of jumps one has made. Blue indicates 25 to 49; yellow 50 to 99 and red 100 and above. 

Madras Sappers wear a dupata which reminds them of their days of valour under Sir Charles Napier, the punning conqueror of Sind who sent the famous 'Peccavi' or 'I have sinned' message. Napier led 3000 men including C company of Madras Sappers in an attack against the Baluchis at Meeanee in Sind in February 1843. The British 22nd Regiment of the Foot (later Cheshire Regiment) was also present and there was much fraternisation after the victory. The British troopers gave their shakos to the Madrasis. Later they adopted the headgear and called it dupata.

Before the 1922 reorganisation, each battalion had its own cap badge. Now there is only one for a regiment. The Punjab Regiment's cap badge has a galley on it commemorating the fact that its 2 battalion was the first to serve overseas and was there at the capture of the Isle of Amboyna.

The style of wearing lanyards also differs from unit to unit. Officers of old 'Royal' regiments, corps and departments, and those permitted as a mark of appreciation by the President wear them on the right shoulder. Rajputana Rifles have a red knot with two zig-zag golden stripes, which Gen. Cariappa allowed, impressed by a dinner they gave Field Marshal Sir William Slim. Nicknames or honorific titles are adopted by units through historical associations. The 2nd battalion of Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI or Jaklight) is called Sherwani Paltan (paltan is Hindustani for battalion) after the schoolmaster and poet Maqbool Sherwani of Baramulla, who joined the force and organised volunteers against Pakistani raiders and was captured and nailed alive on a tree. 'MMG Parade' in this regiment means mandir, masjid and gurdwara which are under the same roof.

Naval ships 'crossing the line' (Equator) have unusual rituals on board. A mock court of Lord Varuna is held and the captain is tried on fantastic charges. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, sailing to Indonesia, was 'tried' for overworking and having too many phones on his desk. Finally the 'old man' (captain) is given Varuna's certificate. 

The sailors' tongue is a separate lexicon by itself. A story goes that a Society for the Study of Naval Language sent a questionnaire to Admiral Lord Nelson, who returned it with the remark, "Please forward through proper channel". The study team went to the shore of the English Channel, put the questionnaire in a bottle addressed to Nelson at Portsmouth. Two centuries later the bottled questionnaire reached the Florida beach where a Green group sued the long-defunct society for littering the sea.

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