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Better DEAD than DISABLED

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ISBN: 81-88888-08-7

Review by L N Subramanian

Last month Jagan Pillarisetti rang me up to mention he was contacted by Colonel Anil Kaul, VrC about his new book. Colonel Kaul's name certainly rang many bells. I was familiar with it for over a decade and a half, if not more. Back in the first few days of the IPKF operations, the then-Major Kaul had led his T-72 squadron to retrieve the trapped men of 10 Para Cdo and 13th Sikh LI in the Jaffna University area. Colonel Kaul had retired from the Indian Army and had written a book on his subsequent experiences in the Army, dealing with the aftermath of his injury & rehabilitation. The book is titled Better Dead than Disabled by Parity Paperbacks, New Delhi. It is a compact 131 page book and is reasonably priced at Rs 250.

"It was exactly 5.55 pm on 12 Oct 87 on a steamy evening in a place called Kokkuvil in Jaffna district of northern Sri lanka. As I was in the process of coming out of my T-72 tank, I froze. An LTTE militant stood 60 metres away, aiming his rocket propelled gun at my tank. In a flash he had fired, but probably having lost his nerve, aimed too low. The projectile hit the left mudguard of the tank, but for some inexplicable reason did not explode. It then hit the side of the main gun and exploded on top of the turret, all in a fraction of a second. I felt I had a received a straight punch, so to say, on the chin.

I saw some blood on my left hand, but in a blur, as my vision seemed to be impaired. I slid back into the cuppola and had to ask my gunner where the gun was aimed. He said it was on the street corner just ahead of the spot where I had seen the militant emerge. I ordered him to fire the main armament, a 125 mm shell at 60 metres. This can cause considerable havoc and it did."

Thus begins the first chapter, which delves into the vicious battles as the IPKF found itself in dirty, urban unconventional warfare. There are many excellent descriptions of the combat routine, suddenly violent - men dying on both sides. Colonel Kaul gives a fantastic boot level view of the fighting. I would be hard pressed to think of another book which gives this sort of first hand account. If only fate had provided him a longer stay in Sri Lanka then we would have had more details of combat operations that many in the Indian Army want to forget.

The subsequent chapters deal with the injury, recuperation and rehabilitation process. Colonel Kaul lost most of his left hand and his right eye. He had to endure multiple grafts. The process was long and agonizing and left his arm is prone to frequent infections and problems in adverse conditions. The reader also gets an insight into the naiveté of the many well wishers who would visit the wounded soldiers of the IPKF operations. Gifts like transistors that did not work, vests and underwear picked up from street vendors and the most puzzling - 2 oranges from Mrs Pant, wife of the Defence Minister. A couple of groups gave useful gifts with little fanfare (writing material and toiletries).

Once he was past this, Colonel Kaul returned to active duty. A brief piece of good news was the awarding of the Vir Chakra. If he was thinking that the hard part was over he was to be strongly mistaken. A callous surgical specialist at the Jammu military hospital remarked that the work on his arm was a waste of effort and it should have been amputated! Then he was initially posted to Southern Command HQ. A Major General (one who had never been in combat) decided that the injury would have affected his brain. He was shunted to a Sub HQ to allow a favored officer to be posted in his place. This type of reaction was to be repeated by many. Unfavourable ACRs followed at every stage. Generals treated him with disdain and Army bureaucrats (both Generals and junior officers) continued to make him run pillar to post for his dues.

The reading is sometimes painful. While the stories are not unique as such (at least in India) one did not expect this in the Indian Army. The reader is left wondering the callous and inhuman behavior of some men in senior positions. What is it that brings such uncaring people in the higher ranks and in positions of power? Is this petty nature unique to us Indians? Regional chauvinism, religious cliques are all added to the mix. Again, all expected and seen widely in India - but one always hoped and prayed that it will be less in the armed forces. One hopes that this is a small percentage.

On a personal note, as co author with Jagan Pillarisetti of our IPKF section, the details of the injury and rehab process brought up once again the harsh realities of battle. Based on the existing info, we had written up Colonel Kaul's injury as 'losing an eye and some fingers.'Now I realize how much extensive his injuries were and all the more commendable his remaining tenure in the Army. This book is a recommended read. For those who are joining the army, they will get a realistic look at what to expect. For many of us, it's a sobering reminder that we have to constantly critique our institutions. There is an urgent need to de-link the welfare of our veterans from the armed forces. A separate department under a different Ministry (eg. Ministry of Human Resources) would be one option, rather than let the Army or MOD handle the post-rehabilitation process. As for Colonel Kaul, he was an example of a good officer put out on the pasture. Many considered him "General" material. Unfortunately he had a kind heart.

In an exclusive interview with Bharat Rakshak, Colonel Anil Kaul (Retd) agreed to share his thoughts on the book as well as some of his experiences in the Army.


Q. How and when did the idea of this book come about?
A. It was a case of 'The last straw that broke the camels back.' While serving in Operation Parakaram and having been told that the end of the road to my further elevation in rank had arrived, I asked for a last leg posting (LLP) to Delhi in any capacity to enable me to rehabilitate myself. This was turned down and I requested to be retired prematurely. This was perhaps the reason that prompted me to put pen to paper.

Q. Who guided you? Who encouraged you? Did people understand your need to write this? Did you feel conflicted?
A. Nobody guided me. However encouragement was all encompassing from my seniors, peers and subordinates alike. My wife is a very strong person and her advice has always been 'Never Give up without a fight'. These aspects spurred me on.I did not feel conflicted as I come from three generations of being meted unfair professional treatment despite brilliance in all possible facets of service life coupled with total dedication to the 'PROFESSION OF ARMS' not 'CAREER' or as 'CARRIER' as is popularly known today. It was time someone spoke up.

Q. How did the search for the publisher go? Did they understand your motivations for the book? Did they think it would be a good read?
A. I ran into an editor during the launch of another book 'PARAMVIR' by Major General Ian Cardozo (Retd), another war wounded like me. She [editor] evinced interest, took the manuscript, found it readable as you say and three months down the line returned it without an explanation. I then drew upon my friend and course-mate, Colonel Anil Bhat, VSM an Ex-PRO Army, who put me on to Ms Manjula Lal who is the editor and publisher of the book. The rest is history as one would say. .

Q. Yours is the first book ever written by an IPKF veteran. There are only two or three publications that came out on the IPKF and all of them were by the Generals of that time. (Generals Sardeshpande, Depinder Singh, etc). Why is there such a dearth of information? Do you think that IPKF veterans don't like to talkabout that era? Either way, what could be the reason?
A. The IPKF Operations to my mind and in my opinion were a mix of confused political aims, misplaced military ambitions, unprepared and disorganized lower level tactics, centralized control of sub unit level operations by the MO [Military Operations] Directorate, lack of integration of the southern states in the national objectives which lead to a recipe for disaster. Though studies have been carried out, including one at the Army War College of which I was a member, it is best seen as 'something we rather not talk about' as was the case with the 1962 Indo-China War. Records of which are still not available to the public 42 years later.

Q. Will we see more and more veterans write about the Sri Lankan experiences? Will other people follow in your path?
A. I sincerely hope so.

Q. How did the Army receive the book? Has anyone from the army give you feedback?
A. Individuals have responded quite favorably, most in amazement. There are others who have said we rather not comment. Some of the comments I have forwarded to you.

***READER REVIEWS ARE AT END OF THE ARTICLE***

Q. Do you have plans for further literary efforts related to the Army?
A. Yes I want to write on two topics one with regard to the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits and the other on the requirement of structured rehabilitation of ex-servicemen. Besides I am writing comics like the COMMANDO of our young days, but based on Indian war stories. The pilot should be ready by end of April 2006. Inshallah (God Willing).

Q. Ultimately what message did you want to convey to the reader? If someone comes up to you today and asks if they should join the army, what would your reply be?
A. The message I want to convey is aptly summed up in the following poem read out by my wife at the launch ceremony:-

The Bridge Builder
An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and grey,
To a chasm, vast and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fears for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again must pass this way;
You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you the bridge at the even tide?"

The builder lifted his old grey head;
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
There followeth after me today
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building the bridges for him."

- Will Allen Dromgoole

Anil has always had the interest of his fellows in mind. This book has been written by him not for self-glorification, but to try and make the life of others who may emulate his example slightly better than his own. May they not have to go through humiliation the way he had to. - Rekha Kaul

Q. How and when did you join the Army? What were your motivations?
A. As brought out in the book, I am a third generation army officer. The author's note answers your question quite explicitly.

Q. Group Captain A G Bewoor in an article on the IL-76s for Vayu Aerospace Review Magazine, mentions an incident relating to your unit's movement to Sri Lanka. Once the T-72 was loaded, there was no place for your jeep which you were to use for reconnaissance. Do you recollect that conversation?
A. Very much so! I was a bit agitated, as another pilot had carried a jeep strapped behind the T-72, but he did not agree. I let it pass. Anyway, out there a tank was a lot safer than the jeep.

Q. What do you feel about of the IPKF operations? There is a view that the Army was soft with the years of peace and shaken out of its stupor by the ops, is that correct?
A. My opinion on the subject is the same as the reply I gave to the PM, the-late Rajiv Gandhi. Quote, "It was a complete B---- Up" Unquote.

Q. What do you think of the T-72 and BMPs (mech infantry) in the IPKF? Were they employed correctly? Were they too few, or should there have been more of them?
A. No, they were incorrectly employed. One tank regiment ,two BMP battalions and one Recce battalion was all we had in the entire North and East Sri-Lanka. The basics of mechanized warfare were not adhered to. We depended on the infantry, rather than mechanized warfare or heli-borne operations. We committed the same mistakes again & again, incurring casualties every day for three years as human lives in this country have no value.

Q. Was an detailed study undertaken by the Army on the Jaffna Ops? Do you think these have been imbibed or forgotten by now?
A. Lots of studies were undertaken but unfortunately we do not learn our lessons and each new situation is handled a la crisis management, playing each one by the ear.

Q. Having also served in Op Rakshak, do you see benefits of the IPKF lessons in J&K?
A. It is different type of warfare. You cannot compare the LTTE with militants. One is an organized structured body, the other is a bunch of renegades. The terrain is totally different and the logistics quite apart. The only commonality is minor individual and sub-unit tactics, where we still are faltering.

Q. If India were to intervene again in Sri Lanka, what would be your view? How should we go about it?
A. It should be a no-holds barred effort, using the three services in unison, to ensure that the military aim of destroying the LTTE in totality is achieved and in pursuance of a national aim to bring peace and prosperity in the neighborhood. It would involve the political spectrum, civil services, intelligence community and the fourth estate also to take it in the same manner as an Indo-Pak conflict, current CBMs notwithstanding.

Q. Has the army seriously looked into the issues like psychological effects on the injured, stress on the families, etc?
A. I am told some studies are conducted but they remain only on paper. Otherwise you would not have a series of selection-gradeBootlegging Generals, Booze Brigadiers, Ketchup Colonels, Berserk JCOs/Jawanswho shoot their officers and colleagues, wound ex-servicemen manning STD booths orpeople like me writing books to get our message across.

Q. What would you do to better handle issues relating to veterans?
A. Please see my chapter on recommendations in the Epilogue.

Q. Lastly, an off the topic question - which may be of interest to our website visitors - as an armoured corps officer, were you ever involved with the Arjun MBT? If so what is your view on it?
A. In fact after the Sri-Lanka episode, I was called by the Project Director of the Arjun MBT to give my views on the Arjun vis-a-vis the T-72. The Arjun is a fine piece of engineering. Unfortunately it has got stuck between the proponents of the Eastern equipment vs Western equipment in the Army itself. Its failure to appear as front line equipment can be narrowed down to who is in the decision making chair. One who has grown up with the PT-76/T-54/T-55 background or one who has cut his teeth with the AMX-13/Centurion/Vijayanta mix. At the end of the day, the taxpayer is down by thousands of crores while the DRDO carries on constructing five star facilities for itself from the funds meant for such projects. See the new DRDO office near South Block and compare it with its poor cousin, Sena Bhavan, or its below-poverty-line hutments housing EME personnel. They are the ones who initially designed the Arjun MBT as an uprated version and successor to the Vijayanta MBT.

"Better Dead than Disabled" is available through leading bookstores in India now.

Reader Reviews
It's a straight-from-the-heart soldier's account of the triumphs and tribulations of fighting a war without a clear aim, getting shot up and disabled and then (successfully) fighting the physical and mental demons within and the bureaucratic red-tape without. It is a story of immense courage simply and honestly told –no grand flourishes, no ego trips, no I-told-you-so, no breast-beating for the cruel blow dealt by destiny.

On another plane, the book takes us on a journey with our memories –life in our cabins in NDA, cultural activities that most of us hated, memories of 'div-os' and 'squadis', the Young Officers' courses, frequent sojourns to Mhow for training, annual medical examinations, inevitable separations from families and loved ones, regimental affiliations, loyalties and intrigues, and a host of other experiences that all of us have been through just like Anil has. In as much as that, it is the story of our lives as much as Anil's.

My recommendation: buy it, read it, enjoy it – and, marvel at the courage and adaptability and dogged determination of a course mate we know so little about. Through this book, we'll learn a lot more about Anil and his saga and, perhaps, something more about ourselves.

Well done, Anil! You have made all of us proud. Cheers and God Bless!

- Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd)
Centre for Strategic Studies, New Delhi

The book throws up three questions, firstly whether the author has been a part of a deliberate vilification plan by the establishment for reasons best known to them? Secondly is this the way we treat our war veterans who lack official patronage? And finally, is he stating the obvious? Whatever be the reasons the book is crying out for answers to these questions.

- Lt Gen Vijay Madan, PVSM, VSM (Retd)

Colonel Anil Kaul, VrC is an experienced, decorated soldier who has won his decoration in 1987 in the IPKF operation in Sri Lanka where he lost his right eye and half of his left hand and became disabled.He has very honestly and vividly narrated his sufferings at the hands of his seniors, though wounded and disabled, whereas he should have won their admiration, and also how he had to fight to continue to serve with dignity and prove himself again and again and yet again. But this is the present day practice in the finest institution of the country, the army today, probably due to professional jealousy of the senior officers for obvious reasons. This book I'm sure, will act as a torch for the present day senior army officers in guiding them towards better behaviour with their young junior officers in the interest of their morale.

- Lieutenant Colonel J.L. Atal(Retd)

Anil has brought out the complexities of adjustments and consequent multifarious trauma that a wounded soldier goes through and that too in a war which at best could have been avoided. 'Rookies', 'Arm Chair' and 'Sand Model' soldiers are blind to such sensibilities, as for them the 'Billiard Top' is the battlefield! It is people like Anil Kaul who become a visible front for the armed forces. Anil Kaul was a winner in Sri Lanka and at home but the crying question raised by the book is - What has been the contribution of the organization in the whole episode?

- Major General Tripat Singh, SM, VSM (Retd)
Former Deputy C-in-C, Strategic Forces Command

Last Updated on Sunday, 17 May 2009 19:54  

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