Junior Leaders' Commando Training Camp

© Rediff.Com - 24 January 1998 By Chindu Sreedharan and Jewella C. Miranda

Out here life is tough. Plenty tough. You are here for just 42 days -- but man, those 42 days are sheer torture. Pure agony.

First they will take you apart. Bit by bit. They will kill your spirit. Crush it to death. They will stretch your endurance. On the rack. Make you realise you aren't half the soldier you thought you were. That you are weak. And can't take 40 kilometres with an 18.5 kg backpack in your stride. That you are scared. And would think thrice before freefalling 16.5 metres.

That you are almost as bad as a civilian, dammit!

Then they will start piecing you together. Give you endurance. Make you earn it. The hard way. Inject confidence into you. Teach you to kill efficiently. With a flick of your wrist. Teach you to master your fear. To push it away and function as if it didn't exist. Make you realise the power of the mind over body. That you are as brave as you believe you are. That you can take punishment without flinching. Can work under pressure without crumbling.

Here at the Indian Army's Junior Leaders' Commando Training Camp in Belgaum, arguably one of the finest in the world, they turn Boys into Men.

Eighteen kilos of sand weigh a ton when you have to do push-ups with it to some sadistic instructor's tune. It crushes you. It rapes your back into an ungainly curve. It makes your shoulder muscles creak.

But hell, what does it all matter to him, that guy there in the front with the captain's ribbons?

"Come on, you bloody idiots," he was screaming again, "When I say 'UP' you better get your bottoms up fast...UP!"

Shit, the guy was inhuman. He wanted more. And all because you were a few minutes late for fall-in. Didn't he know you have been up since 5:30 in the morning -- that was 14 bloody hours ago -- going through all kinds of training which this buggery course (what else was it but that?) involved? He did for sure. After all, he had gone through it himself, hadn't he?

"Hey, You there, little fellow," that shout again, "Get up...come here."

The little fellow got to his feet and moved towards the instructor. He was going to be chewed up raw while his colleagues held their painful position. That was how the game went.

"Can't do?" the instructor, this thin man of a captain with his thin moustache, this baby-face who was reputed to be the biggest bugger among them all - he wanted to know.

"Can't do it?" he repeated as the commando stood at attention and stared straight into infinity, "You like your bed? You like your food? No? Well, neither do I. Want to go back? Want to go back home? No? Then get down here and do it. Commandos, you will do more push-ups in this bloody idiot's honour...DOWN."

Sadist. He must have got it bad when he did the course. Must be getting his own back now.

"Hey, you bloody loiterers," the instructor's rage had turned to another bunch of latecomers, "What's the time? What's the time? Don't know? Can't tell? Get down with these idiots. Now!"

The man is a sadist. No doubt. Look at the way he is standing there with his head thrown back and all...you would think he owned the whole world.

"Up," that bugging order again, "Down!"

God, was he ever going to stop? This was just too much after a full day of -- what all did they do today? -- rock climbing, unarmed combat, slithering...or was that all yesterday? That was another thing about the place. Your days all got jumbled together, hardly punctuated by those three hours of sleep you were allowed...

...Up. Down. Up...

...you didn't even know what day today was. Or what you did yesterday unless you thought real hard. But who had the time to think? Here all you did was do. Thinking was a luxury which the training didn't offer...

Up. Down. Up...

The paplu -- yeah, that's what they called the backpack -- was growing heavier by the moment. Will he ever stop? And to think you had nearly two hours of night battle obstacle training after this...

"Get up all of You!"

Finally. If only the stupid gear would stop weighing so much. And the damned battle dress not cling on so wet.

"Don't bloody walk like idiots. You are not dead," that cursed shout again, "Fall in. Pair up in threes. Fast!"

That gave you a breather. Of about three or four minutes. You had to pick up your rifle, find your buddies and stand at attention waiting for the next round of torture.

"Posted 52, on parade 50, one RTU, one MH, ready for parade, Sir," the group leader was reporting the parade strength: of the 52 posted with him, one had been returned to unit (RTU-ed, they called it) while another was in the Military Hospital (MH).

"How many can't run?" the instructor asked.

Seven hands went up. The captain would want to know why. And he was going to take some convincing.

"You," he asked moving down the line, "What's wrong? Don't pretend. You can run...You? What? Show me. You think you are being clever? Don't even try it. Next...what's your trouble? Knee? Why are you holding your elbow then? You know what? You have your knee in your elbow and your elbow in your head. Bloody idiot...Okay, two are casualties. The rest of you, are you ready to run? What? I can't hear anything."


"You all know you will be left behind as battle casualties if you don't return by 2200 hours?" he asked, "Okay, chotta kadam, daudke chal (run in small steps)." Another session of agony had begun.

Perched on a high stool in the officers bar, Major S surveyed his companions over a pitcher of beer. It was around one in the afternoon and the major always preferred a cool drink to rejuvenate him before lunch.

You know," he says, "Though it looks as if this course is all physical, it isn't -- it's more of a training of the mind. What we teach them here is to understand their hidden capabilities. We build their confidence, their self esteem and their endurance."

Major S is a senior instructor at the Junior Leaders' Commando Training camp. Tucked away in Belgaum, 80 kilometres from Goa on the outskirts of Maharashtra, this is the Indian Army's only centre for training its personnel in unconventional warfare -- or rather, special missions as they call it. The aim of the centre, a senior official had explained, was to produce individuals capable of carrying out subversive activities behind enemy lines. It does not produce crack teams, but individuals who can form crack teams in times of war.

"We are not in the business of training commandos who hang out of VIP's vehicles and point muzzles at the general public," he said, "We train men for war, not for peace-time operations. We teach them how to sneak into enemy land, carry out subversive activities and come out."

The concept of such specialised training was conceived in 1962, as an immediate aftermath of the Chinese aggression. The Indian Army's Infantry School in Mhow was entrusted with the task. A nucleus of officers was sent for commando courses to foreign establishments and, on their recommendations, a curriculum formulated. Thus, on 11 January 1964, the commando wing started functioning in Mhow.

Till 1970, the course was open to officers of all services. But once it was made mandatory for Infantry Officers, admission for the rest of the services became vacancy-based. The next year, the wing was shifted to Belgaum to escape the congestion in Mhow.

The centre now runs two types of courses: Ghatak (O) and Ghatak (N). The former is for officers, and will have 150 students per course (three courses every year). The Ghatak (N) is meant for non-commissioned officers. Again, the centre runs three courses every year, but with 208 students.

"There isn't much difference between the two," says the chief instructor at the centre, "The Officers' course stresses more on developing leadership qualities and battle tactics. And the medium of instruction is English while it is Hindi for the jawans -- but the basics are same."

The 42-day capsule has 600 periods crunched into it -- 15 periods a day -- to develop the three basic elements needed for a special mission commando: confidence, endurance and tactics. And it is the duty of instructors like Major S, and his companions Captain N, Captain R and Major D, all of them now enjoying their beer, that these are inculcated in the trainees, that the "Boys turn into Men."

"I am sure half of the trainees must have dug my grave by now," says Captain R, "That always happens. They always have a hate-hate-love relation with the instructors. When the course is at its peak and we are pushing them hard they would really like to kill us. But towards the end their anger will evaporate and we end up friends."

Captain R remembers how he longed to bugger back one of his instructors.

"Captain --- was a guy I would have given half my salary to get shot," he says, "The fact is you are being rogered day in & day out by your instructors throughout the course. The whole point is to put you under maximum strain. And it is the instructors who do it. Naturally, your hatred is all directed against them."

When the recruits arrive they are picked up and transported straight to the camp where they would stay for the entire length of the course (except for two three-hour breaks in the third and fourth weeks). The minute they are inside, their ribbons are removed -- for the next 42 days second lieutenants, lieutenants and captains will all answer to 'commando' -- and heads shaved. The idea is to give them a feeling of uniformity, that whatever their age (the upper limit is 30) or rank they are all trainees.

The commandos are given a toggle rope, a safety rope, four text books (precis, rather), a demolition card (a table for calculating the amount of explosives for different structures) and three paplus of different weights.

The recruits (they are all fighting fit when they arrive but still lose up to eight kilos before they are through) are then put through two weeks of intense physical training. Lectures and demonstrations are intertwined.

The third and fourth week would see the instructors pushing -- buggering -- them harder and harder. There is the 20-kilometre speed march in full battle gear, there is the rock climbing (60 feet in 1 minute flat), there is the unarmed combat, there is the battle obstacle course (you have to cover 17 hurdles spread over nearly a kilometre in 14 minutes), and then there is the 30-kilometre speed march with an 18.5 paplu and a 4-kilo rifle (you have to cover a kilometre in 8 minutes).

Engineering classes, night navigation, confidence-building exercises like the Ledo jump (you are made to freefall 16.5 metres into a pool), slithering and rappelling comes with it.

You are also taught survival techniques -- how to live off the land -- which includes eating snakes. Once a commando has killed & eaten a snake, the reasoning goes, he will not shy away from anything. More physical conditioning & tactical training will follow in the fifth and sixth weeks. There will be written tests and, finally, the 40-kilometre speed march. "In the initial weeks their physical condition will start deteriorating. By the second week it is at its nadir," Major S says, "Then we start the patch-up work..."

It is patch-up time now. This is the third week of training and tomorrow is Adam day. Adam is spelt Adm, as in administration, and implies just that. But for the commandos it spells a three-hour break. When they can go out, watch a movie, eat, see people. Or, maybe, just stay back and sleep.

But before that there is a 30 km speed march to be done away with. And this scary thing they call Ledo jump. It implies diving into a water tank in combat dress, swimming across to a ladder, ascending 16.5 metres with your clothes and water-logged boots dragging you down, and then walking across a none-too-wide platform. That's the cool part.

At the other end, you will have to climb on to a rope, monkey crawl till you reach the red ribbon that hangs halfway through and then hang by your hands, waiting for the instructor's signal. And then you let go, just like that, into the pool. If you have real guts you will be to able keep your body straight and streamlined, with your hands closed and head steady -- if so, you will go in like a dream with hardly a ripple.

But if you are jittery and your body is not absolutely straight, if your legs are even a little spread, you will hit the water with the most terrible splash. And it hurts like hell when you splash into it at 40 to 50 km/h. As many found out today.

Up on the platform, Commando A was finding it difficult. It was pretty windy and the platform was swinging a bit. And though he claimed otherwise, A had a very poor head for heights. He had somehow managed to come halfway and climb onto the small platform there.

Then he had made the cardinal mistake of looking down...God, the tank looked so small. If he fell off, would he really land in water or would he break his neck on the sides? A stood shivering.

"Commando, look straight," the instructor shouted from down, "Take a deep breath..."

A went on shivering. There was more wind now and the platform was moving noticeably.

"Commando!" the instructor called from down.

"Y-yes Sir!"

"Take a deep breath... Now take a left turn."

"Which way, Sir?"

"A full left, Commando!"

A started on a shaky right turn while his colleagues shouted. He checked the motion in between and stood there shaking.

"Don't make a fool of yourself, Commando," the instructor shouted, "Take a deep breath and do a left turn. A full left turn."

A couple of minutes of deep breathing saw A in a stabler frame of mind. He started on the left turn, tried to make do with half of it, was shouted at ("a full turn, Commando!") and, finally, managed it. "Now Commando, take a deep breath..." the instructor said, "Okay, now walk over."

Commando A obeyed and, though he was as shaky as before, managed to complete the exercise without calamity. His progress along the rope was unremarkable, but his jump was something else. He produced a strange whistling sound, something out of a science-fiction movie, and, in the two to three seconds it took to hit the water, committed his second cardinal mistake. He looked down, with the result that he splashed into the tank on his face.

"That must have been very painful," remarked the instructor as A came up gasping, "See, he has hurt himself. Not only did he look down, he spread his legs -- he will have bruised his genitals. When you jump your head is your radar. If you look down you will land on your face. And if you tilt it backwards, you will fall on your back. Both are extremely painful."

The jump, he went on, was the most important among the confidence-building exercises. Everyone was scared the first time they attempted it and it took a tremendous amount of will power to let go off the rope. "Even now when I go up there I am apprehensive. The 16.5 metres looks more like 60 metres... the height is accentuated as the rope is there in the middle of such a huge open space," he said, "But it teaches you to overcome fear. You are letting yourself go into a void. Once you do it then you know you are capable of overcoming anything."

Commando A, it would appear, was one of the moderate cases. There are quite a few who walk the plank smartly, monkey-crawl to the ribbon and then stay stuck there. They would just not be able to let go. A couple of years ago, for instance, a commando had hung there for half an hour before finally crawling back and down the ladder.

"He kept on saying 'Commando so-and-so ready, Sir,' but just couldn't get himself to let go," the instructor said, "He had to come back the next year and finish the course - without doing the jump you can't pass, you know." The commandos, meanwhile, had all finished their jumps. Now all that stood between them and the Adam day was a couple of lectures, and - hell - that 30 km run.

Into the Meets club walked the General and onto the stage. He paused there for a brief moment before starting to address the relaxed but none-too-eager faces in front. Seated before him were the 150-odd commandos of this course.

All to the man, except the unfortunates in the MH (military hospital) and RTU-ed (returned to unit). All tired, all sleepy, but nonetheless here because he was to lecture them on 'Future Warfare'. The General started on an informal note.

"Good morning, Commandos," he says. "Good morning, Sir."

"Not loud enough," says the General to himself and repeats more heartily, "Good morning, Commandos."


"Hah, good, that's more like it," the General pronounces, "I hope you have enjoyed your 30 km march. How many of you feel sleepy?"

The Commandos preferred to keep their counsel on that.

"Okay," the General continues, "During the course of my lecture if anyone feels sleepy, they are most welcome to stand up, go to the side, or even go out, to refresh themselves. All right?"

There was no reaction from his audience. Not that he expected any. No self-respecting commando would dare to take that little bit of pleasantry at face value -- especially, not when their instructors were sitting right behind.

"Fine. Now let's talk about the lecture theme..." the General pauses. He surveyed the hall again. There was a sea of capped heads looking straight up at him. He didn't like that much. They were all too stiff. The General decided to put them at ease.

"Commandos, sit at ease," he says, "Relax!" The commandos relaxed. They took their hands off knees, sank lower in their chairs and prepared to listen. The old boy was going to talk for some time and he had told them to relax -- might as well do that.

The General started from where he had left off. He knew the lecture by heart. This was his pet subject and he had spoken on it plenty of times. No sweat there. But the trick was to make it interesting so that the trainees stayed awake and got something out of it. He knew they were dying to sleep, he knew many would sleep as soon as he began -- hadn't he seen it all before?

There, look! Some of them were already settling lower into their chairs...and in the middle rows heads had started lolling. But the General continued bravely. "Commandos," he says, "Now we will discuss the concepts of future warfare with regard to special mission..."

All around, chins were sinking systematically onto chests. And within 15 minutes all but the very brave and the unfortunates in the first three rows were lost to that luxury which the trainees rarely get to enjoy...Sleep.

Sleep. That brief three-hour punctuation which stops the days from being an endless succession of torture sessions...For 6 weeks the trainees are made to go about with the minimum amount of rest and maximum activity so that they finally emerge as tough specimens who can work efficiently under the worst conditions.

"Even if you make a catwalk here and hold a Miss World contest," an instructor had said earlier, "They wouldn't stay awake. The minute they sit down anywhere they start falling asleep. That's how tired they are."

And so they slept. This, after all, was Adam day, their holiday. This, after all, was the day when they would have the pleasure of changing out of battlegear into civilian clothes and going out for their first brush with society in 30 days. Maybe they would paint Belgaum red...

As thing turned out, they didn't paint the town red. Neither did they do anything which their instructors wouldn't have approved. They didn't thrash any auto-wallahs who acted smart, they didn't trash any bars -- and at the movies they were exemplary.

"Move in pairs. Do not -- repeat do not -- get into any bloody fight with auto-chaps or hotel-chaps," the chief instructor had warned them the previous night, "If you have the strength, keep it to yourself. You know what happened to those who created trouble earlier? They are going to be court-martialed. There are only 10 more days for you to finish the course -- so don't go and bloody bugger it up. Your conduct tomorrow should be of the way expected of you..."

The instructor's warning was in view of the notoriety which Adam day had acquired over the years with the Belgaum public. Incidents were many when the locals wanted to check out the efficiency of the commandos -- and had found them not at all lacking. Mini-riots had occurred at movie houses when tickets ran out and the commandos could not be accommodated, when auto-wallahs tried to make an extra-buck from their taklu-ed (bald) passengers...Rogered to the edge by their instructors and just waiting for a release, a scornful word, a smirk, a not-so-innocent comment, was all that was needed to swing the commandos into action. And then God help the unfortunate.

But such incidents have burned deep into the memory of Belgaum's locals. Now when they see the familiar shaven head and the jean-clad (usually) figures, they treat them with respect. Anyway, the chief instructor himself had called up at the theatres and other sensitive places and requested for seats this Adam day.

So when Commando M arrived to watch Ishq with his friend, there was no occasion for trouble. Enough balcony seats had been set aside and, as usual, the staff were treating them like, if not exactly the royalty, quite close to it.

"Where will you buy the tickets," the friend asked M, "Will you have to show your identification or something?"

M looked at him -- a civilian -- pityingly and removed his cap. "This is all the identification they need," he said, beckoning to a security, "Arre bhai, yeh commando-wallah wing kaha hai (Where is the commando wing)?"

The man looked at the civilian's full head of hair and wanted to ask something. But he changed his mind hurriedly when M raised his eyebrows. He pointed towards a flight of stairs...In Belgaum, it was evident, a shaved head could get you places.

Inside, the movie had already begun. The heroes (yeah, there were two of them) were just about to break into a dance (Hum ko tum se pyar hai) while rows upon rows of shaved heads watched with interest.

"Hey, how come there are so many taklus?" a woman wanted to know as M and his friend, after a few accidental attempts at lowering themselves into the laps of perfect strangers, finally managed to find vacant seats. "Shhh" hushed the man beside her, "Gently! They are Commandos!" M turned in his seat and grinned. See, he seemed to say, what did I tell you?

As the movie progressed, there were the usual catcalls and comments (boys will be boys!), especially when the heroes decided to take the girl who was dancing with them for a bike-ride.

"Yeh night navigation chal raha hai..."

"Commando," came another call, "mission shuru kar! (Start the mission!)"

"Yeh tho chaltayi rahata hai (This will go on)" M says, "Nothing unusual. But that's the limit -- unless we are pushed." Fortunately, none among the audience thought it would interesting to do that. So two hours later, M and his friends were enjoying tea at a restaurant in uptown Belgaum. "I am glad the 30 km run is over," M's colleague said, "Now it's all right. Just 10 more days to go...and the 40 km run. But that should be okay, I guess."

"We had heard about the course before -- so all these were expected," M, who had come to the camp straight from a posting in Siachen, said, "It is not all that bad." Once you do the course, M's colleague took over, you come to realise that you are not a superman, you realise your limitations. "Does it," he was asked, "bring in any change in your attitude to others. A superiority complex or something..?"

"It makes you much more confident, it helps you realise your potentials," he answered, "But it doesn't make you superior or anything. We are not taught we are superior to the civilians (if that's what you are referring to). Just that when it comes to doing certain things we can do it.

"But yes, I must admit we have fair-sized egos, especially regarding you (civilians). When we see one - there are many coming to see us training - we feel 'oh, here is another joker. what does he know?' But that's because we know we can do things which he can't. I wouldn't call that superiority. It's just that we are more confident. And irritated, too, because the Army doesn't get credit for half the things it does."

"Chalo bhai," M interrupted, "Let's go out. We have to be back soon. Usse pehle tumko butterfly dekhna hai ki nahi?" M's colleague was all for it. Tomorrow's 4 am wake-up and the rest of it was far away. Today was Adam day. And they had half an hour to take stock of Belgaum's 'butterflies' (with the chivalry of the army, of course!) before it came to an end.


Home Units Junior Leaders' Commando Training Camp