The indomitable Subedar Major

Lt-Gen Raj Kadyan

In a battalion, the Subedar Major occupies a pivotal position. Having risen to the highest rank in his line, he commands respect from all and is the main adviser to the commanding officer (CO). His role is all encompassing and he keeps a “feel” of the battalion’s pulse. A CO depends heavily on the Subedar Major for advice, particularly in matters concerning discipline, welfare and morale.

On commissioning, I joined a battalion that was being raised in the Delhi Cantonment. Men were pooled from other existing battalions. As no one sends his good soldiers, we had a motley crowd, many with record of indiscipline. Absence without leave was a common problem. Harphool Ram was our Subedar Major. He was a tall, towering man with typical disfigured ears of a wrestler. Reportedly, some JCOs who over drank and became unruly in the JCOs Mess, were physically boxed by him, though not a word of it ever came out till after he had retired. I found Harphool a compassionate, fatherly figure, and an excellent guide.

Being young, I would take my company for a long run in the morning PT period. It didn’t find favour with the JCOs, who were all in their forties. On their complaint, the Subedar Major spoke to me one day. Not being polished in his language, he made his point with his trademark bluntness. “The Sardar Sahibs (JCOs)”, he said, “have difficulty in passing urine because of the physical strain your morning run causes them”. It was his sincere and crude simplicity that persuaded me to ease up.

Our ammunition was stored in a makeshift underground magazine. One night, as duty officer I went to check the guard and found the sentry missing from his post. I turned out the whole guard and placed the missing sentry, Rifleman Chinta Singh, under arrest. Early morning the Subedar Major came to me. He said Chinta had gone to the loo and then got scared of me and had hidden under a cot. He assured me that he would sort him out through extra duties and pitthoo parades, and requested that I reconsider his arrest. I knew he was making it up to save the soldier from losing financially, which his imprisonment in the quarter guard would entail. I recalled the advice my father, who had been the Subedar Major of his battalion in the mid-1930s, often gave about dealing with errant soldiers. “Kick them on the butt,” he would say, “don’t hit them in the stomach”. I understood, and agreed to release Chinta Singh. “No,” the Subedar Major said, “since the arrest is already official, only the CO can release him”. Further, if it was okay with me he would himself speak to the CO about it. I knew he enjoyed complete confidence of the CO and could have gone directly to him complaining of a wrong arrest by an inexperienced young officer. But he didn’t, as it would have caused me embarrassment. In that action, Harphool, who had more service than my age, taught me a great lesson in humility and maturity. 

The battalion went out for a few weeks on an outdoor training camp, leaving the Subedar Major in charge of the rear location. One day, a soldier absented himself from the unit lines. Harphool did not immediately report the matter to the CO. He called Havildar Clerk Ratan Singh, a coarse and quarrelsome individual, but a man of unparalleled resourcefulness and initiative, gave him a vehicle and tasked him to fetch the man ‘come what may’. 

Ratan Singh drove to his village near Sonepat. This was December 1962 and the country was still in the grip of patriotic fervour resulting out of the war with China. Ratan assembled the people and told them how the deserter had displayed cowardice by running away from his duty and how he had brought a bad name to their village. Thus motivated, they organised a collective search and caught the deserter hiding in a sugarcane field. It was only after he had been put in the quarter guard that the Subedar Major informed the CO. In doing what he did, the  Subedar Major displayed a high level of initiative and risk-taking ability.

After a few days, the deserter’s mother came to the battalion, wanting to meet her locked-up son. The CO was hesitant as rules did not allow it. However, he allowed her on the advice of the Subedar Major. As the mother entered the cell, she took off her jooti and thrashed her son black and blue, cursing loudly that he had shamed her milk. It had a salutary effect and there were no more absentees in our unit. It was learnt later that the Subedar Major had conceived and stage-managed the whole episode. Harphool might not have read or heard of the term, out-of-the-box thinking, but he certainly lived it.