Romancing the letters

In the days when there was no phone or email, letters were the only link between the troops and their families

Maj-Gen AK Shori 

The Army Postal Service (APS) Corps is a unique mix of regular Army personnel and civilians, who join the APS on deputation. They wear uniform; undergo military training and put on rank as per their civil status. The history of the APS goes back to 1886 when the Field Post Office (FPO) comprising civilians went to Persia. On March 1, 1972, the APS got an independent status as a corps. I was allotted the Indian Postal Service.

During the probation period, I got the opportunity to visit the FPO in north Sikkim. The love for uniform prompted me to opt for deputation to the APS where I spent 21 out of 33 years of my service and got an opportunity to lead the Corps as Additional DG. During my first tenure (1986-90), I was posted at Kalimpong as Officer Commanding of a postal unit, which had FPOs at Siliguri as well in high altitude border areas in Sikkim. During peak winter, we used to move our FPOs for exercise at the base camp at Zuluk and Kyangnosa la at an altitude of 9,000 ft. The arrival of FPO vehicle in the morning carrying mail and newspapers was like festival time.

The Delhi edition newspapers, which were eagerly awaited by the officers, were carried by morning Indian Airlines flight from Delhi to Bagdogra. These were loaded in an FPO vehicle, which carried postal bags for Sikkim and Kalimpong  reaching late night at Gangtok. Next day, another vehicle would carry mail for Army establishments en route and finally reach the exercise location, exactly 17 miles from Gangtok, at a height of 10,000 ft. The unit orderlies would be waiting to hand over as well to collect the dak (posts).

A number of officers used to visit the FPO with a query and hope to receive personal communication as well to collect the newspapers. My office, which was in a tent adjoining the FPO, was also visited by them to enjoy a welcome cup of tea. The visit to FPO used to be a sort of picnic. Once GOC 27 Div, Maj-Gen SJS Chatwal ordered that all officers would visit the forward pickets and enquire from the troops about their welfare. 

The highest post was at 4,275-m height and when I, along with my Field Post Master, reached there carrying personal mails meant for the troops, it was a delight to see their faces light up. I still remember the hot tea and pakoras served by them. The mail vehicle reaching at Kalimpong in the night was eagerly awaited and the then GOC used to wait for the newspaper and dak to be delivered immediately to his residence. Those were the days of romancing with letters since there was no phone, email or internet. The letters were the only link between the troops and their families.

I went back to the civil life and rejoined the APS as Lt Col after a gap of eight years. I noticed that the FPOs now had computers to book registered letters and Speed Post. Money orders were transmitted via satellite, even in remote locations like the Siachin Base Camp. When I took over as Additional DG, a massive technological upgrade drive was undertaken with support of the Army Headquarters and India Post, resulting in more than 400 FPOs fully computerised having e-post service; online track and trace facility for Speed Post; and SDS mail being introduced. 

Also, FPOs were handling more than seven lakh savings bank accounts and around 1.2 million Postal Life Insurance policies which were fully computerised. The supply of newspapers and periodicals to troops and units got a massive fillip and new services like Debit Army Logistic Post service became popular among the units. I left the APS in March 2015 to join as Chief Post Master General, Himachal Pradesh, before retiring as Member Postal Board in July 2016. In the recent past, there have been reorganisation and restructuring of the APS as per the policy decision of Army HQ. This has resulted in disbanding of a number of services like supply of newspapers, stoppage of savings bank schemes, Postal Life Insurance and discontinuance of Parcel Logistic Service. Since personal communication is almost zero, by having skeleton services, the APS is losing the bonding with a soldier.

The availability of Small Savings Schemes, PLI and supply of newspapers at the doorsteps of the units in field and counter-insurgency areas were much sought after as well as required. In countries like the US,  its postal service even delivers cakes for the troops thousand miles away in  Iraq and Afghanistan. In India, even the basic communication, banking and other logistic services have been disbanded. The outcome is that not only the letter rather the corps itself appears to be a thing of the past, whose memories can be only be cherished.

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