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The Making Of Real Heroes

The National Defence Academy nears 50 years of life, and is contemptuous of celluloid imitators

The Making Of Real Heroes

NO lights, no camera, just plain action. Warpaint for grease. The real thing for the reel. The National Defence Academy (NDA) at Khadakwasla, over 16 km from Pune, has hit the headlines several times. Though more recently, with a paler armour. A pastiche portrayal of the cadets, courtesy a superstar-branded production, still has the world's first-ever joint services academy squirming, then ducking for cover.

The pallor is now part of the past. More imminent is the shine round a six-month corner. In January 1999, the NDA will be aglow with 50 years of Being. And of turning out over 25,000 of the nation's finest. The academy alumni are as formidable as the 8,022-acre training facility. In 1991, General S.F. Rodrigues, Admiral L. Ramdas and Air Marshal N.C. Suri tripped off a trend by holding the top jobs in the three services. It continues to date. "A logical sequence of events," is how Vice Admiral Arun Prakash, commandant, NDA, terms it. "Those who joined in 1949 reached the apex in 1990. It does speak of the quality of the academy though. The three years that a young man spends here does instill him with qualities of leadership which are bound to emerge with time."

 It takes more than a braveheart to come out unscathed from the demands of the academy. A UPSC-conducted examination, shortlisting by the Service Selection Boards (SSB) at Bhopal, Allahabad and Bangalore and the army headquarters compiles a final list. Psychological grilling, physical tests, are part of this qualifying package— and only 50,000 of the nationwide applicants make it to the select 320. Then comes the three-year training period divided into six terms each comprising six months. A process which involves not only the shearing of youthful locks, but boyish excesses as well. A period when depressive swings are trench-deep and highs are 20-km punishment treks to Sinhgarh, Maratha warrior king Shivaji's formidable fort. "Six months is all," says third-termer Shishir Sukanti. "By the end of two terms, you are not the same person who first walked into the academy."

 'Never Say Die', 'Death before Dishon-our', 'Ek Goli Ek Dushman', practice-ground placards that never let the boys lose sight of the larger picture. Scaled down, the cadets are here for various reasons. "My first choice," says C. Mason. "Not mine," adds Sukanti, "But I have no regrets." For last-termer Jayant Singh, a cadet sergeant major, it has been a completely different trip altogether. "My father was a havaldar -clerk from Ballia, UP. Since we have not had one commissioned officer from our area, he was keen that I should be the first. It has made a difference to my people and I see it in their approach towards me."

There are basically three kinds of applicants to the NDA and the motivation among all of them is very high," says Captain Suresh Radhakrishnan, assistant adjutant, NDA, and current real-life counterpart to Amitabh Major-Rana Bachchan. "Service officers' kids, military school products and a small percentage who join up because they are influenced by ads or the movies. Patriotism is very much a part of their psyche though it not something that they are vocal about." Inverted bloodstained-flags of Pakistan and Portugal, now NDA Museum pieces, send muted, yet emotive, messages of the same. And it is here that the various myths of Major Saab first bites the dust.

The cinematic catchline 'In Defence of Love' is, in the life of an NDA cadet, no defence at all. Nor is the Ajay Devgan display of belligerence, arrogance, pig-head-edness. "The process of selection is year-long. It is not just a question of hopping on an NDA-bound bus and then deciding to return in three days," says Major C.S. Joshi, PRO, NDA: "And a spoilt brat will definitely not be selected."

IN on meritorious considerations, the cadets have to seize an early day. Up at 4 am, the cadets pack more than a punch in their schedule. Besides pursuing a degree through the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), there are drills, runs and tasks assigned throughout. Permissible punishments include forward rolling on suitable surface, bend stretches and sprinting. "Trauma, humiliation and degradation of cadets is not allowed. This is a tough place to be in, the routine is rough. So we have taken stern steps to ensure that youngsters be given a soft landing," says Vice Admiral Prakash. In a decisive fortnight, those uncut in the NDA mould are free to return. Later on, retracing one's steps costs Rs 20,000 a month.

For those who stay on, time management is of essence. Rules are sacrosanct. As is instant obedience and respect for officers. "We have to break the civilian mould and get them into the military groove. We do not crush their ego, only direct it," says Captain Suresh. It takes resilience to stay on. And a will to back it. Though not the sort flashed in the film.

Says Sudhakar Thakur, Academy Cadet Captain (ACC): "I have not seen the film but the few who have are deeply disappointed by it. I guess the cadets had certain expectations from the film." Cadets who were roped in for a couple of scenes acknowledge that they were background fillers in more ways than one. But while the offscreen demeanour of the superstar impressed them more than his on-screen exploits, their cadet counterpart Ajay Devgan fell short in their esteem. The pronouncement is one unacceptable for any NDA cadet: "Not very fit, quite a smoker."

Fleshing out the flaws in the film, a sixth-termer says: "There is no individual involvement between the cadets and the officers. For that, there is a system of communication, in which cadet appointments play a critical role. You have to do something really special, either really good or really bad, to warrant the attention of the officers." Not only is the Ajay-Amitabh relationship out of sync with the NDA scheme, so are a lot of other things. Cadets are met by a reception committee, not by a bumbling non-commissioned officer (NCO). Cadets have individual cabins, each unlocked and identical (right down to the number of bottled lotions on their dressing table)—not bunk beds. Cadets can choke on their words but cannot, under any circumstance, chew gum and talk like loose cannonballs. Food, not feuds, is served in the mess. Smuggling of weapons from the armoury may be well within 'cinematic license' but is otherwise out of the question. There are no drains designed as escape routes for romancing cadets—only liberty cards dispensed on Sundays. Marriage is out—else the cadet is.

THE code of honour and line of duty is above all other considerations—with all efforts focussed towards making men out of the 16 to 19-year-olds. Whether developing riding skills with Lt Col M. Bhattacharjee; attempting a leap into the pool, or over a beam under Lt Col A. Majumdar's supervision; downing 4,600 calories as enforced by catering office head Major A. Banerjee, practicing close-quarter battle charge; using the Weaponeer-90 to simulate war conditions on the rifle range; or even keeping the official hair length— well below the beret cap, trimmed along the earline from behind and not longer than one inch from the top.

 "When it was first cut, I couldn't recognise myself," laughs Jayant Singh, cadet sergeant major of the Alpha squadron.

But there are other ways of letting one's hair down. Wind surfing on Khadakwasla Lake, Astronomy at the Science block, riding at the equitation lines...on Wednesdays and Saturdays when the 30-odd clubs of the academy spring to life. "On Sunday, this place is swarming with girls from Pune city," says Vice Admiral Prakash. "When there are dances, we have buses sent to pick the girls up and drop them back. All this didn't happen when I was a cadet here. Also, we were given Rs 30 a month. Today, the boys are given Rs 250."

At the end of three years, when the boys pass out of the academy and bifurcate to their designated forces, there is a lot to look back on. Swerving from the squadrons—Alpha, Bravo, Charlie...—that they belonged, to the 'Hut of Remembrance' where etched within are the names of those NDA graduates who sacrificed their lives for the nation.

Finally, even more impressive than the Sudan Block, the nerve centre of the NDA, is this evaluation by the officiating adjutant, Captain Suresh: "I have a lot of respect for those who pass out of this place. When I see them, I know they have all turned out as good human beings. This place is all about spirit. It makes the spirit of a man—a spirit that will stand by you and live by you." It is a spirit that has entrusted the newly-inducted 100th course of the academy to the 30-year-old assistant adjutant's care. And has won him two 'Shourya Chakras' for counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. The makers of Major Saab would have done well to know that this the stuff Real Heroes are made of.

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