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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Military Digest: 61st Cavalry rides into the sunset

The main role of 61 Cavalry was mounted ceremonials and promotion of equestrian sports and polo.

Written by Mandeep Singh Bajwa | Updated: May 22, 2020 8:35:12 am
Military Digest, Military Digest Indian Express, Military Digest on music, Operation Samudra Setu, INS Jalashwa, Jalashwa, India news, Indian Express 61st Cavalry on parade resplendent in their full dress uniforms

It was prime minister Nehru’s vision that led to the raising of 61st Cavalry. He had sound reasons to favour pomp, pageantry and ceremonials. Their value in instilling national pride and fostering elan and panache in the public was fully appreciated by him. The plan was to raise no less than three regiments of horsed cavalry to perform ceremonial roles and promote equestrianism.

However, there were problems in achieving such a goal. The Wilcox Committee which planned the organisation of the Army after World War Two had recommended that two regiments, Poona Horse and 19th Lancers be retained as horsed cavalry. But there was a need to have more and more tank units to man the two armoured divisions required as a reserve in case of a German thrust through the Caucasus and consequent threat to the Middle East oilfields. In addition, the planned reconquest of Burma required four tank brigades. Therefore, these two regiments found themselves getting mechanised too. The Governor-General’s Bodyguard (later PBG) was heavily committed to its own dedicated duties. The horsed bodyguard units of the Governors of the three Presidency provinces (Madras, Bengal and Bombay) had been disbanded at Independence, being considered anachronisms.

There were however a number of horsed cavalry regiments still in existence, the reorganised remnants of the States Forces maintained by the erstwhile princely rulers. A number of them were amalgamated to form 61st Cavalry in 1953. These were the Gwalior Lancers, Jodhpur/Kachhawa Horse, Mysore Lancers and ‘B’ Squadron, 2nd Patiala Lancers. It was on the legacy of these distinguished regiments that the new unit sought to make its mark. Rajputs from Jodhpur Lancers, Kaimkhanis (Muslim Rajputs from Rajasthan) from Kachhawa Horse and Marathas from Gwalior Lancers formed a sabre squadron each.

The Mysore Lancers and Jodhpur Lancers had fought together as part of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade in Egypt, Sinai and Palestine during the First World War. On 23rd September 1918 the two regiments joined forces through a brilliant manoeuvre to capture the strategic port of Haifa after a great charge on Turkish positions in the face of withering artillery and machine-gun fire. This was a rare instance of cavalry taking a fortified town at the gallop. The credit for the audacious victory went to the cavalrymen’s bold, courageous actions backed up by experience and professional excellence.

The main role of 61 Cavalry was mounted ceremonials and promotion of equestrian sports and polo. In addition, to justify their existence they were allotted an operational task as scouts in the desert. Its organisation was modelled on that of cavalry regiments from between the two world wars – more mounted infantry rather than the traditional horse-borne troops. Consequently, they were stationed at Jaipur. The regiment got down to both its roles with gusto. Its polo team was the country’s best; so were its competitive riders. In 1965 the regiment was deployed to cover approaches to Ganganagar under a distinguished Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Thakur Govind Singh. The area of responsibility was nearly a hundred kilometres of semi-desert terrain. While armed police detachments manned border outposts to mark sovereignty, 61st Cavalry carried out intensive night patrolling on horseback. No enemy infiltration or penetration was reported. The taste of active service was exhilarating.

Military Digest, Military Digest Indian Express, Military Digest on music, Operation Samudra Setu, INS Jalashwa, Jalashwa, India news, Indian Express Lt Gen PP Kumaramanglam, then Vice Chief of Army Staff inspecting the horse lines of 61 Cavalry in their concentration area in Ganganagar sector after the 1965 war. (Credit: Thakur Indra Vijay Singh Khatipura)

In 1970, Lieutenant General MS Wadalia, the regiment’s long-standing Colonel retired. It was suggested that the unit’s future depended on having a strong, energetic successor. In a strategic move it was decided to invite the then Army Chief, General Sam Maneckshaw to be the next Colonel of the Regiment. Maneckshaw was a visionary commander with a proven track record of building and nurturing institutions. In an era when camel pack artillery was wound up because it was realised that tracked vehicles could go anywhere that camels could, he realised that 61 Cavalry needed a change in role otherwise the military and civilian bureaucracy would demand it shed its horses. For horsed cavalry to operate even in a reconnaissance role on a bullet-swept battlefield facing all the modern implements of war – artillery, mines, machine guns, barbed wire etc was unthinkable. In the prelude to the 1971 war Maneckshaw moved the regiment to Delhi to take on the tasks of the Rashtrapati Bhawan guard battalion – guarding the presidential residence, the internal defence of Luttyen’s Delhi and dismounted ceremonials. To their credit the cavalrymen adapted well to their new duties. They had the honour of presenting the first guard of honour to Sheikh Mujibur Rehman on his release from Pakistani prison in January 1972. Their versatility was commendable.

The regiment suffered a big blow, nevertheless in 1974. The Krishna Rao Committee in its report on the Army’s reorganisation recommended a drawdown in its strength. Consequently, a whole sabre squadron was disbanded along with specialist troops for mortars, medium machine-guns, light machine-guns and signals communication. One sabre squadron was permanently stationed at Delhi for performing ceremonial duties. 61st Cavalry took the setback in its stride and continued its quest for excellence on the polo field, the equestrian arena and mounted drill.

Small detachments were sent for deployment in an infantry role in Sri Lanka as part of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force giving the cavalrymen some combat experience. In 1990 after another review of operational roles the regiment took over the protection of Vital Areas/Vital Points in areas along the Western front. To give them some added punch, discarded Soviet BTR-60 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were given to them. These were however too old, very prone to mechanical breakdowns, lacked spare parts and consequently unreliable. The descendants of the Mysore and Jodhpur Lancers preferred their trusty steeds for patrolling. The regiment took part in exercises, operational alerts and was deployed during Operation Parakram. During the latter stand-off it provided security to the field maintenance area (FMA) at Jaisalmer with its mobile patrols protecting the lines of communication between that place and Jodhpur against enemy special forces and non-state actors.

How has the regiment fared in its main role – ceremonials and promotion of polo and equestrian sports? I’d say exceedingly well. 61 Cavalry has produced eleven Arjuna Awardees and a Padma Shri with the tally of their medals and trophies too numerous to enumerate. They dominate the polo field and equestrian arena. Hard work put in to rehearse and train mounted drills has paid off in the quality of their ceremonial presentations very visible to the public.

It is generally not known but the directive style of command practiced in the regiment has paid dividends. The regiment provides equitation instructors for the National Defence Academy, Indian Military Academy and Officers Training Academy and the Armoured Corps Centre and School. The armed forces view horse riding as a risk exercise and therefore character building in nature. It helps in the blossoming of young men into soldiers and leaders.

Military Digest, Military Digest Indian Express, Military Digest on music, Operation Samudra Setu, INS Jalashwa, Jalashwa, India news, Indian Express Army Chief General JN Chaudhri visiting 61 Cavalry in peace time at Jaipur, 1965. (Credit: Thakur Indra Vijay Singh Khatipura)

While 61 Cavalry has been under a Damocles’ Sword for the last three decades the latest proposal on the regiment’s future is gaining currency. It has been recommended that the regimental headquarters and combat service support elements take under command three independent armoured squadrons currently affiliated to 7th Cavalry, Central India Horse and 63 Cavalry to convert to a new armoured regiment. The two sabre squadrons of horsed cavalry are to move to Delhi to come under the Directorate General of Mechanised Forces carrying on with their current jobs. There will be a wholesale posting out of cavalry-trained officers from the regiment replacing them with tankmen. The new armoured regiment will in effect inherit only the shell of 61 Cavalry, the cap-badge (the double-headed Mysore eagle) and the legacy of Haifa.

Coherent, compelling arguments couched in the language of modern warfare have been advanced, mainly on social media for innovation and augmentation of combat power. They bear all the hallmarks of an orchestrated campaign in favour of a particular school of thought. It seems that certain vested interests are hell bent upon an exercise in empire-building. Green eyes seem to abound!

In an army with upwards of seven hundred combat units, not to mention more than four hundred combat support units is it inconceivable to have two regiments (the other one being the President’s Bodyguard) devoted to ceremonials? 61st Cavalry has set the gold standard in mounted drill and ceremonials as it has in equestrian sports. These standards are sure to drop if the cavalrymen are deprived of the supervision, planning and command structure provided by a regimental headquarters. Animal management is no kid’s game. It involves hard work, constant administration and 24/7 dedication and can only be learnt through specialised training and hands-on experience. The costs involved in keeping the status quo and the new proposals are around the same. In Delhi with so much pressure on land and accommodation where are the facilities to cater for additional horses and men to be created? I need hardly remind the readers that training horses and riders and providing equestrian resources requires a lot of space. Space and utilities which have been in place for more than half a century in Jaipur.

The three independent armoured squadrons are affiliated to three distinguished regiments. Combined together they need to evolve a new tradition and regimental cohesion. Saddling them with the legacy of a fourth unit, a traditional cavalry regiment is unfair and sure to deprive them of the good start that they richly deserve.

Will the Sowars of 61st Cavalry now have to dismount their steeds to the traditional cavalry command of ‘Shabash Ghora!’ (pat and stroke your horses) never to mount again? Could New Delhi’s Teen Murti Memorial become the only remembrance of a gallant, efficient regiment? Let us hope not.

Operation Samudra Setu

Under the Vande Bharat Mission, two naval vessels have been deployed to evacuate Indian citizens stranded abroad because of the pandemic. Codenamed Operation Samudra Setu, during its first phase INS Jalashwa and INS Magar transported 698 and 202 citizens respectively from the Maldives. The operation started on 7th May.

INS Jalashwa returned to Male on 14th May, sailing the next day with 700 passengers aboard including 100 women and children and bound for Kochi.

Military Digest, Military Digest Indian Express, Military Digest on music, Operation Samudra Setu, INS Jalashwa, Jalashwa, India news, Indian Express INS Jalashwa during Operation Samudra Setu

In the second phase INS Jalashwa will sail from Colombo port, Sri Lanka carrying around 700 Indian nationals to Tuticorin on 1st June. Both ships have a capacity to carry a thousand persons at a time but are currently restricted to 750 passengers keeping in view social distancing norms.

INS Jalashwa is the former USS Trenton, an Austin-class Landing Platform Dock (LPD). She was built by the Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company at Seattle in Washington State and commissioned into the US Navy in 1971. The Indian Nav acquired it in 2007 after an analysis of the response to the 2004 tsunami revealed an acute shortcoming in wherewithal to react to the need for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). This was a stopgap purchase pending the construction of four indigenous LPDs.

INS Magar is the lead ship in the Magar-class of amphibious warfare vessels. Built by Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers, Kolkata she was commissioned in 1987 immediately taking part in Operation Pawan (the intervention in Sri Lanka).

The Navy’s experience in Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) is most heartening and underlines its adaptability and competence.

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