Dismounting the steed
Replacement of the tradition of horses in the illustrious 61-Cavalry regiment due to arbitrary cost-cutting is a decision that discounts the value of tradition in the Armed Forces
The Armed Forces must continuously evolve, equip and train as per changes in the modern security landscape and technological advancements. In a deeply tradition-bound institution, any change to the traditional norms faces resistance and it is only natural that the Services are instinctively reluctant to let go of things 'as they were', as part of the cherished regimentation and folklore. In the profession of soldering it is important to remember that traditions are not vanity, as they play a significant role in galvanising and inspiring the spirit of a combat unit. Symbols of the past can only be 'sheathed' with due dignity, honour and may live for time immemorial, in spirit. So, the Khukri (traditional knife) may be of limited utility in modern warfare, but to imagine a ceremonial uniform of a Gorkha soldier without one is borderline-blasphemous as it is an emotional, physical and psychological piece of identity that bestows incalculable pride and symbolism for a Gorkha warrior.
One unmistakable symbol of universal soldering and the business of war for aeons has been the horse. Horse ridden warfare can be traced back to 4,000 BC and even India's epic scripture, Gita, is incomplete without the definitive image of Krishna on a horse-drawn chariot guiding Arjun on the battlefield. Later, the furious advances of Genghis Khan, Hannibal, Alexander and the stories of marauding Cossack riders or the legend of Maharana Pratap would all be incomplete without their horses — thus ingratiating the horse as a subliminal part of soldering ethos, for millennia. Modern history documents the swaggering Indian cavalry composition of the lancers from Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad States as the 'last great cavalry charge', that shook the Turkish-German defences in the town of Haifa. But post-WW1, with the advent of weaponry like machine guns, tanks etc., the days of the horse-mounted cavalry were limited. The wistfulness of the horse in military consciousness notwithstanding, the dynamics of the battleground were changing and the roles for the horses were shrinking to reconnaissance, transportation in inaccessible areas and ceremonial duties. Old die-hards reluctantly gave-in to what they described as 'sheep-like rush towards mechanisation' but the writing was on the wall and to think otherwise was only romantic. The soul of the horse survived and many illustrious cavalry regiments of the Indian Army wear that pride in their name i.e., Poona Horse, Deccan Horse, Central Indian Horse, etc. This essentially left the senior-most regiment in the order of precedence, Presidents Bodyguards (PBG) or earlier Viceroy General's Bodyguards as the sole horse cavalry regiment. However, given their restricted and specific protocol duties, a new regiment with the amalgamation of various 'State Forces' into one mounted cavalry came into being in 1954, the '61 Cavalry'. The role of this regiment was essentially ceremonial and training but with a limited mandate to do patrolling and reconnaissance in exigencies. This fine regiment added much glory to itself, the Armed Forces and to the nation by giving a long list of equestrian accomplishments. Leading the Republic Day parade after the PBG accompanies the President to the Rajpath, the sight of mounted 61-Cavalry contingent evoked much awe, glamour and grandeur to the proceedings.
In the calling of Armed Forces, the power of symbolism can never be overstated as they have a clear functional purpose. The regimental bands, buglers, flags, hackles, lanyard and suchlike accoutrements and intangibles, often give purpose to a combatant to go 'beyond the call of duty'. The imagery of the horse is one such symbolism in the long list of martial traditions. In the American tradition, the poignant picture of a rider-less horse symbolises a rider's last journey, with boots facing backwards in the stirrups to suggest the fallen warrior having one last look at his loved ones. The famous 'Black Jack' who served as the riderless horse for General Douglas MacArthur, Lyndon Johnson and over 1,000 fallen combatants was paid tribute by Richard Nixon, "Citizens in mourning felt dignity and purpose conveyed, a simpler yet deeper tribute to the memory of those heroic 'riders' who have given so much for our nation". But importantly, battle practicality and cost-cuts necessitated that the ceremonial role of the horse had to be reduced drastically, without losing its emotive significance.
61-Cavalry too has reached that point that it has to dismount from its steed, as it were. It is an emotional ask, but perhaps unavoidable. Though, could a standing army of one million not sustain a symbol of glory like the mounted 61-Cavalry? But what is disconcerting is the pace at which the Armed Forces are letting go of their 'ways', without any reciprocal addition to their wherewithal or considerations. The dilution of traditions with Bollywood songs in beating the retreat, opening the cantonment gates, pruning the marching contingents to even rechristening golf courses as 'Training Areas' is the sort of apologetic and 'political-kosherism', that has crept in. The reduction of the military fingerprints on the national policy framework, beyond getting requisitioned into civilian or policing work is unprecedented. The policy mandarins on security matters have a surfeit of representation from the so-called intelligence agencies, bureaucracy, political classes and the 'olive greens' are not materially represented in the security policy realm. The enthusiasm to be visible in civilian domains and partaking civilian activities is not similarly afforded where it matters i.e., getting the Armed Forces their share of tangible and intangibles. It is only in the backdrop of this unending diminishment, that the 'dismounting' of the 61-Cavalry emerges as a matter of continuing concern, as it becomes yet another act of internal cost-cutting, without the parallel optics of any additional benefit or allaying of institutional concerns. A deeper introspection of the long list of recent changes in traditions, rectitude and commitments needs to be undertaken for assessing long-term impact. The spirit of the horse may still survive in 61-Cavalry, as it has in other armoured regiments but the moot question is how many more cuts?
The writer is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are personal