We had a 4-year training period, straight out of school at the age of 15/16/17, 2 years on the training ship as “officer cadets” and then 2 years on a real ship as “indentured apprentices”, after which we were given the option of getting a real job IF we cleared a particularly tough competency exam – which used to have a pass/fail ratio at first attempt of about 1:3.
In these 4 years, one of the biggest things we learnt was to get along with young men, many not like us, in the sense that we had batch-mates from the best of schools and also batch-mates from the back of beyond, from all over India. The big thing is that we learnt from each other. Because we had to, for survival, thrown into the deep end before we cleared our teens.
That we pretty much performed all the jobs that a certified officer had to do when we were “indentured apprentices” was the upside – because there was this huge shortage then of certified officers. That we needed to back each other up even if we did not speak the same language was a fact of life too. I have handed over watch to a man who spoke no English or Hindi and I spoke no Tamil. Today he is an elected representative and one of my best friends – and we can still joke over “no Hindi”.
Point is, deep friendships made during these 2+2 years transcended all languages, religions, cultures and State borders that the marvellous India could lob at us – including friends who had taken part in anti-Government movements of all sorts too. We were all focused on one thing – getting our Certificates of Competency as soon as we could so that we could sail “certified”.
Why were there so few certified officers sailing on ships, then? The answer was simple – after a 2+2 year training regime, many people who had just about touched 20/21 years of age by then, opted for other careers and professions which valued their training and experience. Think about it, while our contemporaries then entering the job market had zero on the job experience, we had already picked up 2 years of training across all possible subjects and then 2 more years of global exposure and much more by way of real experience.
Whilst still slogging it out over books on subjects as diverse as electronics, engineering, navigation, ship-construction, meteorology, foreign exchange arbitrage, private trucking, carrying all sorts of dangerous cargo, handling government officials, protocol, PR, para-medic, catering and much more.
Rewind a bit – handling government officials? That was our primary role in port.The core of our job was to manage a quick turn-around for the ship by any and all means possible, which meant, simply – handling the various long arms of the Government concerned, And each Government in the world had their own laws, customs, traditions – actually even in the same country, different ports had different laws, customs, traditions.
It was, therefore, but natural that quality time was spent “entertaining” these Government officials. A can of beer or cola, a meal, a smoke – and talk. Safest topic by unspoken agreement was, always, family. You could not go wrong. And for seafarers like us, away from home for months, scoring an invite to somebody’s family home in return for hospitality offered on the ship was amongst the best experiences – which they, the other side, knew too.
I, like many seafarers, have lost count of the number of family invites I received over the years at sea. Taking pickles, tea, spices, condiments as gifts was sure to make the welcome warmer from the lady of the house (most people on and visiting ships were male in those days) and we would always be invited to see the rest of their home.
At which point, almost every time, we would see photos of our host in his youth – in some sort of uniform or the other. Please understand – we were never visited by the Navy guys, we just dipped our flags for their ships from a distance when they sailed past us. But pretty much every other person who came onboard our ships – Customs, Immigration, Health, Coast Guard, Port Official, Local Police, Security, Stevedore Boss, Transport Supervisor, Surveyor, Cargo Inspectors and more – had done some sort of tour in some sort of armed service or force before coming into seafarer facing jobs.
Yes, many of them were also linked to the various intelligence services of their own countries – we knew that too. It was expected, considering how, even then, commercial espionage as well as other forms of human intel gathering, existed. But the big thing with these guys who had worn some sort of an Armed Forces Uniform would be that they would introduce themselves to us by their country – and not, like others, by their region within their country.
I recall the Germans, South Koreans and Japanese very clearly on this – when they would write down their addresses for us to keep or show to the cab or bus driver, they would write the name of their country on top, and then work their way down, with their own name right at the bottom. Likewise, for the return leg, it would start with “Indo Ship – (Name of Ship)” then name of Port, number of the gate and location of the berth.
Country first, why so, I remember asking them, and with that shy wave of hand in front of the face in the case of the Orientals and a booming “Ja” from the Germans, they would say that they learnt this from school onwards but it was re-affirmed when they worked for their Army / Navy / Air Force. Country first. And then they would point at their regimental insignia, and make a show how that was their loyalty, too.
It was the same in the US and Canada, in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdoms, and most certainly in the East European countries. Country first, then a reference to the military service arm, and the ship related work was not discussed at their home. I learnt so much from these exchanges, especially when I told them that my father was, also, from the Army.
So here’s what I think of the AgniPath and AgniVeer system unfolding in India right now.
A large number of “India First” youngsters at the age of 21 or so – when their contemporaries will still be clearing college – will be seeding the Civil Services and para-military forces/CAPF, across India, whether Union Government or State or District or Local. By the time they get there, almost all of them would have experienced almost all our Border States, and probably at least half of all Indian States – and broken bread as well as trained hard with people from all over India.
It simply does not get better than that for India. The top 25% or so will continue in the Armed Forces, and for most of the rest, the world will open up for them.
Not just as mercenaries or bodyguards or anything else on gun-for-hire basis all over the world, which is as much an option as foreign shipping companies were for us, but also for an assortment of options across the board in India.
Every which way, truth is in numbers, and we shall see over the next few days what the number of applications received for the Armed Forces Agnipath scheme reveal. The only benchmark of success, as far as my experience in the field of uniformed forces and services tells me, is the number of people vying for the opportunities to wear a uniform.
So, what is causing the street violence in India?
That’s easy too. Think about the variety of people whose rent-seeker lives are being disturbed. Read between the lines about who these rent-seekers could be, not just the coaching institutes, but those behind them. These young persons who finish their 4 year tour and are honourably discharged –
a) Will return for paltan re-union regularly
b) Will be available for reservists duty
c) Will be grabbed by security forces abroad (ahem)
d) Will be loyal to Nation before anything else
e) Will always have one Ustaad Ji
f) Will be in touch with “LaiJon” Units of their original Forces.
I rest my case. If I was young enough to, I would want to wear a uniform again, one that I wore for about 2+2+4 years – India has never needed bright young people in uniforms more than now.
Veeresh Malik was a seafarer. And a lot more besides. A decade in facial biometrics, which took him into the world of finance, gaming, preventive defence and money laundering before the subliminal mind management technology blew his brains out. His romance with the media endures since 1994, duly responded by Outlook, among others.)