Military & Aerospace

A Glimpse of Life in the Army
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Armed Forces | Date : 17 Jan , 2021

Many of us wonder what the Army does in peacetime when there is no war on. Some people believe that they live a life of luxury, drink a lot and generally waste their time in playing golf or card games or hunting. This is far from the truth. As you know our army is deployed all along the Himalayan borders with China, and along the LoC in J&K. Most of these borders are inhospitable, uncongenial in climate, lacking in normal facilities. Even drinking water is not available in some areas.

The army formations not deployed on the borders have been busy combating insurgencies in J&K and the Northeast. It is evident that only a small portion of the army gets a chance to stay in a peacetime cantonment, that too for short periods.

This chapter deals with army activities in fields and peace areas, to enable the reader to fully visualize the lifestyle of our solider and officers and their daily activities in peace and field stations.

Life in a Peacetime Location

A military station is called a Cantonment. Here a number of units are billeted in peacetime.

You will notice that every activity of a jawan is regulated according to rules and parade timings.

A cantonment is a separate township under a cantonment board which is like a town committee or municipal board. It has some elected civilian members and others nominated by the station HQ. The cantonment board runs all the civic services like a municipal board. Most cantonments have normal bazaars and civil population like any small town or locality. The rules and regulations in a cantonment are however strictly enforced. Therefore, you generally find good roads and greater cleanliness in a cantonment as compared to other civil localities.

A number of units are located in a cantonment depending upon the availability of accommodation. These units are generally grouped under a brigade or a sub-area (Static HQ). The station HQ is responsible for general administration, allotment of houses and barracks along with allied facilities.

A unit, i.e. a battalion or a regiment, stays together in what is known as unit lines. These lines generally have a group of living barracks for troops, playground, armoury for weapons and unit office buildings. The JCOs’ and NCOs’ clubs and Jawans’ langars (community dining rooms) are also located here along with the unit canteen, recreation room, unit clothing stores, transport park and light vehicle repair sections etc. Barbers, washermen and safaiwalas (sweepers), carpenters, blacksmiths etc. posted to a unit also stay here. The family lines of a unit are located nearby where jawans can stay with their families for limited periods.The officers’ messes and living quarters are located slightly away from the unit lines. Married officers live in small bungalows allotted to them in the cantonment area. Bachelors are allotted single rooms near the officers’ messes.

There is no restriction in going in and out of a cantonment area for civilians but they cannot enter a unit line without prior permission from the authorities.

A Normal Working Day

In a peacetime cantonment the normal day of a jawan starts before sunrise. Once the Reveille bugle is sounded, jawans ‘fall in’ (assemble in rank and file) in sports kit. By now every jawan has shaved and washed and is ready for physical training (PT). His platoon commander –a JCO, normally inspects him to make sure that he is properly shaved and well turned out. He inspects his dress to ensure that it is clean and well ironed. Now the jawans are moved ‘on the double’ (running) or marched off briskly to the unit parade or PT ground. In this assembly the whole unit is together. Here the JCOs and then the officers join the parade. The PT, which is the first parade, involves vigorous exercise and running. After the PT, every one disperses for breakfast and assembles for various other training, parades or tasks after an hour’s break. Weapons training, firing, driving training and education classes, as applicable, are carried out till about 12’o clock. At this hour jawans are marched off to clean their weapons and return the weapons and equipment. After this, jawans proceed to the langars for lunch. Officers and JCOs now go to attend the office or administrative work as required.

A bugle call is a simple but effective signal to commence or terminate activities in a unit line.

The unit generally has a rest period till the afternoon games, when every one assembles on the sports ground once again and has to play some game or the other, like hockey, football, basketball, practice boxing or swimming. Teams for various competitions also practise at this time. Before the sunset the Retreat bugle is sounded. The flag in the unit’s quarter guard is lowered with great reverence in the presence of the duty officer. Night guards also fall in front of the quarter guard where they are inspected and briefed.

By sunset jawans are relatively free and may now wear mufti – a specified pattern of civil clothes. They fall in by their sub-units for the ‘roll call’. At this parade various orders are passed to them along with the next day’s programme. A physical count of all individuals also takes place here. After the roll call Jawans can go to recreation rooms for watching the television or reading the newspaper. Jawans have their dinner early so that they get full rest. After dinner a bugle is sounded ordering ‘lighting out’ (generally about 10 p.m.). Now every jawan, except those on ‘night guard’, must go to bed. The JCO and officers’ messes are however open till 11 p.m or so. You will notice that every activity of a jawan is regulated according to rules and parade timings.

Unit Institutes

The Unit Quarter Guard

An armed guard is always on the alert in every unit line. This is housed in a special building called the Quarter Guard. The name implies it is a guard for the unit lines or quarters. It usually faces the unit line and has unit arms (rifles, LMG, etc.) deposited in ‘Kotes’ (armoury). The unit duty officers and JCOs check the alertness of the Quarter Guard at odd hours during day and night. A bugler which is included in this guard blows various calls at given times announcing various parades or assemblies. Some important bugle calls of a unit are :

  • Reveille: At dawn for ‘time to leave your beds’.
  • Parade Calls: Call for parades during day or night.
  • Assembly Calls: Call for unit personnel or certain appointments to assemble together. For ‘Sainik Sammelans’ there is a special call.
  • Orderly Room Call: For those who would be marched up to a senior for various infringements of rules or for interviews before proceeding on temporary duties or leave.
  • Mess or Meal Calls: At given times for meals, these are separate for jawans and officers’ mess.
  • Fire Alarms: To indicate outbreak of fire or to practise fire fighting.
  • Retreat: Sounded at dusk for closing down, back to barracks.
  • Last Post/Lights Out: Everyone in bed and lights out. 

Every minute of a soldier’s life is strictly regulated and these bugle calls summon or prepare jawans for various activities, even rest. A bugle call is a simple but effective signal to commence or terminate activities in a unit line.

Officers’ Mess

The officers’ mess is like a club with restricted entry for members only. Unmarried officers, who dine here, have to dress up in uniform or mess dress twice a week to have their meals on Dinner Nights. Dinner nights are considered a parade and start at a fixed time when every unit officer dining in the mess has to be present. It is actually a formal dinner with strict rules. For the rest of the week Supper Nights are observed. During these officers can dine in civilian clothes (civies). Formal civilian clothes have to be worn during supper nights.

Usually a suit or tie is worn in the mess, depending on the weather. Informal dress is allowed during breakfast and lunch only on holidays and Sundays.

Recreation Room

A special room or barrack is reserved for recreational facilities for jawans within the unit lines. Here, a number of Hindi, English and regional language newspapers and magazines are available, besides indoor games like carrom, table tennis or chess. A TV room may be provided separately. The NCOs from the AEC posted to a unit maintain this facility. Here, they also display important information about the army along with some information on current affairs and health and hygiene. A jawan is allowed to visit the information room at specified times though it is a common room open to all.

Unit School

You may be surprised to know that every unit has a small school where classes are held regularly for jawans and NCOs to educate and prepare them for various examinations. Army education examinations are equivalent to matric or middle class in standard. Various education standards must be attained for promotion from a jawan to an NCO and from an NCO to a JCO. These coaching classes prepare jawans to attain laid down standards.

Unit Canteen

A unit generally has two canteens. One is called a Wet Canteen which is run by a civilian contractor who supplies tea, sweets, snacks etc. at approved rates to the jawans. The other Canteen Services Department or CSD canteen is a general store where goods are sold at lower rates compared to the market. Here, attractive items like electronic goods, motorcycles and cars etc. are also available at lower rates fixed by the CSD. Both these canteen are mobile and move with the units in war and peace. Liquor is also available in the CSD canteen at lower rates but its distribution is strictly controlled and one cannot draw beyond his fixed monthly quota.

Army jawans are taught to respect all religions and there is nothing unusual to find a Muslim or Christian visiting the unit temple or gurudwara.

Unit Medical Inspection Room (MI Room)

A medical officer from the AMC and a small team with him maintains and runs a small medical clinic in the unit lines. This clinic gives first aid to the sick and injured and is also responsible for inspecting every jawan once a month to ensure that he is fighting fit. When jawans return from leave or any long outing a special medical inspection is carried out to ensure that they have not contracted any disease while on leave in their hometowns. The health and hygiene of the unit is thus looked after regularly. All serious cases are transferred immediately to larger treatment centres or military hospitals. No seriously sick or injured jawan is kept in the unit lines.

Religious Institutes

The commanding officer of a unit is responsible for the religious and the spiritual well-being of his jawans. Depending on the class composition, a unit can have a mandir, gurudwara, church or a mosque, or all of these together. In mixed units, rather than having separate religious places, a sarva dharma sthal (a common prayer hall) may be provided, where all troops meet for various religious functions. Army life is totally secular. Army jawans are taught to respect all religions and there is nothing unusual to find a Muslim or Christian visiting the unit temple or gurudwara. Every officer, JCO and jawan irrespective of his religion, attends and takes active part in the festivals of all religions represented in a unit. A unit pandit, granthi, priest or maulvi are specially trained, so that they can impart religious teaching with due respect to all religions. These religious teachers maintain unit’s religious institutes and conduct various rituals and functions. Every Sunday whole unit gathers to attend religious prayers.

…the officers wives who are generally better educated conduct literacy/educational/vocational classes for the jawans wives.

Family Welfare Centre

Every unit maintains a family welfare centre for the jawans’ wives. Here, the officers’ wives who are generally better educated conduct literacy/educational/vocational classes for the jawans’ wives. Family problems and administrative difficulties are also brought to the notice of the senior commander’s wife. For example, if there is a water shortage in family lines or a lady doctor is required to attend to the families or a jawan needs to go home due to some pressing family problem, such things may be conveyed to the commanding officer or subedar major through the welfare centre. Computer training, tailoring, embroidery, knitting and various other vocational training is organized here, as some jawans’ wives come from remote rural areas and may know little about such things. Health and hygiene and family planning problems are also discussed here. Later important points are passed on to the senior officers of the unit who take appropriate remedial action to keep jawans and their families healthy and happy.

Unit Sainik Sammelan

An unit assembles together for an open session presided over by its commanding officer once a month. All officers, JCOs and jawans are required to attend the sainik sammelan in uniform. Jawans have liberty to raise any points or problems regarding administration, training or service conditions for the consideration of the commanding officer. Though, this is considered a parade but there is no bar on raising any points including suggestions for improvement of various systems of the unit. It is an old custom and a good example of democratic functioning within military discipline. An assembly of this kind serves as a safety valve as a jawan can directly approach his commanding officer once a month.

Jawans have liberty to raise any points or problems regarding administration, training or service conditions for the consideration of the commanding officer.

Life in Field Areas

More than half of the Indian Army is deployed on borders. A combat unit generally spends two-three years in a field area and about two years in a peace station in a five- year-cycle. In the border areas troops are deployed in defences in readiness for war. Most of the field areas are in the remote regions without any basic amenities. Troops have to face great hardships in field areas due to harsh weather condition, high altitude and lack of common facilities like living accommodation. The Indian Army has major field stations in the following regions:

  • Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Central Himalayas, all bordering Tibet.
  • Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, Mizoram (insurgency areas).
  • Sugar Sector, in Shimla Hills bordering Tibet.
  • Central Sector in Uttarakhand.
  • J&K, along international border and LoC, facing Pakistan.
  • Eastern Ladakh area bordering with Tibet.
  • Siachen in Central Ladakh (J&K) facing Pakistan.
  • In J&K, combatting insurgency and terrorism.

In most field areas families cannot join the troops. However, in some soft field areas they may be allowed to stay for short periods.

In the border areas troops are deployed in defences in readiness for war. Most of the field areas are in the remote regions without any basic amenities.

The majority of army units are deployed on high mountains. Troops live here in bunkers which are dugouts with thick shell-proof roofs. These bunkers are dark and small but provide shelter from enemy fire, strong cold winds, ice and snow. Guards and sentries are ever ready with their weapons on the LoC. They see the enemy daily because in most cases enemy troops are deployed right across the border, within a stone’s throw. Defences are on the hill tops and movement up and down is a major problem, even in good weather. To bring down the sick and wounded from these positions to the bases or hospitals is a major problem, since the availability of helicopters and helipads is limited to few areas only. Most of these defences remain cut off from their bases for long spell in winter, or rains. Snow accumulation in the picquets or posts can be up to 20 feet or more in winter at higher altitudes. Only a well-disciplined, dedicated and patriotic force can continue ungrudgingly in such adverse circumstances.

Deployment in Siachen Glacier is a special case. Here our troops are fighting on the highest battlefield in the world. Survival at such altitudes in adverse weather conditions is very challenging. Post are maintained by helicopters. Troop movement is done at night to avoid casualties from avalanches. Though the troops in Siachen have been provided with best quality clothing, rations and special living shelters but life in glacier is difficult and it takes a great deal of physical and mental robustness to serve there.

Though the troops in Siachen have been provided with best quality clothing, rations and special living shelters but life in glacier is difficult and it takes a great deal of physical and mental robustness to serve there.

A part of the army is deployed on the high passes and plateaus of the Himalayas facing the Chinese in Tibet. There is a very large concentration of troops in the small mountainous state of Sikkim. The famous passes held by the army are Nathu La, Cho La and Jelep La. The life on the passes or the crest line is difficult because of extremely wet climate and frequent electric storms. The landscape is bleak and without vegetation above 11,000 feet. At Nathu La, Chinese troops stare at you from hundred yards or so from their bunkers. A good road connects the pass from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, making it easy to reach the pass area.

The life and routine in the field areas can be described only in general terms as conditions differ greatly from region to region. Field areas can be divided into the following categories:-

  • Soft Field Areas: Troops are located here in improvised or temporary barracks, mud huts, tents etc. Limited essential facilities are available. Normally electricity is provided in the rear areas and rest and recreation facilities are also provided here.
  • Hard Field Areas: The troops live in bunkers or improvised accommodation. Twenty-four hour vigilance is maintained in the border areas due to infiltration by terrorists across the LoC from PoK.

High Altitude Areas

In the Himalayan region heating arrangement for the bunkers are necessary in the winter. This is provided by installing bhukharis (heating stoves) which burn coal, wood or kerosene oil. Special clothing is necessary for outdoor work in snowbound areas to avoid frost-bites and other cold weather diseases. Army patrols have to keep moving at night even in bad weather and a man may freeze to death in such conditions without snow clothing.

Soldiers in high altitude areas face problems due to lack of oxygen and uncongenial weather conditions.

Soldiers in high altitude areas face problems due to lack of oxygen and uncongenial weather conditions. In Ladakh, (J&K), which is a high altitude desert with an average height of about 11,000 feet above mean sea level, the climate is extremely dry and very cold, vegetation is sparse, and the landscape is harsh and bleak. The whole area remains cut off from the rest of India in the winters which lasts over six months. The only means of communication is by air. Air service is also hazardous and infrequent due to inclement weather conditions. During the winter, troops have to subsist only on tinned rations and precooked foods.

Siachen Glacier

Siachen Glacier is located in the Eastern Karakoram Range of Himalayas. It is the second largest glacier in the world, outside the polar region. Siachen is a 80-km-long icy stretch dotted with peaks ranging between 17,800 – 25,300 feet. The second highest peak in the world, Mount K2 or Godwin Austen is in this region. Temperatures here remain sub-zero throughout the year and plunge to minus 50 degree Celsius in winters. Strong winds and snowstorms are common. Your hand can sustain cold injury in seconds, if you touch an metal surface in winters. High velocity blizzards (snowstorms) and avalanches (huge snowdrifts or slides) take their toll in this ‘white hell’. The glacier has many hidden crevasses (deep ravines covered on top by snow and ice) which can become death traps. Even the big snow vehicles which operate here sometimes disappear in these crevasses. A glacier, as you know, is a frozen river of ice which moves very slowly. The rarefied atmosphere and lack of oxygen create great health hazards for our soldiers. Basic human needs can hardly be met. Army has lost more men to inhospitable weather than in enemy action. In such surroundings only the most dedicated and motivated soldiers can survive and keep the enemy at bay.

Routine in Field or High Altitude Areas

Normal life-style comes to a standstill in high altitude areas. Bathing and washing become luxuries. Normal food habits have to be changed as a special diet is needed for survival at higher altitudes. All rations and stores have to be air dropped as there are few surface routes available. Letters are carried by special helicopter couriers to the mountains and dropped at a specified place. Long spells of bad weather keep the skies closed and all direct contact is lost with the rest of the world. Troops have to bear with extreme isolation and privation in such ‘white out’ conditions.

The code of honour that the Army follows is fostered through various customs and traditions which are legally and morally binding on every officer and soldier.

In Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and J&K, there have been long-drawn insurgencies. The army is deployed in these areas under trying conditions because insurgents and terrorists take shelter in crowded towns or thick jungles. There are regular encounters with the insurgents in which there are fatalities on both sides. Cordon and search operations in jungles, mountains and towns are difficult, which require large strength of troops. In such circumstances there is neither peace nor war.

In the field areas normal training for war is not possible although it is necessary as a unit may be suddenly moved to a desert or the plains during a war. A unit is normally brought back to a peace station for rest, refitting and training every two-three years.

This rotation from field to peace goes on in the life of a soldier. Can you believe that a unit packs and unpacks almost every six month on an average and there are long separations from their families?

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Bharat Verma

A former Cavalry Officer and former Editor, Indian Defence Review (IDR), and author of the books, India Under Fire: Essays on National Security, Fault Lines and Indian Armed Forces.

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5 thoughts on “A Glimpse of Life in the Army

  1. My father is in defense service since 1984. He will be retired soon. I was visited most of the places with him like Jaliawala Bagh, Wagah Border. He is my motivation. My grandmother tells me about his journey and he also talks about his work style and some moments of Kargil war too.

  2. Missed out the peacetime activities such as senior officers visits, inspections, war games, sports and service-related competitions, practice camps, ITCs, etc. Sometimes “peace” locations become more harrowing than field stations.

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