Military & Aerospace

The Making of an Officer and a Gentleman: Customs and Traditions
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Mar , 2023

The armed forces have through evolution been led by leaders either born or thrown up by situations. The erstwhile British Indian Army borrowed the custom of officers being from rich and many a times so to say a royal background, through passage of time, the values ascribed to such officers were incorporated in training establishments, leadership training capsules and also absorbed to an extent by others who joined the forces as officers.

What shapes an Officer? And why a Gentleman? In this I intend sharing random thoughts, some may agree yet others may disagree and question .

Change must be driven by a need for change and not indulged in the sake of change alone. Tradition is how the vitality of the past enriches the life of the present.– TS Eliot

An Officer

Granted a rank and commissioned by a Government gets authority to exercise command by virtue of his being so positioned by the Government. King’s Commissioned or President’s Commission and so forth. As legacy, his past family background gave him attributes of a gentleman and a sense of how to use authority combined with a good upbringing as well as education in the wider sense of the word and not merely academics.

He was expected to conduct himself with social grace as a Gentleman and exude professional knowledge as an Officer, this knowledge included military in terms of fighting ability and tactics as well as worldly in terms of strategy and economics,thus bringing together a healthy admixture of family traditions/background, education, a knowledge of worldly matters, culture as well as military prowess with social grace. Thus, anyone who achieved the position of an Officer was naturally expected to ensure the sanctity of his ‘Image’ through personal conduct resulting in dignity and respect of the rank.

A place of pride was ensured by family tradition where in generations after generations joined the same Battalion or Regiment and the ‘Naam, Namak, Nishan’ of the Battalion. So we have had second generation, third generation and fourth generation officers who followed the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers and so forth out of a sheer sense of pride. The sole ambition of many was to command the Battalion/Regiment and they took extraordinary pride in their troops who were ’my Sikhs, my Kumaonis, my Marathas, my Tambi’s’ to name a few, as the best warriors or fiercest soldiers.

Embellishments of the uniform and the elaborately decorated rides which included horses, chariots and elephants, to the jeeps and jongas of yore. The customs of darbar later called Sainik Sammelan, , dining in/out and pulling out , dome lights and flags were all aimed at sanctifying the image and authority of the leader, instilling a sense of awe, dignity and grace as well as pride. Men laid down their lives to keep the Flag flying, bugles, drums and pipes became rallying points. Once in uniform, the individual ensured that the rank he wore was not denigrated by his conduct or actions.

Formalised Training to Groom an Officer and a Gentleman

With the passage of time, the old custom of officers from good family background petered away. Today we have many officers from humble backgrounds, some who had their fathers or grandfathers in service as JCOs or NCOs and these families pride themselves in the fact that their sons are officers. One can name some who rose to become Chiefs and many others who commanded Theatre. Thus, while the legacy of families continues, the ‘royal preserve’ has given way to more inclusive and Indian requirements. What these young men could not get at home in the form of training, is provided by the Military Academies and Units. The training curriculum ensured formally incorporating all of the above mentioned factors in the grooming of Cadets. Cadets were now ‘Gentleman Cadets’, thus saying it all!

The curriculum has been so designed that it teaches the young lad, who is as malleable as putty , all aspects of developing the right dress sense, to morals and ethics as a code of conduct, to developing hobbies and interests including art, gardening, painting, angling and shooting as well as dramatics and riding to the desired social grace required of an officer giving him/her a balanced personality. Classroom lessons included current affairs, international relations, basic academics while out door training exercised the mind and physique in minor tactics, small things like why things are seen, judging distance, use of ground and methods of stalking ones target, ambush amongst other variables. More importantly, hobbies were included in the training curriculum.

What the hobbies taught us?

 The grooming and shaping of one’s personality and education as a gentleman and an officer would be incomplete without hobbies and interests other than mere military knowledge. The curriculum in the Academy ensured this. Apart from creating a balanced personality one learnt much more through these hobbies for example:-

  • Military Tactics learned while out on shikar taught us the use of ground, how to read indicators of animal movement, use of cover, stalking, camouflage and concealment, sharpened our skills of hearing and observation and importantly where to set up an ambush amongst other issues which lean more towards morals and ethics. When not to hunt, what size of animal to shoot, preservation of environment and flora and fauna. The use of the lie of ground to navigate, how to use the breeze to our advantage, alarm calls of birds and animals and much more.
  • Angling taught us something similar, where fish would, lurk, how to cast a lure without being seeing, avoid silhouettes, what size to keep and what to release. Not to miss out on the important aspect of perseverance and patience.
  • Other clubs taught us the finer aspects of social graces, dance and music for example, photography , fine art, gardening, ecology and environment.

At the heart of it all was the singular objective of making us fine gentlemen and good officers. Give us all a balanced personality and character. The ultimate learning in the Academy was one of traditions , customs and culture which inculcated a sense of pride in belonging.


The ‘Senapati‘ was the King’s right hand man across the world. Military Leaders and Commanders have been looked up to as men of character and valor, they stood proud, were glorified by their Kings and Queens. In India, we had many state forces/armies until the British rule created the British Indian Army to later be called The Indian Army, the legacy of days of Mahabharat , those set by the Kings and Queens were honed, refined and adopted as best practices under Indian Military Leadership. The King’s Colour have given way to the Presidents Colours, the lancets , buggies, pipes and drums all add to the image, organisations sense of pride and the dignity as well as grace which make the service all the more attractive to our youth.

Customs and traditions are the foundation on which esprit de corps is built. It binds groups of people together. The purpose of military customs and traditions is to develop pride in military service and establish a strong foundation of professional and personal relations. These may appear strange and idiosyncratic to the civilian eye but are solemn to soldiers

The Indian Armed Forces inherited many of its customs and traditions from the British Armed Forces, but have, since then, developed traditions characteristic to them. And yet, there is an absolutely warped view amongst a section of intellectuals, academics and politicians that our forces continue to display ‘Brown Sahib’ syndrome and retain a colonial mind-set. Far from it, the forces are well grounded in customs and traditions . The early leadership was trained and groomed by the British, it was but natural for them to have imbibed the customs and traditions of the British Armed Forces. This influence has long been washed away and replaced by an Indian approach, however, the best of traditions have been retained.

The customs and traditions being practiced in the armies worldwide, including the Indian Army, have come about through the annals of time, tested and molded in tune with the need of time, many have been dropped, yet others have been adapted in a manner suiting the need of the day . It can be said with confidence that most have stood the test of time only to add glory to the organisation.

  Officers’ Mess and Officers’ Behaviour. Centered round the officers’ mess and regimental life. Those who have read Manohar Malgonkar’s ‘The Distant Drums’ would be surprised to notice both the similarity and the departure in the regimental life as it was in the years following independence and as it exists today. The outward appearance and ambience of officers’ messes have been retained; the mess furniture, the display of mess silver, liveried waiters, the bugle calls, officers in their ceremonial dress, the protocol of sitting, drinking a toast to the President, and as a grand finale to the proceedings, a piper playing a regimental piece are still followed with justifiable pride during regimental are no longer being followed on a regular basis due to many practical difficulties, the tradition has survived as it generates a sense of dignity and a touch of class to the proceedings. Why should critics grudge this if it helps to evoke a sense of pride and worth in the regiment?

 Unwritten convention told us never to bother about three ‘Ps’, pay, posting, and promotion, trusting the staff at Army Headquarters to look after officers’ career interests and never to discuss the three Ws in the officers mess; wine women and wealth add to that politics. In today’s context, officers are better educated and professionally competent, while the level of trust and commitment to the regiment still holds, it has somewhat declined. In the present socio-economic milieu, the value system has changed. Today, the self-image of officers is increasingly pegged to money and good life.

To tinker and tamper with the ethos, culture and custom would be unfair and is not warranted. I recall a letter addressed by one of our Chiefs where he had exhorted everyone to ensure that the Commanding Officer’s position was given the respect it deserves the Commanding Officer he went on to say was ‘ like a Demi God’. It would only be fair to allow these Demi Gods to practice and follow customs and traditions in their respective Units, these may not be established by regulations; for the most part they are unwritten practices that are obeyed just the same. It is possible to change certain aspects of traditions; however, the tendency to change or introduce new customs based on the whims of the Colonel of the regiments or Colonel Commandants or Service Chiefs must be avoided. Customs and traditions are the building blocks for fostering spirit de corps and are not influenced by the fashion of the time and this need to be respected.

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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

Brig Pradeep Sharma

a regularly contributes defence related columns to news dailies.

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6 thoughts on “The Making of an Officer and a Gentleman: Customs and Traditions

  1. The Defence Forces are the only Government services that have included ‘unbecoming conduct’ as an offence under their respective Acts. This holds Defence Services personnel to much higher standards than other government services
    This ethical behavior standard is expected even in war and counter insurgency operations. Even though this has often resulted in higher risks and personnel casualties; India is one of just 2 or 3 militaries world wide to integrate a number of disaffected sections of our nation into the mainstream by ‘winning hearts and minds’ from Punjab to Mizoram.

  2. In the movie “Lakshya”, the Commanding Officer says (in the context of the Pakistan Army) “Hum me aur un me kuchh farq hai, aur yeh farq rahna chahiye” (there are some differences between them and us, and these differences must remain). The same is true for the military vis-à-vis other organizations. Call it elitist if you will, but our officers and men must be made to feel different/superior. That is what makes the difference between a soldier and a civilian, and that is what makes the former ready to lay down his life for the nation. Vested interests, aided and abetted by self-seeking and spineless senior officers and veterans, are allowing these differences to fade away, ostensibly in the name of “shedding colonial baggage” and “social inclusivity”. Sooner or later we will pay a very heavy price for these actions. Jai Hind!

  3. The current dispensation has diluted the institution of Military Leadership. All military events are being downgraded. The Standard Presentation was the privilege of the President of India to honour the fighting units for their service. It has now been delegated to the COAS. The other traditions and ethos have been done away with a fig leaf excuse of doing away with the tradition of a colonial past. The Politicians, bureaucracy and the CAPF have adopted and developed their own “Indianised” culture, which is a sham. Hopefully, this article will shake the decision-makers to the realities of life.

    • Very True. With the current dispensation in charge and completely castrated Senior leadership in Armed Forces they wont be satisfied till all our units are doing garba. That will be the tradition now onwards.

  4. The current dispensation has diluted the institution of Military Leadership. All military events are being downgraded. The Standard Presentation was the privilege of the President of India to honour the fighting units for their service. It has now been delegated to the COAS. The other traditions and ethos have been done away with a fig leaf excuse of doing away with the tradition of a colonial past. The Politicians, bureaucracy and the CAPF have adopted and developed their own “Indianised” culture, which is a sham. Hopefully, this article will shake the decision-makers to the realities of life.

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