On the occasion of India’s 65th Republic Day, Captain Pakkianathan walks down memory lane, still brusque, still the typical army man
When India was less than a decade from achieving independence, scores of young men involved in the Non-Cooperation movement joined the British army on the behest of their leaders in the Indian National Congress. They were to fight the Queen’s enemies in the Second World War, in the hope that England would retreat from India after the war, recalls 93-year-old Hon. Captain S. Pakkianathan M.M., who joined the Madras Regiment in 1939.
Though he joined as a draftsman surveyor, Captain Pakkianathan was roped into the infantry battalion and trained in war tactics at Bangalore. “Flaring tensions between the Congress and the British led us to Calcutta in 1940, where we were to prevent bombing of railway lines and bridges,” he says. By 1942, the Japanese had joined the war and were threatening the British in India, through their tacit support of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. “We were then moved to Sylhet in Assam, where we were given jungle training that included camouflage and concealment techniques, digging and hiding in trenches, patrolling and attacking enemy posts.”
All the training in facing the enemy seemed to come to his aid in 1944, when the Madras Regiment stationed at Tamu (on the Assam-Burma border) came under a severe attack from the advancing Japanese troops. “When Captain Miller, the commandant of our platoon of about 60 jawans, was killed by a Japanese sniper, I reorganised the troops and in the end we killed about 100 Japanese soldiers, wounded over 200 and sent the Japanese packing,” he recalls. The 36-hour onslaught was a turning point for Pakkianathan, who was at that point a Company Havildar Major. “In that situation, where many of our fellow men had been killed, I had to remind the men that they originally belonged to the Chera, Pandya, Chola and Vijayanagara kingdoms and that they must fight with that valour,” he says, his tone reminiscent of the original command. His valiant actions on the field brought him immediately to the notice of the British government, and he received a military medal. The medal is now housed within the Regimental War Museum in Wellington, he adds.
Pointing to a black and white photograph of himself on the inside cover of Now or Never and The Soldier of Madras Regiment (books on the war’s history), he says, “I was also given the title ‘Hero of (the) Second World War’.” The picture now hangs within the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington along with a display of the various arms and ammunitions he helped capture.
After his return from Burma, Captain Pakkianathan received a medal and an incentive of Rs. 5000 from the then Governor of Madras, Sir Arthur Hope. In all, he has 14 medals marking various milestones in his career.
“On August 15, 1947, when the England flag was lowered and the Indian flag was hoisted by Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, I was part of the military parade and it was one of my proudest moments as an army man,” he says. A dark event soon followed this historic moment: the death of Mahatma Gandhi. “Though I was part of Gandhiji’s personal security, I was delayed at the Parliament on the day he was shot dead by Godse and when I came over to Birla House, he had already passed away,” he says in a voice weighed down by emotion. He also took part in the last rites of Gandhi. “Gandhiji would always yell that he did not want any security and so we were all always in plain clothes,” he reminisces.
Though India achieved independence, its struggles were far from over and the Captain was part of several military operations including the Partition, India’s three wars with Pakistan and the Sino-Indian war. “When India decided to step in and liberate East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1971, I was almost three years into my retirement,” he says, “but I was sent for by the military top brass to be a part of the operations.” With the creation of Bangladesh, Captain Pakkianathan says he went back to his retirement and since then has served as the chief instructor to NCC units in Madras University, Annamalai University, Osmania University , Kamarajar University and others. He has given lectures on war history, geography and civil defence and is also working towards the welfare of ex-army men.
The Old times
The lives of army men then and now are very different, he feels. “In our times, we were paid 15 rupees (a pound, then) a month and on pay day, the English officer would playfully toss the pound coin at us; we received filtered-down food rations and had to learn how to speak English,” he says. Most of his years of service were marked by outposts at over 15,000 metre altitudes, where daal took four hours to cook, outdoor sports and bhajans were the only forms of entertainment, and it took nearly a month to send or receive a letter.
A native of Dindigul district, Captain Pakkianathan had very humble beginnings. “When we joined the army, it was purely out of patriotism and the need to keep poverty at bay,” he says, “and our intentions on field were also simple - to stay alive and save as many as possible.”