It was the end of 1984, a tumultuous year for Punjab and the Sikhs. I, as a young insurgency fighter in Nagaland, was waiting for the unit to be moved to a peace station when I received a message of a different kind. I had been assigned to a new relief in a place that I hadn’t heard much about. I joined the unit in February 1985.
After somehow finding the railway/road to Pithoragarh and landing there, a bigger surprise awaited us all. Although designated as a Sikh unit, it was mixed and had equal representation of the Sikh, Garhwali, Dogra and South Indian (SIC) classes. Someone had decided to breed such units on an experimental basis. The commander organized the troops into pure (rifle) companies, with the company commander from the same regiment and the company officer from a different regiment.
The second key decision was that the greeting would be ‘Sat Sri Akal’. The longest lecture we had was on the battle cry – whether to retain the Sikh battle cry “Bole So Nihal” (we were a Sikh unit), or add those of others as well (“Durga Mata Ki Jai”, “Badri Vishal Lal Ki Jai’ and ‘Veer Madrasi, Adi Kollu’). After much discussion, the CO chose one that combined all four. Training him among the troops was another challenge. took a little time to assimilate and for some to decide.
Pithoragarh was a small station that soon resounded with our extraordinarily long battle cry – uttered by troops and officers on every occasion, be it a sports competition, a “bara khana” or simply the start of a road march. We were tented and a combined mandir-gurdwara was established for the prayers – it remained that way until the availability of additional tents allowed us to set them up separately. Responsibility for the distribution of Prasad was alternate; one Sunday the gurdwara served karha prasad and the next time the mandir served sweets. This continued until we organized separate prayer tents. Then came the first request. Non-Sikhs also wanted karha prasad instead of the dry mix served by the mandir!
The next impact was the typical North Indian tadka. Most of the Sikh troops and some Dogra troops liked to bestow a special tadka on the langar dal. This was made in the barracks with onions, desi ghee, tomatoes and some condiments. Soon this trend caught up with the Garhwalis and even the SIC, who had their own amazing masalas. One that I can never forget was colloquially called “gunpowder” – it has the same effect when put into any food! It was not long before Sikhs borrowed this object from the Tambis. The Tambi company quickly launched its Sunday dosa breakfast routine. Some Sikhs and Dogras also wanted this, but after enjoying a few Dosa Sundays, they soon returned to their Poori subzi. The Tambi roast mutton was another hit, as was the Onam sadhya platter.
The dominant language and therefore the fastest integration was Punjabi. Although it is a very soft and respectful language, some boys had this habit of using swear words. A few fights later, most non-Punjabis realized that these words were just a way to express “emotion”. In fact, some members of the SIC went after it, so much so that a SIC Warrant Officer Subedar was flagged by none other than Sikh troops for overuse.
Sports competitions were fiercely contested and each group had its strengths. Sikhs and Dogras were good at long distance running, basketball and hockey, Garhwalis at boxing and football, Tambis at short sprints and volleyball. In inter-battalion competitions, our pan-Indian ability has allowed us to prevail over others who have only had one or two good matches. It was amazing to see teammates who didn’t understand each other’s language manage excellent coordination with hand/eye gestures and grunts. Victory celebrations were also tumultuous with Tambi and Garhwali versions of Bhangra.
It may have taken us a year, but in the end Panditji got emergency leave during Janamashtami because Babaji assured that he would lead the mandir parade that day (which he did perfectly , minus the Punjabi accent). And moving around the unit, you could see a Sikh and a Tambi or a Dogra with a Garhwali walking with their hands around each other’s shoulder. National integration was complete!
The experiment had succeeded.