LEARNING ‘THE ROPES’ AT DEFENCE SERVICES STAFF COLLEGE AT WELLINGTON, NILGIRIS – PART I

Defence Services Staff College or DSSC is one of the oldest armed forces institutions in India. It was started in 1905 as the Army Staff College in Deolali (at present the Army’s School of Artillery is situated there). It then shifted to Quetta (now in Pakistan). After the partition of India, it was shifted to Wellington in the Nilgiri Hills of Madras (now Tamilnadu). By 1950, it bloomed as the DSSC for all three services: Army, Navy and Air Force, together with officers from friendly countries such as UK, USA, Russia, Bangladesh, Singapore, and many African countries; together with officers from Indian Civil Services.

This article is not about the yeoman service the college is doing in imparting training in staff and command duties to the student officers together with a Forward Area Tour (FAT), Industrial Tour (IDT) and the venerable speakers who take pride in speaking at the DSSC. This article is the first of a series of articles, written humorously, about how the serious and the solemn is quickly translated by the students into banal and clichéd, which is totally similar to what the world did with the idea of Religion too.

Therefore, Defence Services Staff College, the venerable institute of the Indian Armed Forces, helps, amongst other things, to produce brown sahibs and mem-sahibs, who quickly learn ‘the ropes’, how to get ahead in peace time with least sweat. In an article in the US Naval Institute Proceedings, many decades back, I learnt that learning the ropes as staff officers helped officers get ahead in life at the cost of the combat officers. However, the article concluded that the US Navy required both: the combat officer and the staff officer, hoping like hell that it would be the former who’d be at sea in times of combat.

DSSC affords the first opportunity, after the Academy days, that the three services’ officers find themselves thrown together in the same milieu. And, one is surprised at the idiosyncrasies of the others’ services. The navy men and women discover a curious fact about their army counterparts: that the raison d’être of the latter is to provide amusement to the former. What about the air-force officers? Well, they only descend from the stratosphere to attend happy-hours.

The experience that I am about to narrate relates to army officers only. Should the air-force officers feel neglected, I assure them I shall do my duty to relate anecdotes about their contribution to eternal humour of DSSC sometime later.

One of the most amusing activities in the Staff course is something called DD or Div (Divisional) Discussions. This is golden opportunity for the bright and the best to show off their knowledge of varied subjects to their Directing Staff (DS) and to other officers. No one bothers about the relevance of your contribution to the subject under discussion as long as you are able to impress everyone with your mastery over the English language. One of the best ways to impress the DSs is to ask an intelligent sounding question at the end of the DS’s having given the background of the subject through a series of view-foils over the Over Head Projector (OHP). The Navy and Air Force DSs in the gallery overseeing the DD usually have a nice nap; but, the Army DSs take DDs very seriously.

When I was at the DSSC in the year 1990-91, before the first of the DDs, the army Senior Instructor told the student officers, “All of you can be very natural and tension-free; none of us are here to critically observe you. So, just enjoy the discussions.” At the end of the DD he said, “Okay, this was alright as the first DD; but, the following officers haven’t spoken at all.” He rattled out about a dozen names and that’s the time the army officers realized that he had fibbed about not observing them. The army officers, hence, are as if on ejector seats; no sooner that the DS introduces the subject that the smart army officer propels himself from his seat and asks, “I am Major Rana from Infantry Sir; whilst I agree with you about India’s need to become nuclear, I feel……” In this melee of officers rocketing themselves out of their seats to ask questions and ticking off points with their DSs, there are these hapless officers whose mothers had drilled into them when they were small that they must think before they speak. These officers are the ones who – to use a nautical expression – miss the boat and are frequently ticked off by their DSs for their non-participation. One such officer was Major A (I am not telling his real name to preserve anonymity). He used to sit next to me and had often marveled at my ability to ask intelligent sounding questions. He asked me the secret behind my “success”. He was a good friend and I blurted out the truth to him that I came prepared with at least three slips of paper with questions already having been formed from the dockets given to us for pre-study. He asked me if I could lend him one of the questions that day. I saw the look in his eyes similar to what I had to see in our Labrador Roger’s eyes, many years later, when he would wait for his food. My heart melted and I agreed to give him the first slip in barter for two bottles of beer at the happy hour that evening.

Unfortunately for Major A, after the DS put up the view-foil, Major Pillai had already ejected from his seat and asked the same question that I had given Major A. His DS from the gallery was already eyeing Major A for yet another ‘non-participation’ in the DD. So, Major A whispered to me that he would double the number of beers if I could part with the second question. I always had this reputation of helping a friend in need as also the vision of what I could do with four full bottles of beer; so I gave Major A my second precious question and whispered to him that as soon as the DS would finish putting the view foil he should launch himself into his ‘participation in DD’ starting with, “I disagree with you, Sir; I feel……..”

The author adjudged one of the most ‘successful’ students at DSSC during his term in 1990-91

It was not one of Major A’s lucky days. The DS put on the view-foil and Major Chaturvedi timed his ejection from his seat so well that Major A was aghast. It had now become a do-or-die situation for major A and he told me that I could get any number of beers from me if I could give him the third question too. I told him that giving him my third slip would entail the badge of “non-participation” conferred on me too at the outside chance of a naval DS being awake, and it was risky for my own reputation too. Major A gave me an indescribable pitiable look and I relented. I was to have the happiest hour ever at the WGC (Wellington Gymkhana Club) that evening. The DS put on the view foil, switched on the OHP and just at that time the lights went off….and we had Major A on his feet with, “I disagree with you, Sir, but…….” The army DS turned around and noticed the defiant Major A and asked, “What do you disagree with young man; I haven’t put up anything?” And Major A replied through tears, “I disagree with anything that you are going to put up.”

I am sure you will agree with me that beer is a lovely drink for one, like me, to celebrate; as also for the hapless to drown his sorrows.

© 2012 – 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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20 Comments

  1. Ravi Sir,

    By your own standards a well orchestrated article. I do get to read the Humour in and out of uniform too. Vivid memories are brought back in a very lucid way and makes an interesting reading especially for my family.

    Thanks a lot. High Regards.

  2. Ha! Ha! And I came away from DSSC (37th staff course) with the impression of Navy being the silent service.Never knew at time that offrs came to DDs prepared with written down questions.(Now I do)
    Excellent anecdotal writeup.As far as I am concerned, for me psc was peacefully slept through Chandragupta.
    Satish Chohan

  3. going for the next staff course sir, hopefully. Great reading, i get it, its meant for people who arnt afraid to make an ass of themselves, as der r more marks for being a participative ass than being a passive one. wonder were its taking us? and wats with the virtual apartheid with the ‘student officers’ at the recieving end???

    1. Hopefully things would have changed after more than two decades of my observations. One of the ways by which the British killed us for the next two centuries of their quitting India was by creating Sahibs; we are so protocol conscious. In Staff course you will see this at its worst. Please also read Part II and IPR.

  4. Exagerated . Student offrs, some of them , may be quiet but not stupid to PART With their booze S-o easily . DSSC YR 1967 course !

  5. You have forgotten the PRETENDER!! This is the chap who jumped up a second after the Pinks Wallah and then sat down with a shake of the head and a disgusted look.Followed with a sly look at the DS body to confirm if they have noticed him!!

  6. Very enjoyable. Clearly things remained in 1990 as they were in 1968. My late father attended DSSC Wellington in 1968. He was from the Navy. I was a kid in the children’s school which in those days was housed close to the main stone building. It was said that at DSSC the Army worked the hardest followed by the Air Force. Next came the children’s school with the Navy bring up the rear. Even though I was 6 or 7 then I remember this being joked about in the drawing room. As a child I took it rather seriously and felt good about being ahead of my dad.

    1. Thanks Vivek. I see great humour in your comment, naturally triggered by nostalgia. When I underwent the Staff Course, we had the Navy guys beating the OGs through their inspired hard-work.