In the first article of series of humorous takes on the armed forces’ most respected institution, the DSSC (Read: ‘Learning ‘The Ropes’ At The Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, Nilgiris – Part I’), I had brought out how a simple thing like asking a question from a visiting speaker or the DS (Directing Staff) enhances one’s image as a brainy sort. Let me now list out the various ways in which questions are asked at the Staff College. That my civilian friends may see some similarities between these and questions at the other fora they have attended would only help to prove the adage: all cats are grey in the dark.

1.  Just woke up and missed greater part of the lecture. Ever since we started going to a class, when we were small, we have discovered that the soundest sleep comes to us when sitting in a class-room (Read: ‘Sleep And I – Lovers Once Strangers Now’). Indeed, so powerful is this recipe that many people, nowadays, in order to get over their insomnia, have changed the decor of their bedrooms to look like class-rooms. So, when this breed is suddenly jolted from sleep, it has no choice but to ask a question so that it wouldn’t be (unfairly) presumed by the instructor/speaker that he wasn’t paying attention. Of course, he was paying undivided attention and had merely gone into meditation on the subject of Indian Defence Budget.

2.  Question intended to impress. This question goes like this: “Sir, the other day I was reading through the Far Eastern Economic Review about the Asian Tiger Economies (a quick glance at the DSs and SI (Senior Instructor) if it has recorded with them) and of course I couldn’t help comparing it with Jagdish Bhagwati’s ‘A Pure Theory of International Trade’ in The Economic Journal….blah….blah….blah (poor speaker is now wondering what the question is all about)…..so Sir, in the light of all these findings on the economic health of nations, do you really believe that globalization is such a good idea?” The speaker or the instructor is visibly relieved that there is a question after all!

3.  Question of one-upmanship. This one is intended to bring down a rival questioner who seemed to have made a good impression on the speaker/instructor; so much so that the latter mentioned it in so many words whilst replying, “Good question that”. So now a quick fire-fighting is required to subtly put across to the speaker/instructor that the question was based on faulty data/assumption or plain ignorance. The question then goes like this, “Sir, coming back to the Sinking of Belgrano in the Falklands War of 1982 (without naming the earlier questioner), of course it was the earlier theory that……….but, a little more analytical study would bring out the stark fact that the sinking had nothing much to do with the declaration by UK of the Total Economic Zone; don’t you agree, Sir?

4.  Stolen question. This questioner has no idea of what the subject of discussion is and what the question is all about. It so happens that when the Xeroxed notes of an ex student from his regiment reached the regiment, the question was written on the sidelines of the docket. So, on this intelligent sounding question, if the speaker or the instructor asks clarification or asks him to explain, he fumbles.

5. Question during students’ presentations/MRPs (Minor Research Projects). I learnt it the hard way that these are planted by the student presenters themselves so that no genuine question can be asked by the others for which the presenter may not have a prepared reply. This is strictly on you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours basis. Hence, if you have obliged a friend by asking him a question during his presentation, it is only civil that he asks you one during your presentation for which you have already rehearsed the reply.

6.  Question to forestall question by the instructor. The Instructor is about to finish his harangue and he has a bad habit of asking questions to gauge how much the students have soaked in his talk. If the Instructor is allowed to continue with this hare-brained idea without resorting to offence-is-the-best-form-of-defence, it can be disastrous. Hence, asking a question from the instructor and get him involved in further imparting of gyan is as much an emergency as diffusing a terror-bomb at a public place.

7.  Question to buy time. This is similar to #6 above with the difference that the Instructor has already asked you a question and you are searching in your mind for the appropriate or intelligent sounding reply. It goes like this, “Sir, I take it that you are asking me about the number of Tanzeems that are active in Kashmir; but, before I come to that, I wonder if you are enquiring about the Tanzeems that are active now by their original names or should I also include those who have changed names and are now called something else?” In the meantime his right hand is stealthily working to enquire from brother officers the correct reply.

8. Question to confuse the issue. This is resorted to when you have been asked a question about, say, “Should India have more Aircraft Carriers?” But you have not the foggiest  idea of what a carrier does at sea. However, you have, say, vast experience of minesweepers. So your longish question to confuse the issue (this is from a real question actually asked!) would go like this: “Sir, before we come to the all important question of whether we require more aircraft carriers, let me tell you of the data I gathered about the big ships that have been sunk during various wars as a result of mine hits. Indeed, my little research shows….blah….blah….blah……..In the light of this important finding by the RAND corporation, the question that we should be asking ourselves is not how many aircraft carriers that we require but do we have adequate means to protect our aircraft carriers so that this vital national assets are not sunk whilst leaving harbour itself.” Lo, and behold, the DS is often grateful that a new facet has been opened up allowing for greater participation as he himself was finding it difficult to provoke two hours of discussions on the subject of a blasted carrier.

9. Question to show that you are the first one to understand the complex hypothesis of the speaker/instructor. This goes like this, “If I may say so, Sir, this is brilliant expose’ on ‘Decision Making Tools Under Conditions of Ambiguity’. I understood the first five equations straightway; but, about the last equation where you made the Function of Ambiguity as a Subset of Unknown Data, I have not understood if it should include all the Unknown Data or only the ones that have been derived from Equations 2 and 3?” The rest of the class is totally flummoxed and that, precisely, is the intention of the question.

10. Question to settle scores. Yesterday, you were feeling very hungry and Major XYZ stood up to ask a question just before lunch time  and you missed the hot Chana Bhatura in the Mess, your favourite dish. Today, Major XYZ’s favourite dish Asian Fried Rice will be served. Isn’t it only human that you pay back Major XYZ in his own coins?

11. Question to sum-up the ensuing discussion. In this style of asking question, you have nothing whatsoever to add to the ensuing discussion as one by one all your prepared questions have been asked. However, you still have to participate. So you merely observe the discussion and pick up impressive sounding parts of several students’ questions and make an original chow mein question. This question has various telll-tale words such as ‘Whilst’ ‘Firstly’ and ‘However’. Here is an example: “Whilst I agree with Major Bakshi that the complexity of planning cold start doctrine can render its effective implementation very difficult; however, firstly, as brought out by Major Nair, the shock and surprise value far overweighs the planning complexity. However, we also have to take in consideration Cdr Kapoor’s view that small glitches can bring to nought the entire planning. The question, then arises is whether we should use QA techniques in assessing the likely results of a cold start strategy or simply hope for the best?”

If you follow this closely, you would find there is barely any substance in the question. But, it sounds most impressive. The Majors mentioned in the question also feel nice that their zilch was noticed as brainy questions.

However, one particular distinctive style doesn’t take you places; you have to adapt the style appropriate to the situation. And, that’s what separates men from boys in the Staff College. If you have observed other forms of asking questions please don’t hesitate to write in the Comments below.

© 2012 – 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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  1. One more type as the Academy lingo goes–The guest lecture stand up [joker].
    This gentleman would spring up as the guest speaker ends with a Thank you ,gives out his name ,rank etc in a loud and clear voice as per Geneva conventions so that the brass in the rear seats will hear him and ask a question which will stump the esteemed speaker.We had a gentleman whose fame had spread far and wide in that when the Yank team from Fort Benning had come over to spread gyaan to the natives they requested the jumper to give some one else a chance! Embarrassed
    and as we natives would say shamefaced he swore revenge .But then come next Guest lecture the jumper was there!!

    1. Thank you Rajiv. Every course has one such character. When a speaker finishes his talk and no one asks questions, the DSs are often heard asking for this character by name!