Published On : Sun, Jun 14th, 2015

An Army man recalls his journey in newly independent India


With the High Commissioner of India and the Commerce Secretary of the Government of Vietnam at exhibition in Ho Chin Minh City 1988

Ramdas Onkar was born eleven years before India gained independence in a small, poor village of Vidarbha. Maharashtra was not yet born then, and wouldn’t be for 25 years more… Vidarbha was still part of the Central Provinces ( M.P. ) state of which Nagpur was the capital. But Amraoti and Jabalpur were two equally progressive and developing centers for education.

Ramdas was the oldest of seven children of a no-good, alcoholic father; their paternal grandfather brought them up and ensured they got educated. Specially Ramdas, since he was the brightest. After High School when this lad had to be sent first to Amraoti and then to Jabalpur to get college education, a generous loan was proffered by his employer, a well to do farmer and businessman called Shri Bari. That was the social milieu then – there may not have been nationalized banks giving education loans, but generous, noble rich men ( aristocrats) looked out for deserving but poor youngsters. Each village had a few of such benevolent souls.

In Jabalpur Ramdas went to the Government Engineering college where on the advise of his benefactor, he studied ‘Electronics and Communications’. By the time he graduated, India had been independent for a decade. And like all Indian youth then, he was full of idealism and zeal. He aimed to be a ‘first class Government officer’ which was considered the pinnacle of success for rural lower class and lower caste people. (During British rule, only Parsees and Brahmins could aspire to these positions).


But fate had something else, equally notable in store. When he was in final year, the Army men came looking for bright youngsters to hire. Ramdas sailed through the grueling interview conducted by Service Selection Board the taxing one and a half miles they made them run in the day Sun and the thorough medical examination which they took in the end. He got a call to go to Dehradun to begin training. But again a hitch surfaced – they needed two Guarantors and a payment of Rs. 1.200/ to be made to the Indian Military Academy before they started. This was a lot of money – and who did they know as Guarantors. Village farmers would not do! Again Mr. Bari came to the rescue – profferring another ‘loan’ and lending his urban, educated friends as guarantors too.

Then tragedy struck – the day he was to board the train to go to Dehradun, word came that his grandfather, who had brought him up, was no more. Going for the funeral and the 13 days of last rites would have meant forgoing the Army job. With a heavy heart Ramdas said farewell to his grandfather and joined the Army.

Post training, his first posting was to Siligudi in 33 Corps Signals Regiment. While Indian army had existed since the time of the British – like all our other institutions like IAS and Railways – this was the time when the’modernization had commenced, New equipment were being purchased, even in telecommunications. Being an engineer from that stream, Lt. Onkar used to love tinkering with them and experimenting with making them more useful for the Army. Word of this experimentation got around.

“Yet, whenever I achieved something worthwhile, credit was always given to boss. That was our culture” says Onkar now.


With professor Sonde of Indian Institute of Science, Banglore

Yet, Ramdas was picked up and posted to Signal Directorate of Army H.Q. in New Delhi. Here the staff was working on modernization of all signal equipment. He was hardly 28 then. Those were heady days he recalls. Working side by side with Major and other senior level officers, building up the capability of our army equipment in peace time.

General Batra, the head of Signals wanted to go further and send Ramdas and some young officers all the way to U.K. to do advanced courses. But when the file went up to the Finance Ministry for approval they suggested that all Indian options be explored first.

Thus it was finally to the Indian Institute of Science, in Banglore that the army officers went to for post graduate studies. The academicians there were not thrilled at all to have such unusual students. With their ‘army ways’ they may spoil the atmosphere, it was believed.

But with their hard work and discipline they excelled over their peers winning most of the Gold medals.
A colleague Captain V.K. Kapoor topped the batch. Later on he rose to the rank of Lt. General and became Director General of EME.

Ramdas was sent by the Army to the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering, to teach this time. This was based in Mhow, near Indore. After a stint of some years here, now Major Onkar was posted to the field area on the eastern front. At that time, war clouds were gathering between India and Pakistan both on the Eastern and Western fronts. Pakistan army had ‘attacked’ what was it’s own Eastern section and was ruthlessly curbing down on the elected people’s representatives and the local as well as national government it had the mandate to form.

Intellectuals, students, college professors and political activists were being rounded up and executed. Lakhs of Bangladeshis – then known as people from East Pakistan – had flooded to India as refugees.

The then Prime Minister, Smt. Indira Gandhi, was in a conundrum of what action to take. Western powers were still soft on Pakistan; it had a supporter in China too. Indian Army had to be deployed on Western- Northern borders as well as Eastern. Ten lakh refugees were a financial burden on the country apart from being a law and order problem and there was lots of logistics in giving so many people shelter and food.


With the Co of the Engineer regiment on the field

In such a scenario, there came a word of a secret meeting between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and General Manekshaw, chief of Army.

“I want to move our army to East Pakistan to help the people fighting Pakistani oppression there and liberate them” Indira Gandhi is reported to have said.

“The Indian army shall follow your orders without hesitation Madam Prime Minister” General Manekshaw is believed to have replied.

“But please do not force us to attack now. If you let me decide the time of the operation; I will give you a Victory. Otherwise, I cannot guarantee the outcome”. (It was monsoon season then and it rains very heavily in Bangladesh).

A pensive and tense Mrs Gandhi, thought for very little time before replying:
” I rely on your judgement completely, General”.

Indian forces went into Bangladesh at the end of Nov. 1971.

Onkar and his group also moved into the the war zone with the very crucial and vital mission of establishing communication lines between the war front and the H.Q. of the war zone. Remember this was not the time when Satellite communication systems or internet connections were available! It was all walkie talkie, wireless communication with ‘HF radio’ equipment.

Unless the senior Army officers at H.Q. knew what the status at the various borders and war front was; whether the enemy was retreating or advancing; what was their numbers; how was our own army faring – they could not take any decisions.

The war front was moving constantly – new towns were being targeted, captured and the army changed directions constantly. It was part of our strategy in the ‘Bangladesh liberation war’.

In one such instant, Onkar was to establish communication from our H.Q at Geneda to the Corps H.O at kishannagar camp in Kishanagar which was 66 kms distant away. He and his men had to physically erect poles and put up antena in pitch darkness and make the radio contact possible and exchange war front information. This was a crucial and critical time of the war.

He remembers one incident clearly from the another front. When returning from the front back to his camp in his jeep they suddenly came across an enemy post that had been evacuated by the Pakistani army abruptly leaving behind large quantity of guns and ammunition. Anyone could be tempted to pick up a gun or a rifle as a “war time souvenir” to carry back. But he and his driver resisted all such temptation and just reported the situation back to their H.Q.

Later, after the war was over, many officers were penalized and some even faced court martial for indulging in such activities.

In a short time the war was won with a resounding victory that the world would marvel over. A record number of 90.000 + Pakistani soldiers were taken POWs when their army surrendered. India had helped Bangladesh be born!

In 1973, Onkar, in recognition of his talent and ability in communication networks was deputed to Bharat Electronics Ltd in Ghaziabad for executing long distance communication. Four years later, BEL wanted to absorb him in their corporate set up.

For the third time in his Army career, Onkar said no to a lucrative offer and chose to return to the Army to head his own Signals regiment as Lt. Colonel. He was then posted at Army H.O. in Delhi. He commanded the Special Signal Regiment at Delhi Cantt.

In 1983, another state Public Sector wanted his services on deputation. This time it was the fledgling Punjab Communications Ltd based in Mohali, near Chandigarh. The company was very small, had a single product and single customer – Indian Railways. Lt. Colonel’s brief was to develop the product range as well get more customers. To his delight he found he would be working under his old senior colleagues Colonel Indrajeet Singh and Brig. Choudhary as the Managing Director with whom he had worked earlier when he was in the Signal Directorate at New Delhi.

Together, they brought in new products, developed some technology indigenously; some was borrowed from USA and Europe and clients like ONGC, IOC, DOT were added.

Within a few years, the Company that had a turnover of 60+ lakhs became a 60 crores’ Company!

This was the period when there was maximum transition to modern equipment and technologies. Also the time when Indian manufacturers began looking to Nepal and other countries to sell to. They were attending electronic fairs in Jakarta and Geneva to exchange ideas and look for markets as well as newer products for India.

Sam Pitroda had been invited to India by then PM Rajiv Gandhi, to galvanize the Indian communication scene.

It was also the time of political instability in Punjab. Khalistan movement was at its bloodiest peak. The then Punjab CM was assassinated and the whole government edifice toppled. Governor’s rule was brought in. With the top administration changing drastically bureaucrats also became omni present and omni potent. For the first time, there was a tussle for picking top Corporate cherry postings between the IAS lobby and the technocrats.

It was at this time that Lt. Col. Onkar got the happy news that he was being promoted to full Colonel. But along with the promotion the army also wanted him back at Army H.O.

This was the first and last time that Ramdas Onkar thought of his family and their needs first; and also his responsibility to the Company he had helped grow and expand. He could not leave them in the lurch. So he gave up his promotion and continued in Punjab Communications with the new designation of General Manager.

But few years later he was left in the lurch in a Corporate Conspiracy. All though he was promoted and was about take over as the Managing Director of the company, he had received communication about it too, when suddenly the post went to an IAS officer. Naturally, since Punjab Communications was a 100+ crore company then, who wouldn’t want to head it?

Onkar’s benevolent boss,renowned scientist Dr. Madan was removed as Chairman suddenly and unexpectedly. The only saving grace was that another Army senior Air Martial Bhatia of Indian Air Force was his sympathizer and was around as the advisor to the corporation.

Despite his disappointment Onkar had co operated completely with the new MD and this gesture was appreciated. A move was made to appoint him Jt. Managing Director.

The rustic boy from the village, who did not have money to go to the college had come a far away in the Army and in Corporate India just by the dint of his talent, hard work and sincerity to the nation.

This was how they built India then – these people were truly Made for India and whole heartedly implemented ‘Make in India’ too. ( For much of the time, there was an embargo on imports and Indian scientists and engineers were encouraged to develop indigenous technologies).

In doing so, they made India. A new, powerful, self sufficient Asian Power. They made India proud.

Today, almost two decades after retiring from his Corporate job, Col. Onkar is not resting on his laurels and enjoying retired life….He is still busy. Writing books on Career counselling and personality development for youngsters everywhere. His first two books on this subject were published by Chand and Company of Delhi and the first book has won awards and is much in demand. It is exported to countries like Germany where it has been translated into German.

He has hobbies like the study of Feng Shui and he has written and published a book on this subject also. In short he is a prolific writer and reader.

In an unforeseen calamity he lost his only son, who was doing business in Singapore. His work and study in human psychology and self development helped him cope with the grief and he counselled his wife too.

Today, he takes pride in the fact that his son in law is also doing well in a career in the Army… his grandson may also follow in the same footsteps.

Life of an Army man seems to be in their genes now.

It is due to people like this, that we can sleep safe in our homes at night.

Sunita Mudliya