"I asked for my khukri & cut off my leg"- My Take by Ian Cardozo, 1st war disabled Indian soldier to lead a battalion
January 15, 2019
Major General Ian Cardozo was a young soldier in the Indian Army during the 1971 war with Pakistan. During the war he stepped on a landmine and had to cut off his badly wounded leg with his own khukri. In My Take, he talks about the extraordinary circumstances under which this happened and went on to become the first disabled officer in the Indian Army to command an infantry battalion and a brigade. A story the stuff legends are made of.
In 1971, I was attending a course at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington when the war between India and Pakistan broke out. My battalion, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles, was deployed on the border of what was then called East Pakistan and when the second-in-command was killed, I was sent to replace him.
We were a small force of 500 odd men and we captured Sylhet, which was a critical turning point in the operations. The plan was that we would be linked with our formation within 48 hours but that did not happen and for nine days and nights we went without food, water and ammunition. Medical supplies were destroyed by enemy artillery.
It was at this time that I stepped on a landmine and my leg was severely injured. There was no morphine and nor was there any medical instrument so my leg could be amputated. As Gurkhas we carry a khukri, which is a knife with a curved 12 inch blade that can even cut off the enemy's heads.
I asked for my khukri and cut off my leg.
To my great reluctance, I was operated upon by a Pakistani doctor Mohammed Basheer and I must say he did a good job. I was never able to say thank you to him. Later I was evacuated and taken to Pune where I was fitted with an artificial leg.
My aim was to command a battalion and this was a major setback. Physical fitness is a focus of the Indian Army and the perception is that if you are not physically fit, you have no place in the Army. While in hospital, I was told that I would probably be invalided out for no fault of mine even though I was very senior in my course.
There was a policy at the time that soldiers who lose a limb in battle would be given staff jobs, not command roles. That is not what I had joined the Army for and I decided I had to fight back. To do that, I needed to be fit and I analysed my strengths and limitations. I focused on building my strengths and decided to project myself in such a way that the Army felt I was fit enough to command troops. I would do some yoga in the morning, run 5 to 6 kms a day and swim on weekends.
Fighting the perception battle was a major challenge. There was no question of giving someone with a wooden leg command of a battalion and that was hard for me to accept. I was asked to be part of a committee that had to work out a policy for soldiers who were injured in battle. This was important so people would not hesitate to come forward to fight in a future war.
The committee's attitude was negative though and after months of discussion the consensus was that the highest rank a disabled soldier could reach was that of a brigadier. And that bias continued.
When I found that they would not give me a commanding unit, I did not give up. I continued to run and exercise and had a chance to prove myself during a test for battle efficiency. Despite the reluctance of the commanding officer to let me participate, I was able to prevail over him and in the tests I was ahead of seven officers with two good legs. The officer gave me a good report, which I took to the Army vice chief at the time.
He asked me to come to Jammu and Kashmir with him and it was an arduous trip where I was traveling day and night by road under the toughest weather conditions. I did not flinch from the challenge and the vice chief was very pleased with my fitness levels. He told then Army Chief, General T.H Raina that I had proved myself. That is eventually how I became the first disabled officer to command a battalion.
I believe there is no limit to what one can do. My advice to disabled people, especially the youth, is to be realistic and look at what you can and cannot do. Build on your strength and try and reduce your weakness as much as possible. My strength was the urge to succeed. There will always be obstacles but look at them as challenges and never give up.
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