Leaning back on the sofa in his elegant Greater Noida apartment, Lt Gen (retd) Rakesh Sharma, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM, former Adjutant General of the Indian Army, has an affectionate smile on his face as he remembers his friend Bipin, the 21-year-old Pahadi boy with gentle brown eyes and neat crewcut hair who had marched into the 5/11 GR adjutant’s office 43 years back and had saluted him smartly.

“I was just a year older than him,” he says. “We had struck up a friendship almost instantly.” The two went on to serve together, off and on, in the unit, initially as young Second Lieutenants and then as Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command (2IC) when Rakesh took over the unit and Bipin became his 2IC. Much later, the two served together in Delhi, when Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma was serving as Adjutant General of the Indian Army and Lt Gen Bipin Rawat was appointed Vice Chief of Army Staff and later Chief of Army Staff. Rakesh had also done a tenure as ADC with Bipin’s father, Lt Gen Laxman Singh Rawat. He was present at Bipin’s as well as his sister Kiran’s weddings, and was by his friend’s side when he lost both his parents.

As 2IC in Binnaguri, with Rakesh as the Commanding Officer, Bipin would often come to the Sharmas’ house for dinner and demand to know from Payal Sharma: “Ma’am, ye batao dessert mein kya bana hai (Tell me what’s for dessert)?” She would always have an extra serving ready in the fridge that the two friends would devour after the last guest had left, sitting at the dining table with spoons in their hands, cracking jokes and eating straight from the dessert bowl.

“I would see the two of them in deep discussion, sometimes agreeing and often disagreeing with each other, lost in fierce arguments. But at the end of it they would come to the dining table and end the evening with large helpings of dessert. They both had a sweet tooth,” Payal recollects with a gentle smile.

Gen Sharma’s memories go back much further. “That day in Khasa, when we ragged Bipin, he did see through our charade. He was way smarter than us and, being the son of an ex-CO, he knew our names from before, but he just played along,” he says. “Later he told me, “Mujhe pata tha aap kaun hai (I knew who you were).” And we both had a good laugh. The gag just brought us closer.” Tripling on a Black Yezdi Halfway through its Punjab posting, 5/11 GR moved from the ramshackle Khasa distillery location to Govindgarh Fort near the Amritsar railway station. While earlier, the young officers used to share rundown, crumbling rooms, they now had their own smartly turned out bachelor pads.

Lt Roy had bought a stylish black Yezdi motorcycle, and often, Roy, Rakesh, and Bipin would go tripling on it, jostling each other for space. “We would scout the city restaurants for interesting meals whenever we needed a break from mess food,” Gen Sharma remembers. While the three of them would mostly ride on the same bike, if another bachelor decided to come along, they would borrow a scooter from someone or take the unit one-tonne and go rocking over Amritsar’s roads in fauji style. The unit one-tonne had been converted into a fairly comfortable bus, with seats placed along both sides. The youngsters would pile in and happily be driven down to the city, jumping out of the back when the truck parked outside the restaurant they wanted to eat at. Meal over, they would troop back to the one-tonne and, climbing up one after another, ask the driver to head back to the cantonment.

Soon, their CO, Lt Col Ravi Devasar, got posted out of the unit, and Lt Col SK Chakravarty took over as the new Commanding Officer. He appointed Bipin as his Intelligence Officer (IO), while Rakesh sat on the adjutant’s chair. “Bipin was bright and forthcoming from the beginning,” remembers Gen Sharma. “He was well-read and well-informed, and could chat and converse on any subject, never hesitating to speak his mind.” Young officers normally avoid speaking out in the presence of seniors, but Bipin had no reservations about expressing his opinion.

“5/11 had a friendly crowd of senior officers who encouraged youngsters to participate in discussions. That was the culture in our unit,” Gen Sharma explains. “We didn’t believe in the maxim that young officers should be seen and not heard. They would be asked their opinions during discussions, and they would be heard.” This was something that would stay with Bipin all his life. He always had a reputation for plain-speaking, even as he rose through the ranks and was expected to be more diplomatic.

He would express his opinion clearly and bluntly, whether he was addressing army gatherings or the media, or even interacting with his own family members, who always preferred to approach his wife rather than him when it came to asking for any kind of favours. Madhulika would be sweet and sympathetic, and would convey the requirements to Bipin seeing the right time and mood. Sometimes he would get convinced and sometimes he wouldn’t.

He never learnt the art of diplomacy and would often be criticised for being brash when he was only being forthright, without bothering about the fact that he might be judged for it. “Yes, he spoke his mind all his life, starting from when he was just a Second Lieutenant,” agrees Gen Sharma. “And why not? He was intelligent, sharp, confident. He had studied at the best schools in the country. What’s more! He was a Sword of Honour, the top man in his course.”

He emphasises that even though Bipin had come to the unit with a Sword of Honour tag, he still had to validate his worth in front of the troops. Earning the Respect of Gorkha Troops The Gorkhas had the reputation of being gutsy warriors, and Bipin would have to prove the same to them before earning their respect. Which he did very soon. The opportunity came when the unit was sent on a canal-crossing drill, a common infantry war preparedness exercise in the western sector (Punjab and Rajasthan), where the ditch-cum-bund (DCB) system of warfare is propagated. Soldiers have to cross a water body that cannot be surmounted by a tank and then attack the enemy, who is expected to be on a raised piece of land behind it.

The Gorkhas, hailing from the hills, are not natural swimmers, and so the troops were apprehensive about getting into the water. Bipin volunteered to go first. Clad in his combat uniform, with his rifle and backpack on his back and a thick rope tied around his waist, he swam across the nallah, his strong strokes pushing his lithe body forward, against the raging current. He climbed out on the other side with his uniform soaked and boots dripping water. Using one hand to wipe the spray off his face, he untied the rope wound around his waist and secured it to a tree trunk. The other end of the rope was being held by the Gorkha troops on the other bank, who then tied it up and got into the water one by one and swam across the canal, using the rope for support against the fast flow of the water.

“Bipin was a good swimmer. He was quick to volunteer for the task. I saw him swimming across the canal with the rope tied around his waist, after which the rest of us crossed over. His courage was immediately recognised by the Gorkha troops, known for their own fortitude,” remembers Gen Sharma. “He did very well in whatever event he participated in. When he took the unit for a mine-laying comp, we came first or second, I am forgetting exactly what, but we did superbly well. He subsequently topped almost all his courses.”

Taking a Convoy to Uttarkashi In 1982, the dynamic Lt Col Abjeet Mamik took over 5/11 GR, and the young Captains got to serve with their third Commanding Officer. Col Mamik would have a deep influence on both Bipin and Rakesh, and Mrs Bubbles Mamik looked upon the two of them as her own boys. Soon, the unit received move orders to Harsil, an army cantonment on the banks of the Bhagirathi River in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, just 100 km from the China border. Rakesh handed over the Adjutant’s charge to Bipin and moved out as Officer Commanding (OC), Advance Party.

Bipin came to Dehradun with the unit on the army special train, from where he took a convoy to Uttarkashi, which was about 78 km from Harsil. In winters, the unit stationed at Harsil would come down to Bhatwari, since it would start snowing and temperatures would dip below freezing point. In summers, they would move back to Harsil. For Bipin, it was a homecoming of sorts, since his mother belonged to Thati, a small village in Uttarkashi. He and Rakesh made a trip to Thati during the tenure, and the elders in the village were delighted to see that the six-month-old baby with fat pink cheeks, whom they had last seen in his mother’s lap more than two decades back, had grown into this strapping young army officer.

Bipin: The Man Behind the Uniform

Excerpted with permission from Bipin: The Man Behind the Uniform, Rachna Bisht Rawat, Penguin Books.