How the Indian Army has Inspired Muslim Youth

Inspiring Stories of Sohail Islam and Ahmed

The President of India Shri Ram Nath Kovind took the salute at the 134th passing out parade at the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakvasla on May 30. The passing out parade, a sombre occasion always, was especially more poignant this time. The man who put it together for the Supreme Commander’s inspection, the Subedar Major Drill of the NDA, Subedar Major Rajeev Kumar Rai, had only a few days earlier been felled by a heart attack, testifying to the pressures of performing in front of the highest constitutional authority in the land. A veteran who served in the Siachen, Kashmir and the North East, Rai was the head drill ‘ustad’ of the Academy, credited with instilling discipline into cadets. In tribute to him, cadets had resolved to put up such a show as had never been witnessed before on the Khetarpal parade ground, named after Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal one of the alumni and posthumous Param Vir Chakra awardee.

With the Subedar Major departed, the onus to deliver the message of reassurance that the future of the armed forces and the defence of the country, was in safe hands fell on the Academy Cadet Captain (ACC). It is no secret that the Academy Adjutant, who supervises the parade usually has his attention on the horse he is riding than on the parade because controlling the horse is as important as the parade. This responsibility fell on ACC Mohammad Sohail Islam a strapping Muslim youth from Assam.

Academy Cadet Captain Sohail Islam was selected for the honour from among 344 cadets who passed out of the course. Captain Sohail Islam was clearly a cut above the rest as he was an all-rounder excelling in academics, physically tough, mentally robust and importantly spiritually upright.

To achieve this position is not an easy task. Consider the hundreds of thousands of youth appearing for the Union Public Service Commission’s (UPSC) NDA entrance exam of which only 6000 clear the exam and qualify at the services selection boards. And finally, only 300 make it. It needs immense hard work.

Now to the parade, as President Kovind alighted from the horse-drawn carriage, he was received by the Commandant. At the far end of the parade ground, 854 cadets wearing white patrols were lined up in their squadrons on either side of the Nishan Toli, bearers of the President’s Colours, conferred on the Academy by President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. Standing tall, right in front was their sword-bearing leader, ACC Mohammad Sohail Islam. As he sprung to attention on the arrival of President Kovind at the Quarter Deck, the commentary paused and the chatter of the parents and siblings of the cadets stopped. And a hush fell over the ten thousand odd spectators.

After his reverberating word of command for a general salute, sword in hand, Sohail Islam marched up to the dais to report the Academy present on parade for inspection by the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Thereafter, Islam mounted the ceremonial jeep alongside the Supreme Commander for the circuit of the parade ground as the Rashtrapati inspected the smartly turned out cadets. Islam then led the parade in its march past, doing an electric ‘eyes right’ while lowering his sword in salute as he strode past the Quarter Deck, as the podium is called, styled as it is after a ship’s deck in deference to the jointness between the three services that the Academy lays the foundations of. The President was escorted by the Commandant to present the most coveted awards, to the three deserving passing out cadets. Among the three was Sohail Islam, winner of the President’s Silver Medal awarded for standing second in the overall order of merit.

As President Kovind proceeded with his very pleasant duty of inspiring the young lads, the next cadet he had to pin a medal on was Ali Ahmed Chaudhury, a Squadron Cadet Captain, winner of the President’s Bronze Medal. The President received Ali’s salute, shook Ali by the hand and pinned the medal on his white patrol tunic.

As squadron cadet captain, Ali had led his squadron march past, belting out the command of ‘eyes right’ at the Quarter Deck. A squadron cadet captain is among the top-drawer appointments, leader of over a hundred cadets of all six courses assigned to the squadron. He is responsible for steering the squadron’s showing in the competitions for the overall championship banner for the best squadron, an annual life-and-death battle at the Academy. That the contest is so fierce is because the squadron is where the cadets learn that they must be ready to die for their outfit; squadron today, a platoon, flight or a ship tomorrow. He has to be a role model in preparation for the traditional, and historically validated, the manner of leading Indian soldiers in battle; where leading means just that: from up front and ahead. Obviously, Ali measured up and how.

Son of a retired army Subedar from Karimganj in Assam, his twin brother is due to receive the president’s commission from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, this term. Ali is a Georgian, as the graduates of Rashtriya Military Schools, earlier named after King George, are called.
The one who pipped both Sohail and Ali to the top post was Battalion Cadet Captain Akshat Raj, on whom the President pinned the Gold Medal.

Sohail, like Ali, is the son of an ex-serviceman, a Havaldar from West Bengal; while Akshat is a school teacher’s son. All three are from humble backgrounds, society’s bedrock that continues to offer India’s best stock for its most onerous duty. The three typify the quintessential warriors – Karmyogis of yore – trained as the nation’s warriors from a tender age.

Both Sohail and Ali exemplify the words of President Kovind in his speech ‘The parade comprises cadets from all parts of India and from a variety of communities. Its harmony speaks for our essential unity as much as our pluralism as a society.’ He had just had lined up before him Akshat, Sohail and Ali. This is what the line up suggested to him.

Sohail and Ali were right up there inspiring the Rashtrapati and rest of nation to reflect on India’s essence. That’s where Muslim youth need to be, all the time. Sohail and Ali tell that us that it is within reach, doable and, is indeed, a glass ceiling already breached. Just like the remarkable performance of Muslim youth taking the civil services exam and topping the exam, the avenue of an armed forces’ officership – ‘a calling’ for a ‘rare breed’ according to President Kovind – is open for Muslim youth to aspire and achieve. Thanks to Sohail and Ali, the President’s Gold Medal – not having a Muslim inscribed on it since the mid-seventies – is now ours to grasp next.

The author was a Squadron Cadet Captain at the National Defence Academy in the mid-80s.



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