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HomeDEFENCEMaj. Gen. Ian Cardozo – the Gurkha legend

Maj. Gen. Ian Cardozo – the Gurkha legend

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The valiant Gurkhas are tough nuts to crack. They are known to be boldest, bravest and the fiercest soldiers that legends are made of. They may not think twice before sacrificing their life or shedding their blood on any battle-field. However, at the same time, they are not prepared to do or die, or give their loyalty to just about any officer they come across. They are simple and straight forward but not stupid enough to be taken for a ride. To make them give up their life or blood, you really have to prove yourself to be a better, braver and bolder officer as well as a worthy leader — to ask for anything in return from them. This is why it is the toughest challenge for any non-Gurkha officer to win over, earn their respect and lead or command them in action.

cardozo 1This is one of the most spectacular real-life stories which happened in the case of Ian Cardozo, an enterprising young officer commissioned in 5th Gorkha Rifles [formerly known as the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force) or “Hazara Goorkha Battalion”] during the, 13 days long 1971 war, which led to India’s decisive victory over with Pakistan. This war led to the fall of Dhaka, creation of Bangladesh and surrender by Pakistan Army’s Eastern Command led by its GOC, Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi before a relatively small number of Indian Army commanded by Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C of Indian Eastern Command. The historic significance of this war which ended on 16 December 1971 was that it witnessed the surrender of about 93,000 Pakistani uniformed personnel without any resistance and the largest number of prisoners of war (POWs) being taken alive– in any military operation all over the world since World War II.

During the First World War, 5th Gorkha Rifles was among the first infantry formations to taste blood in the battle of Gallipoli where seven of its officers and 129 men were killed in the first few hours of landing. In spite of all the hardships, a company of the 5th Gurkhas was among the last troops to leave the battlefield.

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Almost at the beginning of 1971 War Cardozo who was attending a course at the Defense Services Staff College, Wellington was ordered to join his battalion, 4/5 Gurkha Rifles and replace the battalion’s second-in-command (2IC) who had just been killed in an action in the eastern theatre.

As per orders Cardozo’s posting was cancelled and he asked to join duty after droping off his family – wife Priscilla and three sons at home. He returned to Delhi by train on December 3. By this time, the war had already started, there was a blackout in Delhi. The next morning, Cardozo went to Palam airport to catch a plane to Assam, but it was cancelled. So he got into a taxi to reach the railway station. When he eventually reached there, the train was already moving out of the platform, but he managed to pull the chain and board it. The next night he reached a place called Dharmanagar where he met four young badly wounded officers before hitching a ride in a jeep to reach his battalion after a day and night journey.

Luckily, Cardozo managed to join his battalion just in time for Indian Army’s first Heli-borne operation in the battle of Sylhet– on the banks of River Surma in north-eastern Bangladesh and one of its important spiritual, cultural and commercial centres after Dhaka and Chittagong. As the Officer commanding the 5 Gorkha Rifles Battalion with 750 soldiers Ian Cardozo who was given the responsibility of capturing Atgam near Sylhet.

It was during the 1971 war that Maj Ian Cardozo, accidentally stepped on a landmine while trying to help a wounded soldier. He didn’t realize it then that it was a mine-field, till a land mine dug-up by the enemy exploded and blew off his left leg. He was immediately rushed to the battalion hospital. This was a serious problem for Cardozo in the battle-front of the field as the make-shift hospital – just had a skeletal paramedic staff and a limited number of medicines at their disposal.

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One of the most crucial decisions that young Cardozo had to take at this stage was whether to somehow agree to get his wounded leg chopped off or to allow the pus and gangrene from the rotting wound to infect or damage the other organs, tissue and muscles in his body. This was a very serious and potentially life-threatening situation which required a quick and immediate decision. The next big question was how, if at all, to carry out this amputation without any antiseptics or antibiotics and who was to perform this operation?

“Give me some morphine,” he asked the doctor.

“It’s finished, Sir.”

“Do you have Pethidine?”

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“No, Sir.”

“Can you cut this off?”

“I don’t have any instrument.”

“Where is my khukri?” Cardozo then asked his batman.

“It’s here, Sir”, the batman replied.

“Cut off the leg,” Cardozo ordered.

“I can’t do it, Sir”, the batman replied in Gurkhali.

“Give the khukri to me,” Cardozo asked him authoritatively.


The next moment before anyone could utter a word, Maj. Cardozo himself cut off the infected part of the leg and ordered his batman, “Go and bury it, now.”

Later that day, one of the visitors who came to see him was his Commanding Officer who dropped a bombshell when he announced, “Ian, you are very lucky, we have captured a Pakistani surgeon. He will operate on you.”

‘Nothing doing, Sir, I don’t want to be operated by a Pakistani doctor. Just get me back to India,’ Cardozo pleaded.

But this was around the time when Dhaka had fallen and no chopper was readily available.

Cardozo then asked his CO: ‘Two conditions.’

‘You are not in a position to impose your conditions,’ he retorted.

‘OK, two requests. One, I don’t want Pakistani blood. My second request is that I want you to be present when they operate on me’, Cardozo pleaded.

This is when Maj Mohamed Basheer the captured Pakistani surgeon got the opportunity to treat Cardozo and did the best he could in the given circumstances.

After getting discharged from the hospital, Cardozo could perceive a great amount of emphasis being given to his physical fitness and to judge whether he was fit to Command a formation in war or peace.

Meanwhile, Cardozo got himself fitted with a wooden leg to replace the amputated one and to get the psychological feeling that he still had two legs to do things he used to do, before.

During this stage, Cardozo faced many problems primarily because many people in the army or civilian life were not prepared to accept him as equal to them with a wooden leg. Hence at each stage, he had to prove it to them that a person with a wooden leg could do as well, if not better, than an able-bodied person. That was the moment when Cardozo swore to himself that he wouldn’t let his disability to come in the way of his duty as a soldier. Everything else followed.

Cardozo’s next dream was to command a battalion. But this required a very high standard of physical, mental and psychological fitness so he started preparing for it and also participated in a rigorous Battle Physical Efficiency Tests (BPET) on the obstacle course.

The gruelling schedule that Cardozo set for himself at this stage was to get up early morning, do some exercises and go for a run before moving to the obstacle course to go through the BPET regime. This, in fact, led to a standoff with the officer in charge of the BPET test area who refused to allow Cardozo to take the BPET test because just in the previous year a physically unfit person had undergone the rigorous test and died.

He even went to the extent of threatening Cardozo that he would arrest him if he did the test. ‘You can put me under arrest only after I commit an offence. So let me first do the test, you can always arrest me thereafter.’ Cardozo replied. Finally much to everyone’s surprise, Cardozo didn’t just complete the test but also managed to prove himself fighting fit by doing things better than at least seven able-bodied officers.

The officer in charge of the BPET circuit was visibly so much impressed that he put an arm around Cardozo’s shoulder and said: ‘Well done, Sir, good job.’

Meanwhile, Cardozo got an offer to accompany the Vice-Chief of Army staff on a trip to Jammu and Kashmir. Cardozo was asked to climb up 6000 feet from the base camp to a helipad 6000 feet above. This was one of the toughest exams to test his strength and endurance and judge if he was fighting fit. The VCOAS couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Maj. Cardozo effortlessly climb up to the helipad without any fuss or support.

True to his words, the Vice-Chief of Army staff put in a favourable word to Gen T N Raina, the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) who asked Cardozo to accompany him to Ladakh. Cardozo did whatever he was asked and climbed the mountains in snow and ice to impress Gen Raina who summoned his file and wrote: ‘Yes, give him a battalion and to all other officers who are not taking shelter behind their wounds.’

Ian Cardozo soon got a promotion and went on to be the first disabled officer in the Indian Army to command an infantry battalion and a brigade.

Thanks to his persistence, will-power and determination, Ian Cardozo didn’t just clear the roadblocks for himself but also for three disabled officers who became army commanders and one who rose to be the vice-chief – even after both his legs were amputated.

Today Maj. Gen. Ian Cardozo (Retd.) decorated with an Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) for “distinguished service of an exceptional order” and Sena Medal (SM) ‘for individual acts of exceptional to duty or courage’ has been able to do many things in life, which many others can’t dream of – just because he did not give up and bashed on regardless.

One thing that makes him stand apart from the rest of the crowd is – a never say die attitude!! “Ayo Gorkhali!” (“The Gurkhas are upon you!”).

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Mohan Guruswamy
Mohan Guruswamy
Mohan Guruswamy, Chairman and Founder, Centre for Policy Alternatives and former advisor to the Finance Minister (1998), Government of India


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