Way back in 1976, 17 year old KB, Chhotu and Manoj – joined the 56th course of National Defense Academy NDA and passed out as commissioned officers three years later in June-July 1980. Who could say then that one day they would go on to write a new chapter in the history of the Indian Armed Forces?
Well, exactly 43 years later — the three batch-mates lead the Army, Navy and Air Force together as the Chiefs of the three services.
This unusual combination will become a reality on Jan 1, 2020 when Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane of the Sikh Light Infantry took over as the 28th Chief of the Army Staff from Gen Bipin Rawat. His batch-mates Admiral Karambir Singh and Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria were already heading the Navy and Air Force.
Admiral Karambir Singh, came to lead the Navy on May 30, 2019 when Admiral Sunil Lanba retired as the Chief of Navy Staff, while Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria took over as Chief of Air Staff from Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa on Sept 30, 2019.
The service chiefs generally serve till the age of 62 or up to 3 years (whichever is earlier). Other three-star Generals (Lieutenant General, Air Marshal and Vice Admiral) retire at the age of 60. This is reason why it is rare for the three batch-mates to be chief of their respective services at the same time.
Coincidentally there have been many occasions when two batch-mates have been service chiefs at the same time. This happened for the first time when Gen BC Joshi and Air Chief Marshal Swaroop Krishna Kaul Maha Vir Chakra from the 5th Course at NDA took over as Army and Air Chief. Interestingly the 5th course produced the maximum — five (4 Army and 1 IAF) Maha Vir Chakra awardees Shamsher Singh (Infantry), Raj Kumar Singh (Infantry), H. C. Pathak (Infantry), S. K. Kaul (Indian Air Force) and Ved Prakash Ghai (Infantry) during the 1971 war.
Subsequently such coincidence was witnessed when Gen VP Malik and Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (14th Course, NDA); Gen S Padmanabhan and Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis (15th Course, NDA), Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag and Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha (44th Course, NDA) took charge of their respective armed forces.
But it will only be the second time in the history of the Indian Armed Forces that the chiefs of all three Armed forces will be from the same course of NDA, Kharakvasla.
The last time when such an unusual coincidence came to be seen was in the early 1990s, when Gen S. F. Rodrigues (1990 to 1993), Admiral Ramdas (1990) and Air Chief Marshal N. C. Suri (1991 – 1993) together headed the three services. They were all part of the First course of the Joint Services Wing of the present-day National Defence Academy, Pune in 1949-1950.
It was a rarest of rare occasion when — Gen S. F. Rodrigues, Admiral Ramdas and Air Chief Marshal N. C. Suri together witnessed the passing out parade of the 81st course of NDA, as Chief of the respective services in December 1991. Significantly, three of their batch-mates Raj Mohan Vohra (Armoured Corps), Hanut Singh (Armoured Corps), and Kulwant Singh Pannu (infantry) received the Maha Vir Chakra, India’s second-highest wartime gallantry award during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
On the other hand, it is not a mere coincidence that Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Gen. Muhammad Musa and General Smith Dun, who became the Army Chiefs of India, Pakistan, and Burma, respectively were part of the first batch of 40 Gentleman Cadets (GC), who began their training at the Indian Military Academy on 1 October 1932. IMA was inaugurated on 10 December 1932 by Field Marshal Philip Chetwode, with Brigadier L.P. Collins as its first Commandant. The first batch of cadets passed out of the Academy in December 1934. General Dun who topped the class and also commanded the passing out parade.
Almost three decades later – the trio Naravane, Karambir Singh and Bhadauria joined the 56th course at the NDA in 1976 and passed out from the training academy together after successful completion of the three-year course at the NDA in June-July 1980, which trains around 350 cadets each in two courses every year. This is the second time since independence when three batch-mates will be heads of the three services.
Both Gen. Naravane and Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria were from the same – Lima Squadron, while Admiral Karambir Singh was part of the Hunter Squadron. Each squadron has approximately 100 to 120 cadets.
Even apart from the same batch the trio – General Naravane, Admiral Karambir Singh and Air Chief R. K. S. Bhadoria share a few more things in common. For instance, all three of them sport a wing on their uniform. General Naravane supports a para-wing as a paratrooper; Admiral Karambir Singh is a helicopter pilot, while Air Chief Marshal Bhadoria is a fighter pilot.
Another coincidence is that their fathers served in the Indian Air Force. Naravane’s father retired as Wing Commander and his mother was an announcer with the All India Radio. Naravane and Karambir Singh’s father served together. Naravane’s father initially joined the National Defence Academy as an Army cadet but couldn’t complete the course due to an injury during the training. Years later after completing his graduation he joined the IAF as an officer. On the other hand Bhadauria’s father retired as a Honourary Flying Officer.
That’s the reason why Naravane and Karambir Singh the 24th Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) knew each other and studied in the same school — even before joining NDA. “Grey Eagle” Karambir Singh incidentally is the first helicopter pilot and senior-most serving naval aviator to serve as Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy.