The President of India Shri Ram Nath Kovind took the salute at the 134th passing out parade at the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakvasla. The passing out parade, a somber occasion at every occasion, 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 prior been felled by a heart attack, testifying to the pressures of performance in front of the highest constitutional authority in the land. A veteran of service in the Siachen, Kashmir and the North East, Rai was the head drill 'ustad' of the Academy, an awe-inspiring appointment credited with instilling discipline into cadets. In tribute to him, cadets were resolved to put up such a show as had never been witnessed on the Khetarpal parade ground, named after its most illustrious alumni, posthumous Param Vir Chakra awardee, young Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal.
With the Subedar Major departed, the onus to deliver the message of reassurance for his Supreme Commander - and through him to the nation - that the future of the armed forces, and - at one remove - the defence of the country, was in safe hands, fell to the Academy Cadet Captain (ACC). It is no secret that the Academy Adjutant, supervising the parade while riding a horse, usually has more of his attention on the horse rather than the parade. It would not do for the Adjutant to be unseated by an excited or reluctant horse. The onus therefore fell this time on the young - though broad - shoulders of a strapping Muslim youth from Assam, ACC Mohammad Sohail Islam.
Academy Cadet Captain Sohail Islam was selected for the honour from among 344 cadets of the passing out course. It is a privilege he earned by his showing over six terms spread over three years, competing against the best young men this country of a billion and more souls has to offer. To be considered the top-notch leader of a batch training at an Academy that styles itself as the 'cradle of leadership' is a singular achievement. As can be imagined, a military academy does not judge leaders on academic distinction alone. The young men toiling to number among leaders of India's brave-hearts in battle have to build within themselves all-round merit. They are to be morally strong, mentally robust, physically tough and spiritually upright. From among his cohort, Mohammad Sohail Islam was reckoned as the best among India's best. Recall lakhs take the Union Public Service Commission's (UPSC) NDA entrance exam. Some 6000 clear the exam to try their luck at the Services Selection Boards. Only about 300 make the final cut.
As the Rashtrapatiji 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 arrival of President Kovind at the Quarter Deck, the commentary paused. The chatter of the parents and siblings of the cadets graduating that day and the Pune gentry, who make the way up to Khadakvasla twice yearly for the spectacle, fell away. 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 his 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 for presenting the most coveted awards any youth can aspire towards, to the three who won these of the passing out course. 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 a medal above the left pocket of his white patrol tunic, now drenched with sweat. As squadron cadet captain, Ali had led his squadron's 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, 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, Dehra Dun, this term. Ali is a Georgian, as the graduates of Rashtriya Military Schools, earlier named after King George, are called.
Quite like him, the other two medal recipients were also cadets since their school days; both, coincidentally being from the Rashtriya Indian Military College, Dehra Dun. The one who pipped both Sohail and Ali to the post was Battalion Cadet Captain Akshat Raj, a class mate of Sohail at RIMC. Like at NDA, Sohail had stolen at march over Akshat at RIMC by becoming the Cadet Captain, the school head-boy. But, Akshat topped the all-India UPSC merit list for entry into the NDA and at NDA took the gold. Sohail, like Ali, is 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 up India's best stock for its most onerous duty. The three typify the quintessential warrior - 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 while they stood rock solid and steady in the summer sun out on the tarred parade ground that has Shivaji Maharaj's fort, Sinhgarh - named after the Chhatrapati's formidable lieutenant Tanaji Malusare - as backdrop. President Kovind said, '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 to reflect on India's essence. That's where Muslim youth need to be, all the time. Sohail and Ali tell that it is within reach, doable and, is indeed, a glass ceiling already breached. Quite like the remarkable performance of Muslim youth taking the civil services exam, and some exceptional Muslim toppers at that exam, the avenue of an armed forces' officership - 'a calling' for a 'rare breed' according to President Kovind - is open for Muslim youth to ensure the secular and plural colour of the armed forces - referred to by the Rashtrapatiji - remains bold. 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.