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First Indian Commander-in-Chief of Indian Army

Kodandera Madappa Cariappa or K M Cariappa was the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. India gained independence on 15th august 1947 but a Britisher continued to be chief of Indian army till January 1949.

Lieutenant General, Sir Roy Butcher’s appointment as the C-in-C of the Indian Army was about to expire in January 1949. A decision was taken at the highest level to replace him with an Indian General. Cariappa, Shrinagesh, and Nathu Singh were the three names under consideration for the post. Cariappa was senior most among them but was not in good books of authorities at that time.

Both Shrinagesh and Nathu Singh were approached for the post, but both declined. They felt that Cariappa will be better choice to be Commander-in Chief since he was the senior most and had the necessary experience for the post. Ultimately, all the pieces of the puzzle fell in place.

Luck favoured the brave and appointment of Cariappa as Commander-in-chief of Indian Army was announced. Cariappa took over the reins of the Indian Army on 15 January 1949. The Day was marked as official Army Day and celebrated annually. Only two officers of Indian army have been decorated with the rank of Field Marshal. K M Cariappa is one of them and Sam Manikshaw is the other. Field Marshal is a five star General Officer rank and the highest attainable rank in the Indian Army.

As army chief, Cariappa accomplished the task to transform the army , left by the British , into a national military force. In 1949 the U.S. military award of Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit was given to him by Pres. Harry S. Truman.

Cariappa retired from active military service in 1953, after which he served until 1956 as India’s high commissioner to Australia and New Zealand. He continued to be involved in the affairs of the Indian military, making visits to forces to boost morale during the wars India fought with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Real test of character for Cariappa came during Indo-Pak war of 1965. He was still a retired general and rank of Field Marshal was bestowed on him much later in 1986.

He was a strong advocate of building up India’s industrial capacity in order to support the country’s military. He also emphasized the need for the military to remain apolitical and subservient to the civilian government. In 1986 the Indian government promoted Cariappa to the honorary rank of field marshal in recognition of his exemplary services to the country.

Field Marshal is ranked immediately above general but not exercised in the regular army structure. It is basically a ceremonial or wartime rank. A Field Marshal’s insignia consists of the National emblem, a crossed baton and sabre in a lotus blossom wreath.

His son, K N Cariappa was a squadron leader in Indian Airforce. One day, he was on flying sortie near border. His plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner by Pakistani troops. General Ayub khan was president of Pakistan at that time. He had served under Cariappa before partition of India and held him in high esteem. The moment he knew KN Cariappa is son of general Cariappa, the news was flashed on radio Pakistan that son of General Cariappa had been taken as POW and was safe. Ayub Khan contacted Cariappa, assured him about the safety of his son and promised to release him.

However, General Cariappa declined this offer. He told Khan that all the captured Indian soldiers were his sons, and all of them should be looked after by Pakistan. His son should be released with all other prisoners of war.

Years after his release, K.C. Cariappa revealed: “My dad was a man of high principles. For him, his son and all other soldiers were the same. Even though Ayub Khan was his junior and was close to him, he refused to get me released before the others. I was later released with all others.”

Rank of Field Marshal was first conferred on Sam Manikshaw just before his retirement from army. But not so in the case of Cariappa. He retired from army in 1953 but the rank of Field Marshal came his way after a wait of 33 years.

As a tradition, a Field Marshal never retires. Therefore, this coveted rank cannot be conferred on a retired officer. But as a token of gratitude for the exemplary service rendered by him to the nation, the Government of India overruled the pre-established criteria, and conferred the rank of field marshal on him on 15 January 1986 at a special investiture ceremony held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Cariappa did not look very happy with the rank coming his way so late in life. Perhaps he believed that justice delayed is justice denied.

Field Marshal Cariappa was staying at his daughter’s place at that time. It was Green Park in New Delhi. Entire press was there to interact with him. But Field Marshal refused to oblige.

I was part of the press covering the event for All India Radio. It was a huge disappointment for all of us. His ADC came out of the house and announced that Cariappa would not meet the press. By and by, every one left.

I went to a nearby restaurant for a cup of coffee. Come on Harish Segon, I told myself, you have to get this interview. Do not give up so fast. I went back, rang the bell, and waited. His ADC again came out and asked me politely, what can I do for you. My reply was, sir, I am ex-army officer. I am here to congratulate Field Marshal.

He looked at me and said, wait, I will ask Field Marshal. He went inside and was back within minutes. Well, just wish him and remember, no questions. I nodded my head in agreement.

Cariappa was sitting in a chair in upright stance. He looked old and fragile, but pride of a soldier was intact. I stood before him in attention position, looked straight ahead in army manner and said, good morning sir . I am ex captain Harish Segon. Congratulations for being elevated to the rank of field marshal sir. Defence forces and entire nation is proud of your achievement.

He looked into my eyes and asked, which arm? Artillery sir was my reply. When were you in army? I was emergency commissioned officer. My tenure was five years from May 1964 to August 1969.

Did you take part in 1965 Indo-Pak war, he asked. Yes sir. I was part of 91 mountain regiment in Khemkaran sector. Go on, I am listening, he said.

My regiment supported 4 grenadiers in the defence of Asal Uttar objective. And sir, I am proud to say that first Param Vir chakra of this war was awarded to Havaldar major, Abdul Hamid of 4 grenadiers, the infantry unit we were supporting.

May I add with your permission sir that Khemkaran was graveyard of Patton tanks, and our Centurions did excellent job. There was sparkle in his eyes. I am proud of you my boy.

His next question was what you are doing now. I am a reporter with All India Radio, but I can assure you sir, I will not ask any questions. He gave me a grin and nodded his head. In the meantime, tea arrived. I heaved a sigh of relief. Now I have time with him till I finish my tea. Harish Segon are you married, he asked. Yes sir, I have a son and daughter.

Well, I will give you interview if you promise that you will send your son in to army. I will try my best sir. It will be a matter of pride if my son joins army.

I recorded the interview and rest is history. My story was lead in most of the bulletins. His interview was broadcast in the spotlight programme of All India Radio. Several other programmes carried excerpts from the interview.

My son, qualified Armed Forces Medical College, AFMC entrance examination but he had no aptitude for army. Instead, he joined University college of medical sciences in Delhi. After completing MBBS, he left for America for his master’s degree in medicine. He is professor of medicine now. He has really done well for himself, and we have no regrets.

Sorry Cariappa sir, my son wanted to peruse higher studies in medicine in America.

Cariappa retired from army in 1953. In his farewell speech, he exhorted soldiers to stay away from politics. The army’s job is not to meddle in politics, but to give unstinted loyalty to the elected government.

According to his biographer Vijay Singh, Cariappa never used his power and status for personal purposes One example Singh gave was when Cariappa went to the Rajput Regimental Centre to pay farewell before he retired. He brought his son and daughter with him, and both of them stayed at the commandant's house till the next day. According to the rules, children were forbidden to attend the officers' mess. As chief, Cariappa could have taken them to the mess, but he did not.

Historian, Rama Chandra Guha, in his book, India after Gandhi refers to the visit of Cariappa to Pakistan In 1958. Guha writes that Army officers there who had served under him in undivided India, had staged a coup in Pakistan. Cariappa publically praised them saying, it was chaotic internal situation in Pakistan which forced two patriotic generals to force martial law in the country. Well, such comments from an army general do not augur well, that too in a country like Pakistan. May be, instances like this went against him and his rank of Field Marshal came late in his life.

Cariappa also tried his luck in politics and fought a general election in 1971 but could not win.

Did you know that Cariappa was given the nick name of Kipper by the wife of a British officer. She found it too difficult to pronounce his name. The name stuck to him for life.

Cariappa's alliance with the Indian Army was spread over a period of around three decades, during which he had broad experience of staff and command work. After his retirement in 1953, he was appointed India’s high commissioner to Australia and New Zealand till 1956.

Cariappa's health began to deteriorate in 1991. He suffered from arthritis and heart problems. He died in his sleep on 15 May 1993, at the Bangalore Command hospital where he had been receiving treatment for a few years. His mortal remains were cremated in Madikeri two days later. The cremation was attended by the three service chiefs along with Field Marshal Sam Manikshaw.

Cariappa’s son lit the pyre while the Honour Guard reversed arms. Such a great personality!

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