“My every passion, whatever I wanted to do, is attributed to the Navy.”
Commander (Dr) Avikshit is a submarine veteran and has rendered his service to the Indian Navy for a total of 23 years before taking premature retirement in 2007. An outstanding professional, Cdr Avikshit has the kind of varied and valuable exposure very few professionals have - from his first hand experience as a submariner to being an expert in ship production to (now) wearing the robes of an academic don, he has excelled in each of his innings.
What were some of the reasons that you joined the Indian Navy?
Well, to be honest, I hail from Chandigarh and I come from a military background myself. It was considered a sense of prestige for Punjabis to serve in the armed forces. In my time, the predominant career opportunities were being doctors and engineers.
Cdr. Avikshit on Submarine casing
Do you remember what training as a cadet was like? What according to you was the essence of training? (laughs) You’re taking me down the memory lane! The whole essence of the training of the Armed forces is to make you strong, both physically and mentally. The Indian Naval Academy, through its extensive routines – be it the Physical training, Theoretical lectures etc, automatically instills discipline within you, automatic behavioural patterns within you – for example, how one must eat, what to wear, how to present yourself and behave.
How were you perceived when you got home from the academy – during your term breaks and even after you got commissioned? Did you feel a sudden change in the way people treated or looked at you, whenever you got home from the academy?
I am glad you asked this. The metamorphosis and the change that you undergo occurs very fast. For example, the people who passed out with you – say from engineering or school, they would not have undergone a drastic change - they definitely change over a period of time, however it is not so fast. As a defence personnel, people can distinctly identify the changes in you – your haircut is decent, your behaviour has been polished, how to sit, stand, talk etc. – all round change. The reactions to the changes were very pleasant. I remember whenever I used to go home for term breaks, I was the centre of attraction wherein everyone wanted to meet me, listen to the training stories which are generally very interesting. And the naval language that you learn is very impressive too.
On INS Vagsheer, in the bridge of old Foxtrot submarine, from Mumbai to Vishakhapatnam, December, 1988
Since you belong to the submarine arm, could you throw some light on the procedure to join the submarine arm and why does one want to join the submarine arm! To answer the first part of your question, the submarine arm is a volunteer service. One is selected from a group of volunteers. One joins the submarine arm because you want to be different! In the fauj (military), the more different you are, and the more dangerous tasks/duties you perform, tumhaari utni izzat badhti hain (the more respect you gain).
You essentially get a kick/a high! (at least I did!)- a kick of wearing the dolphin badge on my chest with pride! Only for the love of being different, one joins a special branch of the fauj – be it the special forces or the submarines or any offshoot of the mainstream service. Once you volunteer and are medically fit, you get selected and are sent to INS Satavahana, Visakhapatnam, for your basic training. INS Satavahana is a submarine school where they train you for the submarines - right from the theory to practically demonstrate how to escape a submarine in cases of emergency. Post your basic training at Satavahana, one comes onboard a submarine. For the first six months of your posting on a submarine, you understand the functioning of a submarine – what a submarine is, how she is driven, how she dives, how she comes up and the various emergencies that can take place onboard and the duties that you have to perform as a crew member. It is only after this that you get to wear the prestigious dolphins on your chest! I remember what an emotional moment it was for me, when I first got my dolphin! As a submarine tradition, when you dive for the first time, you are given a mug of sea water to drink which is taken in from the dived position of the submarine. The significance of this tradition is to distinguish ourselves (the submariners) from the others. The fauj lives on traditions and this is one such tradition. Now that we’re talking about it, I can recall that I have tasted the sea water of 400 metres underwater, which not most of mankind have done.
Working in the old Foxtrot submarine cabin at sea
During your training at INS Satavahana, were there feelings of insecurities? What were the kinds of thoughts that passed your mind?
Every day you realise that you’re a better person than what you were the previous day. It was a confidence booster in the true sense of the word and a lot many feathers were being added to your hat! I’ll give you an example – just imagine, during escape training, you are required to wear an escape suit along with the breathing apparatus and you have absolutely no connection with the environment. You are then put into a torpedo tube which is filled with water which is then pressurized. There is a man before you and behind you, if you are not the first or the last one. And now you are crawling your way out of it! I literally get goosebumps even while just thinking about it! Everyday is an adventure by itself. You never regret even a single moment. Rather, you feel so nice – as though you are improving yourself in your own eyes.
What are the different branches of the Indian Navy? If you talk about the fields where the Navy actually operates – it operates in the sky (aviation), under water (submarines) and it operates in the sea (the ships). So all the three dimensions are covered. There are many branches – executive education, engineers, electrical, naval constructors, logistics, naval armament.
What has been the longest that you have been on sailing? If you are talking about the longest period of time I have remained under water, that answer is 45 days! 45 days has been the longest patrol. When the submarine goes for its patrolling, you are under water all the time! You go dive, stay under water for the required number of days and one day before return, you come up and come back to shore. When underwater, how did you take care of your sanity, or your entertainment or your family back home? It is very interesting. First of all, once your ship/vessel leaves harbour, you forget about your family. You know that the Naval system is such that everybody and everything would be looked after. Say for instance, if anyone is in need of something, the system takes care. Inside the submarine, you have a procedure/routine called the watchkeeping where you essentially have 3 hours on and 6 hours off. But that is only rotational. In fact, you’re working all the time! (laughs) Something or the other always keeps happening! Now coming to the entertainment part, I have watched the movie Dirty Dancing 72 times! Those were the days of VCR. Today there are the provisions of the pen drives, making it a lot easier. Earlier, one would finish their shift or their task and come watch the particular movie being screened in the wardroom. There were also games like scrabble and chess that we had onboard. If nothing else, all the officers and men who were not on watch would get together and discuss various things, some would sing songs. Luckily, we never really felt short of entertainment!
Ascent on top
What is the capacity of a general, normal submarine? How many people can it take at once? In old Foxtrot Russian submarines there would be a crew of about 80. Then, the SSK (German) and the EKM (Russian) class submarines came in. These operated much fewer crew around 30. This is because the submarine operations have now become highly automated. A task done by 3 people earlier is now done by a single machine. Nevertheless, the sophistication of machinery has increased manifold. While being in the forces, how did you cater to your passions and interests? It is very simple. The armed forces are such a beautiful organization. They’ll give you a chance to do anything that you wish to do. If you want to do para jumping, for instance, you’d get that chance. If you want to do diving, you’ll get that chance and the exposure at their expense. Let me give you my example. The Indian Navy sent me to do my MTech. from IIT Bombay. I did not have to pay a penny, rather I got all my salary while doing the course! My every passion, whatever I wanted to do, is attributed to the Navy.
During your tenure, were you a part of any operation or any mission? Yes, absolutely! One was in relation to Sri Lanka- we were on a passage from Mumbai to Visakhapatnam and were told to carry out a patrol. I remember also being a part of a very important operation, Operation Parakram when the Parliament of India was attacked. That was the time when we were just about ready for any situation! I was on a fleet tanker, the backbone for the fleet's deployment at sea. These are the two operations that I distinctly remember. After that, whenever there was a near blockade, although our country never officially carried out any blockade, we were there at sea, doing our job! Could you elaborate a little more on Operation Parakram for our readers? That was the time when the terrorists attacked the Parliament and that was the time when our country decided to take some aggressive actions against the enemy country. We were given the command to stock up. Stock up basically means to just be ready to attack- fill in the complete fuel, take ration and sail with the fleet. Stock up is not as easy as it sounds, you have to be thorough in your preparation. For instance, you have to get rid of all the inflammable items onboard the ship, you have to prepare yourself, check the system – if you have to stay at sea for an extended period of time. A fleet tanker is a very important vessel for the fleet. You can imagine, it is a petrol pump running alongside other ships! The other ships require fueling from time to time. We sailed towards Karachi, Pakistan. Midway, the entire Western fleet taking part in the operation was asked to halt at some islands on the West coast, rather than returning back to harbour. We halted there for a week or two and post which we were ordered to return to the harbour.
Were there times that you were proud of your men and your team, and what were the different things that you learnt from them? Not only that time, but even till date! The teams that we formed back in the day are strong even today. They can be a group of sailors, group of officers, all my best friends are all from the same time when we sailed onboard various submarines and you experience this during operations onboard when the sea state is so high, there is some repair that you have to carry out outside the submarine, water flows all over you – that is the time when you go out with your men and keep each other safe. On an everyday basis, I receive messages from the people I have worked and served with. The bond is still strong.
How is it that the people who join the submarine arm can also command a ship? Why does the distinction exist? Everybody qualifies for the ships. Then you join the submarines. It is mandatory for the executive officers to complete a certain amount of “surface time”. Every executive officer can command a surface ship at various levels.
Where all have you been posted? I have rendered my service to the Indian Navy for a total of 23 years. I have been posted at Visakhapatnam, Delhi, Mumbai and Lonavala, where I was an instructor at the Naval College of Engineering. What were the thoughts and feelings you were experiencing when you left the service? Irrespective of whether you leave the service or you retire from service, there is a lot of insecurity that steps in once you’re in the outside world. Fauj jaisa support system, fauj jaisi (the support system of the military) protection, such a secure environment one doesn’t get anywhere else! You’re thrown into a world which you’re completely alien to. However, God has been very kind to me. I was able to find my feet quite early on, post retirement. I had prepared myself – I had done my US certification in project management- certification for a merchant ship. I realised that the bonds in the military are lifelong. You’re as much a part of the fauj today as you were back in the day.
While in service, I had done certain above-mentioned certifications, and I remember having this one professor who had said that in order to move ahead in life, it is very important to unlearn and learn new, important things in life. You cannot be looking in the rear-view mirror and driving. There is a difference in forgetting and unlearning. He says, “never forget, but unlearn.” There was such a thrill in acquiring and learning new skills, that there was not really any time for regret. Till date everyday is a new life and a new challenge and this is how it is going to be until I breathe my last.
Did you have a role model or anyone that you looked upto? And what were the learnings?
You carry a part of your boss every time with you! I've been very fortunate to have served with some of the best and finest officers of the Indian Navy. I've learnt to put my best foot forward irrespective of the googlies life throws at me! I have extracted and learnt goodness from everyone right from the start and trust me, it pays when the time is right.
Receiving the award for best all-round officer post training
Could you tell us something about your life post retirement?
Post retirement I got into ship building, management and engineering. I am a PhD and a visiting faculty at the Centre of Management and Humanities at the Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh. I also have a deep interest in the study of human behaviour, vagabonding and exploring the world.
Commander Avikshit with the book he authored and released in 2019- Leadership Behavior and Employee Morale
Post retirement, are you a part of any veteran organizations?
Oh yes, absolutely. I am a member of the Chandigarh Chapter since I am based in Chandigarh. There are also various Chapters like Visakhapatnam chapter, Mumbai chapter etc. Chandigarh has a good concentration of Naval officers. We do meet once in a while at our fauji clubs reminiscing old memories.
Sir, do you have any thoughts on people’s changing notion of the Fauj?
Honestly, I think the fault lies with us – We never tell them what we undergo, we never talk about the kind of life which they’d never get, simple things like going to the Andamans or having an experience of para jumping without having to burn your pocket. It is so difficult to get into MTech in IIT but I could only do that because the Navy had my back! Anything that you want in your life, the Fauj is there to give it to you. The only thing is that you should know how to ask! The canteen access and other perks that people talk about are all very small and minute perks and nowadays it does not really matter because there is a very small difference. I’ll give an example – if you consider the grooming aspect – if you take top 50 contestants of Miss India, you’d see a large percentage of the contestants coming from the defence background. Fauji kids often do well owing to the fact that they adapt to any environment. You’d be as comfortable in Mumbai as much as in Visakhapatnam. So that is what your grooming is all about. All this has to be told to our civilian counterparts especially to the youth.
Any message for the youth of the country?
I’d say only two three lines as I am a professor and NOT a preacher (laughs) -
1. This country needs you. This country needs the best men to be at the best places. The Indian Armed Forces is an excellent service. It is not just a service but a career by itself. The experiences and the things you imbibe in the Fauj, you cannot even dream of doing it outside.
2. This is most important. Enjoy whatever it is that you do. If you sing, sing out loud. If you dance, dance like there’s no tomorrow! If you enjoy everything that you do and strengthen yourself internally, the universe will automatically work in your favour! Work hard and play hard.
At the equator, 1984