Updated: May 31
Ankur Chaturvedi is the head of International Supply Chain and Projects at Emami Ltd. His dream was to join the Indian Army but that dream was short lived as he got medically boarded out during his last term of training. He spiraled into depression and rebellious behaviour until one day when he found the strength to overcome the blow. He made a successful career for himself in the corporate world and devoted his life to support the NDA cadets who, like him, got medically boarded out during training.
Could you tell us a little about early days and the impact your family had on your life? I was born into the Indian Army. My father was an Army officer. Although I did have an extremely close knit family, the Indian Army was the only family that I knew of. Contrary to popular belief, my father was not a disciplinarian at all. He was a very ‘cool’ father. And I for one, was definitely not a ‘cool’ kid. At a very young age, I remember attending an Air show in Allahabad. There, I could recognise all the aircrafts and after that, whenever I would see an aircraft in the sky, I would look up and identify it. I could even identify the Military vehicles and their units just from their tail numbers. I spent hours watching the units do their parade and PT. I would just stand next to the road and watch the convoys pass. I would count the number of guns an artillery unit carried. And another thing which drastically impacted me were the people around me in uniform and how they could do just about anything! For example, if a bridge was being washed away and you were stuck, you’d realize that in a few hours, a service personnel would come to your rescue. The image of a soldier being a superhuman was embedded in me in my early days and I think that is something I will carry to my grave.
What motivated you to join the National Defence Academy? My father has never reprimanded me much for my actions. But I distinctly remember being beaten up by him twice in my life. The first time was when I had hit my sister and he really beat me up for raising my hand on a girl. And that is again something that is deeply embedded in me that you cannot hit a girl! And the second time was when he had come back home and had put his beret and cane on the stand in the foyer. I used to be quite short and I stood up on the chair, in front of the mirror and put the beret on my head and the cane in my armpit and performed a salute. The next thing I know, I was lying on the ground because of a bang on my head. Instead of picking me up, my father picked up the beret and the cane. Pointing to the beret, he said to me, “This does not belong to you. This is not your father’s. This is not something you’d inherit. This is something that is earned and the day you earn it, I’ll put it on your head. Until then, don’t you dare touch this!” I remember I did not speak with my father for a few days as I was really upset with him. When we did try and patch up, I remember telling him at the age of 10, that he became an Army officer because of the Emergency Commission (China had attacked India and there was an Emergency Commission setup. Later on he went on to becoming a Regular Officer) and that I would become an ex - NDA, and I’d show him how one would join the Indian Army! That was when I decided that I wanted to be an Army officer. Unfortunately, I lost my father when I was 12 years old and that is something that I still cannot get over. I remember being at the Brar Square, while the guns moved in for the salute and the funeral pyre was being lit. I stood there, in my school uniform. That was the time I had vowed to outshine my father as a soldier and that I would take care of my mother and my sister. Although I always knew I would be a soldier, joining the NDA was something that I decided when my father had slapped me.
You were 12 years old, when you had to deal with this unfortunate loss. By the time you came to high school, was there some sort of a change in your decision to join the NDA or were you firm with your decision? Interestingly, I had prepared a diagram on the different ways to join the Indian Army. Starting from the NDA (immediately after class 12), the Combined Defence Service Examinations (CDS), the TES entry (Technical Entry Scheme - for engineers), NCC C Certificate etc. I had all these options mapped and branched out with an ultimate aim of becoming an officer.
Please do share your experience at the National Defence Academy. I joined the National Defence Academy in 1992 when I was just about 18 years old. On joining, I realised that thinking and dreaming of becoming a soldier and actually training to be a soldier is an absolutely different ball game! (laughs) The first thing I realised was that what looks so glamorous outside is very different inside! Initially, I was quite a struggler when it came to physical activities. Interestingly, academics is the easier part at the NDA, but when you get to a class, you can barely keep your eyes open. Looking at NDA on the whole, I would say that I was not better than any other cadet. I just managed to “ride the wave.” Unfortunately, I did manage to get relegated also. A relegated cadet in the NDA is called a Brigadier, which I tell my coursemates who’d now be coming up for their promotions to the rank of a Brigadier, I keep telling them that although you are becoming Brigadiers now, I have been one for more than 25 years! (laughs)
Could you tell us about the unfortunate incident that you had to face that ultimately led to you being medically boarded out by the NDA?
I was boxing. It wasn’t even a match, we were sparring. (Sparring refers to making motions of attack and defense with the arms and fists). And while we were sparring, I received a punch in my lower abdomen which resulted in my kidney getting damaged. I had blood in my urine and was taken to the hospital. I was told that my kidneys were damaged and a condition called MPGN (Membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis) was diagnosed. This condition made me unfit for further Military service ultimately boarding me out of the National Defence Academy.
Whenever a cadet is medically boarded out, he counters the statement by saying that he is absolutely fit. In my condition especially, I had been in the hospital for a long time. Although there was blood in my urine and my kidneys weren’t in their best condition, I was physically fit. I did pressure the authorities to reconsider going to the extent of running a cross-country to prove that I was medically fit. But unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince them. Back then, there was a lot of vengeance and anger in me, for not being heard. With time and maturity however, I realised that they did diagnose a medical condition and putting me against immense physical strain could have actually cost my life and that is something that no one wanted. That was the reason why they boarded me out.
Do you think better facilities and avenues could have been provided to you in order to avoid this unfortunate accident?
Any academy of the Indian Armed Forces physically trains its soldiers. A soldier cannot be trained through video games. A soldier has to be exposed to risks. A few things could be fine-tuned and changed. But I would not say that my injury or the injuries that happen in various academies are because of systemic faults. A person training to be a soldier of one of the best armies of the world, needs to put himself at risk. The training will put him at risk. It is how these injuries are handled or how the person is dealt with post the injury which is where the problem lies. It is not the injury or even the boarding out process, how the cadets are being abandoned about being boarded out is where the problem lies.
Could you share with us, your life after being medically boarded out? Mental illness is something which is coming out in the forefront a lot now. People are becoming very aware about it. Back then, no one even understood this. When I was told that I was being boarded out, I was scared to close my eyes. Every time I tried to sleep, I would see my father slapping me and me falling down on the ground. Even today, I get those dreams. This is something that I haven’t been able to overcome till date. I lost the will to live! I just wanted to kill myself. Thankfully, in those days there was no internet so I could not Google foolproof ways to kill myself! I indulged in drugs, I would steal money from my mother, I would purchase drugs and I would only think about killing myself. Even today, when I look back, I start feeling depressed. Fortunately for me, I had very good support from my family. My mother is made of steel! (smiles) She was so strong that it was because of her and all the support, that I could stand back up on my feet! I snapped out of drugs without any rehab or intervention. My mental health was so disturbed that I had even attempted to commit suicide on railway tracks. One such incident was when I was attempting to jump off a railway track. I was crossing the road to go to the railway station, I was hit by a car. I fell down on the road and I could see the lights of the vehicle on my face. I snapped. Although fate took away the promise I made to my father, I thought about the vow I took of taking care of my mother and my sister. That is when I went back and thought about my future. Thankfully, I had some seniors who helped me chart my path. I looked up the option of joining the tea gardens as I felt that the life at the tea gardens would be quite similar to that of the Army. Although the regret of not donning the uniform continued, I was lucky enough to get a job at Tata Tea. When I joined Tata Tea, most of my coursemates got commissioned and got posted in that very area. Life was going on.
We would like to know what influenced your decision to work for the betterment of the disabled cadets? When I was working with Tata Tea, I had come to Calcutta for a project and was in search of a new sim card. A man delivered a sim card to me. He seemed very Fauji to me. His mannerisms were very Fauji. I just casually conversed only to know that he was boarded out from the Officer’s Training Academy (OTA), Chennai. Diving further into his story, I found that he got injured during an obstacle training just before passing out, wherein he damaged his spine ultimately getting paralyzed. He was unfortunately boarded out. His father was a farmer from Himachal and took him all over the country for treatment. His sister was scheduled to be married. Once he passed out and came on leave, physically recovered, found that his father had committed suicide because he had gone bankrupt. This man had two sisters and nothing to support him. Talking to him and getting to know his story, I felt extremely guilty - I felt as if the system had abandoned him and I wanted to help him. This man on the other hand, was so insecure that he would run away from me and not face me. I tried getting him better jobs!
A person who was training to be an officer in the Indian Army, is going around on a cycle distributing sim cards. This really hurt me and I just couldn’t take it! Even today when I talk about it, it really angers me. That was the day I decided that the systems needed to change and that people needed the support. We just cannot leave it to the families.
Do you feel that such cadets who get medically boarded out, they do go into depression and deal with other various mental health issues. Do you think that there are better ways of handling these situations and now that you think of it, what could have been done differently, in the past to handle such situations?
There needs to be an institutionalized system of support. When a cadet is in the hospital and is being boarded out, most of his coursemates are engaging in regular activities and are busy in the academy. He’s just one guy left all alone. At that time, a lot of emotional support is required. A cadet in the hospital is not really appreciated in the academy and is often looked down upon. This further adds to the trauma of the person. When the cadet is finally boarded out, the pain of seeing his coursemates go ahead and being left behind is immense. There is no support structure. There is no one who understands this pain. Most of the time the disabilities are not physical in nature but are internal. When a person does not feel disabled/unfit but is told otherwise, that trauma requires support. I fortunately had a Squadron Commander - then Sqn Ldr. TS Sobti who understood this and helped me come out of my situation and supported me. He explained to me, talked to me nicely even when I was a rebel and misbehaved. He understood the trauma that I was going through. Unfortunately, most people don’t get that kind of support and that is missing. Apart from the official facilities and benefits a compassionate hearing and a support to the individual going through the trauma, is of utmost importance.
This is the first time we’re touching upon the topic of disabled cadets. So could you tell us what are some of the injuries that cadets face during training? What is the most serious one you’ve come across during the course of your work?
I can guarantee you that there cannot be a single officer from the Indian Army who has not been injured during the course of training. When you’re preparing to be a soldier, you have to take physical risks and injuries are bound to come around in the process. I know of several cadets who have injured themselves during horse riding, swimming or boxing. Vikrant, who is now a paraplegic, had been in a coma for a very long time. He injured himself during a game of football. Shubham Gupta, another cadet, hit his head on the floor of the swimming pool during a swimming exercise. Kartik Sharma, who has been boarded out now, snapped his spine during a floor exercise. Naveen Gulia, another well-known medically boarded out cadet, who runs a shelter for destitute now, got injured in obstacle training. Hence, it is difficult to say that these are the activities that lead to injuries- it could happen anytime, anywhere.
Sir, we’d like to ask you if your time and learnings from the NDA helped you in the later stages of your life? Or did you have to rebuild your foundation again?
Let me share something with you. I am what I am because of what I learnt in the NDA. The values, attitudes and skills I learnt there were what helped me make a name for myself in the corporate world. I believe that that experience was much, much beyond any degree or any college. Having said that, till date, there is no formal provision for providing a degree to cadets who are boarded out of the NDA. Why should a cadet, who is training for the nation, be abandoned for the rest of his life? Why can't a mandate be given to each state university for cadets like us?
Sir, since you mentioned the State, what is your opinion on the existing policies that cater to the needs and development of disabled cadets?
A cadet who is boarded out, in the present situation, gets a monthly allowance; ex-gratia of Rs. 9000. I will not go into the monetary aspect for now but what hurts me the most is the use of the term ex-gratia. If you open the dictionary, you’ll see the meaning as ‘amount paid when none is due’. I would like to ask you- the common people of India: Do you think it is right that this money is paid to disabled cadets as gratia? As a favour? Moreover, cadets like us do not get any of the resettlement benefits that ex-servicemen are provided with. In fact, jawan trainees in the Army, sailors in the Navy, Airmen in the Air Force, the Central Armed Police Forces - all of them have provisions for medically boarded out trainees. It is only the Officer Cadets of the Indian Armed Forces who are excluded from this structure. Recently, I highlighted this in my social media as well. A cadet who is a quadriplegic needed a new motorised wheelchair, but he was refused because he was not considered as an ex-serviceman. But thanks to several Indian citizens who came forward to help him, he was able to procure what he needed. While it is heartening to see India’s spirit, why should a cadet feel like he needs charity, like he needs crowdfunding? Why can’t policies be formulated in a more inclusive and accepting way?
To put things in perspective, could you tell us how many such cadets have been medically boarded out over a certain time period?
We had requested this information through the RTI and the response we received was thus: From 1985 to 2014, approximately 360 cadets have been medically boarded out. Include the last 7 years and the total number of boarded out cadets stands at a staggering 400. That is the number of people whose lives have changed entirely.
You have worked extensively with cadets who have been boarded out. What, according to you, is the way forward for them and what does their future look like at the moment?
Interestingly, when Mr. Manohar Parrikar took over as the Defence Minister, I managed to get in touch with him and explain the situation to him. He was compassionate, action-oriented and genuinely wanted this sorted out. The committee that was set up under him recommended that cadets be granted ex-servicemen status, the quantum of the disability benefit be corrected as well as resettlement options be provided for them. To take things forward, I strongly believe that servicemen status should be granted, medical treatment and disability pension should be adequately available, rehabilitation opportunities must be provided and continuance of education should be guaranteed.
Sir, we’d like to end this interaction on a positive note. You have done a lot of fruitful work in this area. We read somewhere that every time a cadet gets medically boarded out, he is asked to get in touch with you. Is that so? How do you interact with them thereafter?
This is all thanks to Mr. Manohar Parrikar, the most soldier-friendly Defence Minister, I think. As I have been through the difficulties of being boarded out, I am now willing to help anyone who faces a similar situation. It was actually the current Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhaduaria, who was then the Commandant of the NDA, who proposed that we create a booklet with all the benefits and telephone numbers available to a cadet. It was there that my name was mentioned for the cadets or the parents of the cadet can reach out to me. But this has remained limited to the NDA at the moment. We have been working actively towards getting other academies involved in a similar arrangement as well but we haven’t had much luck with it yet.
Before we part, do you have any message for the Defence aspirants of today and specifically, for cadets who might be facing what you faced during your training?
For all the aspirants who want to join the Military, don’t let the thought of injury or physical harm deter you. It is said that a soldier does his job to the peril of his life - it is imperative that you always follow this and never give up. For all the cadets who have been boarded out, I would like to share something with you. I say this to myself and it applies to everyone as well - My uniform is gone but the soldier in me will walk with me to my grave.