As dawn broke, early morning rays lit up the black tarmac of the “Khetarpal” parade square located in the plush Khadakwasla area of Pune.

Six young cadets atop the majestic Quarter Master Fort gate sounded the gong and the doors swung open. Arms and legs swinging in perfect sync, young cadets smartly attired in white marched in to the tune of “Hum NDA ke cadets hain.

“…Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And — which is more — you'll be a Man, my son.”

Heads held high, the assembled 21- to 22-year-olds listen as the country's outgoing Army Chief Gen Vijay Kumar Singh quotes from Rudyard Kipling's memorable poem If.

After all, this is the passing out parade of the 122nd course of the National Defence Academy — the tri-Services training institution where boys fresh out of school are readied to become the future officers and gentlemen of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

It is the culmination of three years of hard work, discipline and a whole lot of camaraderie.

Families and friends cheer and sway to “Kadam kadam badhaaye ja” as the cadets make gladiatorial strides holding guns and swords to heart. Many eyes brim over with proud tears. Outstanding performers are awarded. Commending the cadets for their “smart and immaculate turnout,” Gen Singh calls on them to put country before self. “You should be able to lead by earning the respect of the men you command,” he says, adding, “Some of you will go on to become future Chiefs of the three Services.”

The day also heralds a new beginning as the young cadets will join their finishing academies for a year before getting their shoulders decorated with stars. And that's when the country's President will commission them as officers of the Indian Armed Forces.

The gathering at the parade exemplifies the highly-valued secular traditions of the Forces. From Army officers in olive greens and Naval officers in white to fathers in traditional dhotis who had arrived from far to witness their sons graduating… the wards of serving and retired soldiers, teachers, businessmen and farmers from all strata of society had entered into the ranks of the soldiering profession.

And their success is hard won too. The first of the six terms at the academy is especially gruelling for the young cadets. Within a month after joining, the boys run 13 km cross-country in what a cadet describes as the “mother of all academy competitions”. At stake is the izzat (honour) of the platoon. One has to play to win. But winning “alone” is of no consequence. It has to be a team victory. And this is where the camaraderie kicks in. The strong support the not-so-strong. The willing pushes the tired. Eventually every difficulty is overcome.

“It is this camaraderie that we will miss the most,” says Pawan Kumar Singh, who is from Motihari in Bihar. P.V. Prakash, from Hyderabad, couldn't agree more. Both are first-generation cadets.

Punishments, which form part of character building for the cadets, are received with joy. The front rolls, back rolls, crawls during midnight, running with heavy guns carried above the head are all accepted sportingly. If anyone makes a mistake, the entire platoon takes the punishment… and merrily too!

Sharing equally in their enthusiasm are the parents of these young brave-hearts. “It is an honest profession. It is an adventurous profession. He will get to serve his country,” says Prakash's father. “We did not stop him.”

Entering the academy as 17- to 18-year-olds, right after Class XII, the youngsters undergo a virtual transformation as they are moulded into gentlemen cadets. Finally, when they graduate it's time to take the oath to defend the country. They also have to lead men twice their age and this is by no means an easy task.

Only candidates possessing the right mix of qualities that are critical to perform in a highly challenging environment can enter the academy. Naturally, the entrance tests are rigorous. And unique, too, as they test for strength of character and leadership abilities.

A written test is followed by an exhaustive five-day Services Selection Board examination to determine the candidate's mental and physical stamina. A battery of individual and group-based tests are used to gauge leadership qualities. Finally, the candidate must clear a medical examination.

Mingled with the patriotic fervour, pride and sense of achievement accompanying the passing-out parade is yet another heady feeling… the high anticipation for the ‘NDA Ball'. This is an annual tradition in which the gentlemen cadets are allowed to go to colleges in the city and invite a young woman to partner them at the ball. Such requests, marked by great chivalry, are rarely turned down. Here too, however, camaraderie kicks in in no small measure. “When one of us does not have a partner, our friends with partners excuse themselves for some time and dance with us. Where else will you find such friends? This is something we shall surely miss,” says one cadet.

In yet another memorable tradition at the academy, juniors bid their seniors a fond and rousing farewell by mounting the towering pillar at the quarter deck and shouting “122nd course cadets ki jai” as cadets take the Antim Pag (last step) to the timeless strains of Auld Lang Syne.

(This article was published on June 7, 2012)
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