Thursday, March 31, 2011

File pushers of - Naval Headquarters

On passing out of Defence Services Staff College Wellington, Tamil Nadu, in Dec 1982, I was allowed to add the letters ‘psc’ (passed staff course) after my name. (A tradition which started in 1864 at the Royal Military College in Camberley. The tradition continues till this day).The Aim of the Staff Course is to train selected officers of the three Services in command and staff functions in peace and war in their own service, inter-service and joint service environment, and provide related general education to enable them to perform effectively in command and staff appointments.

With a psc attached to my name, I landed in Naval Headquarters – New Delhi in Dec 1982 as an ‘Assistant Director’ (AD). I was told that serving in NHQ, was like being in close proximity of God – all powerful and the ultimate decision maker. It gave me a new sense of pride and commitment and I took my office with renewed vigor and determination to serve the navy better.

All my earlier experience of the navy was limited to serving on ships – the operational end of the navy. Work on board a ship is very simple and direct. A homogeneous body of trained men, work in tandem to keep the ship afloat, moving and fighting. One works in a pyramid, with captain on the top and the junior most sailors at the bottom. Each one takes up a position in the pyramid depending on the seniority in the pecking order. There is no doubt or confusion. The captain says “fire the gun” you just obey and fire – QED

As my family was still in Bangalore, I was given accommodation in the Officers Mess in ‘Kotah House’ located on the majestic Shahjahan road. The erstwhile state house of the ‘Maharajah of Kotah’. I am not sure who was the owner when I moved in – I think it was in the process of being handed over to the navy from the army. Over the years it had deteriorated due to poor maintenance and neglect. During the 1962 war, a state room on the first floor was converted into temporary rooms to accommodate air force pilots from USA. It was more of a caboose taken out of Louisiana swamp prison in the movie ‘Nevada Smith’. You could hear your neighbor snore, talk in sleep, cold and dingy as hell. If one survived the night it was purely due to Gods benevolence and grace. Morning posed a different set of challenges. Shave and bath was a traumatic experience. Water, mirror, commode and a functional geyser were all distributed in various bathrooms. If the room had a mirror, then there was no tap – if it had a commode, there was no geyser and so on. One stood in various queues to complete the morning ablutions. Breakfast was yet another harrowing evolution. Unlike the navy which has trained stewards and cooks in uniform, the army has civilian employees called NO1, NO2 and so on, up to, I suppose infinity. These people were so old – if they remembered their numbers, they forgot what the breakfast order was and in rare cases when they remembered both they forgot who had ordered. In sheer disgust and mounting frustration I came down to sort out the matter once and for all. Along with me was a sea dog with many years of salt, serving at NHQ for the first time like me. When we angrily accosted the mess secretary, he told us calmly, “Please write a note on file and we will see what can be done”. That was the first time I heard the phrase ‘note on file’.

NHQ was a different ball game all together. Unlike a ship, you don’t live there, but come for work in the morning and go back home in the evening. I reported for work in ‘A Block’ hutments, which once housed WW II prisoners. With nobody to welcome me and not knowing where to go and where to sit, I approached the only officer to have come to the directorate at 0830 h – LtCdr Thirath Das. I quickly learnt that nobody comes before 9AM as doors do not open until then. He consulted a huge file and told me to commence work from Room No 53. My desk was juxtaposed behind a steel cupboard and a photo copying machine. Behind me stood a huge steel box, which I later came to understand was a safe for storing secret documents. The desk itself was full of files, many stories high, dusty and morbid. The overall effect was, I could not see anybody nor could they see me. Opposite was another table, slightly better placed than mine, belong to the Deputy Director (DD) CDR SV Gopalachari.

I saw a bell fixed to the right leg of my table which I pressed, hoping somebody will answer and get me a glass of water. After many failed attempts and a good fifteen minutes later an office help by the name of Bhag Singh in a ‘band gala’ appeared in the room only to reprimand me by saying “NHQ me AD log bell nahi bajate hain” (In NHQ Assistant Directors do not ring bells).In one go, Bhag Singh had punctured my ‘psc’ ego. Having been chastised and put in my place squarely, I then proceeded to get water myself.

I soon learnt that all work in NHQ is done on files.NHQ then followed an age old system called ‘Whitehall’. In this system each subject has a file and it’s called the Main File (MF). The official correspondence between NHQ and Ministry of Defence (MOD) is carried out on the MF. However all correspondence between various directorates of NHQ is carried out on a Branch Memorandum file (BM).All discussions internal to the directorate is carried out on Collation Cover file (CC). Sometimes the MF gets stuck somewhere or the other and to tide over matters a Part Case file is opened (PC).With the advent of computers, I am not aware of the system in practice today.

When the morning Dak (post) came to the directorate, all the letters are registered and sent to the Director (D).The D,then goes through each letter and makes his elaborate and comprehensive comment on the letter. The comments varied – Please Speak, Note Action, Discuss, Why, Urgent, Put Up and so on. The concerned clerk then files the letter in the appropriate file and marks it to the AD, DD and finally to the D. The comments by DD and AD would be equally illuminating - spoken,why not,discussed,action taken etc. Sometimes, the notations on the file could lead to hilarious situations. Late Admiral Subimal Mukherjee Once wrote on file ‘Parklam’, unfortunately his staff had tough time deciphering it. Parklam in Tamil means ‘let us see’, which was made famous by Mr Kamaraj the President of the Congress Party. Similarly Admiral Dawson wrote on a file ‘Why not Harry’, the staff had a hard time tracking down the nonexistent Harry. What he meant was ‘Why Tom and Dick and not Harry – what is the basis of this selection?

Work in NHQ is a painfully slow process. It is similar to the mating of elephants. Lot of noise, screaming and trumpeting in the beginning and results only after 22 months. Decisions are arrived at, after careful consideration, detailed examination, in depth analysis and at times by a committee of experts. Ministry of Defence also join this loop adding their own brand of bureaucracy and maximizing further confusion and delays. No wonder decision making is so slow. Once, as a commander, I had to accompany a Russian Naval Officer to Vishakhapatnam. Those days’ commanders were not entitled to travel by air and required special sanction. So a file was made out justifying the case – how my travel was important to national security etc – it had to travel 16 rungs in NHQ and MOD before it was approved by the Defence Secretary.

Writing letter in NHQ is an art. In the earlier days the language was very official, stiff and court room like. It would start ‘I have been directed to refer to… and to state that the presence of brown eared donkeys in Mandodari firing range is a cause for grave concern.NHQ is of the view ….. I am further directed to state… exercise extreme caution while opening fire in the presence of the donkeys … I am to request etc and an undecipherable signature below without any name, designation or office. They were ‘By the Order Of the Chief of Naval Staff’ letters. They were affectionately referred to as ‘BOO’ letters. They were in fashion till Admiral Nadlkarni put a stop to it and introduced normal method of writing.

Sometimes lower formation would call up and ask “I say what happened to the – ‘Sanction of air conditioning for missile storage at Goa’ which we put up one year back – it’s most urgent, please have a look”. You start looking and find that ‘D’ had noted ‘Please discuss’ and below that you find another innocuous noting ‘Discussed’ .With very little to go by, I would send a letter stating that “I am directed to refer to Sanction of air conditioning for missile storage at Goa and to state that the case is under active consideration …. A multi disciplinary committee is being appointed to examine …. Status will be informed in due course” and breathe easy for next one year.

If you wanted to stall an issue, all that one had to do, was to refer the file to someone totally unconnected with the subject “Deputation of sailors to Vladivostok for submarine detection training’ – USSR” – Director Civil Works may kindly examine and note comments. Sure enough the file would resurface only after a year or so.

Once a Brigadier met a young Major in a pentagon lift looking tired and worn out. Young man “why are you looking down and out”, the young major says “lot of work, sir”. The brig says “you must be new around here; the trick is to mark all files to Major Brown for comments”, the hapless major says “Sir, I am Major Brown”

Another syndrome affecting many staff officers in NHQ was use of high sounding words in notes and letters to score brownie points. All of a sudden one would come across words long forgotten and thought to be extinct – mutatis mutandis, ab initio, ibid, raison d’être, ad seriatim, incommunicado, ex post facto, a priori, de novo and so on

Once, the PM, Mrs. Indira Gandhi wrote ‘Of late I have been receiving notes on file, which are very long and repetitive, making the reading very tedious. Please keep them as brief as possible. Brevity is the key to good writing.” This was sent down to all the Service Headquarters with a notation from the PM’s secretariat, saying “Please circulate”. One admiral took upon himself to explain the PM’s note in detail and wrote” The need of the hour is brevity ……. the PM herself has noted that we should not be repetitive as it serves no purpose. Using too many words to explain a point only makes the reading very tiring and does not necessarily convey the meaning. I request all staff officers to make it a point... from now onwards….. all directorates … etc – the noting on brevity went on to fill a complete page.

Cheers until next note.


  1. great, reminds me of my first exposure to NHQ, later one s were worst. i did nt know you write blog. now that i know i will follow you. why dont you contribute towards humour in and out of uniform on face book. cmde ravi manages this one and its worth it. bi take care