Home Feature Cheers to the oldest Commando General on his 90th Birthday

Cheers to the oldest Commando General on his 90th Birthday


By Alok Joshi

Pics: Bhumesh Bharti

It is not every day that one meets real-life legends. I had the good fortune of meeting one such on the eve of his 90th birthday at his residence in Vasant Vihar, Dehradun. His name is Major General OP Sabharwal (Retd), SM.

The man who was CO of the elite 9 Para Commando unit that successfully carried out Operation Mandhol inside Pakistan territory, destroying the enemy’s strategic artillery gun positions, was in conversation with me. He comes from a family that has produced four generations of soldiers for the Indian Army over a period of 100 years. He was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1955, took active part in counter-insurgency operations in the North-East, saw action in 1965 against China and in 1965 and 1971 against Pakistan.

Happy Family! Gen Sabharwal with his wife Dr Kamini,
son Amit and daughter Anu. His wife taught in a US

His amazing energy at this age surprised me. I saw the glint in his eyes as he narrated stories of his yesteryears like a soldier on the battlefield. There was absolute clarity and honesty in his narration.

He shared several anecdotes from the war that highlighted the bravery and indomitable spirit of the special commandos whose mantra is “Who Dares Wins”. One interesting story is of December 3, 1971, when as CO of the unit, he visited the MH to meet an officer, Captain Keshav Chandra Padha. Knowing that war was just round the corner, Capt Padha requested to be discharged from the hospital to join the troops but was denied. The war began the same evening. Keshav scribbled a note informing that he was leaving on his own volition. He hitchhiked the whole night to join his unit in the Chhamb Sector. “To my surprise the next morning around 3 a.m., I found him sitting with other commandos in one of the trenches. He had a fever but wanted to be with his men in the battle. Such is the rare breed of commandos,” said Gen Sabharwal.

Brigadier & Mrs Sabharwal receiving Prince Charles for lunch.

Another amazing story is of Capt Kiran Kumar. He was posted in Bhutan as part of IMTRAT (Indian Military Training Team) three months before the war began. He made several unsuccessful communications for his return. So, he took leave for 20 days and flew back to New Delhi with a ticket from his own pocket. He joined the unit on December 11, 1971, during the battle of Chhamb. Unfortunately, he died in 1985 trying to conquer Mount Everest as part of the Army expedition.

The General also narrated several anecdotes during his tenure in the USA as the military and naval Attaché including the one when he escorted the late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to meet President Ronald Reagan.

Alok Joshi in conversation with General Sabharwal.

Few people know that Gen Sabharwal once hosted the present King of England, Charles III. In 1980, when he was commanding the 50 Independent Parachute Brigade in Agra, he received a call from the PM’s office that then Prince Charles was visiting India for the first time (accompanied by Lord Mountbatten) and his Brigade would be responsible for making his visit to Agra a grand success. Lord Mountbatten could not come as he died in a terrorist attack in Ireland a week before the visit. He also invited the Indian Prince, Colonel Bhawani Singh of Jaipur, fondly known as Bubbles, who was also a serving paratrooper in the army. Prince Charles was received by Gen Sabharwal and driven in the Rolls-Royce specially brought from New Delhi. “I told the prince that a lot of children had skipped school in order to see him, my son was one of them. When he met my son he told him, “You have skipped school today, but if you fail in your class don’t blame me”.” The Prince also did the parachute jump for the first time, something he always wanted to do as Colonel of the Parachute Regiment. Now, Prince Charles has become Charles III, the King of England

Out of curiosity, I asked him the secret of his fitness and longevity. His one word was “discipline”. He is disciplined about his food and exercise. He played golf for 25 years post-retirement with the same four-ball. He reads three newspapers every day including the Garhwal Post. He presented his book, “The Killer Instinct” which is going to be an interesting read.

His message to young officers is to always remember “Nation First”.

At 90, he is a very content and happy man. At this stage in life, his close-knit family keeps him going. I met his wife, Dr Kamini, sister, son Amit, while his daughter Anu and grandchildren were expected in the evening. They all have gathered to make this milestone a memorable occasion as Gen Sabharwal turns a “nonagenarian”. On the 27th evening, he is to celebrate the occasion at the IMA with the Commandos and other officers. On 28 February, a grand celebration is being held at the Birpur Officers’ Mess, which will be attended by many of his defence colleagues, friends and family coming from different parts of the country.

We congratulate Gen Sabharwal on this momentous occasion and wish him a healthy, peaceful and happy life ahead and thank him for being an inspiration for all of us.

(Alok Joshi is an HR Advisor, corporate trainer, coach, motivational speaker, freelance writer and author of two books including “12 Sweet & Sour Years in China”.)