Army Bowled Over By Batsman

“Balidan” insignia which Dhoni wore on gloves. Photo courtesy of Indian Army

New Delhi: Lieutenant Colonel Mahendra Singh Dhoni is headed to Kashmir. He will be on patrolling duty, the army has confirmed. Dhoni, an Indian cricketing icon, is an honorary officer with the “Territorial Army”, known as the “Terriers”.

“Part-time commitment. Full-time honor. Adventure awaits you!”, the Territorial Army beckons with its slogan. It may sound titillating, like seduction into an illicit affair. But it is really an appeal to relieve the regular army of static duties. Dhoni’s honorary commission was a measure taken by the Indian Army to attract eligible youth. He was commissioned into a parachute regiment. This is why he sports a maroon beret when he is in the olive-greens. He has also worn the para-commando “Balidan” badge on his wicket-keeping gloves in the recent World Cup tournament… till the International Cricket Council (ICC) objected.

A couple of years back, Dhoni completed the mandatory jumps over Agra (where the para special forces are based) to earn his “WINGS”, the insignia of a paratrooper. Now, he will serve with his battalion, the 106 Parachute Regiment (TA).

In military jargon, when a Terrier officer serves with his unit in an operational area it is called “embodiment”. It is not that he is a pharaoh to be mummified. Despite his form… not yet. It means that he is performing the duty that he has volunteered for.

Of course, there is a deeper meaning in Dhoni’s assignment. This is a tale as much of a sportsman as of a soldier and, above all, it is a tale of the conflicted Vale of Kashmir. Cricket is the emotional leveler in Kashmir. It overarches emotions in Kashmir, as it does in the subcontinent in general. Dhoni is its excellent ambassador. “He will serve with his battalion. He will protect citizens and his garrison,” said the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, justifying the decision to permit Dhoni to serve in the troubled Valley.

There is a story in being a soldier who is a shooter. There is quite another in being a ‘keeper, who is a commando. Rajyavardhan Rathore, now minister, was a professional soldier, paid to shoot for a living. In winning an Olympic medal for marksmanship he established the aptness of the adage: he shoots best who knows his life depends on it. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a professional cricketer. The first uniform he donned outside the field was that of a Train Ticket Examiner (TTE). The accoutrement of the maroon beret – the mark of a paratrooper-commando – has followed his celebrity.

Rathore is the soldier who became the celebrity. Dhoni is the celebrity who is a wannabe soldier. Their contrasting trajectories of life and career may yet coincide. Dhoni’s home state, Jharkhand, is likely to go into elections early next year.

Dhoni really stuck it to Pakistan when he did not sport the maroon beret. When he had un-military long hair, defeating Pakistan in Pakistan, that General Pervez Musharraf, architect of 1999 Kargil, publicly feted. In Kashmir, where he will be deployed, he will be treasured, protected in the field. There will be soldiers to escort him. Soldiers who should be patrolling.

(Sujan Dutta is a Delhi-based journalist. He has covered wars in Kargil, Iraq and Afghanistan, apart from reporting on armed conflict, insurgencies and elections from across the subcontinent and West Asia for more than 30 years).

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