India’s unique 61st Cavalry rides into 56th year

By Vishnu Makhijani, IANS

New Delhi : All those who have watched the annual Republic Day parade here Jan 26 will vividly recall the riders of the 61st Cavalry to which goes the honour of leading the march past year after year as the only operational horse-mounted army regiment in the world.

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Raised Jan 1, 1953, from the remnants of various mounted regiments of the forces of erstwhile princely state, the 61st Cavalry came into being under the special dispensation of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who overruled the army’s recommendation that all of its mounted regiments be disbanded as there was little use for them in modern warfare and also because the fledgling Indian armed forces could ill afford such a “luxury”.

But few would know that these riders are also active tank men, who train for “operational readiness” apart from their ceremonial duties and mandatory participation in equestrian sports while serving in the 61st Cavalry.

Thus, while the President’s Bodyguard (PBG) is the only other mounted regiment in the Indian Army, the 61st Cavalry remains the only operationally ready horse-mounted regiment in the world. The regiment comprises two squadrons, one of which is based here and the other in Jaipur.

Apart from its ceremonial duties, the 61st Cavalry has seen action in both the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan in the western sector. It also saw active duty in Sri Lanka during Operation Pawan in 1989, and during Operation Rakshak in 1990, Operation Vijay in 1999 and Operation Parakram in 2001.

Formed with the merger of the Gwalior Lancers, Jodhpur Horse, Jodhpur/Kachhawa Horse, Mysore Lancers, Patiala Lancers and Saurashtra Horsed Cavalry Squadron in April 1951 when the Indian government took over the military forces of the erstwhile princely states, it was named the New Horsed Cavalry Regiment before being given its current identity.

The 61st Cavalry’s 16 junior commissioned officers and 253 other ranks, as a rule, are drawn in equal numbers only from the Marathas, Rajputs and Kaimkhani Muslim groups.

This is the only Indian Army unit that reserve places for the Kaimkhani Muslims, who were converted to Islam by Mughal emperor Akbar during his military conquests.

There are no such restrictions for the nine officers of the regiment who volunteer from various armoured and artillery regiments to serve in the 61st Cavalry.

“Nearly 30 percent of the officers that opt for the 61st Cavalry end up going back to their parent regiments since they are not able to maintain the riding excellence skills we demand,” the present commandant, Colonel Jagdeep Singh Virk, said.

“Volunteering to serve in the 61st Cavalry presents a tough choice for the officers since they must sign a bond with the army that they shall not be considered for promotion beyond the rank of brigadier even if eligible,” added Virk, a former five-goal polo player better known as Pinka Virk.

Only one officer of the regiment has made it to one star rank so far: Brig. (Retd) V.P. Singh, the only Indian polo player to reach a seven-goal handicap in the post-Independence era.

In polo, better players “give away” goals to their weaker opponents to create a level playing field for a match. The better the player, the more goals he must give away – hence the higher his handicap.

While a part of the regiment is based in Jaipur, a full strength squadron of nearly 100 men and horses is based in New Delhi for performing ceremonial duties.

“The B Squadron in Delhi looks after the majority of the ceremonies assigned to us. Jaipur is our headquarters and serves as the training and recruitment centre for the regiment to maintain its operational readiness,” Lt. Col. Tarun Sirohi, the regiment’s second-in command and a former commander of the B Squadron.

With the Indian Army chief as the colonel of the regiment, the 61st Cavalry has been tasked with producing Olympic medal winners in equestrian sports and is actively bringing in better quality horses on which to train world-class riders.

“The country’s best show jumper Major J.S. Ahluwalia is a 61st Cavalry officer and we expect to produce more like him in the near future,” said a proud Virk, who is credited with bringing in major civilian involvement (read sponsorship) into polo, hitherto seen as a game exclusive to royalty and the army.