It was an incongruous sight to see the diminutive figure of the President and Supreme Commander of Indian Armed Forces, mounted on a T 90 tank wearing Black Dungarees, during her recent visit to Exercise Sudarshan Shakti. The Army Chief, sitting next to her, was similarly attired. The incongruity was not in the figures themselves, who had all the right to be where they were. It was in their attire. The cherished black overalls, once the pride of tank crews of Indian Armoured Regiments, have all but lapsed into obscurity over the years. Well, not really into complete obscurity, as these are now worn by the Special Forces, as also by the assorted ‘commandos’ of various police and para military forces. But not anymore by the tank crews.
The black overalls were worn with pride, by the officers and men alike, once upon a time. While the troops were issued regulation cotton one piece overalls by the Ordnance, the officers were free to design their own. And one got to see quite a few creative masterpieces of sartorial smartness. Since these were to be worn during outdoor exercises, a two-piece dungaree offered greater convenience – managing a coverall while out for the morning ‘bottle parade’ could be considerably difficult. Somewhere in early nineties, the black dungarees of the tank crews were replaced by the combat dress (‘chittra mittra’ or ‘dress kambakht’ as they were (are?) colloquially referred to by the crews). There would definitely have been some perfectly rational ‘big picture’ thought behind this decision. Certainly, uniformity in dress amongst different parts of the organization does lead to logistical ease. But the decision was, nonetheless, one that engendered a lot of sadness amongst the rank and file of armoured units.
Some even saw the doing away of blacks as a part of the overall scheme of things to de-glamorize the Armoured Corps – bring them down to mother earth, so to speak. One is reminded of an incident – reported to be true – when the Commandant of an Armoured Regiment received a Corps Commander on the helipad at the field firing ranges wearing blacks and a stetsonesque headgear, riding crop in hand and driving goggles slung around his neck. The General, a dyed in wool puritan anklet wearing variety, was aghast at the sight that greeted him on alighting from his helicopter. “Which army are you from, Colonel?” he asked sarcastically, and got an equally sarcastic reply, “Take a wild guess General”. One can only imagine what happened to the colonel’s career thereafter.
Whether it was logistic expediency or the desire to curb individualistic patterns of dress – the coming of combat dress saw black dungarees becoming almost taboo. They were relegated to being (almost surreptitiously) worn for maintenance parades within the regiment, and for events like Field Miniature Range (FMR) competitions within armoured formations. Combat dress was mandatory for exercises, external events, and even during field firing if VIP visits were expected.
It was therefore a sight for sore eyes to see, not only the Supreme Commander, but also the Chief – an infantarian – wearing blacks for all the world to see. One hopes that this can be viewed as official endorsement, and black dungarees come back into regular usage.