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[CTQ Smartcast] Lessons In Culture And Decision-Making From The Indian Army, With Col. Vembu Shankar


Col. Vembu Shankar's been-there-done-that list is an epitome to what you can do when your passion is peppered with plenty of courage and commitment. Within two years of starting his career as an officer, Col. Shankar was awarded the Shaurya Chakra for fighting militants in Kashmir. He was also part of Operation Vijay in Kargil, and retired voluntarily to focus on Project Sambandh, his venture to ensure Army’s next-of-kin survivors live a comfortable and dignified life they deserve. Outside the battlefield, he has done remarkable things too too: from striking friendships with unlikely people like Indian cricket star MS Dhoni to working with the King of Bhutan, to appearing on Kaun Banega Crorepati or gathering over 10,000 celebrity autographs.


In this CTQ Smartcast, CTQ co-founder BV Harish Kumar tries to decipher how Col. Shankar's mind ticks, for lessons from his life on collaboration, communication, discipline, networking, pursuing passions, self-learning and more.



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Read the shownotes below or skip to the transcript


SOME OF THINGS WE SPOKE ABOUT

  • Applying quick decision-making and agility of Indian Army to companies

  • Lessons from army to ensure good information flow and avoid information loss

  • Training oneself for making better decisions

  • How to develop kinship

  • Army routines that Col. Shankar thinks will help civilians and business leaders

  • Pursuing the autograph-seeking passion

  • Anecdotes from meeting celebrities (e.g. Carlsen, Pele, Navratilova, Sting)

  • Personal branding around your passion

  • Self-learning the skills you need

  • How to stay updated

  • Tips and tricks on knowledge gathering and management

  • Project Sambandh and how it helps

PLUS

  • Recommendations for books & sources to learn life lessons from military practices

  • Our quiz questions for Col. Shankar

AND

  • The person whose autograph he holds dearest to his heart


 

If you enjoyed this Smartcast, you will also like Why Curiosity Makes The World A Better Place.

 

TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:

[CTQ Smartcast] Lessons in Culture and Discipline from the Indian Army, with Col. Vembu Shankar


[00:00:00]


Harish: In this episode, we speak with Colonel Vembu Shankar, a decorated Indian Army veteran. We'll find out about leadership lessons from an anti-terrorist operation he led, what his friend M.S. Dhoni says about decision making, how Colonel Shankar used his social engineering skills to lay an ambush on the world's greatest footballer, and what his Project Sambandh is all about. This one is a power-packed interview.


Harish: Welcome, Colonel Shankar. Welcome to the CTQ Smartcast


Col. Shankar: Thank you very much. You are welcome. It's a great pleasure to be part of this podcast. It's a new experience for me in this new normal. 


Harish: I know Col. Shankar personally, but when I asked him to send me an introduction, he sent me a very pithy introduction. He said, just introduce me as Colonel Vembu Shankar, an Indian Army veteran and founder of Project Sambandh. But I know that there are many aspects to Col. Shankar from knowing how to do magic to philately, to collecting autographs, to being one of the most flamboyant quiz masters that I know, to a great quizzer, to being a decorated army veteran as well. Anything that I missed out in all of these? 


Col. Shankar: Well, I like to be a master of none, but a jack of all. I think so, yeah, this covers a lot of things that I do that keep me busy. 


Harish: Let's get started with a very basic question. We know that you're a decorated army officer, can you give us a brief highlight of your army career? 


Col. Shankar: I've had a very interesting career. First of all, I belong to a completely [00:02:00] nonmilitary family, and my first exposure to uniform was as a Boy Scout when I was about 10 odd years old. That was what inspired me to join the army. The only way that I knew to join the army was through the National Defense Academy. I went through the training at the National Defense Academy and the Indian Military Academy. Being colorblind, army was the only option that I had. That's what I wanted to join after seeing all these Republic Day parades. There used to be a serial called Param Veer Chakra, which used to come in Doordarshan those days. Of course, Shahrukh Khan also played an important role in that serial called Fauji. I went in a dream to the National Defense Academy and then was hit by the hard reality that life was not all that rosy in the armed forces training. But, it gave me a great base and a great foundation.

I got commissioned in 1997, and I served all over the country. In fact, I had a great opportunity to serve in one of our neighboring countries, too. I have been across India, east, west, north, south, and I had a very satisfying career in the armed forces. After about 20 years, I got a calling in life, and I said that this is the time that I should prematurely retire. I got commissioned in 1997, and retired in 2017, from the eastern sector. 


Harish: Because I asked for brief highlights, you just briefly touched upon the different areas and aspects of what you've done. I don't want to put you in a spot where you have to tell me something that you should not be telling, and then next year, I see you doing something to me, my kids are going to worry about the welfare of their father. 


Col. Shankar: I need to take out the pen and then click it like in MIB. 


Harish: Right, so you're also a Shaurya Chakra winner or an awardee. Talk to me about that, how did that happen? [00:04:00] I guess that was when you were just into your career. You were very young, went behind the years? 


Col. Shankar: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think that was a great opportunity for me. Like a typical youngster in the army, I was posted to one field area. Initially I started my career in the Indo-Tibet border. In fact, the fourth day of my service career, I was at 80,000 feet, somebody coming from zero feet, the mean sea level, and going right up 80,000 feet in snow. We were just about 10 odd soldiers to command. Then with just about a year of service in my unit, I was moved to Jammu and Kashmir in a counterterrorism role. I was in charge of a company there, which was commanding about 100 odd soldiers. This was in 1998, when the operation took place. I had just about a year of service with very little on ground experience, but I had the backing of the good training that I had in the National Defense Academy and the Indian Military Academy and great troops whom I commanded. 

This operation actually happened over a period of three days where we got information on the evening of the first day, and then we followed up with the information thinking that this is just another information which keeps coming about terrorists in your area. We just went thinking that this is another information, but then the information developed, nothing happened on the first night. The second day, we were searching for these terrorists, and one of the other patrols encountered these terrorists, and out of which one of them escaped. We were tasked to look after, I mean, to try and hunt down the terrorists that escaped. We were unsuccessful the whole day, then we thought maybe the operation would be called off and the weather was not very good. We are talking about altitudes of 13,000 feet, [00:06:00] snowbound. On the third, that was the second night and third morning, where we encountered or saw some terrorists early in the morning at about 4:00 or 4:30, using our night vision goggles. In fact, my sentry saw, and by the time he could give me the night vision goggles, I could see a couple of, I wouldn't know whether they were terrorists or not, but I could see a couple of people crossing into the woods, hardly about 100 yards away. We followed them up much later, we waited till daybreak, and then followed them up, pursued them, and came up with a plan. That's how we encountered. They saw us first and we got into a firefight and we eliminated these terrorists, there were about six of them in the party that we encountered.

The whole operation which started on the previous day, and ended about two days later, which involved my complete unit, we eliminated about 13 terrorists, which was something for the first, which had happened at that time. More important is not the number of terrorists that we had eliminated, but not a single soldier of any of our parties even suffered a scratch. That was hailed as a great operation, and since I led it, I took some decisions, during that time, I was awarded the Shaurya Chakra. It was announced much later by the President of India. That was very early in my career. I think when you're young, you do all this crazy stuff.


Harish: A couple of things struck me when you said that. You were just one year into service, but you are already leading a team. You've come through the IMA, turned into officers. The whole NDA and IMA experience is designed to make you an officer. How does it feel to suddenly now command a unit? [00:08:00] It's probably many people much older than you, having had a lot of years of experience of real work on the ground as well. How do you get that confidence to just go there and command? 


Col. Shankar: That's a very good question. It is very pertinent, especially for young officers in the Indian Army. First of all, our training as an officer is three years in the NDA and one year at the IMA, which is four years. This is where at the NDA they make you from boys to men, and they train you really hard. As well as at IMA, they train you hard to come up with all situations. That's just the training where there's no live rounds being fired at you. Another aspect that you brought out was about commanding troops who are much elder to you, as well as with more experience. The army initially begs you in such a way that you are actually placed under them initially, for about a month or so to understand what their mindset is. I am from down south, I'm from Tamil Nadu and I was commanding troops who are predominantly Dogras, so understanding their culture, understanding their thought process is very important. Also to understand what are the strengths of those soldiers and sometimes weaknesses too. This is the process of training. The Indian Army prides itself in this training, and how to get the young officers to be accepted by the soldiers, as well as the soldiers to accept the young officers. This kind of junior leadership is what has brought laurels for the Indian Army as well as for the armed forces and the country. To answer your question short, I think it's all basis of training and the ethos of the Indian Army. 


Harish: [00:10:00] At Choose to Thinq, we work a lot with companies, organizations where they are trying to stay future-relevant. A lot of that also centers around organization design, and how to prepare. A lot of what you are saying resonates a lot with our work as well. One thing that we've noticed is when we talk to these private companies that I'm talking about, we talk about motivation for the employees. In the context of motivation, we talk about how the organization design has changed over the years, where earlier it was the command and control, and generally when we talk about command and control, it is the army that first comes to mind as an example. When you talk about an organization like this, which is built on principles of command and control, and if you juxtapose it with these kinds of new age private companies, just imagine an e-commerce company where you have ordered something from somewhere and you're talking to a customer support executive.

Now, that customer support executive needs to be empowered to take some calls, when that person is with you over a phone call, and you say I didn't get this, whatever I have ordered for properly, or whatever, that person needs to take some runtime calls. They can't go back to their bosses or something like that. That's where these companies are looking for agility. How do you compare this command and control structure with trying to be agile? I'm sure the army also needs to be super agile. How do you manage this command and control versus agility?


Col. Shankar: Again, it's a brilliant question. I can give examples from my personal experience, especially this operation where I was awarded the Shaurya Chakra. It's very important to give [00:12:00] a lot of power to the junior leader, because situations on ground keep changing. Here we are talking about life and death. If you do not empower your junior leaders, like how they empowered me to make decisions. We spotted the militants at about 4:30 in the morning, but it was I who took the decision saying that, because I saw the conditions on ground, we were tired, we had not had food for more than 24 hours. That's when I decided that, because I knew the terrain very well, because we trained much earlier for about three odd months. We knew every valley, every ridge, we knew every tree in our area. We knew where the militants might go, or where they would go, and we had confidence in our training. That's where I made a decision that let's wait till daybreak, which was about 6-6:30 before we even start pursuing them.

For me, I knew that I was confident of my training, I was confident of my terrain, and that's how I took the decision on ground. Whereas the teaching would have taught me that the moment you have an experience of contact, we should not leave contact and pursue them. I took the decision on the ground given whatever the situation was. Similarly, when the contact happened, when the terrorists started firing at us, we were split into three different groups, because we tried to encircle them so that they couldn’t escape. I left the fire control to the junior leaders who were under me. There was a junior commissioned officer, there were a couple of noncommissioned officers and soldiers, but I left the fire control to them.

Based on my ability to assess what their strengths were, and also how they're trained, because we were trained together, I left the decisions to them. That’s how it worked out. This is what we follow in the army, that as much of centralization that we do, we like to decentralize such things, [00:14:00] because the man on ground knows what's best. We always say that you should know your arc of fire, your arc of fire, which is the left edge and the right edge, you are the boss and who comes into your arc of fire. Somebody sitting in Delhi might not like to dictate what is your arc of fire. We leave it to that rifleman, that soldier, to know that he can make the decision and we will stand by the decision. Not all times it will come out right, but the more and more times that you empower him to feel confident he will take the decision, when he knows that somebody is there to back him up.


Harish: How do you know, train for this kind of decision making?


Col. Shankar: It's a kind of a cycle. The more decisions you make, the better you'll get at getting your success rate higher. I would like to draw a parallel not from the Armed Forces field, but someone from the sports field. A friend of mine, who led India, M.S. Dhoni. He always talks about this, that you have to make a lot of decisions because he's also someone who takes a lot of decisions in the field. He says that the more and more you take decisions, the percentage of the correct decisions will increase over time. This is what I believed in, this is what the Armed Forces also believes in, that take a decision, it's better to take a decision rather than take no decision at all. As more and more of your decisions you take, your percentage will go up, and your wrong decisions will come down. I've seen it in my personal life as well as in my professional life. I always take decisions and it's better to make a quick decision. More often it comes out right.


Harish: A critical component of decision making would be information, right? Especially in an organization like the army, and nowadays, the way these private organizations are also structured, [00:16:00] there are so many layers. How does the flow of information work? Such that there's no transmission loss between what the jawan knows on the border, and what the general knows Delhi, and where they are taking such strategic decisions? How do you distinguish between the strategic part of decision making and the tactical decision?


Col. Shankar: Good question. We believe in something called the need-to-know basis. Need-to-know is very important. I did not know how I'm going to solve the Kashmir issue; the soldier didn't know how he was going to solve the Kashmir issue. He needs to know what the arc of fire is. What he does need to know is that if somebody transgresses the arc of fire, or let's say, if he is in a line of control, or an international border, he needs to know what are his, like, we say in Hindi daina haath aur baiya haath. That is very important for him. We only give information that is relevant, that's very important. Not everybody needs to look at the bigger picture. You just need to look at what your specialty is. If every block just concentrates on their specialty, I'm sure the bigger picture will automatically come. You don't try and solve a jigsaw puzzle by trying to put all the pieces simultaneously together, you just concentrate on that corner piece and see where it fits. You feel that you are the corner piece, and there will be one piece which will complete the jigsaw puzzle. It's very essential. This is what we follow in the armed forces. That's what I have followed in my personal and professional life is to be a specialist in what you are tasked with, that's very important.

In fact, again, to bring back the operation, the one I participated in, the commanding officer who was sitting far away from me, knew the bigger picture on [00:18:00] where they were coming from, maybe the numbers, what the kinds of information that were shared. All he shared with me was that there are terrorists who are coming and they would pass through your area of responsibility, I would think that they were non-resident terrorists, that they were foreign terrorists, and this is the troop that you have, and you will have to stop them or eliminate them if necessary. This is the kind of information. I had some kind of information in terms of terrain, the morale of the troops, what is the state of readiness, and then when we assessed it, we made sure that different ambushes go to different places. Later, when we did the analysis of the operation, I came to know that the commanding officer had much more information, such as how earlier they had moved, did they have an encounter earlier and things like that. But he didn't share it with me, he just told me that this is your area of responsibility, and I don't want them to cross your area of responsibility. That was the mandate that was given to me, and I followed that. It's very essential, the need-to-know basis is very essential. I think you should specialize in your own domain rather than putting your fingers in too many other things.


Harish: On that note, sometimes you may want to have more information. You know that this is something very critical for me to take a decision. However, sometimes you just don't have that information. It's nothing to do with whether it's need to know or not. You need to know that but you don't have that information, then it's a question of just taking the leap of faith. Going back to what you said earlier, whether you still go with that mantra of taking a decision which is better than not taking a decision, or do you then think probabilistically? How do you [00:20:00] make your trip wires? When do you have a backup plan? How do you do that?


Col. Shankar: See you can never have 100%. 100% is impossible to achieve. How far can you get to that 100% is what is important. You will always have information, which is about 70%. Then you will have to build on that information to try and get it to 100%. You will never be able to get 100%. If you keep thinking about that missing 3%, you're going to miss out on the 97% information that you've got. I would always rely on the 97% information that I have, and make the decision rather than worry about that 3% information that I don't have. Again, in the operations that I've taken part in, many of the times we don't know the strength of the enemy, we don't know how long he's been traversing that area. In this particular operation, we had no clue whether they were 6, whether they were 10, whether they were 13. We went on with the information, because if they told me that there are 14, I wouldn't have gone with 11. I would have gone for a larger strength, but then I wouldn't have covered my complete area of responsibility. With the kind of information that was given to me, I used my experience, I knew my terrain very well. If you have knowledge of your domain knowledge, and also have a lot of confidence in your troops, in a corporate sector, confidence in your skills, confidence in your human resources, confidence in your systems, I think, even if there's missing information, you'll be able to make a better decision. Don't fret about the missing information, concentrate on the information that you have, you will never ever be able to get 100% information. Also the 97% information [00:22:00] will also keep varying over time. That's very important than how you change with the changing information, and that again, comes to confidence in yourself, knowing your skills, knowing your systems and practice, practice, practice.


Harish: Let me change tracks slightly here. Before that, I'm going to ask you a quiz question. The fun part of these quiz questions is that they are somehow related to you.


Col. Shankar: Okay.


Harish: To make things interesting, we could have something at stake. We have something called the CTQ Compounds where we help people develop a habit of reading. For every question that you get right will actually give you a prize, which will be a discount code on the CTQ Compounds, which you can give to whoever you want to.


Col. Shankar: Good initiative.


Harish: Yes. Okay. The first question for you is, ex-Union Minister, Dr. Karan Singh is also a well-known poet. How is one of his songs connected with you? A song that he has written, how is it connected with you?


Col. Shankar: Karan Singh? Should be when… he was a Dogra King. Maybe Dogras? Maybe the regimental song of the Dogras that was written by Dr. Karan Singh?


Harish: Perfect answer. I didn't expect you to miss this one. You've got it right. Well done.


Col. Shankar: I think it comes to Choose to Thinq, so I just chose to think on that line, and years of experience of quizzing too.


Harish: Yeah, your training helped you. Like you say, you sweat in peace, so that you don't bleed in wartime.


Col. Shankar: Absolutely. [00:24:00]


Harish: What part of that training and the fauji life as they say, plays the biggest role in contributing to the sense of kinship that people have? I mean, if I see two army people from NDA, completely different batches, maybe different generations, but then, you can see the bond between them. How does that happen? What leads to that kind of sense of kinship?


Col. Shankar: Oh, great. That's, again, through the hardship and training. I think that's what brings people together. Even in “civilian life”, I can remember the hard times together much more than the happy times and things like that. When somebody helped you, when you were down and out and somebody had come and helped you. In NDA it's more the hard times that we have, of the three years of training that we have in NDA. Most of the time it’s hard times. Either we are getting punished for some mistake that somebody else has made. When we meet, even after 25 years, or we are celebrating our silver jubilee or passing out of the National Defense Academy this year, I think most of our conversation is about the hard times. Nobody talks about whether you won this prize, or you won that prize. We talk about the tough times that we had and how it was so difficult, and how one helped each other.

I think that's what brings the camaraderie, that's what strengthens the camaraderie, which is true in any field of life. I think you remember your hard times together, and because the Armed Forces training is such that, physically it's very tiring. They push you to the limits of your physical powers as well as your mental and your resilience. They push you to your mental resilience and say that, would you give up on your teammate? That's what they try and check, [00:26:00] and because of the training, we don't give up on our teammate. This training is what is going to be carried on into our armed forces, we would never like to leave any of our comrades in the battlefield, we would like to carry everyone back home, whether dead or alive. This is what is important. This, again, comes through strong training. They push you to the limits, and that's why they test, and because of them pushing us to our limits, we get much closer. That's what happens when you're actually having adverse weather like in cold, actually, you come together, you know. You come together and feel the warmth of each other. Metaphorically we are talking about it. It's also like that in difficult times you come together, and that's what carries you throughout your life.


Harish: Any personal routines or habits that you have developed? I know even before the army; you were in scouts. You basically lived a life in uniform. Something that you know has come directly out of the Army's influence on you, which you think, people outside the army can also learn and adapt? It could be personal routines, discipline, sense of honor, anything that you think people can and should adopt, and is it possible for civilians also to bring that into their lives?


Col. Shankar: I wouldn’t like to classify civilians and armed forces people; I would just like to say humans. Well, the NDA taught me some amazing lessons. We had a senior of mine who taught me my life lesson, which I personally follow till date, and I always propagate to others, whether it's young adults, children, or even elders. This is one thing that he taught me. Time is something which is the only resource in which even if you [00:28:00] get a lot of money, you can't even buy it. That's the only resource. How you maximize time is how you can lead your life well.

One thing that he told me in NDA is to get up five minutes early. You can try tomorrow, if you get up at six o'clock daily, try to get up at 5:55. At the end of the day, you will be five minutes early everywhere. Whether it's for breakfast, I mean, in the NDA, breakfast is such an important meal, because you come into physical training, and you get very less time. If you’re going to miss out on breakfast, you're going to have a very tough day, but if you get up early, everything will be in place, at least you'll have a better breakfast, and so on and so forth at the end of the day. Similarly, as a corollary, he says, if you get up five minutes late at the beginning of the day, you will be one hour late at the end of the day. One thing will lead to the other, you will forget something and you will get punished. In a normal, non-military life, maybe we'll forget your cell phone, you'll forget your mask in today's scenario, and then go back and you waste your time. That's the whole thing, time is the key resource. This is something that I followed day in and day out. Five minutes early at the beginning of the day is five minutes early at the end of the day, five minutes late at the beginning of the day, you're one hour late at the end of the day. This is something that your listeners can try it out. Maybe try it out tomorrow and you will definitely see a marked improvement in how you manage your time.


Harish: In the whole knowledge, or rather, in the literature of habits, this is known as a keystone habit. The word Keystone actually comes from the world of architecture where there's this one piece.


Col. Shankar: Over the top.


Harish: Yeah, right. One habit which can have an extraordinary effect on the rest of your life. This is clearly a keystone habit.


Col. Shankar: Definitely a keystone habit. [00:30:00] In fact, even for this interaction that we are having, I was ready five minutes early, set it up and things like that, because the moment it came to know we are having this interview, and I'm sure we will be able to wind it up accordingly too.


Harish: Given the amount of questions and topics that I have, I think we will probably stretch it by half an hour.


Col. Shankar: Let's take it.


Harish: Another question on more about the Indian Army. Historically, a lot of innovations and best practices have come from use cases from the army. Like, a lot of it from the American army and the European army. How is it in the Indian Army when it comes to adopting new practices? How are they managing to respond to the need for change in what is seen as a very regimented sort of slow-to-change system, it is a behemoth, right? There are some practices that have been around for 150 years, but yet you need to adapt to change, things are moving to drones and AI and whatnot these days. How is that marriage of tradition versus the need to adopt new changes that are happening? How is that happening in the Indian army?


Col. Shankar: It's cliché. The only thing that's permanent is change. The army definitely is always open to change, whether it's in the thought process, whether it's in technology, we have a lot of innovation, which goes on the army.  To put too bluntly, we put a lot of resources into carrying out innovation. Innovation requires a lot of resources, in terms of manpower, in terms of expenditure, money, and sometimes space. By space, I mean, real estate. [00:32:00] You might have all the great ideas, but may not have the real estate to check out your drone. We've got all the real estate, so we have got all the resources.

The army actually encourages you to innovate. We, in fact, have got a lot of awards for innovation, whether the DRDO has brought out a lot of healthy eating habits, a lot of products, we sometimes get idli in Siachen Glacier. We know how to pump kerosene into Siachen and many other things where innovation has increased in the armed forces.

At the junior leaders’ level, we encourage people to come up with new ideas. We have different forums for it, and then we dovetail it to the tarteeb, system that we have in the unit. Drill is very important in the armed forces, because everybody cannot go in different directions. We call drill discipline ka buniyad hai, in Hindi, which is like, drill is the bedrock of discipline. We have to dovetail this kind of innovation or new ideas into the drill, and then make that as the new drill. It's not that everybody follows a new idea. Technology is changing unimaginably, but how to use the technology, pull the drill, and then make that as a new drill. That is what we do in the armed forces. I think that's what saves people's lives, because if you have the right drill, then the chances of making mistakes are less. As simple as making sure that your weapon is not loaded when it's not supposed to be loaded, where are you supposed to place your finger, we have new weapon systems where there could be accidents. We are importing a lot of weapons to understand how the weapon functions, but we've developed drills for everything. You develop a drill when there's something new, which has come out and then very less chances that everything will grow out. The army [00:34:00] is always open to innovation and new ideas. We always increase in all levels. In fact, every day we have something called a roll call, where before everything finishes, we ask for any ideas or any thoughts that jawans or right up to the Chief of Army Staff who every day opens a forum or asks people for innovative ideas and things like that.


Harish: Any recommendations for books and sources to learn life lessons from the Indian Army?


Col. Shankar: I don’t know much about books or these things, because we have people on ground, so maybe join the Territorial Army if you're less than 42. If you're a young adult, join the army, navy and Air Force, it will give you all the lessons and everything other than a book. If there is something that comes to my mind, maybe I can share it with you. Nothing that comes right off the top of my mind, which I've read based only on the armed forces or something like that. I've read bits and pieces from everywhere. If something comes to my mind, I can share it with you later.


Harish: Sure. We’ll add them to the shownotes later. Before we go to the next section, another quiz question for you. What did Neil Armstrong do as an insurance policy, in case things didn't go right in the Apollo 11 mission?


Col. Shankar: Oh, well, it's an interesting question, because it combines two of my passions. Not only Neil Armstrong, but the other two explorers also, knew that this is not a mission that might succeed there because they were the first. What they did was they autographed a lot of these first-day covers and distributed them. I don't know whether it was first-day cover or just envelopes with stamps. They gave it [00:36:00] to their families saying that, just in case something happens, this is going to be worth a lot and then you can sell it. This was something which was unique and they thought about it. Neil Armstrong is a sought after autograph in the world of autographs. At some point of time, he stopped actually signing autographs, and then completely stopped signing autographs, so for people who had his autograph it became valuable. I think it was a very innovative insurance policy. I think I've got it right.


Harish: Yes, you have. Nothing is going wrong in this mission for you today. The other aspect of Colonel Shankar is that you are an avid, maybe avid is the wrong word to use. You're a super passionate collector of celebrity autographs. Where did this passion come from?


Col. Shankar: To tell the world in Hindi, you wanted to use Keedah but you used passion. It's fine. As a young boy, growing up in the 80s, with very little exposure to different forms of entertainment that exists today, one was groomed to have hobbies. One started off with the most inexpensive and the most interesting hobby of collecting stamps. It was available, you used to get posts, you could get letters from relatives and friends, you could exchange letters with your pen pals across the world, and then collect the stamps and discover the wonderful hobby of Philately. That's how I started. I started with Philately as a hobby of collecting stamps as a young boy, and then I realized that there is another hobby, which is much more interesting and much more personal than Philately. That was collecting autographs. We were young adults, or very young boys when India won the [00:38:00] World Cup in 1983, and these were heroes. Sports, of course, there is always something for a young boy to look up to and Kapil and his team has achieved this. I got an opportunity to meet a couple of players then and there, and then used an autograph book to take autographs. The World Cup came to India in 1987. That was a turning point, I met a lot of cricketers and started taking autographs. Then I realized this was an interesting aspect, that I'm having a piece of that celebrity with me. This intrigued me, saying that I'm holding a part of history in my hand, which clearly says where the person was, what was his mood when he signed that autograph, where was I and what was my economic condition, because I could have taken a normal piece of paper, I could have taken on a memorabilia, I could have taken on a picture. It is part of history, which very few hobbies or very few things give you. Even art might not give you that. Art will only tell you who the painter was, what his mood was. In an autograph, you actually can put on your mood, you can say with best wishes, or it's a great day and then sign you have a dated autograph. Maybe you don’t sign any artwork.

I found this hobby of collecting autographs to encompass something which will be a slice of history and I could preserve this part of history, which no other hobby offers. That's what intrigued me. I started off collecting it on scraps of paper, on autographed books and then slowly and slowly started specializing in trying to take it on photographs, or memorabilia, on artworks. I got this specially commissioned artwork, [00:40:00] got it signed by them. I still continue to do it for more than 30 plus years, I have been following this hobby. Every day is a great discovery for me.


Harish: Like I mentioned, at the start of this conversation, there are multiple hobbies for you. There's Philately, there is magic, there is autograph collecting. What do you think is the role of something like this? Of hobbies in the life of a growing child or young adult? How important is it and what are the ways in which it opens up new worlds, and opportunities for children and adults alike?


Col. Shankar: Hobbies are great places to gain knowledge. If you have knowledge, it’s the key to everything in life. Choose to Thinq and believe in that. If you think that you will be able to do that, you will get the knowledge. All these hobbies, teach you something, whether it's organization, whether it's planning, whether it's how to do your financial planning, your time planning, or you have to do a lot of research. Whatever hobby it is, whether you're playing an instrument, or reading books, or collecting something, all this leads to knowledge. This knowledge will come in handy to you both in your personal life and in your professional life. Hobbies actually open up. Like they say Philately is the king of hobbies, and the hobby of kings. Statesmen used to collect stamps, that's a small piece of paper, and a great ambassador of a country. This small piece of information will come in handy later in your life, and will also broaden your horizon to learn more. The more you learn, the more powerful you become.


Harish: In fact, we had a venture capitalist on this show earlier, and he was [00:42:00] talking about the kind of people they choose to invest in. He said, one of the things that they look at is whether a person has actually done something in an allied field, has done something around hobbies, has gone and organized a college fair, or something like that. Those are the kinds of things that they look for, and when you talk about all the skills that you learn as part of your hobbies, including financial planning that immediately struck a chord.

I've been reading some of these ambushes, as we call it, that you do with all these celebrities, where you will literally stalk them, and go for the kill at the right time. I've seen all kinds of skills and qualities here; from what we call social engineering skills to influencing skills to selling, highly creative ways in which you get these autographs. Can you talk about any fun anecdotes that you remember from this hobby of yours?


Col. Shankar: Well, every encounter of the celebrities and getting their autographs is a story by itself. It was funny that you used the word ambush, which is a very military term. I consider this as an operation, getting these autographs is an operation and it predates my military career. I've been ambushing much before. I don't know whether my hobby helped my Armed Forces career or the Armed Forces career helped my hobby. It's been dovetail. I've got a lot of stories. All this requires a lot of planning, you need to know how to approach a celebrity, how to be unique, how to [00:44:00] achieve your aim, which is to get the autograph. It's only in today's world that you also want a photograph or a selfie. It's the moment of getting the autograph which is really important.

One of the things that comes right into my mind is, I came to know that Pele was coming to India after a very long time. He had come sometime in late 70s to India, he had come to Calcutta. He was again coming to Calcutta, and I was posted somewhere in the eastern sector of India. I said, okay, this is a great opportunity. Pele is, I think, one of the few sportsmen that people will recognize across the world. He was someone everybody idolizes, and getting his autograph would be a great idea. I knew it was going to be difficult, because Pele coming to India is one thing, but Pele coming to Calcutta is another thing. Calcutta is football crazy. I think even Gods can pass by, but not Pele. I had to come up with a lot of strategies. I had to do a lot of planning at various times. I said, the way to maybe go about is to choose the spot. In an ambush, you have to choose your spot, where do you think your target would come from, that's a very important part of planning. I knew the moment he steps out of the airport is going to be very difficult. After that, I wouldn't have much control. An airport would be a somewhat secure environment, and getting access to the airport is going to be very difficult, given the security systems and things like that. The only way I could have done that was to use my connections. Also you can’t stick out like a sore thumb. You have to blend into the environment and things like that. There will be many like me, who would also try and do this. They will also know that [00:46:00] this was the place, the airport is a great place that you can maybe try and get the autograph. I had to be one more step ahead. The other step that I thought ahead was maybe to try and get his attention.

To get his attention in the sea of fan frenzy, even the airport staff would be in a frenzy to see Pele. I had to come up with something. I said, okay, maybe one of the key things, which I've gained from my professional experience in the armed forces is that language is a very important part of your cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is very important, and in cultural intelligence, language is very important. I said, if I have to be unique, then I have to learn a little bit of Portuguese. That's the language that Pele would speak. A Portuguese speaker in Calcutta is going to be very rare, that is going to be rare. I said, okay, that's the next step. I learned little phrases in Portuguese, but then one had to use the right phrases at the right time, modulate your voice and be there at the right place. Then also, I want an autograph on something which is unique, because if I'm going to shout out to him and get his attention, but I don't have anything, I'm going to just show a piece of paper, then I'm going to be just like another billion autograph seekers he'd have encountered in his life.

I had to be unique. I got an artwork commissioned. It was just not an artwork. It was a wonderful caricature, where I've got one of India's top caricature artists to get a caricature done. It was a caricature of Pele holding a football. That’s where knowledge comes in. I had done research that Pele’s birthday was coming up. One had to also incorporate that and put that on the caricature. The size had to be large enough, because Pele was about [00:48:00] 70 plus, so he had to see that from a distance, understand his own caricature. That's the 97%, the 3% was not in my hands. I believed in my 97%, I said, this is the information that I have, when is he coming, what it is, and what are the skills that I have.  I had a lot of faith in my skills.

Sure enough, Pele didn't come walking. He was escorted in a golf cart within the airport, which normally doesn't happen. Before he was taken to the waiting lounge, into the VIP lounge, which again, people don't do, generally they get out of the airport quickly, so that there is hardly any time. I shouted out to him in Portuguese, and there was just that microsecond when he turned his head because somebody's shouting out to him in Portuguese in Calcutta airport. That definitely got his attention, and the moment I got his attention, I showed the caricature, which was large enough for him to see. When he saw that, and the moment he got down, it was Pele who initiated and said that I would like to meet my friend who speaks Portuguese. Then it was much easier. People looked for me and said, who are you, and how do you know Pele? I said, I don't know Pele. Pele knows me. He knows me as someone who speaks Portuguese. After that, it was a breeze I could take an autograph, not only an autograph, he personalized it for me. He wanted a picture with me. That was a great moment and moments like this have been many. I have had encounters with Magnus Carlsen when he came to India, these are from the sports field, but I've had great encounters with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, with heads of states, with also a lot of celebrities.

One has to be prepared, one has to plan well, one has to do a lot of contingency [00:50:00] planning, which is also very important. Contingency planning is very important. If I had not ambushed Pele on that day, I also had backup plans. I learned the Happy Birthday song in Portuguese. I got a young girl to accompany me to put a little bit of sentiment to that. First base, I struck. After that, the four or five days, two, three times I had encountered, I just didn't take autographs. It was Pele who recognized me in other events, and said, oh, he is my friend. That put me into the other events later in my life in Calcutta, when people saw me as Pele’s friend.


Harish: Fantastic.


Col. Shankar: I think it was a great experience for me.


Harish: Yeah. We can see the whole meticulous planning that has gone into this ambush. There was no other option for Pele, but to sign that autograph for you.


Col. Shankar: I think that’s the aim of the ambush, you know. You have to make sure that with the minimal resources, you act to have the maximum distance to achieve the aim. I think I achieved my aim. The Armed Forces career has taught me how to lay ambushes and make sure that I come out successfully with no casualties.


Harish: Correct. With no casualties, I was going to add that. If I were to just ask you to put a number on the autographs that you have taken, how many thousands would that be?


Col. Shankar: Well, numbers are about eight thousand plus, the last time I recorded it. However, it's not about numbers. It's about the autographs. It's about the experience. I mean, I have collected so many of them. I think one of the greatest autograph moments that I have is something very unique. It's not of some world celebrity, and of course, he's a world celebrity. Also, how I got President Kalam’s autograph [00:52:00]. That's a really cherished memory. I can barter that for the other 7999 autographs. It is because of the experience and the memory that I have with the autograph.


Harish: That was when you were still serving, right?


Col. Shankar: Oh, yeah, that's an interesting story. If we have time, I can share that.


Harish: Please. Of course.


Col. Shankar: This was sometime in 2003. I was a young captain. At that time, I had gone to Delhi for an interview for a foreign mission. I was called for an interview in Delhi. These interviews take place in the South block. By the time the interview finished, it was about 5:30 in the evening, and I was in my uniform and driving a civilian car. When I was heading back to the place where I was staying, just a wild thought struck me that why not go to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, because it comes on the way from South Block. To meet the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, just a wild thought. Since I was in my uniform, I thought maybe I'll have access.

I realized that was not so easy, because the Rashtrapati Bhawan has got layers of security. At the first layer of security, someone stopped me and said, who are you? Then of course, he checked my credentials. I told him that I'm a serving army officer, I was in uniform. He was satisfied with the answer. That's really the farthest security, one didn't know how it worked and things like that. I just took the chance and said I want to meet the President of India. Maybe he thought that I had an appointment or something, and the President had called me. He was the last layer of security. There were many more layers. I went through a couple of layers of security before they actually asked me, who are you and what do you want. I told them that I want to meet the President of India, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and I'm Captain Shankar from the army. They said, that's great captain, but it doesn't work that way. It's all only by appointment. There's a lot of security issues. [00:54:00]

I said, if that's the thing, then maybe I could speak to the eighth-day camp, the ADC who's with the Rashtrapati. I knew who the ADC was, but I didn't know him very personally. I called him up and said, I want to meet Rashtrapati. He said, you must be crazy, because he also knows what a service officer is, and he was also nearly at the same rank. He said, since you made all these efforts, you can meet me and I can show you around Rashtrapati Bhawan, but that also is not possible now, because the Rashtrapati is sitting in his office, it was about 6:30 or something at that time, and you continue to wait in the reception. He made sure that I was sitting in the reception, and I just kept waiting. Those were pre-cellphone days. I waited for about 45 minutes. Didn't have any response. Again, I called him up and I asked him, what's the status, and he said, ‘I'm sorry, but Rashtrapati is still sitting in the office, and he should leave at any moment. This is the general time he leaves, and the moment he leaves I'm free. We initiated a process of making a visitor's pass for you. He spoke to some people, they were making the visitor's pass, and he said, okay, you go to a particular place in the Rashtrapati Bhawan, and I'll come and meet you there. I was escorted to that place. I had to pass the ADC’s office to go to that place where I was supposed to be waiting for him. Just as I was going, he asked me to just sit in my office because Rashtrapati was just about to leave now. It would just take about 30 seconds, I'll just see him off, and then come. I was waiting in his office, and the ADC was called by the Rashtrapati. That was the drill before he leaves. Within about 30 seconds, somebody came running to me and said Rashtrapati wants to see you. I was taken aback. Apparently, the ADC as in the passing made a remark that yes, there was a crazy army officer who wanted to see you. The Rashtrapati said, yes, why not? [00:56:00] I was ushered into the Rashtrapati’s office, where very few people go, because they have designated areas where he meets visitors.

As a young captain, I saluted my Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. He made me sit down, the ADC was standing. It was the ADC, me and Rashtrapati. The Rashtrapati was one of the greatest and most loved Presidents of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. We started our conversation, he asked me where I was serving, when I told him I was in the northeast, he said he had visited that place. Then when he came to know about my background, that I was from Tamil Nadu, he switched over and started talking to me in Tamil. he made me so at home and said that you're my guest and you should go around the Mughal gardens. He was directing the ADC saying, you take him around Mughal Gardens, it was all open to the public. I still didn't diverge from my aim. My aim was to get his autograph. I could see the Mughal gardens later also, but I wanted his autograph. I told him that. I had already had an experience with the President because I was awarded the Shaurya Chakra. I had an experience of meeting Rashtrapati and getting the award from him. I told him that, I've met president Narayanan earlier, and I've come to the Rashtrapati Bhawan to get the award. It was a surreal experience, but I still wanted his autograph. That's what I want. He said he signed only autographs for children, but you made a lot of efforts, I will sign an autograph for you. He asked ADC to get us a card. He had made a card to sign autographs for children. He got me the card, it generally had printed autographs, which he just distributed, but this one just had the card with a picture of His Excellency, the Rashtrapati, and a quote. The quote was so relevant, and relevant to the interaction that we're having today. He asked me to read aloud [00:58:00] like a child, that's what he typically did. He said, repeat after me, and he said read it aloud. The quote said, learning gives creativity, creativity leads to thinking, thinking gives you knowledge, and knowledge makes you great. Or knowledge is power, something. He asked me to read it loudly, and then he signed it, saying “Dear Captain Shankar, With best wishes, APJ Abdul Kalam, the 23rd of March.” I think so. 2003.

As an autograph collector, it’s like I told you, autographs are a slice of history. It clearly says who it is addressed to, where was he, what date, what was his mood. I have a piece of history with me, which is lifelong. We are people of history as autograph collectors. That was my greatest moment. When I left the office, I was asked to sign a register, where you have to put in your credentials, whoever enters the Rashtrapati office. I saw there were heads of states of other countries, and here, I was signing Captain Shankar, Agarthala. Some Israeli Prime Minister or somebody name written, just a couple names ahead.  I said, wow, here's a record I'm going to maintain.

People ask me, what about the photograph? Did you take a picture? These are of course, pre-digital era, pre-cellphone era. I said, the picture is in my mind. Like how I have narrated the story, it's as if I'm reliving the old experience. Of course, I met President Kalam much later also, as a former President, but it was a great moment. These are the moments that I cherish being an autograph collector. Many more of them, of the 8000 autographs, maybe I'll have some 3000 stories, but this is one thing that I cherish throughout my life, [01:00:00] getting the autograph of the President of India.


Harish: Yeah. The People's President, and I think this is an example of why he was called the people's President as well.


Col. Shankar: Absolutely. He was an amazing man and a great autograph signer. He also came up with funny things. He said he will give out printed autographs. He will sign just APJ, to get more people. But that particular autograph he had signed his complete name with addressed to me, with his wish, and with the date. That's something special. Of course, he was a great man and great thoughts and someone that I followed and I still continue to follow his values and his teachings. I think he was a great president.


Harish: Continuing on the whole autograph topic that we're talking about, you have also brought out books of caricatures, collectors and cards for kids to go and become like you, go and hound cricketers, or, Formula One drivers as well. A lot of these things that you've done, have involved doing things that you are not really trained for. I remember you once telling me that you’ve now picked up graphic design skills, which were I'm sure, no way expected of you in the Indian Army. Did you have any formal training and how do you go about picking up these kinds of skills?


Col. Shankar: Oh, well, these are some things that I thought will add value to the autographs, because what typically happens is children take in scraps of paper or something, and maybe they will throw away the autograph without realizing that they're holding a part of history. I came up with certain collectibles, which people could take autographs with. It will encourage children [01:02:00] to take autographs. We brought out books on the 2011 Cricket World Cup Winners, Formula One, Chennai, Super Kings, of course, supported by MS Dhoni, as he was a captain of both the cricket team and Chennai Super Kings. He also believed in this idea that, if he is giving an autograph, people should keep it. Like I'm able to relate with APJ Kalam’s autograph memory. I'm sure when they become older, they will have something to show and so it can’t just be a scrap of paper that people might throw away. In the process, I realized that it's graphic designing like what you said, designing is very important. Hit and trial is what I did. The resources to learn are immense nowadays. It's how you tap and spend your time correctly to learn. I think the Internet has opened up a lot of avenues. The pandemic has taught us that you can learn a lot online. If you do a wide range of reading and seeing things, then you will come to know these skills, specifically for graphic design.

Initially, my books were big, which was unwieldy, then I realized that it's better to have it small, so it’s easy for the autograph collectors. The quality of paper, how autographs work on glossy paper, how autographs work on non-glossy paper, how caricatures are a little more eye-catching and captivating than normal photographs, how you know small caricature cards are respected worldwide, you could exchange them and things like that. It should be easy, also inexpensive, because as a young collector, maybe you won't have the money. Your parents might not be able to give you so much money that you will be able to buy a bat every time you want to get on somebody's sign. All this [01:04:00] is surely through experience of collecting and learning. I think the resources are immense nowadays. You just need to know where to look for it. If you follow the right kind of people, I'm sure you will get ideas. Then you get focused and learn a particular way. I learned a lot of designing software skills. One thing that I used was InDesign, and now if you asked me to make a book, I can make a book in six hours. Initially, it took me about six months to just compose it and the normal thing with so many mistakes and things like that. Like I told you, time is a very important resource. If you have the skills, then you will be able to save time. To answer your question, I think the learning opportunities and their avenues are many. It's all available. You can just look and, I think you can get the skills.


Harish: Right. In fact, if you look carefully in the bookshelf behind me, you will see a copy of the Broom, you will see a copy of Howzzat as well. They have the pride of place. I don't know if you can see it, but I also see your autograph book, which I have, which is East of Kanchenjunga.

Let's go to the next question that I had. You are one of the foremost experts in India on Bhutan. How did you go about building that expertise? Where did you start? How do you keep yourself updated? It's not like, you're just reading about India, your school curriculum. It's not like that, right? It's a completely different country. It's a new country. Yes, it was part of your line of work. But how do you go about becoming an expert on a country like this? What was the whole process of doing that?


Col. Shankar: Well, it started off as a professional assignment. [01:06:00] I was selected to go to Bhutan, as part of the training team. The Indian Army trains the Royal Bhutan army. It was part of my professional assignment. Like I mentioned to you, I would like to do things which are complete. I said, Okay, this is just not a professional assignment for two years. I need to know about the country if I'm going to make an impact on the work that I'm going to do or how I'm going to contribute. First things first, was to try and learn about the culture. Again, the hobby comes in. The first stamps that I collected were of Bhutan, because they used to produce these unique stamps, the 3D stamps, and stamps on foil and things like that. I had a little background of Bhutan, as a philatelist. This was a great opportunity to go on ground. I was posted to Bhutan, I was, in fact, lucky to be in Thimphu, which is the capital of Bhutan.

The first thing that I did was to understand the culture, and to learn the language. I think that was a very important thing, like I brought up earlier, language is a very important part of cultural intelligence. When I say language, one may not be a degree holder or somebody who's got formal training in any language. What you need to know is conversational language. That's very important. You should be able to start a conversation and express interest that you connect with the other person in the language that they know. This is what I started off with, but then I got much deeper into the study, and which eventually resulted in the coming out of the first Hindi-English-Dzongkha dictionary, because I found that a lot of our Indian Army personnel go to Bhutan, especially the soldiers, who I thought if they have a dictionary, where they could relate to the Hindi word, and the Dzongkha word, they will also be able to make a certain difference in the [01:08:00] Indo-Bhutan friendship.

It's not an Indo-Bhutan friendship when we talk, it's not about the Prime Minister and the King of Bhutan. It's at every level. It's the people to people contact, which has helped Bhutan and India come much closer. That's when I realized that it's so important. My tenure was only about two and a half years. It was two years, but extended because of His Majesty's coronation. Also the historic times that I was in, because we saw the abdication of His Majesty, the fourth King, we saw the first elections, Bhutan became a democracy, from a monarchy to democracy, we saw the coronation of His Majesty, The fifth King. I got an extended tenure of two and a half years. Since I was part of history, I was a witness to history. I said that it will be unfair that I leave all this knowledge that I've gained in Bhutan, so I have to build on those skills and contribute much more to the Indo-Bhutan friendship and the cooperation between the two armies.

That's when I started to gain my knowledge. Knowledge, one that is available, open-source, through books, or through media and things of that, but also the interaction plan and the friendships that I've built in Bhutan. I have some great friends in Bhutan still, I have friends in the royalty too, but it’s not only the friends in royalty or the people who are in positions in the government of the Armed Forces, but also the common people of Bhutan. They will be able to tell you what they are thinking about the world situation and things like that. I tried to build that and maintain that relationship, and language like I told you plays an important role. I tried to help them out.

Luckily I was posted in [01:10:00] Calcutta, and as well as other places in the east of India, where these Bhutanese used to come for medical reasons or for some kind of economic reasons. I tried to help them out, sometimes helping them out with arranging blood or getting them admitted into hospital and things of that, where I could use my local language and my network. That's how you build a kind of a knowledge base. It's not overnight, you need to nurture it and believe it, and with no aims or a ‘this is what I am going to achieve’. It's nothing like that. You just have to have the aim clear, that let's build the Indo-Bhutan friendship stronger. That's what I've always believed in. Of course, now, the resources are much more, Bhutan has opened up. A lot of their citizens are into Twitter and Facebook and other social media, they have got more newspapers, their TV channels are all open on YouTube and things like that. Of course, now with other instant messaging apps, one is able to keep in touch and come to know. In fact, I read the Bhutanese newspaper much before the Indian newspaper, because Bhutan is half an hour ahead of us and I get the newspaper by about 12 o'clock in 11:30 as per India’s time I get the newspaper, I read it first or the previous day, and sometimes I am much more updated on Bhutan than what is happening in PCP.

I think one needs to nurture this, it's not that you try and specialize. I will not say that I'm an expert on Bhutan, but I can say that I can contribute significantly if somebody wants any knowledge about Indo-Bhutan friendship as well as on Bhutan as a country.


Harish: In the process of doing this, in those two years, any tips or tricks that you used for knowledge management? How would you take notes or was there something like a Pareto analysis [01:12:00] done that okay, if I know 20% of the language, I should be able to do 80% conversation? Anything like that, that you did?


Col. Shankar: Of course, language is always like that. Whether it's Pele or it's Bhutan, you should know what are the languages, pleasantries, emergency, and things like that. In fact, helped in this book that is placed here, which is, facts about Bhutan. This is one of the first books that I worked on with another Bhutanese author. During the process of writing the book, I discovered so many things. How did I organize the language, this is the advent or the start of the smartphone in 2007 and 2008. First and foremost, for an outsider, all Bhutanese will look similar. Everybody will be called Dorji. It’s important that you store the right information, have the keywords right in their contact itself, by saying that, okay, this person is from a particular department, everything in the contact field itself. The moment he calls, I can immediately relate, okay, this is the person. One could save the photographs as part of contact, now it's become so common, but in those days, it wasn’t.

Let's say I'm going into a briefing or meeting someone. I know that I've saved this information, let's say let's say I was advising my general and he's going to meet, I will give him the brief tips on how I've saved and this was digitally saved because the smartphone just arrived at that time. I could save that. I used to make small notes and keep it just before going for any meeting and things of that sort, because everybody had started looking similar, the names are all similar. You need to have certain small qualities. I should write it down. Over the period of years, I've built that up and I have genealogical charts. In Bhutan marriage and divorce are very common [01:14:00]. You should know that this person was married to two wives before that. So that you don't invite the wife and the girlfriend together.

I made notes, genealogical charts were there, and many small things. See the newspaper and make sure that photographs there and things like that. For knowledge, you can start off with just by saving their contacts with maximum information. Don’t just save ABC Bhutan. Save ABC Bhutan, BBS, school, let's say they went to St. Joseph's schools batch of 1997. Try to put as much information in the contact itself. So you will know that this person has gone to St. Joseph. You can always talk about Darjeeling or his classmates, if you know St. Joseph's 1997 batch. When you talk about somebody from St. Joseph 1997 batch, automatically the link becomes and that's the social engineering that I follow.


Harish: Fantastic. Before we move into the last and final section, one more quiz question for you.

The four concentric circles, as designed in the form of Chakravyuh, are named after protection, sacrifice, bravery and immortality. What are we talking about which was designed by Yogesh Chandra Hassan of VB Design Lab, ChennaI?


Col. Shankar: Well, you have touched something very close to my heart. This is a wonderful design. In fact, I've met that architect who has designed that. You're talking about the National War Memorial in New Delhi.


Harish: Perfect.


Col. Shankar: The Tyag chakra, Amar chakra, the Raksha chakra, and then the fourth one, the Veerta chakra. [01:16:00] It’s a wonderful monument and I would encourage your listeners, whoever goes to Delhi, to go and have a look at this wonderful monument, which has been very well designed. The design is still evolving, and I'm sure the present state is just about two years old, but it's been very well laid out. It's got the names of all those Armed Forces personnel who have laid down their lives in operational circumstances, their individual names are written in each of these plaques. Then, of course, you have the Amar chakra, which is right in the center where the eternal flame is burning. All these are casualties, which happened after 1947. To answer your question, you're talking about the National War Memorial in New Delhi.


Harish: Perfect answer. Moving to this final section of ours, you said you retired in 2017, so you could have chosen to live a happily retired life. Following your hobbies, that you have enough hobbies to go after and keep yourself busy and more. But you've taken up a very noble project. Can you tell our listeners more about this Project Sambandh that you are now part of?


Col. Shankar: Well, maybe I wouldn't have retired at all. I would have continued in the Armed Forces. I had just about 20 years of service, and I could have continued for another about 14 odd years in the Army. Maybe it was in the ranks and things like that.

Then I was fortunate to get a calling in my life. I was posted in the eastern sector of India, I was commanding a unit there, that's where I realized that the army, apart from the operational casualties, also has a lot of casualties, because of non-operational reasons. One of my tasks as the commanding officer of the unit was to document and mention [01:18:00] about these non-operation-casualties. These non-operational casualties are classified as physical casualties in the army. The people who die in operation circumstances are called battle casualties, like the one that I mentioned in the National War Memorial, the battle casualties’ names are inscribed, we've got about 27,000 odd battle casualties from 1947 onwards. Then I realized there were two or three dying every week or maybe three or four days. When I started doing a little bit of research, I found that the Indian Army loses 1500 every year. This was a large number. It intrigued me because I also was close to an airport, and I used to facilitate the movement of the mortal remains and also receive the next of kin, maybe their spouse or parents or brothers. I understood that there's a huge gap in how they perceived the armed forces, there was a gap.

When I dug and started doing little bit of research on those families, which have lost their loved ones, in such circumstances, that's non-operational, the physical casualties, which is basically of four reasons, either because of medical conditions, or accidents or suicides or fratricide. Then I realized that there needs to be a way to connect with them, because over a period of time, their connection with the Armed Forces was lost. I made a conscious decision to prematurely retire from the army. People initially discouraged me saying that, I've got a career ahead of me, it would give me promotions, ranks and things like that. Then I realized that being in the army and trying to do something like this would be very difficult, because my primary aim would have been to serve the country in whichever appointment I was, and for this, I would require a lot of time, [01:20:00], I would require a lot of independence and movement.

I said, let me retire, let me prematurely retire. Financially, I had to make a decision because one would just get a pension. Luckily, I would have got a pension because I had put in 20 years of service, but then I had the advantages of being single. With the pension, I could survive and also had few expenditures. I said, maybe I would have to sustain myself and do this project without being employed in any commercial firm. I answered this calling, that's the reason why I retired from the armed forces. It's not the other way around that I retired from the armed forces and started Project Sambandh, but because of Project Sambandh, I retired from the armed forces.

This project is basically to connect with the next of kin of the physical casualties of the Indian Army. Physical casualties are Indian Army personnel who while in service died because of non-operational circumstances, which are the four reasons I told you, which is medical conditions, accidents, suicides, and fratricide. The Indian Army loses 1500 of them each year. The next of kin could be spouse and children as well as their parents.

The aim is to establish the connection with them, because initially, the connection is very strong, when the soldier dies, the whole organization is with them to help them out. As the time progresses, the connection is lost because of various social reasons, financial reasons, emotional reasons, and because the connection is lost, they do not know that there are many schemes, entitlements, grants, which are applicable to them, and they're unaware of it. Because of which, I'm trying to help them establish the connection so that they can feel [01:22:00] proud that their loved one served in such a great organization called the Indian Army.


Harish: Can you give me some examples of what this connect is? How can you help these next of kin?


Col. Shankar: Initially, the problem is to find out where they are. Typically, the army is all about information. Information that is there is sometimes incorrect, sometimes incomplete, and definitely not current. My first challenge was to get the data to be correct, complete, and Project Sambandh to make it current. This was the challenge, it took me nearly a year and a half to travel across India, to talk to a lot of armed forces authorities to try and get this data organized in such a way to make it correct, complete and current. Correct and complete, I could manage in certain ways. Correct, I have got complete, still, I'm not able to do it. Most important is to make it current. To make it current one had to travel across meet these next of kin. That's when I realized that most of the data is not current, because of various financial, economic and social reasons. What typically happens is when the soldier dies, the spouse and the children typically goes to the in-laws place, this is the typical Indian setting, socially, this is what is acceptable, and the widow and children go to the in-laws place because at least they would get the three basic needs of roti, kapra and makan. They would at least get the roti and makan. Of course, they'll get a meagre pension, which is about from 9000 to about 20,000 rupees. It is very difficult for the next of kin to survive independently.

Also, [01:24:00] once she goes to the village setting in-the laws place, she realizes that the quality of education for the children is definitely marked down, because the children earlier, when the soldier was serving, would have gone to a good Army school or a Central School, and now they have to go to a government to village school because they wouldn't be able to afford a private school because of the less pension. She realizes the quality of the education is really affected in two years, and also there are a lot of other social and financial reasons also which forces the next of kin to move out from the in-laws’ place. For a better life for herself as well as for the children, she moves out to a better place mainly, with education in the back of the mind. The army, unfortunately, still has the data of when the man died, which is the in-laws place.

There is no way that this data can get updated or made current till the time the next of kin take some efforts, because many times she wants to break this connect for various reasons. For various reasons, many of them are social reasons, because of the interaction with their in-laws, interaction with the immediate society, how widows are treated in a rural area or in all environments. I try to go out and find out where these next of kin are, and try to establish this connect. Over these years I have traveled across India. I've traveled to Jammu Kashmir, it is one of the places where I have established a lot of people, Jammu Kashmir, Himachal, down south. In one of my visits, when I had gone to a place called [01:26:00] Sunderbani, what I also do is, also build awareness that these next of kin of physical casualties are the most neglected, because the army has got a lot of schemes but unfortunately, the focus is elsewhere. I also try to talk to the Armed Forces authorities to bring out the plight.

On one such visit, I went to a place called Sunderbani, which is there in Jammu Kashmir, close to Rajori, Punj and if you want to know that geography there. I met this lady who was hardly about a kilometer away from the army cantonment. I came to know that was not the address, that was what the army authorities had. I had caught out from someone that she lived somewhere here. When I met her, she said that she had lost her husband just two years into marriage. The husband was a young soldier and they already had a child, who was just one year old when the soldier died because of some medical reasons. When I met the mother and the daughter who had just about 15 minutes to spare for me because they were rushing to school. When I interacted, she said that she was a teacher and she had built her skills after the soldier had died, and made sure that the child also goes to a good private school.

When I met the child, she was in ninth grade, I asked what her aspirations were, what her ambitions were, and whether she was in reciprocity scholarship, which she said was not in scholarship because she was not aware. First thing first, I helped her fill up the forms, but more importantly, when I asked her what her aspirations were, she said that she wants to be a cardiologist. I was really taken aback in a small place in Sunderbani, here is a young girl child, who's talking about being a cardiologist. I was really impressed. When I came back to my home state, I tried to put it up [01:28:00] on my social media, and then tried to reach out to my friends saying that this is what Project Sambandh is all about.

If I had just corresponded with them on email, or telephone, maybe I would have just filled up the scholarship form for them, and given those 40,000 rupees, but since I met them, I could make out that there was a confidence in that young girl in such a small place, and her ambition was very clear. Sure enough, a lot of my friends and family said how they would like to support. We realized the potential and sure enough, next year when she appeared for her 10th standard exams, the board exams, she scored 484 out of 500.

That's a story that I always tell people, that if you've got the jazba or the fire in your belly, you will be able to do it in spite of the circumstances, no father, single parent, financially not well to do. Today, I'm proud to say that my friends advised me that being in Sunderbani is going to be very difficult for her to prepare for her medical exam. We have to go step by step, she has to clear NEET and things like that. It's better that she moves to a little better place where she can get some coaching. We helped her move to Jammu, which is a bigger place, where she's undergoing coaching, she's staying in a hostel, her mother is working in a school in Jammu, staying again, single. My friends and families are supporting me, financially. Some people are supporting me, some people are advising her in her preparation to become a doctor. Somebody had gifted a laptop and things, but it's not about the money or the financial aspect. It's because of the connect we were able to make sure that this kid achieves her aim. You have to build the right environment for her. and this could only happen because of Sambandh or trying to reach out.

This is one of the 1000s of stories, like my autograph stories, each interaction is [01:30:00] a story by itself. Only if you establish the connect, you will be able to come to know what the current situation is. That's what Project Sambandh is, to put it simply, is to connect.


Harish: Right. Fantastic. That is a great story. We really wish the best for her and for you as well, in this project. With this project Sambandh, did you have to learn anything new, any new skills that you had to learn? I'm just guessing, but did you have to learn about databases? How do you manage all this data?


Col. Shankar: Database is the easiest. Technology is the easiest, but the greatest learning is my social skills. It's very difficult to talk to a widow. How do I interact with the widow? How do I approach the subject? Every time you can’t ask, how did your husband die. The husband might have died because of suicide, you're, again pulling her back on the trauma. I've just learned through sheer experience that it is difficult for a man to talk to a woman in a rural setting. Most of these widows are young widows, age group from 22 to 35, that's the maximum. Talking to a young widow is very difficult, especially when you're going to a rural setting, you are a single man going there. It's difficult when you got data of a particular widow and go there, whom do you take along? How do you approach a subject? What are the languages you speak? I am not the official authority, I'm just a person who's trying to do some philanthropic activity to try and convince what is my aim for the whole thing. How to overcome their suspicions? Because there could be fraud, there could be people who think that why is this man coming all the way from Chennai, when the western government machinery cannot do what one man can do? [01:32:00]

Mine is a completely one-man philanthropic initiative. There's no NGO or an organization, things like that. The skills, of course, like what you've brought up, the technology skills are very important. How to clean up the database? How to access the database fast? How to update the database? These are the technological skills, which one can learn or take assistance from others, but what is more important, the skill that I have developed is my social skills. How to interact with these next of kin, how to talk to the Armed Forces authorities. In fact, just before this interview, I was talking to a commanding officer, and he was telling me, I just helped you and took up this cause, because you know, you have the power of motivation, and convincing me. This I've developed because earlier I used to project a kind of negative or not positive picture, saying you have not done this, you have not reached out. Now I say that how you can reach out, I make it positive. I also try to give them how it will be beneficial to the person who's reaching out, that it will make them a better person, it will give them a better exposure to connect with their next of kin. Also, enhance them as a human personality. So, skills that I've developed.

Every day I'm learning new skills, and it's different from different areas of the country. How you interact with parents, how you interact with the children. I have heard abuses in all languages, you know, because the first thing that I hear is abuse, then I hear them cry, then the children come into picture and they bring in the same version, saying “Uncle abhi kya karna hai?” What are the next steps ahead? Social skills are what I've learned. Of course, technology and policies, I myself didn't know about a lot of government policies. [01:34:00] That's what I'm learning every day. Using Project Sambandh has definitely made me a much more mature person and much more socially responsible person.  I know the power of the network now.


Harish: Yeah. Are there any ways in which others can contribute or help you in any way?


Col. Shankar: Well, when people talk about assistance, I think the first thing that comes to people's mind is financial assistance, tell me how can I contribute financially. That is important, but that's not all. What is most important is awareness. Awareness that yes, Indian army personnel while in service died because of the circumstances, there are a large number, and unlike any other corporate sector or any other government sector, in the armed forces, the next of kin suffers the most because they won't get any compassionate employment. Women are not employed, I mean, just now women have started getting employed. You won't be able to give jobs to them, they are all young widows, most of them are single breadwinners who have died. One guy gets into the armed forces; the whole family is being supported unlike any other profession. Awareness, yes, the next of kin of physical casualties are the most affected. To begin with, that's the start.

Number two is to make sure that, if you want to contribute financially, then the best way is, I can connect you to the right group of children, and one can directly contribute. In this also, I always say that it's better to give a limited amount and bridge the gap, rather than give a large amount, or expect for opportunities where you're presenting [01:36:00] a cheque and things like that. Because I'm not a registered organization or something, I wouldn't be able to take any donations and things like that. I would connect you to the right kind of children, basically for education, and a small amount, maybe of 12000 rupees a year, or something, which is 1000 rupees a month, would be contributed for a particular child per year, depending on the amount one can identify and deliver.

Financially, again, I'd like to say that's not the must. The most important thing is to build awareness, establish the connect, and if you've got any special skills, if you have done some research and things like that, I'm most open, I like to learn how to deal with victims, I mean, next of kin of suicide victims, or how rural women in India in a particular area behave on loss of their loved ones. Or what is the relationship between in-laws and daughter-in-law and things like that. If somebody has done research, I'm most open to that as those figures will give me a better understanding.


Harish: What's the best way for people to get in touch with you?


Col. Shankar: I am available on the email, which is The Project Sambandh. I will share it with you or you can put it on the shownotes, it's theprojectsambandh@gmail.com. I've got a WhatsApp number, and I've got a basic website, which gives all this WhatsApp number and email. Then you can Google me. I'm also available on all social media platforms and instant messaging platforms. One can reach out to me and I will see how I can connect with you and take the services.


Harish: Great. We’ll put those in the shownotes. One thing that I remember, when I had visited your unit a few years ago. Each vehicle in your unit [01:38:00] was named after a gallantry award winner, with the citation printed on the dashboard inside. If I was sitting inside the Gypsy, I would actually see Haushiyar Singh or Banna Singh. The vehicle was named after these PVC winners, and why they got the award was also mentioned there. I thought this is a fantastic way of making it a reminder for people both serving in the army as well as guests like us, for us to know about what these great heroes have done for us. Also like a great thank you gesture to these heroes. What do you think we as a country, or we as a society should do more to recognize our heroes? Now what you're doing as part of Project Sambandh is great. What about these people? What is it that we can do more of?


Col. Shankar: Well, read about them. That's the first thing I've mentioned. At the beginning of the talk, I mentioned how I was inspired by a serial, which even if I will look at it now, is not very technologically sound, called Param Veer Chakra, which is produced by Chetan Anand, brother of Dev Anand. As a young mind, it made a lot of impact. Also there was only one source at that time, and I also grew up reading a lot of comics. Amar Chitra Katha was a great motivation for me. There were comics about Param Veer Chakra winners. Now they've got more comics about Param Veer Chakra.

I think the more you read, and also in today's world, because of distractions which young adults go through, I think even having it in the curriculum helps. The armed forces as well as the Government of India has also tried to bring it into the curriculum, to talk about these [01:40:00] brave hearts who have done so much for the country, to sacrifice their lives, as well as done some gallant acts. If you use the curriculum, you definitely have to have some questions in the exam. Definitely read about it. Even if about 10% is there, maybe you could do further reading.

As young adults, start consuming it through the things that you like, maybe through digital medium. There are a lot of short clips that are interviews, and are available on various internet resources like YouTube and other resources. If you are an educator, if you're a teacher, then introduce these into the curriculum subtly. Maybe if you put up a chapter that maybe they just mug it up, but if you talk about geography and suddenly you say this is actually the birthplace of Manoj Pandey. If you're talking about the states and capitals and you come to Lucknow, you say Lucknow is where Manoj Pandey, Param Veer Chakra, studied. They'll say who Manoj Pandey is? So subtly bring it up.

I think the government of India has got a great initiative called Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat, where children from one state learn about another state. like Tamil Nadu with Jammu Kashmir. You can bring out the stories of these brave hearts.

As a parent, I think you should encourage your children to explore these kinds of resources. Once in a while use forums like yours, Choose to Thinq, or any other quiz platforms and things like that where it's not about winning prizes or things like that, but just to gain the knowledge. Also we had brought out the National War Memorial in your talk, take them out, excursions can be organized. Across India, we have got war memorials. The Armed Forces [01:42:00] will be more than happy to entertain children, going to parades or training academies, going to monuments, listening and interacting with veterans, listening and interacting with the Armed Forces soldiers. I think these are some of the ways that I can think about whether you are a child or a young adult or educator or parent. There are ways that you can ignite the minds of people like Abdul Kalam said.


Harish: Perfect. Last question, what is next for Colonel Shankar? What's next?


Col. Shankar: What's next? Well, I am a person who believes in the present. Like I told you, I'm a big fan of MS Dhoni, and he believes in being in the present. The past is the experience you have gained; the future you don’t know. I believe in the present. I like to consolidate. The times are very difficult now. Imagine, as someone who's got all the resources, we are finding it difficult. Imagine a widow or a next of kin of a physical casualty, during these times of the pandemic, what are the kind of challenges that they have. I'm trying to develop my skills on how to not physically travel and still be able to solve their grievances, or at least address and understand the grievances. How to use technology better? I mean, this is some new medium that one has discovered in the last couple of years, one didn't know that one could carry on an interaction like this for nearly an hour and 20 minutes, or more than that, I think two hours nearly. These are new skills that I'm trying to develop. That's the present, consolidate, accept what's happening in the world, accept the challenges of the pandemic, and try and address the grievances as much as one can. [01:44:00]

Harish: I think wise words as always. It was fantastic, almost close to two hours of conversation with you. I had a great time trying to pick your brains on a bunch of topics. Thanks a lot.


Col. Shankar: Thank you very much. It was great interacting with you and I'm sure your listeners will also gain some insights. All the very best stay safe, mask up, maintain social distances and I think that's the best way. Accept and control the controllables.

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