Sad Demise of General Sunith Rodrigues (Retd) PVSM, VSM, ADC (19/9/1933 – 4/3/2022)
One more gallant, courageous and compassionate soldier has gone to his reward; to the bosom of the Supreme Commander of the forces of good – the Heavenly Father.
It is by chance that I came to know about the passing on of Gen Rodrigues. I scoured my two newspapers and a couple of news portals, but there was no reference to him. I finally came across the report in the online Indian Express. Oh yes, there were several stories about the death of Australian cricketer Shane Warne. It made me wonder. The media extols the cricketer whose off-field romantic dalliances were as well known as his on-field leg-spin. But it fails to report the fall of one on the battlefield, one who served for honour, not fame or money. I hang my head in shame at the pathetic state of the Indian media.
Let me partially fill the void through this eulogy. Coincidentally, Gen Rodrigues became the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) at the same time that I got elected as the National President of the All India Catholic Union (NP AICU), in 1990. When I wrote him a congratulatory letter he graciously replied. Twenty years later I met him at a Christmas carol service in Gurgaon. I noticed that he was wearing a blazer with his boxing logo. It was indicative of his unassuming nature. When I reminded him of our communications he smiled and said that he had at that time received thousands of congratulatory letters.
As NP AICU I used to receive various petitions from across the country. I had to refer two to Gen Rodrigues. One was regarding army authorities in Rajkot denying passage for burial in the cantonment cemetery. Another was when overzealous Cantonment Board officials in my hometown Kanpur bulldozed some “illegal” toilets in our parish school. On both occasions, he had the matters satisfactorily addressed. One could say that these were too small to merit the attention of the COAS. But then, Gen Rodrigues was not a “small-minded” person.
In passing, I recall two other cases referred to me at that time. One was regarding the Bluebird nuclear base of the Navy coming up at Karwar. As a consequence, access to an old dilapidated church on the island would be denied. The other was when two senior bureaucrats (one in the Prime Minister’s Office) called me to Delhi to object to the Konkan Railway as it would endanger ancient churches in Old Goa. In both these instances, I declined to intervene as I felt that national interests superseded our partisan ones.
Gen Rodrigues was born to Francis and Aida Mendes Rodrigues in Bombay. At the tender age of 15, he joined the National Defence Academy and was commissioned into the Artillery regiment in 1952, when just 19. He was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) for his role in the 1971 war. Artillerymen are also known as “gunners”. But he was also an aviator, which is why he wore wings on his uniform. He commanded a mountain brigade and later a mountain division. Subsequently, he became Director General Military Training, a Corps Commander, Vice Chief and finally Chief (COAS) in 1990, a post that he held for three years.
In his book “Patriotism in Action” Valmiki Faleiro has an interesting anecdote. When called upon to address his first press conference as COAS, instead of waxing eloquent on new ideas he pointed to the “Officer’s Prayer” that he had put up in his office: “Lord make me worthy of the men I serve, Worthy of their loyalty and devotion to duty”. It was indicative of a man who valued his troops more than himself. As the incumbent COAS Gen S.S. Naravane said at his demise, “He was known as a thinker and a strategist in the army top brass”.
Gen Rodrigues was also proud of his Goan heritage and settled in the Defence Colony at Porvorim, a couple of km from Panaji. In his Foreword to Valmiki’s book, Gen Rodrigues made an interesting observation that “the Goan contribution to the officer ranks was the highest, per capita, in the country”. He has another interesting anecdote. “I invited their (USA) then Army Chief, Gen Gordon Sullivan, to visit India. After a two day visit, which included trips to the desert and a high altitude area, he said – Roddy I have seen 27 Armies around the world, but I envy you yours”.
Brigadier Neves Braganza (R) a fellow gunner, and Rodrigues neighbour in Porvorim, informed me that Rodrigues had major colon surgery in 2021. He was recovering from that when he was readmitted for his asthmatic condition last month. That resulted in multiple organ failures from which he could not recover. Braganza said that “he was a good soul, who will long be remembered”.
The Indian press may have forgotten the good soul. Let us keep his memory alive. His goodness was also evident when, post-retirement, he was appointed the Governor of Punjab and Administrator of Chandigarh from 2004-09. He ensured that poor slum dwellers broke the shackles of the land mafia and got decent housing. He also embarked on several welfare schemes for “public services to reach peoples’ doorsteps by harnessing the power of the internet”, says Valmiki.
Many of our fellow countrymen may also not be aware that Gen Rodrigues was not the only Christian to be a Services’ Chief. He was in the august company of Admirals R.S. Pereira PVSM, AVSM, O.S. Dawson and Isaac Sushil Kumar of the Navy; and Air Chief Marshals D.A. la Fontaine PVSM, AVSM, VM and N.A.K. Browne of the Air Force.
The Christians of India would also be proud to know that Group Captain Sidney B. Noronha was the first-ever recipient of the Mahavir Chakra (1947 J&K ops) and Maj General (then Capt) Ian Cardoza was the first to receive the Sena Medal. A biopic “Gorkha” is now being made on him starring Akshay Kumar. Two Christian pilots saved the lives of our Prime Ministers. Shortly after Independence Squadron Leader Reggie Rufus was flying Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a Dakota. When an engine caught fire, he safely crash-landed in a paddy field near Coimbatore.
Wing Commander Clarence D’Lima VM of the ace VIP squadron was not so lucky. On 4/11/1977 he was piloting a TU 124 flight from Delhi to Tezpur. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, his son Kanti and CBI Director John Lobo were on board. He had the option of belly landing that would surely have killed the Prime Minister, or a nose landing that would have killed himself. He chose the latter course of valour and martyrdom.
Surely today the good soul General Sunith Francis Rodrigues will be in the illustrious company of many other brave hearts of the minuscule Christian community in India that sacrificed their all for their beloved motherland. RIP.
This piece has drawn heavily from the book “Patriotism in Action – Goans in India’s Defence Services” by Valmiki Faleiro and “The Christian Community in the National Mainstream” by Prof Louis D’Silva of Bombay University.