Category Archives: History

Brigadier Rajinder Singh –The First Recipient of the ‘Maha Vir Chakra’

Compiled By: Shri Ramakrishna Prasad

The date, 26 October, does not stir anything significant in the minds and hearts of the majority of this country. It is not a special birthday or a religious holiday that is etched in the conscience of India. One has to do a Google search to realise that on this day in 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession to India as the region was under siege from Pakistani forces.

The story that many won’t find through a Google search, however, is that of Brigadier Rajinder Singh and his band of warriors who died defending the Kashmir valley. He was martyred the same day Maharaja Hari Singh signed that historic document uniting Jammu and Kashmir with India, a sacrifice that honoured the simple words of that contract. On 30 December 1949, he became independent India’s first recipient of the Maha Vir Chakra, when he was awarded the honour posthumously by the then Army Chief Field Marshall K.M. Cariappa. The Maha Vir Chakra (literally great warrior medal) is the second highest military decoration in India, after the Param Vir Chakra, and is awarded for acts of conspicuous gallantry in the presence of the enemy, whether on land, at sea or in the air. Yet this warrior is barely known to the nation he served, let alone outside the Jammu region.

Born on June 14, 1899, Rajinder Singh hailed from the Duggar or the Dogra people of Jammu, a community deeply entrenched in the armed forces of India for several generations. Rajinder Singh graduated from the Prince of Wales College, now the GGM Science College, Jammu.  He was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the J&K State Forces on Jun 14, 1921. A remarkable officer of indomitable spirit, he was appointed as the Chief of Army Staff of the J&K State Forces on September 25, 1947, replacing Major General H.L. Scott.  

On 21 October 1947, Pakistani forces besieged Jammu and Kashmir after Maharaja Hari Singh declared independence. They tried to take control of the region by force, hoping that the dominant Muslim community would support them. They entered Kashmir via Baramulla and targeted the Sikh and Kashmiri pandits, committing rape, murder and arson in a bid to ‘purge’ the land.

Under siege, on 22 October 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh ordered Brigadier Singh, who served as the chief of army staff of Jammu and Kashmir, to defend the state “till the last man and the last bullet”. The Brigadier just saluted and walked away. He gathered 110 soldiers and moved to Muzaffarabad to counter the invading force of over 6,000 militiamen. He used guerrilla tactics to delay their advance, blowing up the Uri bridge and stalling them in Mahura and Rampur, inflicting heavy casualties. For four days, Brigadier Singh and his brave jawans hindered the progress of the Pakistani invaders. This may have been the first time in contemporary military history where an army chief personally led soldiers in combat.

As Brigadier Singh and his men fought, on 26 October, Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession joining the Union of India. The Indian military rushed in to back Brigadier Singh; however, just hours away from his position, he was ambushed at Buniyar and fatally wounded and died. He had held fort and repelled the invaders long enough for the Indian Army to push them back, saving thousands from a brutal onslaught. He carried out his orders to the letter, setting an unparalleled example of courage and patriotism. “If Brig Rajinder Singh had not stopped the Pakistani invaders, if he didn’t sacrifice his life, Kashmir may not have been a part of India,” says Dr Karan Singh.

Bachittar Singh – First to Receive the “Ashoka Chakra Award”

Compiled By: Shri Ramakrishna Prasad

Havildar Bachittar Singh was born on 10th January 1917 in Lopo village of Punjab and was the only child of Sardar Rur Singh. He had his education only up to 8th class, however he excelled in swimming and wrestling in his childhood.  Right from his young age Hav Bachittar Singh was a nationalist and always wanted to join the army to serve the nation. 

At the age of 17 years Hav Bachittar Singh, joined the army and was enrolled in the Sikh Regiment on 10th January 1937. After completion of his basic military training he served with his battalion in various places like Africa and Greece. He participated in the second world war also and faced the enemies in South Africa. However it was after India’s independence in 1947, that Hav Bachittar Singh proved his mettle as a soldier par excellence.

Operation Polo : 13 Sep 1948

After Independence on 15 Aug 1947, when Nizam of Hyderabad refused to join the Indian republic against the wishes of the people, India launched a police operation named “Operation Polo”, on 13 Sep 1948. 2 Sikh, the kill force of Sikh Regiment’s second battalion was given the most important task in Naldurg area, which was on the Sholapur – Secunderabad road about 19 km from the state border. Havaldar Bachittar Singh was leading the platoon.

At around 4 am in the morning, the B company of the platoon set up blockades on the road. When two vehicles were seen approaching his position Hav Bachittar Singh ordered his soldiers to fire on the approaching vehicles. There was a heavy exchange of fire but Hav Bachittar Singh in a show of bravery and leadership finally captured both the vehicles and their escorts.

On the same day enemy soldiers took secure positions and attacked his platoon. Hav Bachittar Singh with great skill and determination led the counter attack on the enemy forces. Hav Bachittar Singh was moving ahead in the face of the enemy and when he was about 30 yards away from the target, he got hit by a LMG burst in his thigh and fell. Despite in critical condition Hav Bachittar Singh, crawled forward and threw two grenades on the LMG post, and silenced it. Even though Hav Bachittar Singh was severely injured, he refused to leave the battle field and kept on motivating his men to press on the attack.

Inspired by his courage and leadership his platoon finally achieved the objective, however, Hav Bachittar Singh succumbed to his injuries and was martyred. His personal example of unsurpassed valour, grim determination devotion to duty and leadership was an inspiration to all who saw it. Hav Bachittar Singh was given nation’s first highest gallantry award during peace time, “Ashok Chakra” for his conspicuous bravery, indomitable spirit and supreme sacrifice. A college in Punjab has been named after Hav Bachittar Singh as Mahant Bachittar Singh College Of Engineering And Technology. An area in Ludhiana has been named as Bachittar Singh Nagar on Gill Road, Ludhiana to honour the first recipient of Ashok Chakra.

The Woman who Crafted Param Vir Chakra

Compiled By: Shri Ramakrishna Prasad

Param Vir Chakra (PVC), India’s its highest gallantry award, was instituted only on January 26, 1950, having been designed by Yvonne Maday de Maros, who was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland to a Hungarian father and Russian woman. In 1932, 19-year-old Yvonne ran away to India to marry army officer Vikram Khanolkar, who she had met and fallen in love with while he was training in the UK. Being also in love with the spirituality of the country, Yvonne became an Indian, adopted the name Savitri Bai, immersed herself in Hindu scriptures and took a degree from the Nalanda University.

Savitri Bai Khanolkar was born on July 20, 1913. Despite coming from a European background, Savitribai identified so closely with Indian traditions and ideals, that her integration into Indian society was smooth and effortless. She was a vegetarian, learnt to speak fluent Hindi and Marathi, and learnt Indian music, dance and painting. She always claimed that she is an Indian “born in Europe by mistake”. It would anger her beyond measure if someone referred to her as a foreigner. She was so fascinated with Hindu mythology that she read extensively from Hindu scriptures. She had a deep knowledge of India’s ancient history and legends. It was this knowledge that led Major General Atal, the creator of the Param Vir Chakra to ask for Savitribai’s help in designing a medal that would truly symbolize the highest bravery.

Savitribai thought of the sage Dadhichi – a Hindu rishi who made the ultimate sacrifice to the Gods. He gave up his body so that the Gods could fashion a deadly weapon – a Vajra, or thunderbolt, from his spine. Savitribai gave Maj. Gen. Atul the design of the double Vajra, common in Tibet, and also suggested that it be flanked by Bhawani – the sword of the valiant and fearless warrior king Shivaji. Thus was born the design of the Param Vir Chakra. By an amazing co-incidence, the very first Param Vir Chakra was awarded to Somnath Sharma, who was the brother of Savitribai’s future son-in-law!

Savitri designed for Major General Hiralal Atal a medal with a simple purple ribbon. Imprinted on the medal face are four replicas of Indra’s vajra, reflecting Dadhichi’s sacrifice. Between the vajras is embossed the Ashok emblem. The medal is cast in bronze.

Besides designing the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), she designed the major Gallantry Medals for both war and peace, namely Ashok Chakra (AC), Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), Kirti Chakra (KC), Vir Chakra (VrC) and Shaurya Chakra (SC)! In India’s official order of precedence, the PVC is second only to the Bharat Ratna. Savitribai did a lot a social work too in her later years, working with soldiers and their families and refugees who had been displaced during the Partition. After her husband’s death in 1952, she found refuge in spirituality, and retired to the Ramakrishna Math. She wrote a book on the Saints of Maharashtra that is popular even today. Savitribai Khanolkar died in 1990, but her memory lives on in the great award that she designed. It is fitting that a remarkable lady who truly loved India and was intensely proud of being an Indian designed an award that is given to soldiers who love their country so much that they are ready to die for it.

Partitioned freedom : The Conclusion

(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 1” from this link – 1)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 2” from this link – 2)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 3” from this link – 3)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 4” from this link – 4)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 5” from this link – 5)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 6” from this link – 6)

The final years and the lessons:

A decade of appeasement had only helped the Muslim League gain greater legitimacy. When the Second Round Table Conference came in September 1931, the League leadership played an even more divisive role.

Jinnah and the Aga Khan were present in London for the Conference on behalf of the League. Gandhi was the lone Congress representative. Dr. B R Ambedkar was there representing the Depressed Classes. There were envoys from several communities including the Sikhs, the Parsis, the Anglo-Indians, and the Concord of Princes. Behind Gandhi’s back, the Aga Khan held secret meetings with the leaders of various groups and put forward a proposal before the British for enhanced separate representation for all of them in the Indian legislature. Gandhi firmly rejected this fragmentation of the Indian society in the name of creating separate electorates. Already, the Muslims and a few other minorities enjoyed separate electorates under the Government of India Act 1919.

Communal Award 1932:

British Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald went ahead with a modified version of the League’s recommendations and announced the famous Communal Award 1932. It came as a rude shock to the Congress leadership. They were especially aghast at the British decision to provide exclusive electorates for the Depressed Classes by separating them from other Hindus.

Gandhi viewed the Communal Award as the negation of his years of toil. He rightly believed that the separate electorates would eventually perpetuate social evils like untouchability as they excluded the depressed classes from the rest of Hindu society. Disheartened and back in India, Gandhi announced an indefinite fast against the Award on September 20, 1932.

Poona Pact:

The Congress command persuaded the leader of the depressed classes, Dr. Ambedkar to engage in negotiations with Gandhi at the Yerawada prison. The negotiations led to the Poona Pact, which was signed by Dr. Ambedkar from the depressed classes and Madan Mohan Malaviya from the Congress. Under the pact, Dr. Ambedkar agreed to give up the demand for exclusive electorates for the depressed classes and secured instead a larger number of seats for the community from 71 to 147 under the Hindu quota. The Communal Award was accordingly amended in 1933. Gandhi thus prevented the Hindu society from further fragmentation.

However, regarding the rest of the Award, Congress continued its politics of ambiguity and appeasement. Though it opposed the Communal Award in principle, the consent of the minorities was needed to take a final position, the Congress leaders argued. The Muslim leaders in Congress like Dr. Ansari started supporting the Award. Finally, Congress took a bizarre stand of “neither accepting nor rejecting” the Communal Award. This new concession irked leaders like Madan Mohan Malaviya and Loknayak Aney, who resigned and started the Congress Nationalist Party.

The Communal Award came as a significant setback to Gandhi’s efforts for Hindu-Muslim unity and it gave greater teeth to Jinnah and the Muslim League. The stridency of the League’s separatist rhetoric increased. Jinnah now insisted that the Congress should represent Hindus only.

Provincial Elections:

The provincial elections of 1937 provided an excellent opportunity to the Congress. Despite its separatist rhetoric, the Muslim League was decisively rejected in all the Muslim majority provinces in the country. Out of the 482 exclusive Muslim constituencies, the League could hardly win 109 seats. While the Congress was able to form governments in eight provinces, the League could not form even in one. The Muslim voters preferred other Muslim parties like the Unionists in Punjab, the Krishak Praja Party in Bengal, and the Assam Valley Muslim Party in Assam. Several of those regional Muslim outfits were keen to join hands with the Congress.

The Muslim League was in utter disarray, and Jinnah demoralised. But two steps taken by the Congress leadership helped Jinnah revive his fortunes once again:

First was the Congress’s decision to reach out to Jinnah instead of talking to the leaders of the regional Muslim parties. Gandhi, Nehru, and Bose approached Jinnah once again with a proposal to work together. This gave Jinnah a fresh lease of life. While the League refused the Congress’s offer, Jinnah succeeded in attracting smaller Muslim parties into his fold.

The second self-defeating move was the decision of the Congress on October 22, 1939, to ask all provincial governments to resign in response to Viceroy Linlithgow’s decision to involve India in the Second World War without committing to grant Self-rule after the War. The League seized this opportunity and declared its support to the British in return for enhanced protection to the League in the provinces. Jinnah appealed to the Muslims to celebrate December 22, 1939, as the ‘Day of Deliverance’ from the ‘unjust Congress regime.

Jinnah’s Demand for ‘Pakistan’:

At Lahore in 1940, when the League demanded Pakistan, Gandhi realised that it was time for a more decisive action. On August 8, 1942, at its Mumbai session, the Congress launched the Quit India movement. The Muslim League responded by asking the British to ‘Divide and Quit’. March 23, 1943, was observed by the League as Pakistan Day.

C Rajagopalachari approached Gandhi at Yerawada prison with a formula for a thaw between the Congress and the League. Known as the C R Formula, it proposed that if the League endorsed the demand for national independence, the Congress would agree to the demarcation of contiguous Muslim majority districts in the North-West and the North-East of India after the War. A plebiscite would be conducted on the basis of the adult franchise over the demand for Pakistan. Jinnah immediately dismissed the proposal as a “shadow and a husk, a maimed and moth-eaten Pakistan.” But he also expressed vicarious satisfaction that at last, Gandhi had accepted “the principle of Pakistan”.

Gandhi persisted. “Let us meet whenever you wish. Do not disappoint me,” he wrote to Jinnah. The two finally met at Mumbai. For full nineteen days, from 9th to 27th September 1944, Gandhi climbed up the steps of Jinnah’s place, ‘almost daily, and sometimes even twice in a day’. Gandhi would address Jinnah as ‘Quaid-e-Azam’ – Great leader, while Jinnah would reciprocate with ‘Mr. Gandhi’. On September 27, 1944, Jinnah announced the termination of the talks without any result.

In the provincial elections in 1946, the League secured convincing victories in Muslim seats but it fell short of a majority everywhere. In fact, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), which became Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010, gave a huge majority to the Congress. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the senior Congress leader of the NWFP, famous as the Frontier Gandhi, shed tears when his province became a part of Pakistan. In Punjab, the Congress and the Akalis together had an equal number of seats to that of the League. Eventually, those who did not vote for the League ended up in Pakistan, and those who voted for it remained in India.

The Direct Action ensued in 1946 and Partition followed a year later.

Partition saga has several lessons:

Why is this history relevant today? India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are three sovereign nations. We respect the sovereignty of each of our neighbours and strive for cordial relations with them. But the partition saga has several lessons. Firstly, countries should never pander to separatist sentiments even with good intentions. Compulsions of time should not become convictions. Secondly, Jinnah’s notion of religion-based nationhood couldn’t stand the test of time. In less than 25 years, Pakistan was split into two.

But most importantly, as the Spanish writer-philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

(Courtesy: The article was originally published in Chintan, India Foundation on August 19, 2020).

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Partitioned Freedom – 6

(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 1” from this link – 1)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 2” from this link – 2)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 3” from this link – 3)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 4” from this link – 4)
(Read “Partitioned Freedom – 5” from this link – 5)

Part 6

When strategy became policy at Lucknow in 1916, and the Khilafat and Moplah lay bare the slide of the Congress, many leaders were genuinely worried. They realised that the appeasement policies of the Congress were helping the League in furthering its separatist agenda. Despite his best efforts at placating the League and striving for Hindu-Muslim unity, Gandhi could not achieve much. When attempts were made to pacify the Moplahs in the name of Gandhi’s non-violence, they bluntly replied that Gandhi was a Kafir, and he could never be their leader. In 1924, Maulana Mohammed Ali, to whom Gandhi gave more importance than he did to Jinnah, declared: “However pure Mr. Gandhi’s character may be, he must appear to me, from the point of religion, inferior to any Mussalman even though he be without character.” In 1925, he reiterated it saying, “Yes, according to my religion and creed, I do hold an adulterous and a fallen Mussalman to be better than Mr. Gandhi”.

Savarkar was one of the leaders who felt that Congress was making a colossal mistake by appeasing the fundamentalist Leaguers. Savarkar asked the Congress leadership to stop in the downward spiral of appeasement and be firm with the Muslim League leadership. “If you come, with you; if you do not, without you; if you oppose in spite of you” – this was the message he wanted the Congress to convey to the League. Yet the Congress leadership lacked that courage.

Shraddhananda’s Murder:
Swami Shraddhanand was a renowned Arya Samajist and a senior leader of the Congress. As a disciplined soldier of the movement, he had participated actively in the Khilafat movement too. Shraddhananda was a disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, and used to play an active role in reconversion activities. This angered some fanatical Muslims. One such young man called Abdul Rasheed visited Shraddhananda’s residence at Naya Bazar in Delhi on December 23, 1926, on the pretext of discussing “some problems of the Islamic religion”. Shraddhananda was unwell and lying on his bed. According to the Arya Samaj website: “
The visitor then asked for a glass of water, and while Dharm Singh (Shraddhanand’s attendant) was taking his glass away, he rushed up to the Swamiji and fired two bullets point-blank into his chest.

The annual session of the Congress was taking place from December 25, 1926, at Guwahati. All the senior leaders, including Gandhi, were present at the session when the news of the gruesome murder of Swami Shraddhananda came in. Gandhi called Abdul Rashid his own brother, but moved a condolence motion himself. “If you hold dear the memory of Swami Shraddhanandji, you would help in purging the atmosphere of mutual hatred and calumny. Now you will perhaps understand why I have called Abdul Rashid a brother and I repeat it. I do not even regard him as guilty of Swamiji’s murder. Guilty indeed are all those who excited feelings of hatred against one another”, Gandhi said to the shock of many in the audience. At the very same session, funds were collected for the legal defence of Rashid in the courts. When he was sentenced to capital punishment by the British, there were over fifty thousand people in his funeral procession at Kolkata. That was where the appeasement policy of the leaders had led the country.

National Flag – (National symbols compromised):

Gandhi had proposed in 1921 that Congress should design a national flag. Several models were presented to him, and the one with three colours – orange, white and green –proved to be popular However, its interpretation as orange for the Hindus, white for the Christians, and green for the Muslims did not go down well with the people. A flag committee was then appointed in 1931 to look into the controversy and recommend a national flag for India. Among others, the 7-member committee included Nehru, Patel, and Azad. The committee submitted its report to the Karachi Congress session in December 1931.

“Opinion has been unanimous that our National Flag should be of a single colour except for the colour of the device. If there is one colour that is more acceptable to the Indians as a whole, one that is associated with this ancient country by long tradition, it is the Kesari or saffron colour. Accordingly, it is felt that the flag should be of the Kesari colour except for the colour of the device. That the device should be the Charkha is unanimously agreed to. The Committee have come to the conclusion that the charka should be in blue. Accordingly we recommend that the National Flag should be of Kesari or saffron colour having on it at the left top quarter the Charkha in blue with the wheel towards the flagstaff, the proportions of the flag being fly to hoist as three to two”, the report, signed by all the seven members stated.

However, the Congress session at Karachi rejected it, saying that the saffron colour represented only Hindus. The tricolour flag designed by Pingali Venkayya was adopted. It featured three horizontal stripes of saffron, white and green, with a Charkha in the centre. The colours were given a new interpretation thus: saffron for courage; white for truth and peace; and green for faith and prosperity. After the national song came the compromise with the national flag.

Language (concessions were made):

The Hindu Bhajans were modified. ‘Raghupati Raghava Rajaram – Patita Pavan Sitaram’ saw ‘Isvar Allah Tere Naam’ added to it. Even the national language was not spared. There were concerted efforts to discourage Muslims from learning Hindi right from the time of Syed Ahmad Khan. Syed Ahmad asked Muslims to prefer English to Hindi. Aligarh Muslim University taught only in English and Urdu. An effort was made to project Hindi as the language of the Hindus, and Urdu, that of the Muslims. In its eagerness to please the fundamentalists in the Muslim League, the Congress leadership decided at its 1925 Karachi session that Hindustania hybrid product from the mixture of Hindi and Urdu – should be the lingua franca of independent India. It even suggested that the script could either be Devnagari or Arabic.

Texts were rewritten. Special language classes were held for the Congress volunteers to familiarise them with the new hybrid language. Phrases like Badshah Ram, Begum Sita, and Maulvi Vasistha were promoted. Nevertheless, this one compromise did not go down well with the Congress and the nation. The protagonists of Hindi could succeed only after several years in making it the official language of the nation.

The Congress leadership continued to make these one-sided compromises without any reciprocal gestures being made by the League.

Cow slaughter was given free hand:

Even on a question as important to him as cow-slaughter, Gandhi was willing to compromise. “How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians, and other religious groups here”, he argued.

None of these concessions could move the League leadership. Instead, they only led to establishing the League and Jinnah, now its leader, as the ‘sole spokesmen’ for the Muslims, as Ayesha Jalal puts it. Emboldened, Jinnah went ahead ruthlessly, unmaking everything the Congress made, including, in the end, the geographical unity of the country.

(Final part to follow)


(Courtesy: The article was originally published in Chintan, India Foundation on August 18, 2020).