FREEDOM FROM FIGHTING

IN ONE VILLAGE IN HARYANA THE INDIAN ARMY WAS ALWAYS THE CAREER OF CHOICE, BUT THAT ATTRACTION IS NOW ON THE WANE.


The road to Palra is guarded by three soldiers.

Their uniformed statues stand at its entry. But apart from that trio, this small village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district is indistinguishable from its neighbours.

Ratan Singh and Ram Saran Sharma, both posthumous gallantry award winners, represent the many men from Palra who have joined the Indian Army. Ratan Singh earned his award in the wake of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, while Ram Saran Sharma earned his after the India-Pakistan war of 1965. This village of about 750 families has a reputation of housing one of the highest concentrations of army men in India, – currently numbering about 1000 – both serving and retired. And though he would not put a specific number to it, an army spokesperson confirmed that Palra is renowned for the number of young men it has sent to the Indian armed forces.

But it is the third soldier who gives Palra its distinct identity. The statue of Captain Umrao Singh stands out as a bronze bust in a larger enclosure. He passed away only a few years ago after a different kind of battle altogether – cancer – but his legacy still looms large over the village. Captain Singh straddles the collective memory of the village as a colossus by virtue of being, until his death in 2005, India’s last surviving awardee of the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour bestowed by the British government. He is credited with inspiring many young recruits from the village to a life in the army, although that influence now appears to be on the wane.

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The British began to recruit soldiers in the states we now know as Haryana and Punjab in the 19th century, when the whole region was turned into a garrison state intended to protect the colonial rulers from perceived threats across the Afghan border. “The British Army was in fact the Punjab Army, especially after 1857”, said professor KC Yadav, director of the Haryana Academy of History and Culture (HAHC) in Gurgaon. But even before the British came, the men of that region had grown used to fighting off invaders en route from Kabul to Delhi and beyond. Even the mythical battle in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, between the five Pandava brothers and their 100 Kaurava cousins, is believed to have taken place at Kurukshetra, a small town in the state. “This area is littered with battle fields”, professor Yadav said, referring also to a local saying that the men here are born with a plough in one hand and a sword in the other.

But it was not just those so-called military genes (later earning them a formal classification by the British as a martial race) that drove the men of Haryana into war. Poverty and continuous cycles of drought and famine left them with very little to choose from, and the alternative offered by the British Army became so attractive that during World War I, one out of every seven men in Haryana went to war. And those numbers, professor Yadav continued, were similar during World War II. Today that figure might have dropped, but the military tradition of Haryana continues to be strong.

Umrao Singh was one of those men who joined the war efforts of the Allied forces after 1939. The battle that almost cost him his life in 1944 is depicted in a painting on the walls of the School of Artillery in Deolali, Maharashtra, where he is commemorated in other ways as well. For example, a shopping plaza in the cantonment area is also named after him. Created by the military artist David Rowlands, the painting was commissioned by a group of retired British officers in order to memorialise the 50th anniversary of the Indian Artillery in 1985. Umrao Singh, who in 1944 was a 24-year-old sergeant in the regiment, is shown in full action in the Burmese Kaladan Valley, where he famously fought off Japanese gunmen with an iron rod. He and only two other surviving soldiers from the British side had no bullets left after several waves of attacks. Six hours after the final attack, Umrao Singh was reportedly found with 22 bullets lodged inside his body, and surrounded by ten dead Japanese soldiers.

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When we visited Umrao Singh’s home on a sunny July afternoon,  his eldest son Vijay Singh shows us a photograph of the painting in an album that is dedicated to his father’s memory. We are sitting in the same room in which Umrao Singh lived and spent his last days. It is the first room in a regular-sized house in Palra. Surprisingly, there is no nameplate outside the house announcing that it was once the abode of the famous soldier, although most villagers were able to point it out, and we had no difficulty in finding it.

Inside the small room, there are no pictures or medals or any other kind of souvenirs attributable to Umrao Singh. The Victoria Cross, Singh tells us, reportedly worth lakhs to collectors, is safely stored in a bank locker. It is only after we coax him to show us some memorabilia that he brings out that photo album from where it is stored, in a cupboard fitted into a divan. It is a bit of a task to remove the mattress and pull up the wooden bed and he hurts his right hand in the process, which leaves him slightly annoyed.

Though unfailingly polite and courteous, he displays little enthusiasm when speaking of his father. In a moment of unguarded revelation he says simply, “We were scared of him. In any case, he spent most of his time with the villagers when he came back home.”

Now retired, Singh had a life-long career at the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation, which took him to Africa and the United States. An accident in his early teens put paid to his, and possibly his father’s, hopes of having the eldest son carry on with the family tradition, although he claims he was under “no pressure”.  He broke his right arm when he was a student in the sixth standard. “It still cannot be straightened,” he says. Further down the family line, Vijay’s only son fractured his leg, which ruled him out from a having a military career like his grandfather as well.

Although he admits to initial envy of those peers who had joined the army, particularly when they returned to the village in their uniforms, and were accorded respect by the villagers, he says he no longer has any regrets about  not being able to join himself.

Still, Vijay Singh maintains that the Indian Army provides for good careers and that the tradition of sending at least one man in every family to the army holds strong in Palra. Vijay Singh’s daughter-in-law Reema, sitting with her mother-in-law Savita and her sister Seema in a separate room across the courtyard, agrees: she says she hopes that her own son will join once he is old enough. Seema often visits with her two children, as her husband is in far-away Chennai for army training. It’s the support of her extended family in Palra that makes the absence of her husband bearable, Seema says. “It is difficult sometimes. He has never seen his daughter,” she says while pointing towards her youngest child, a chubby four month-old baby.

However, their neighbour Bhagwan Yadav, a retired Honorary Captain who steps in for a cup of tea, thinks the benefits offered by the army outweigh such concerns. Yadav’s father and brothers served in the army, like one of his sons currently does. Adventure and travel as well as good education and health facilities are some of the attractions, he says, and adds: “The army pays good compensation after the death of a soldier to his family, sometimes up to 30 to 40 lakhs.”

A tall man attired in an all-white kurta-pyjama, Yadav is also dismissive of the dangers involved. He says he “hardly” worries about his son. Questioned about controversies surrounding the Indian Army, such as the ones related to rapes and AFSPA in Kashmir and the north-east, where his son currently serves, Yadav says  “stray” incidents sometimes take place. However, he admits to understanding why his second son opted for an alternative career as a shopkeeper in Jhajjar town. “Freedom” is the word he uses to describe civilian life.

***

The lack of enthusiasm shown by Vijay Singh about his father’s career and achievements may well be a personal reaction to years of living in his shadow, but it is not an isolated instance. A few houses away, Vikas Yadav also uses the word “freedom” when explaining why he did not join the army. He also blames a childhood injury in his right hand, but the 25 year-old, who lives in Rohtak and works for Asian Paints, has absolutely no regrets. Today he has come to visit his younger cousins in his native village in his car, a shiny white Hyundai Magna.

The son of a paratrooper, he hardly saw his father while growing up. Though he remains proud of the manner in which his father rose from the lower ranks, Yadav wants a different life for his family. He encourages his cousins, Akash (18) and Mukul (16), to at least get a higher education before making a decision. Yadav is a  role model for the young boys and men of the village exploring other avenues of making  a living, ones without the risk of death or disability and separation from family for long periods built-in.

Yadav is well aware of this, and while he does not dismiss the army for obvious reasons, he emphasises the other options available. He seems to bask in the adulation showered upon him by the relatives who present him as their spokesperson when we visit. Every once in a while he would look outside, keeping an eye on his car, surrounded by neighbouring kids. It is clear that, as their mentor, Yadav would prefer the teenagers take after him, rather than follow the beaten track that leads to the army.

Akash, the older of the cousins, is about to start his B.Tech degree at a college nearby. He is interested in the army, he says, but wants to join in a higher rank. And if that does not work out, his degree will provide him with other options, including a job in fire and safety maintenance like Vikas. Mukul isn’t even considering a military career. He is determined to get into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and become an engineer, like millions of other young Indian teenagers. Akash and Mukul’s parents, Karan and Manju, fully endorse and support their boys in their endeavours. Karan did not have these opportunities when he was young. When he didn’t make it into the army like his brother, Vikas’ father, the only thing left for him to do was farming. For his sons (he has no daughters) there are other avenues: more schools available, a greater variety of jobs to consider, and more money to support them until they can stand on their own feet. With monthly school and tuition fees of Rs 7,000 for Mukul alone, it isn’t easy, and Manju pitches in with her tailoring business so that their sons can choose their own paths.

As if on cue, some elderly men enter the house to participate in the discussion. At first, Karan and Vikas do not object as they pitch for the army as a preferred career, possibly out of respect. But when we ask them if they agree, they repeat their earlier arguments. And before long even the oldies acquiesce to their opinions, with everyone coming to the consensus that it just isn’t the same anymore.

Vikas Yadav's aunt and uncle

Vikas Yadav’s aunt and uncle

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The military character of Haryana has contributed to the development of villages such as Palra. “The soldiers returning after WWI started to buy land with the money they made abroad,” professor Yadav told us. “They had been exposed to economic prosperity abroad and made an effort to develop their own villages. Money was invested in education, diversification of agriculture and small industries,” he says, adding that the steady incomes and pensions coming from the army men allowed this process to continue in the decades to come.

Umrao Singh, who joined the Indian Army after independence and retired in 1965 to return to his family farm, slowly became one of the richest men of Palra after a series of pension hikes. With about Rs 10,000 per month from the central and state governments combined and another 100 British pounds per year (this was increased to 1,300 pounds in 1995 by the then-British Prime Minister John Major after he met the Indian captain in London), Singh built his first concrete house in the 1980s.

Umrao Singh liked London. He got a lot of respect there, more than in India, according to both his sons and his grandson. Sukhbir Yadav (son of Ved Prakash, the younger son of Umrao Singh) told us a story: “Once, dadaji was crossing a street in London when the deputy PM passed by in a car. Dadaji stopped to give him the way but he declined, saying that it would be disrespectful on his part to obstruct the path of an awardee of the Victoria Cross medal,” he said, over the phone from Jind, where he lives and works as a policeman, like his father. Both have accompanied Umrao Singh to London for the reunions of Victoria Cross awardees, held every three years.

It is remarkable that not one of Umrao Singh’s male descendants ended up following in his footsteps. Although neither Vijay Singh nor Ved Prakash recalls their father ever pressurising them in this regard, Singh was known to encourage other village boys who had an inclination, reportedly welcoming them into his home for informal tutoring and training advice. The retired captain is even rumoured to have kept the aspiring soldiers hungry for hours in order to boost their endurance.

Since his death, nothing  remains of these collective training sessions. Every year on the death anniversary of Umrao Singh (21 November, also his birthday), a village committee organises games at Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, built as a tribute by the state government after his death. Eight years after its construction, the “stadium” is little more than an uneven field, full of watery holes. The only training that we witnessed was a group of young men honing their car-driving skills.

The photo album in Umrao Singh's home

The photo album in Umrao Singh’s home

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With Umrao Singh gone, the village has lost a mentor. Apart from him, there are not many higher-ranked officers amongst the village’s many soldiers who might’ve filled this role. Only five out of about 600 soldiers that are currently in service, in fact, Ratan Lal told us, are high-ranked. His wife is the sarpanch, but when she is busy with household chores he speaks on her behalf.

Although boys interested in joining the army at lower ranks can still be found, it is only those who lack either the money or the talent for higher education. Like Harish, a 21-year-old friend of Vikas Yadav and his family, currently in the final year of his Bsc, he hasn’t much faith that the degree will earn him a good job in either the government or the private sector. He plans to sign up for the army, like his father and elder brother.

But when asked about his reasons for joining, Harish does not use the words that the retired army men, such as Bhagwan Yadav, do, words like ‘prestige’, ‘adventure’ or ‘nationalism’. Umrao Singh’s heroism, or even family tradition, do not come to his mind. For Harish, it is the lack of any other prospects that have pointed him in the army’s direction. Thanks to paucity of water in these parts, even agriculture continues to be a difficult livelihood, he says

Driving out of Palra, the change is visible. Although the high-rises and malls of Gurgaon are still a two-hour drive away, they are getting closer. The well-maintained road is cluttered with colleges on both sides imparting technical degrees.The Gurgaon-Manesar belt is a big recruiter of Haryana’s village youth as workers in its automobile factories, and just a half-hour drive from Palra, the Japanese electronics firm Panasonic has opened a large plant, planning to hire 3,500 workers by 2018 to produce air conditioners and washing machines. The army is not the only source of money anymore.

Umrao Singh may have been the richest man in the village in his time, but it took him years to achieve that prosperity. Today, Vikas Yadav owns a car only a few years into his career. Aspirations are growing, keeping pace with opportunities and development. Like 16-year-old Mukul Yadav, many of the village’s young boys dream of studying at IIT. And like his brother Akash, other youths we meet on the streets of Palra no longer aspire to a job in the Artillery, once the regiment of choice in the village, as this was where Umrao Singh began his career. These days higher ranks or other, more glamorous, and presumably better paying jobs in the Air Force or Merchant Navy are preferred. That is, if they want to work for the Indian military at all.

A similar process has already occurred in other villages that were once known for their high concentration of soldiers, such as Bhondsi and another village called Palra, both within the border of Gurgaon, where selling land has become the most fruitful endeavour. It might just be a matter of time before the three soldiers at Palra’s entry become relics of the past.

The unmarked home of Umrao Singh

The unmarked home of Umrao Singh

Author: Aletta André & Abhimanyu Singh
Photographs: Ashutosh Choudhary


Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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