As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, it’s time to remember late Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh, the then commander on the western front credited with playing a heroic and stellar role in the defence of Punjab.
In the thick of war as the then army commander, he had famously stood up to army chief Gen JN Chaudhury’s verbal order to pull back troops to the Beas bridge on GT Road, and instead went ahead with an offensive thrust, fighting fierce and decisive battles that eventually changed the course of war. In a tribute to her late father, Harmala Kaur Gupta reflects on the life and legacy of the legendary general.
Before his death in November 1999, my father wrote a manuscript that was subsequently published as a book. He began it with the following words: “The object of writing this book at the fag-end of my life is to pass on my experiences to the younger generation of officers who are now coming up to serve the country. I do not consider that I have had an ideal life, but I can say for certain that I was lucky to have had a wide range of experiences, particularly in the army, which do not come to the lot of most people.”
I think these opening sentences illustrate a number of things about my father. He was a man of humility and integrity, one who was devoted to his profession, to the men who served with him, and to his country. Most significantly, perhaps, despite the many ups and downs, he was able to retain an overall sense of balance and perspective.
It was his love for adventure and sport that led him to join the army. He was an accomplished horse rider, swimmer and athlete. Field hockey was a passion. He sometimes opined that had not the Second World War intervened, he would have represented India at the Olympics.
Returned a changed man
The Second World War was undoubtedly a turning point for my father. He spent over two-and-a-half years as a prisoner-of-war (PoW) at Kluang in Malaysia. These were trying and testing times. His ready wit, humour and compassion for fellow human beings, even the so-called enemy, sustained him and he returned a man much changed but not seeking vengeance.
His ability, subsequently, to inspire men on the battlefield to perform against seemingly heavy odds and to recognise at the same time the limits of human endurance owe much to this period. His personal frugal habits were also undoubtedly influenced by the deprivations he had suffered.
Despite Beriberi, a condition brought on by severe malnourishment that was to plague him for the rest of his life, my father remained physically and mentally fit. He was a stickler when it came to diet and exercise. I recall a time when as army commander, Western Command, he cancelled the leave of those who were grossly overweight. For him, it exemplified a sloppiness that spilled over to performance in the office and in the field. His upright bearing and faultless appearance were the envy of all.
Proud Sikh who was fair at war
My father was proud to be a Sikh and drew inspiration throughout his military career from his faith. However, he was not a bigot and held all religions in equal high regard. In every military operation in which he was involved, the enemy were accorded their rights no matter if they were taken dead or alive. I recall how after the 1965 war my father ordered the repair and repainting of dozens of mosques damaged in the conflict before they were returned to Pakistan.
For my father, destiny was what you made of it and it favoured the brave. To quote him, “It has been my experience that he who plays ‘safe’, lies low and awaits developments, usually comes off second best. The commander who always tries to dominate a situation, is eager to seize the fleeting opportunities of war and is prepared to pounce upon the enemy with inspired audacity usually carries the day, however adverse the circumstances of the battle.” This also meant that he was not averse to taking punitive action against those who despite repeated warnings behaved irresponsibly on the battlefield endangering lives.
Soldier who served, and led
There is no doubt that for my father the men who served with him in the army were his first family. We came second and accepted it. He was nothing but full of praise for the Indian soldier who he believed was the best and the bravest. What upset him sometimes was the lack of support and appreciation from higher-ups both within the army and outside.
My father was not a careerist. He had joined the army not to curry favour or to garner awards but to serve his country. There were two telling incidents in his career that speak to this. One, when he willingly dropped a rank in 1947 to take over command of 1 Sikh after it had suffered a setback in battle. The other, the fateful decision he took during the 1965 war to refuse to withdraw troops under his command to the Beas river despite being given verbal orders to do so by the then Chief of Army Staff, General JN Chaudhuri. His reasoning was very simple: how could a man who had not made one visit to the frontline to ascertain the situation for himself take such a momentous decision? It had to be the commander present on the spot.
His refusal to kowtow to authority and fight for justice did many a time hurt his interests but it was of little consequence to him. The fact that at the end of his career he was able to look back and say that he had no regrets illustrates the courage he drew from his convictions. This, as well as his cultivation of a cool and calm mind no matter what the circumstances, complimented his skills as a military commander and established his reputation as a strategist par excellence during a long and distinguished career that took him to every battlefront of independent India till he retired in 1969.
In an article entitled ‘TheVictorious Will’, which he wrote a few years later for a military journal, he explained the recipe for his success: “The will to outlast the opponent, the ability to draw upon one last ounce of strength for this final, audacious fling at the enemy is the hallmark of a great field commander…” These words also helped me fight my own battle with cancer.