When the army runs in the DNA: The Tribune India

Lieutenant General Baljit Singh (retired)

IT is not uncommon within the fraternity of the Indian armed forces to come across the second or even the third generation of a family who have so proudly made the profession of arms their life’s vocation. But a few days ago, when I stumbled upon a collage photograph of four generations of a family in military uniform in an unbroken chain, my immediate reaction was to reach out to the veteran patriarch, of the Brigade of guards (Col Mahinder Singh Minhas), and commend the family for their commendable military heritage.

What followed was truly a humbling experience. Their family traditions date back to the 1880s when Achhar Singh, a native of Daroli Khurd village (Jalandhar district), enlisted in the 69th Punjabis (formerly Madras Native Infantry) of the British Indian Army. Through hard work and dedication, he became a Havildar when World War I broke out.

Achhar Singh had four sons, three of whom (young males Labh Singh, Gardhara Singh and Hazara Singh) willingly followed in their father’s footsteps. With the down-to-earth wisdom of a Sikh jat peasant, Achhar Singh had assigned the fourth son to stay back, look after their mother, and look after the family’s meager farm. There is no record if they fought on the battlefields of France-Flanders or Gallipoli-Palestine, but they were downright lucky that Labh Singh was the only KIA (killed in action).

In rural Punjab in the 1900s, a small village that was Daroli Khurd, its adult population would have been around 500, but regardless of deprivation and risk of loss of limb or even life, l he attraction of service in the army was obviously held in such high esteem that a tablet inlaid in the entrance arch of the village gurdwara commemorates their contribution to this day thus: “From this village 91 men went to the Great War 1914-1919. Among them, 6 gave their lives.

During periodic post-war readjustments within the army, several infantry battalions were amalgamated to create the Punjab Regiment in 1922. Havildar Achhar Singh had by then retired with his honorably earned war pension, but his sons Gardhara Singh and Hazara Singh continued in World War II, in Field Marshal Slim’s 14th Army, in the battlefields of Burma.

And as is well documented, the Punjab Regiment acquitted itself extremely well in the battles of Kohima (recently deemed the best battle of all in WWII), Imphal and up to VJ Day, 1945 Both brothers carried on their father’s legacy with distinction, with Gardhara Singh becoming the Subedar Major of 2 Punjab and more he was invested with the title OBI “awarded by the Viceroy of India for long service , faithful, distinguished and honourable”.

He crowned his career in 1945 when Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell appointed “…Subedar Major Gardhara Singh, Sardar Bahadur, OBI, 2nd Punjab Regiment…….an Honorary Captain”. What a great roller coaster career ending in 1949!

Hazara Singh, meanwhile, had been transferred to another battalion from where he too had retired as a Subedar Major.

While Honorary Captain Gardhara Singh was busy creating a modest cenotaph in memory of their brother KIA Labh Singh on their farmland, his two sons were commissioned into the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun; Manmohan in the Corps of Signals and Mahinder in the 5 Guard, in 1971. Mahinder had the family claiming the 1 Guard (being the former 2 Punjab), but unfortunately they had no vacancy. Both brothers became veterans of the 1971 war, Manmohan from the Shakargarh offensive on the western front and Mahinder from the Jessore sector on the eastern front.

Mahinder’s eldest son currently commands a company in the 12th Guards while the youngest, a wing commander, is assigned to Air Headquarters. Only time will tell if DNA will perpetuate the family legacy into a legend.

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