Read about a few exceptional men who wore the scars of battle and the rank on their uniforms with the same pride as the titles they inherited.
When Prince Harry walked down the aisle with his bride at the most talked about wedding of the decade, a fair amount of attention went to the attire he chose to get married in – the uniform of his regiment, The Blues and Royals. As a prince of England, he could’ve chosen to wear the most expensive clothes that money can buy, for an occasion he knew the whole world would watch. Instead he chose the uniform in which he served 10 years and two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
The spectacle of the royal wedding drew its fair share of cynics and pop culture critics, who questioned whether such relics of a colonial and feudal past should be allowed to occupy so much of our attention in this day and age. The prince and his uniform however remind us of the other side of royalty in which entitlement goes alongside a culture of service - usually military. As leaders of men in an era when war was a constant, kings and princes were expected to be exceptional warriors. Military duty further instilled values of service and humility in the future leaders.
In India, Capt Amarinder Singh of Patiala and Maj Jaswant Singh of Jasol are among the last of that breed of men who, though born to royalty, chose to serve in the uniform. This was not always the case. There was a time, till not too long ago, when it was a custom among the famed maharajas and princes of India to serve with their men in the mud and trenches of the battlefield, often leading from the front in the face of danger. This is about a few such exceptional men who wore the scars of battle and the rank on their uniforms with the same pride as the titles they inherited.
Brigadier Bhawani Singh, Mahavir Chakra – Maharaja of Jaipur
The rulers of Jaipur hold the hereditary title of Sawai. According to legend, the word Sawai comes from the Hindi Sawa - one and a quarter (1+ 1/4th). The title was given to a man who was believed to exceed other men by one and a quarter in qualities of bravery, strength, and intelligence. Brigadier Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh was one such man.
The military career of Brigadier Bhawani Singh was exemplary and there are many tales to tell. But the feat that he is best known for is the Chachro Raid during the 1971 war in which the 10 Para, under the leadership of (then) Lt Col Bhawani Singh penetrated deep into Sindh in Pakistan, destroying multiple targets and returning home without a single casualty. All this was done without the help of a GPS or any other communication device to guide them.
The 10 Para are known as the Desert Scorpions because the officers and jawans of the 10 Para are trained specially for desert warfare. Its gruelling training regimen includes learning to survive without water in the Thar desert for days by collecting early morning dew from blades of desert grass, and being able to navigate the desert using only a compass.
It was this ability of the 10 Para that allowed them to strike 80 kilometres inside Pakistani territory in Sindh, despite having no knowledge of the terrain or the enemy positions. So effective were the 10 Para under Lt Col Bhawani Singh that they sliced through Pakistani defences like a hot knife through butter, capturing one town after with minimal fighting and suffering zero casualties. Each captured town was subsequently handed over to the Infantry that followed in the wake of the 10 Para. Though the initial objective of the raid was to capture Chachro, the Paras ended up capturing the towns of Islamkot and Nagarparkar as well, leaving the enemy vulnerable.
For his inspiring leadership in one of the most famous operations by the Indian Army, Lt Col Bhawani Singh was awarded the Mahavir Chakra. As the Maharaja of one of the largest, and arguably the most well-known of all princely states of India, Bhawani Singh could well have chosen a life spent in Parisian ball rooms and polo grounds. But as a Sawai, he was a cut above other men by one and a quarter.
Brigadier Sukhjit Singh, Mahavir Chakra – Maharaja of Kapurthala
Brigadier Sukhjit Singh is the reigning Maharaja of Kapurthala, a Sikh princely state in Punjab with a rich and inspiring history of valour. The Kapurthala royals are descendants of Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, the 18th century leader of the Ahluwalia Sikh Misl and 5th Jathedar (head priest) of the Akal Takht – the highest temporal authority of the Sikhs.
As one of the most important Sikh chiefs, Baba Jassa Singh had fought in the Sikh battles against Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali, while throwing off the remnants of Mughal authority over the Punjab in a series of pitched battles fought against numerically superior opponents. As a 21 year old, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia achieved fame when he fearlessly attacked the entourage of Nadir Shah and freed the prisoners he was taking with him to Tehran as spoils of war after plundering Delhi.
Coming from such a line of warriors, the Kapurthala royals were a justifiably proud lot. Brigadier Sukhjit Singh chose to follow the path of his ancestors and was commissioned into the Scinde Horse, a tank regiment of the Indian Army. He had distinguished himself as an officer during the 1965 war. However, it was in 1971 that the finest moment of his military career was to come
Brigadier (then Lt Col) Sukhjit Singh was commanding a tank regiment in the Shakargarh sector on the Punjab border. On 10 December 1971, the enemy launched an attack under cover of intense artillery and mortar fire. Though outnumbered, Lt Col Sukhjit Singh exhorted his men to hold their ground, personally placing his own tank in the most threatened sector to lead from the front. Despite being under heavy fire, he opened the cupola of his tank to better observe the enemy positions and direct the fire of his tanks more effectively. Galvanised by his fearless presence – a commander with his head out, surveying the battlefield as if the exploding shells and flying bullets all around him did not matter – the Indians rallied. The battle ended with eight Pakistani Patton tanks destroyed and the capture of a number of Pakistani soldiers.
For his inspiring leadership and resolute courage under fire, Lt Col Sukhjit Singh was awarded the Mahavir Chakra – India's second highest gallantry award.
The Kapurthala royals’ service to the Indian Army does not stop here. The family donated their erstwhile residence – the famous Jagatjit Palace – to the government of India after Independence. Designed along the lines of Versailles Palace of France, the Jagatjit Palace was built in 1908 to serve as the residence of the Kapurthala royals by the then Maharaja Jagatjit Singh. In 1961, it came to house the Sainik School Kapurthala that prepares students for entry into the elite National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla. Brig Sukhjit Singh continues to remain the patron of the school and takes an interest in its functioning.
Flt Lt Karan Sher Singh Sandhu, Kirti Chakra (Posthumously) – Raja of Kalsia
Flt Lt Karan Sher Singh, erstwhile Raja of Kalsia, is the only ruling head of a princely state to have died in action while serving the Indian armed forces.
Tucked away in the Himalayan foothills with the river Yamuna to one side, Kalsia was the smallest of the Sikh princely states of Punjab. It was founded by Gurbaksh Singh Sandhu, an enterprising warlord of the Karora Singhia Sikh Misl who broke away from the main body of Sikh fighters battling it out with the Mughals and the Afghans over control of the Punjab in the 18th century. With a band of his loyal followers, Gurbaksh Singh Sandhu moved southwards towards the Yamuna and founded the kingdom of Kalsia.
Flt Lt Karan Sher Singh Kalsia was commissioned into the Indian Air Force in April 1953. On 19 January 1961, while flying a regular sortie over Jamnagar, Gujarat, Flt Lt Karan Sher Singh found that his plane had developed a snag. As he was at considerable altitude, he had plenty of time to bail out as per procedure, and parachute to safety. He also knew that if he evacuated, the plane would crash into the densely populated Jamnagar city leading to extensive loss of life and property. As the aircraft plummeted towards the city, Flt Lt Kalsia instead of evacuating turned the burning plane away from the city. While he succeeded in this, in his struggle to direct the plane, he had also lost considerable altitude. His plane crashed in the fields outside Jamnagar city, killing him instantly.
By opting to not evacuate and turning his aircraft away from the densely populated Jamnagar city, Flt Lt Karan Sher Singh Kalsia had saved numerous lives, but lost his own. For his selfless act of courage he was awarded the Kirti Chakra - India's second highest military decoration awarded in peacetime.
The citation on his award reads:
Flight Lieutenant Kalsia displayed courage of a very high order and gave his own life to avoid an accident, which might have resulted in the loss of several other lives. His gallant action was in the highest traditions of the Indian Air Force.
Lt Gen Hanut Singh, Mahavir Chakra – Thikana of Jasol
Jasol is a principality located in the Barmer district in the Thar desert. The rulers of Jasol held the title of Rawal and were feudatories of the larger kingdom of Marwar that had its capital at Jodhpur.
Lt Gen Hanut Singh was the son of Lt Col Thakur Arjun Singh Ji, brother of the Rawal of Jasol, who had served with the Jodhpur Lancers, famous for their liberation of Haifa during the Second World War. Maj Jaswant Singh, Minister of External Affairs in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government is a first cousin of Lt Gen Hanut Singh.
Lt Gen Hanut Singh was commissioned into the 17 horse, also known as Poona Horse, a tank regiment of the Indian Army. During the famous Battle of Basantar in the 1971 war, (then) Lt Col Hanut Singh was commanding a tank regiment that had been tasked with supporting infantry troops. As the forces came across a heavily mined field, the infantry managed to get across, leaving the tanks behind, waiting for engineers to clear the field. This, however, rendered the infantry sitting ducks against the enemy counter attack – precisely what the enemy had planned. Time being at a premium, Lt Col Hanut Singh took the decision to cross the field without waiting for the mines to be cleared, deftly leading his men from the front. It was perhaps a miracle, or the exceptional skill of a man born for war that not a single mine came in the way of the regiment. For his fearless leadership, Lt Col Hanut Singh was awarded the Mahavir Chakra.
Besides being a fearless soldier, Lt Gen Hanut Singh was also known to be an ardent student of military history who had devoted himself to the study of war campaigns of famous generals such Rommel, Montgomery, and Patton.
The Indian Army is now building a memorial at Jasol to one of its finest soldiers and greatest tacticians.
General Maharaj Sri Rajendrasinhji Jadeja, Chief of Army Staff – Nawanagar State (now Jamnagar)
The only member of a princely state to have headed the Indian Army, General Rajendrasinhji Jadeja was a nephew of K S Ranjitsinhji, the legendary cricketer and the Maharaja of Nawanagar after whom the Ranji Trophy is named. He was also a cousin of K S Duleepsinhji, another cricketing luminary produced by the Nawanagar royal family. Another cousin was Maj Gen Kumar Himmatsinhji Jadeja, a first class cricketer, and the first Lt Governor of Himachal Pradesh.
Born on 15 June 1899, at the village of Sarodar in Gujarat’s Kathiawar region, General Rajendrasinhji was the first Chief of Army Staff, and the second Indian after Field Marshal K M Cariappa to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. (The first three army chiefs were called Commander-in-Chief, and starting from 1955, the title Chief of Army Staff was introduced, while the President of India was designated the Commander-in-Chief).
General Rajendrasinhji was the first Indian to be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal in 1941 during the Mediterranean campaign of the Second World War where he commanded a tank squadron and led them to safety after being outnumbered and encircled by German tanks. At Independence, Gen Rajendrasinhji was among the senior most Indian officers in the army and had to shoulder a number of responsibilities including commanding the crucial Delhi and East Punjab Command during the critical months of Partition.
Gen P P Kumaramangalam, Chief of Army Staff – Zamindari of Kumaramangalam
Gen Paramasiva Prabhakar Kumaramangalam was born in the prominent Zamindari family of Kumaramangalam in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. The Kumaramangalam estate, spread over the Salem and Namakkal districts of Tamil Nadu, was one of the largest Zamindaris in the Madras Presidency.
Kumaramangalam Zamindars have for long been influential in the public life of Tamil Nadu. Gen Kumaramangalam’s father Paramasivam Subbarayan served as the Chief Minister of Madras Presidency from 1926-1930 and later as the Union minister for Transport and Communications in the Nehru cabinet. His mother Radhabai Subbarayan, an Oxford graduate, was a social reformer and one of the earliest advocates of reservation for women in Indian legislature. In 1938, she became the first woman member of the Council of States, the predecessor of the Rajya Sabha. Both of Gen Kumaramangalam’s siblings – a brother and a sister – served as Members of Parliament while a nephew, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam served as a cabinet minister in the Narasimha Rao and the Vajpayee governments.
As a young officer in Second World War, Gen Kumaramangalam had been taken prisoner by the Italians in 1942 before escaping from the PoW camp, only to be captured again, this time by the Germans. He served three years in Axis prisons before finally being released at the end of the war, only to jump right back into action in 1947-48 war with Pakistan. This dogged perseverance came to define his career and his legacy as a soldier.
Gen Kumaramangalam did not possess the swagger of his predecessor, Gen Jayonto Nath Chaudhuri or the flamboyance of his successor, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. He was more the silent, untiring workhorse who went about his work with a relentless devotion. When he took over the reins of the Indian army, its morale was perhaps at its lowest. The 1962 war against China had been an unmitigated disaster, while the 1965 war against Pakistan had been a narrow, hard fought victory. It is to his credit that by the time he relinquished charge to (then) Gen Manekshaw, the Indian Army had been transformed into a force that would achieve one of the most decisive military victories of the post Second World War era in 1971.
Gen Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri, Chief of Army Staff – Zamindari of Haripur
Gen Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri served as the fifth Chief of Staff of the Indian army from 1962-1966. A distinguished soldier, who had served in the Second World War as well as the war with Pakistan in 1948, Gen Chaudhury is best remembered for the surrender of the Nizam of Hyderabad during Operation Polo. The picture of Major General Ahmed El Adroos, the Arab commander-in-chief of the Nizam’s armies surrendering to (then) Maj Gen Chaudhuri is now part of military folklore. As the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Chaudhuri commanded India’s war efforts during the 1965 war against Pakistan.
Gen Chaudhuri was born in the Zamindari family of Haripur in present day Bangladesh. The Zamindars of Haripur have been an important part of the upper crust of Bengali elite who dominated its political and social affairs for centuries. Gen Chaudhuri’s maternal grandfather was W C Bannerjee, the first president of the Indian National Congress, while his cousin Devika Rani Rai Roerich was a famous actress who is often called the First Lady of Indian Cinema for her contribution to Indian cinema during its formative years. Through his uncle, Pramatha Chaudhuri – one of the most influential Bengali writers of the early 20th century – Gen J N Chaudhuri was also related to Rabindranath Tagore. Two of his brothers, Brigadier Dilip Chaudhuri and Wing Commander Hem Chaudhuri served in the armed forces too. Brigadier Dilip Chaudhuri had served as a defence attaché in Washington and played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for establishing defence ties between India and the US in the years following Independence. Through his brother Wing Commander Hem Chaudhuri, Gen J N Chaudhuri was also distantly connected to Keshub Chandra Sen, the famous Bengali reformer whose great grand daughter was the wife of Wing Commander Hem Chaudhuri. Another notable family member was the legendary pilot of the Indian Air Force, Wing Commander Karun Krishna Majumdar who, at the time of his death in a plane crash in 1945 was the highest ranked Indian officer in the Air Force. He was a cousin of Gen J N Chaudhuri.
Though a rugged and imposing soldier, the strain of literary refinement of Bengali intelligentsia of which he was part, was unmistakable in Gen Chaudhuri. He was the first Indian Army Chief to pen an autobiography in 1979, besides authoring two other books on military affairs.
Admiral Madhavendra Singh, Chief of Naval Staff – Thikana of Chomu
The Thikana (principality) of Chomu in Rajasthan is renowned for producing some of the finest soldiers in the history of Indian sub-continent dating back to the 16th century. Chomu was the largest of the 12 Kotris or principalities that made up the kingdom of Jaipur, with its ruler holding the title of Thakur. Chomu not only contributed the most in terms of revenue but the Thakur of Chomu also held the honour of leading the armies of Jaipur in battle.
This unbroken legacy of soldiering is being carried down to the present day by the Thakurs of Chomu. Admiral Madhavendra Singh of Chomu was born to Maj Gen K Bhagwati Singh, the first Indian Commissioned officer to graduate from the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun. As a result, Maj Gen K Bhagwati Singh became the proud possessor of, perhaps, the most unique identification number in the Indian army – IC No 1.
Another unique distinction that the family holds is that the Maj Gen K Bhagwati Singh and Admiral Madhavendra Singh are the only father-son duo to have had the honor of reviewing the passing out parade at the IMA. While Maj Gen K Bhagwati Singh reviewed the 25th passing out parade, Admiral Madhavendra Singh reviewed it in 2002. This event is said to be unique in military history.
Admiral Madhavendra Singh is a nephew of Lt Gen Umrao Singh of Chomu, who famously refused to carry out orders given by Defence Minister Krishna Menon in the 1962 war against China, citing the gross military unpreparedness of the Indians compared to the Chinese. The outcome of the war vindicated his stand. Several of Admiral Madhavendra Singh’s cousins have held senior positions in the armed forces, including Group Captain Kanwar Bharatendra Singh, a recipient of Vayu Sena Medal.
Commissioned into the Indian Navy in 1963, Admiral Singh saw action in both the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan besides the 1987 Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka.
Admiral Madhavendra Singh is married to Rajkumari Kaumudhi Kumari, daughter of Maharaj Kumar Balendu Shah of Tehri Garhwal.
Flt Lt Samar Bikram Shah, Vir Chakra, Vayu Sena Medal – Rajkumar of Tehri Garhwal
Flt Lt Samar Bikram Shah is the son of Lt Col Maharajkumar Shardul Bikram Shah and the nephew of Lt Col Manabendra Shah Bahadur, the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal, a princely state in Uttarakhand. Rajkumari Kaumudhi Kumari, wife of Admiral Madhavendra Singh of Chomu is his first cousin.
Rajkumar Samar Bikram Shah was born on 21 April 1945 at Mussoorie. He was commissioned into the Indian Air Force on 16 May 1965 just as the India-Pakistan war broke out and was attached to the famous Flaming Arrow Squadron in Halwara, Punjab. In March 1970, he was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal when at great personal risk he successfully landed his aircraft which had developed a snag and had begun to plummet. Flt Lt Shah chose not to evacuate and through the sheer dint of force managed to land his aircraft safely. This strength of character would be on display once again during the 1971 India-Pakistan war when he shot down an enemy aircraft in a head-to-head battle and frustrated the attempts of other enemy aircrafts to sabotage the mission that Flt Lt Shah was charged with escorting. For this he was awarded the Vir Chakra.
He later served as the ADC to the COAS and retired from service in 1975.
Maj Rajakumar Chikka Desraj Urs – Mysore
Major Rajakumar Chikka Desraj Urs was the grandson of one of the most renowned members of the Mysore royal family – Col J Desraj Urs. Col J Desraj Urs was the brother-in-law of Maharaja of Mysore Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodiyar 4th. A respected officer and an accomplished horseman, Col J Desraj Urs served as the commander-in-chief of the Mysore state forces that distinguished themselves during the First World War as defenders of the Suez Canal and Palestine. The Mysore Lancers under Col J Desraj Urs were to be immortalised in history as the defenders of Haifa when the royal 2 headed Mysore Eagle – the mythical Ganda-Bherunda that serves as the emblem of Mysore – flew over Haifa as the Mysore Lancers, as part of the 15th Imperial Cavalry Brigade, marched in to evict German and Ottoman Troops.
Born on 16 June 1928, Major Rajakumar Chikka Desaraj Urs was commissioned into the Hodson’s Horse, a tank regiment of the Indian Army that took part in the now famous Battle of Phillora. The battle of Phillora was one of the three major tank battles fought during the 1965 war, the other two being the Battle of Assal Uttar and the Battle of Chawinda.
Phillora is a village near Sialkot district on the Pakistani side of the border in Punjab. The Indians, having entered Pakistani territory were making a go for Lahore. The resistance from Pakistanis was fierce, which made Phillora one of the most remembered battles of the Indian Army. The Indian 1st Armored Division squared up against the Pakistani 6th Armored Division that had additional air support from the Pakistani Air Force. As the Indians advanced into Pakistani territory, they faced stiff resistance at a large village called Rurki Kalan. Here the Pakistanis had dug trenches and the Pakistani army backed by artillery was stalling the Indian advance.
Major Rajkumar Chikka Desraj Urs of Mysore was commanding a squadron charged with capturing Rurki Kalan when a shell hit his tank, severely wounding him. Maj Desraj Urs lost one eye in which shrapnel hit him, but he still refused to be evacuated and gallantly led his men till the village of Rurki Kalan was captured.
Fighting in the same battle with Maj Desraj Urs of Mysore was Maj K S Dhillon, brother-in-law of Capt Amarinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala. Maj Dhillon was wounded by shell splinters and was rendered permanently disabled. The sacrifices of the Indian officers did not go in vain. After three days of intense fighting, the Pakistanis withdrew with a loss of 66 tanks. Indians lost six in comparison. The Battle of Phillora ended in a decisive Indian victory.
Maj Kunwar Ravinder Singh Bedi, Vir Chakra – Jagirdar of Kallar
Maj Kunwar Ravinder Singh Bedi is a direct descendant of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism. He represents the 16th generation down from the Guru. His father, Kunwar Surinder Singh Bedi was a renowned IAS officer who was in-charge of the border areas of Punjab during the 1965 and 1971 wars and contributed towards the war effort by streamlining the cooperation between the military and the civil administrations. For his efforts, he was awarded the Padma Shri as well as the Padma Bhushan.
The family was hereditary Jagirdars of Kallar in Rawalpindi (present day Pakistan), with additional Jagirs held in Montgomery district (present day Pakistan) and in Una district in Himachal. These Jagirs had been bestowed upon the family by Maharaja Ranjit Singh for displaying conspicuous bravery on the battlefield in the Sikh battles against Afghans in which the Bedis had served as Generals of Ranjit Singh. After the British conquest of Punjab, several of these Jagirs were confiscated by the East India Company, but the family continued to remain one of the most important Jagirdars in British India with Raja Baba Khem Singh Bedi, the great grandfather of Kunwar Ravinder Singh Bedi having served as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council.
The head of the family held the title Raja along with Baba to denote the spiritual authority the family commanded as descendants of Guru Nanak Dev. After Partition though, the family lost most of its holdings but continued to serve the nation in various capacities.
Kunwar Ravinder Singh Bedi joined the Army in 1963 as a 2nd Lt and was commissioned in the Scinde Horse, a tank regiment of the Indian army. On 17 September 1965, 2nd Lt Ravinder Singh Bedi had been ordered to clear out the village of Jhuggian in the Lahore sector to prepare the advance of the Indian Army. The village was defended by enemy tanks, infantry as well as recoilless guns. Advancing under heavy fire, 2nd Lt Bedi succeeded in knocking out several tanks when his own tank was hit by a shell from the recoilless gun and caught fire. Though severely wounded, 2nd Lt Bedi continued to advance with his burning tank until the stored ammunition inside the tank began exploding. When eventually he was forced to abandon his tank under heavy enemy fire, he kept his calm and helped his men out, despite being severely wounded, himself. For his bravery, he was awarded the Vir Chakra, India’s third highest gallantry awarded.