Warriors of the World

July 22, 2005

Warriors of the World By Manraj Grewal ,

From a little Punjab village, they set forth to fight in the 20th century’s biggest battles.IT was September 20, 1939. We’d just landed in Egypt when a heavy drone filled the air… I looked up and saw the sky filled with German planes. They came in waves and rained bombs.’’ An hour’s drive from Chandigarh, not far from the disputed Sutlej Yamuna Link canal, is a little village called Kalour.

In the falling rain, it’s picture perfect, with emerald fields just an arm’s length from colourful concrete houses on brick lanes that meander in several directions. On the surface, it’s a regular Punjabi village. A little run-down, a little frayed. But if you care to listen, the place is brimming with stories of battles, heroes and camaraderie.

At last count, the village had over 190 war veterans. Eighty-eight-year-old Subedar Niranjan Singh, his beard rolled up fauji style, is not the only one who paints a sepia picture (Singh was with the British army in Egypt during World War II) for the mind’s eye—of booming guns and marching troops. Kalour’s faujis take you everywhere—from one battle to another, from the Congo to Gaza, Egypt to Waziristan, Italy to Burma. ‘‘I didn’t get a single letter from my family during my two-year stint in Egypt, they thought I was dead,’’ grins Niranjan Singh. Kalour also sent many of its men to Basra before Independence. Sepoy Waryam Singh, 80, who was with the British Army’s 26 Frontier Force at Basra in 1942, recalls how some villagers even penned a ditty to the Iraqi city: ‘‘They used to sing ‘Na jayeen Basra nu, lekhe jaan ge naale’ (Don’t go to Basra, all your deeds will travel with you).’’

Set on undulating acres of green, the village’s tryst with the army dates back to the days when it was part of the kingdom of Patiala. “Kalour was known for its tall, strapping men, for whom it was a tradition to join the royal army. Later, the British encouraged them by giving handsome jangi inaam (war rewards) to parents who sent two or more of their sons to the armed forces.” It was while scouting the Punjab countryside for World War II veterans that Bajwa chanced upon this village. “To my surprise, I found that it had around 200 veterans, many of whom were of British vintage,” he says. Naib Risaldar Kaka Singh, the tall, strapping kind, is among them. A champion wrestler and discus thrower, Kaka Singh fought in Albertville in Congo where his 63 Cavalry took on the Kantangan rebels in 1961.

While stories about battles fought for the British resonate with the romance of foreign lands, the real pride is obviously reserved for the wars India has fought since 1947. Naik Gajjan Singh, who served with the 2 Sikh, one of the most highly decorated Infantry battalions of the Indian Army, was there when they picked up a Maha Vir Chakra during the 1965 war with Pakistan. Stationed at Poonch, 2 Sikh was given the task of capturing Raja Hill picket from the Pakistanis. ‘‘We made a final assault on September 6. Our commanding officer, Lt Col NN Khanna, fought like a lion. He ultimately fell to the bullets, but only after capturing the picket,’’ says Gajjan Singh. ‘‘Later, we used to say, ‘Asi raja lita, te raja dita’ (We won a king, but after losing a king),’’ recalls Gajjan, who specialises in chronicling the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Five members of his family, all from Kalour, fought in the war. In fact, every period has its historian. The year 1947, for instance, belongs to Niranjan Singh, who tells you how his men installed 200 phones at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947. A month later, they used a raaj hal—a plough drawn by four bullocks—to lay phone cables at Ambala. Havaldar Harchand Singh is the expert on the 1962 Indo-China war. ‘‘It was a disaster. The enemy was only 200 metres away, yet we didn’t have orders to fire,’’ he fumes, recalling his artillery regiment’s humiliating retreat to Misamari in Assam. The ’71 war? Ask Sepoy Kaka Singh of Bombay Engineers, who suffered permanent injuries in both legs after a burst of enemy fire made him dive into the Ravi from a Bailey bridge he was working on at Chhamb Jaurian in Kashmir. What about Kargil? ‘‘Actually, the two soldiers who took part in it haven’t retired yet,’’ says Capt Mewa Singh of Artillery, who is fiercely proud of India’s victory in the battle. But the truth is that the village of proud veterans hardly boasts any serving soldiers these days.

Army as a tradition is on its way out. ‘‘Youngsters these days are much more ambitious,’’ explains Niranjan Singh, whose grandchildren are bankers and IT professionals. Ardent fans of cricket with a team of their own, the village youth are now looking forward to a computer centre. ‘‘An NRI has promised to open one for the village girls,’’ says Mewa Singh. With IT, cricket and even fashion designing vying for their attention, the armed forces don’t stand much of a chance. But the old soldiers still hope against hope. ‘‘There’s nothing like the Army. Money can’t buy izzat,’’ says Niranjan Singh. Izzat they still have in plenty. Why, just look at grand old Niranjan Singh. In Kalour, his word is law. Tell him that and he laughs. ‘‘I am so old, but remember fauji taan marde, marde wi nahin dam torda (Soldiers never say die, even till their last breath).’’

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