We have an obligation to those whose valour and heroism deserves recognition even if they fought and died as part of a war that was not India’s.
Cavalry officers have always felt that brief surge of extra pride in the month of November, when traffic on Delhi’s busy Teen Murti roundabout pauses, halts and gapes at them in awe as they pay homage at the famed Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade Memorial in their ceremonial finery.
This memorial commemorates the valour of soldiers of princely armies – namely Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers – which formed part of the famed 15 Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade. These troops were later co-opted into 61 Cavalry, the only mounted regiment besides the famed President’s Body Guard (PBG), which is largely officered by 61 Cavalry. Imperial Brigade is known for its exploits in the First World War in Megiddo and most notably for the liberation of Haifa on September 23, 1918. The brigade was part of the British Indian Army fighting the Ottoman Turkish forces in the Middle East.
After independence, and in keeping with the natural desire to discard imperial baggage, the memorial and circle were rechristened ‘Teen Murti’ as it features the statues of three cavalry men depicting the three cavalry units. It has become a sort of navigational aid in conjunction with Gyarah (11) Murti for traffic headed to Raisina Hill and Lutyens’ Delhi. Within the army, the event has been dubbed by non-cavalry officers as a bit of needless parochial side show. Perseverance of the Armoured Corps and especially the PBG have kept the memories of Haifa alive, albeit kindled only once a year.
In 2014, India decided to celebrate the sacrifice and contribution of soldiers of the British Indian Forces and princely states in the First World War by organising a grand exhibition as part of larger global centenary celebrations. It was a refreshing break from the past and recognition of the fact that the valour and war fighting skills of Indians of the pre-independence era need to be cherished and kept alive. This was in stark contrast to our miserly and uncaring attitude in granting only meagre pension and other benefits to forgotten soldiers and their dependents. The exhibition put together at short notice by Western Command was widely acclaimed, specially by military attaches and foreign visitors.
That event also spurred India to break another self-imposed taboo and celebrate for the first time the country’s exploits in 1965 on its Golden Jubilee in 2015. Pakistan in stark contrast celebrates September 6 every year as ‘Youm-e-Difa’ (Day of Defence), ‘defence’ being a surprising choice of word by an established aggressor. The Indian initiative has now injected a bit of objectivity in at best a stalemated war though tilted in India’s favour, which was being touted by Pakistan as its victory. I had the privilege to coordinate both exhibitions and it was heartening to see the prime minister spending time viewing these exhibitions. However, his enthusiasm was matched by very few as instructions to other leaders and bureaucrats to visit it were not complied with.
Unlike India, Israel has always kept alive the memory of Haifa, Sharon and connected battles in Palestine despite these campaigns pre-dating the establishment of the Jewish state. It was thoughtful of the Israelis to invite Prime Minister Modi to jointly unveil a plaque with the Israeli prime minister in honour of Major Dalpat Singh at the Haifa Memorial during his visit to Israel in July last year. Diplomacy is catalysed by quid pro quo, even in symbolism, and Modi returned the gesture – in the centenary year of the battle – by renaming the memorial circle and road as ‘Haifa Teen Murti’ in the presence of the visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Of course, one could well ask whether such symbolism makes any difference to substantive engagement or is it mere optics. Then there is the question of whether Israel will utilise this event for image building at the expense of the Indian Army, specially when the soldiers from the princely state forces memorialised at Teen Murti did not fight either for Israel or India but for a British victory over the Turks in what was an inter-imperialist war. The perpetual question of how the Arabs and others in the region would react to the apparent symbolism also looms large but perceptions can be managed if India assuages the feelings of its friends in West Asia.
There can be an endless debate on these and some more connected issues but finding a modern context to forgotten history is an obligation to those soldiers whose valour and heroism deserves recognition even if they fought and died as part of a war that was not India’s. Across West Asia – in Iraq, Turkey, Palestine-Israel, Syria and Egypt. We need to emulate the British commitment reflected in their abiding patronage to Commonwealth War Graves Commission and such institutions. What is even more pertinent is that these Indian soldiers of yore have never been given their due despite battling hardships in foreign lands, suffering privation and hostile weather with poor rations, basic clothing, sub-standard equipment and overall scarcity of resources. While we exult over the latest recognition of sacrifice by Indian soldiers, a word of caution is in order: There have been many Haifa moments but follow up has been tardy. Let this not be another missed opportunity.
K.J. Singh is a former general officer commanding-in-chief of the Indian Army’s Western Command