Menu Close

A Farewell to Arms Misc. Jul 2007

India Se (Singapore)

July 2007

A Farewell to Arms….

By Ashali Varma

One of the characteristics I most admired about my father was his love of life and his love of people. I am amazed that even  31years after his death he is still regarded as a great man by the Indian Army and wherever I go people come up to me and say, “You know he did this for me,” or “ What he did for us and for the jawans no other General has done.”

As the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross in World War II, he came back as a hero but it was not something he ever spoke about.

When he was in Africa fighting the war, his letters back to  Mohini Bhandari a beautiful 19- year –old, who he had fallen in love with, were always self effacing. He invariably played down his part in the war.

The action that my father was involved in which won him the Victoria Cross is best described by General Sir Peter de la Billiere in his book, “Supreme Courage.”

In January 1941 a major Allied offensive returned the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie to his country and preparations went ahead for a confrontation with the Italian forces based in Asmara, in Eritrea. On 30 January the Italians, now under pressure from several directions, finally abandoned the fort at Gallabat and began a general withdrawal.

At first light on 1 February the Allies sent out a small mobile column to probe along the road towards Gondar, some 100 miles to the east, and with it went a detachment of 21 Field Company, under Lt. Prem Bhagat’s command. A speedy advance was essential, for the aim was to overtake the enemy and engage them; but the Italians had booby trapped the road with mines and other devices, among them steel straps that punctured tyres.

The mines mostly buried an inch or so below the dirt surface-were of various types, and generally had to be defused by hand. The need for haste made clearance work all the more hazardous.

It was in these conditions that Prem led the advance, riding in a Bren Carrier (a lightly armoured, tracked vehicle with an open top, designed to mount a machine gun). ——the vehicle itself was crucially vulnerable to mines, due to its thin underbody armour. 

Prem knew the limitations of his transport all to well, yet he showed no signs of fear, spotting and defusing mines himself. Inevitably, one blew up under the vehicle. The driver took most of the blast and was killed, but Prem was thrown clear by the explosion. His response was to commandeer another carrier and press on. Again he was blown up. This time two men were killed, but again he escaped undamaged, except by shock and concussion and persevered. Working from dawn to dusk without breaks for food or sleep, he operated with such skill and tenacity that on the fourth day the column caught up with the fleeing Italians and ran into an ambush. Again Prem’s carrier was blown up and this time he was wounded suffering a perforated eardrum. Even then, exhausted as he was by fatigue and nervous strain, he refused to stand down, claiming that he had discerned the pattern of the enemy’s mine-laying technique so well that clearance would be quickest if he carried on. Eventually after four days covering 55 miles and clearing fifteen minefields, he gave in, and was taken, with blood oozing from his ears to the base hospital in Khartoun.

He himself did not think he had done anything out of the ordinary —— in his long letter to Mohini my mother, he was as self-deprecating and understated as always:

Letter of 10 February 1941

“The last ten days have been a bit trying, especially as I have had three narrow escapes. Luckily the only damage done is that I have now got a deaf ear (the right one). The doctor says the drum has gone. I wonder if it will make me permanently deaf in one ear. This has its advantages. I need not hear what I do not want to. I can always sing without knowing how badly I sing.”

“The last ten days have been quite a revelation to me of war. Dead bodies lying on the road, some mangled and no one taking any notice of them. To think the same body had life and enjoyed himself a few hours before is preposterous—“

He was still recovering in hospital when he heard he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Yet he played down his achievement to Mohini and made no direct mention of the medal.

“I have been congratulated for being blown up twice, by the red hats.

Though, personally it does not make any sense to me. After all there were some people killed, and I was the lucky one to escape.”

This was my father, always thinking of his men, of others who deserved credit rather than him.

The army was his life and when he was told he was not going to be Chief, because of political reasons, he went on to become Chairman of DVC( Damodar Valley Corporation). Here too he made his name. He showed how with political will and the right kind of action no city or state in India should have power shortages. 

This is a lesson that 31 years later is still very relevant to India, but is still largely the number one problem that effects, the economy, the people and both agriculture and industry.   

My father said, “Power generation is not rocket science nor is it intricate brain surgery.”

All it needed was political will—- which he got from the then Minister of Power, K.C. Pant, who backed his decisions whole heartedly—– and a drive to improve power generation. Unfortunately he died just ten months into his term as Chairman but by then power production in DVC had risen twenty- fold! I was very young when he died and did not know the intricacies of how he did it. He did tell me broadly that DVC suffered from low morale, apathy, too much paperwork and bureaucracy that literally tied it into knots and resulted in sheer neglect.

Recently, a book written by Major General V.K. Singh, titled “Leadership in the Indian Army,” describes some of the ways he went about it and the kind of action urgently needed in India now on a much larger scale.

Singh writes, “With his characteristic vigour and no-nonsense approach, he (Prem) got the sluggish behemoth moving and soon the results were there for all to see. From 45 MW in August 1974, the production rose to 700 MW by October 1974, an increase of more than 15 times in just two months!”

He goes on to describe that on Bhagat’s very first visit to the office he wanted to be introduced to all the staff. One old man shook his hand and started crying. On asked why he was crying he said that in all his years in DVC this was the first time he had met the Chairman. Soon he was visiting not only the power plants but also the homes of the employees to see what they needed. This led to a visible improvement in the amenities and living conditions of the employees.

Then on a visit to a power plant he realized that the very low productivity was due to a lack of spare parts. The file containing the requisition had been shuttling between various departments for six months! Bhagat was shocked. He got hold of the file and wrote, “Sanctioned” and signed his name below. “Now get on with it.” He said. On returning to his office, he issued instructions increasing the financial powers of the plant managers so that they would not have to refer to him for making urgent purchases.

At another power plant he found that some generators were not working and that replacements were expected to be shipped out from Japan and it would take six months. That for him was unthinkable. He ordered that they should be flown across.  His staff looked incredulous and wondered what it would cost. “Much less than the losses we are incurring due to a shortage of power.” he said, according to Singh’s description.

After he died many others from DVC came to tell me their favourite stories. Before the Puja holidays in West Bengal he heard that union leaders usually strike for bonus. He declared an eight percent bonus several months before and baffled the union.  

With much of the red tape removed and better working conditions the morale went up in DVC and power generation hit an all time peak. He even showed the employees that he was willing to do everything he asked them to do. Once on a visit to a plant he found the bathrooms very dirty. He asked the employees to get them cleaned immediately. On his return a few hours later he found nothing had been done. He went to the market got cleaning materials and attacked the bathrooms himself. On seeing this, the employees were aghast and promised to see to it themselves. After he died one of the officers told me proudly that DVC has the cleanest bathrooms in Bengal!

He once told me that the buck really stops at the top. One should not blame the employees when the system is rotten and bogged down by bureaucracy, one has to change it and this can only come from the top. While he lay fighting for his life one man, among many, who came to pray for him was the union leader. He told me that he admired and respected him and prayed for his life and DVC still needed him. It was a touching tribute from someone my father had taken on.