.hy off LIEUT GENERAL P.S. BHAGAT, PVSM, VC
Premindra Singh Bhagat was one of the rare breed of generals, who excelled in war, as well as in peace. He was, perhaps, the only Indian general whose hall mark was courage. Examples of physical and moral courage are seldom found together, in the same person, yet Bhagat had this distinction. For the first he won a Victoria Cross, during World War II. Of the second, the instances are too numerous to recount. Though he never attained the highest rank, and retired as an Army Commander, there is no doubt that if anyone deserved to become the Army Chief, it was Bhagat. If he had, the Indian Army would not have remained the same. And this is perhaps the reason why he was denied the post. Due to his immense popularity, even Indira Gandhi did not dare to supersede him, and had to resort to a subterfuge to get him out of the way.
Prem Bhagat was born on 13 October 1918. His father, Surendra Singh Bhagat, was an executive engineer, in the United Provinces. He had two brothers, Nripendra (Tony) and Brijendra (Tutu), both older than him. Prem's mother died when he was just nine years old. At that time, his father was posted in Gorakhpur, and his two elder brothers were in school, at the PWRIMC, in Dehradun. The Military College, or PWRIMC, had been established in 1922, as a result of the recommendations of the Esher Committee, appointed in 1919 with Lord Esher as Chairman, and of the Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly, set up in March 1921, under the Chairmanship of Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. The Select Committee had recommended that 'adequate facilities should be provided in India for the preliminary training of Indians to make them fit to enter the Royal Military College, Sandhurst'. Soon afterwards, the Commander-in-Chief announced that the Military College would be established at Dehradun. It was inaugurated on 13 March 1922, by the Prince of Wales, and was hence named the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College (PWRIMC), which later began to be called the RIMC.
Within a year of his mother's death, his father remarried. Prem's step mother, Sheila, was only 18 years old, less than half his father's age. Prem and his brothers treated her more as a friend than a mother, and called her Aunty. In 1930, at the age of twelve, he was sent to the RIMC to join his two elder brothers. Prem's course, or batch, was the tenth to join the RIMC, which was run like a military school, and the students were called cadets, instead of boys, as in a public school. Instead of Houses, there were Sections, named after Rawlinson, Roberts, and Kitchener. Though it was called a college, it was only a school, whose primary purpose was to train prospective candidates for entry into Sandhurst. As a youngster, Prem was not very robust. He played all games, but was good only at tennis and swimming. He was reasonably good at studies, but did not excel. On the other hand, Tony was exceptionally bright, while Tutu was an outstanding sportsman. As a result, nobody thought that he would do as well as his brothers. Many years later, when the award of the VC was announced, everyone thought that it must be one of his brothers, and were quite surprised when they found that it was Prem who had won the decoration.
Prem joined the tenth course at the IMA in June 1937. His elder brother, Tony, had joined the first course, in 1932, which came to be known as 'The Pioneers', and had three future Chiefs - Sam Manekshaw, Smith Dun and Mohd. Musa. Tony passed out on 22 December 1934, with the Gold Medal, having stood first in the order of merit, and was commissioned into the Engineers. The second brother, Tutu, passed out two years later, and was commissioned into Signals. Prem performed creditably in all spheres, but did not excel in any. He was awarded colours for tennis and squash, and captained both teams. He also won his spurs in equitation, as well as his PT badge. His most important achievement, in his own eyes, was passing the 'drill square' in three months, in his first attempt. This entitled him to an 'outpass', and he could visit Mussourie, on weekends. His father was building the family home, called Bhagat Kot, at Mussourie, and Prem often joined them at the Savoy, where they were staying. Prem's father died in Banaras (now Varanasi), in January 1938, due to an unfortunate accident while riding. At that time, Prem was with him, on vacation. After his father's death, Prem technically became an orphan, though he continued to have close relations with his step mother, and her four children.
Prem's performance in the first term was not very encouraging. His company commander, Captain Jebens, wrote on 19 May 1937:
"Intelligent, capable and good all round performer at games. He has, however, much too high an opinion of himself and suffers from a quick temper....His instructors at academic subjects report that he is careless. Unless he eradicates this fault he will not pass examinations."
Endorsing the report on 3 June 1937, the Commandant, Brigadier H.E.W.B. Kingsley, DSO, wrote:
"I have noted his failings with regret......they show that he thinks far too much of himself and not enough of others.....I hope it is just the fault of youth and the result of a successful atheletic success at school...."
At the end of the second term, there was only marginal improvement in Prem's performance. His company commander again commented on his 'high opinion of himself', and felt that he was a bad influence on the rest of his batch, in the company. After a stern warning that an officer who sets a bad example does not deserve a commission, Prem had shown some improvement. The Commandant, Brigadier Kingsley, wrote on 3 January 1938:
"After these two clear warnings, I hope he will change his outlook. It will be a great pity if a boy of his ability were to fall through a foolish fault of this nature....."
After the first year, Prem mellowed down, and there was a visible improvement in his performance at the Academy. It is quite likely that his father's death in January 1938 had a sobering influence on him, and he realised that he was now virtually on his own, and could not afford to fail. At the time of his father's death, both his brothers were away, and Prem was the only male member of the family present, who had to shoulder all the responsibility connected with the funeral etc. When he returned to the Academy, for some time he was depressed, and seemed to have lost interest in everything. Fortunately, he soon came out of it, and applied himself with new vigour.
At the end of his fourth term, his company commander, Major Jebens wrote, on 10 December 1938:
"He has this term justified my confidence in him. He has worked hard and played hard. As senior GC of his term he has shown leadership and set a good example.....I have recommended him as Under Officer for his company next term"
Major Jebens' assessment was endorsed by the Commandant, who expressed his genuine happiness to see that Prem was able and willing to take good advice. Apart from the report of his company commander, Brigadier Kingsley had another reason to revise his opinion about Bhagat. About six months earlier, in the third term, selections were to made for the technical arms - Artillery, Engineers and Signals. Those selected were then transferred to Woolwich Wing, which laid greater stress on Mathematics and Science subjects. There were only three vacancies in Engineers, and four GCs had applied - Shiv Dayal Singh, Y.C. Tiwari, Arjan Singh and P.S. Bhagat. The Commandant called Prem and Arjan to his office, and after explaining the position, suggested that Arjan Singh should withdraw. Even before Arjan could respond, Prem offered to withdraw his own name. The Commandant was surprised, and impressed. He rang up Army HQ, and requested them to allot an additional vacancy. So, both of them got Engineers. Arjan Singh and Shiv Dayal were assigned to Bengal Sappers; Tewari to Madras Sappers; and Prem to Bombay Sappers.
Prem's individualistic streak, and propensity to stand out in a crowd was visible in the Academy itself. For some reason, he always wore his peak cap at a rakish angle, and was frequently checked on the drill square for being improperly dressed. Once, he was marched up to the Adjutant, Captain A.G. Bennet, who was a veritable terror.
"What do you have to say for yourself?" roared the Adjutant.
"Nothing, Sir," replied Prem. "I just like to wear my cap that way."
"Don't you know," thundered the Adjutant, "that only the Prince of Wales has the privilege of wearing his cap at an angle?"
Prem's reply left even the formidable Captain Bennet dumbfounded. "Sir," he said,"I am no less than the Prince of Wales."
Prem was commissioned on 15 July 1939, and proceeded to the Bombay Engineer Group, located at Poona, where his elder brother Tony was also posted. Soon after World War II started, in September 1939, he was posted to 21 Field Company, located at Poona. As a young officer, he enjoyed the social life of the city, and was a frequent visitor to the Poona Club, also known as the New Club (the Poona Gymkhana was still not admitting Indians), and the races. He soon came to know some married officers, and became a frequent visitor to their homes. Prominent among them were Colonel R.K. Dhawan, and Colonel M.G. Bhandari, of the Army Medical Corps. Both had grown up daughters, and their wives were good friends. Prem's first attempt at getting to know Mohini Bhandari - then known as the most beautiful girl in Poona - was a fiasco, and he was rebuffed. He then sought a proper introduction, through S.N. 'Bimbo' Bhatia, from Signals. Bimbo was a close friend of Prem, and was related to the Bhandaris. After this, Prem was tolerated, but still not welcomed in the Bhandari household. Colonel M.G. Bhandari was a protective father, and he did not take kindly to Prem's boisterous nature, and scant regard for ettiquette and formality. Stories about his exploits in Mussourie were well known, and his wild ways in Poona did little to enhance his reputation. Mohini was then only sixteen years old, and studying English at Wadia College.
Prem was warm and generous by nature, as all his friends and colleagues recall. He was kind not only to those he knew, but even to total strangers. Once, while filling up his car at the petrol pump near Koregaon Park, he saw the Pathan attendant shivering with cold. Prem was wearing sports kit, and a white pullover. Without a moment's hesitation, he took off the pullover, and offered it to the Pathan, who was surprised, and remonstrated, saying that Prem would catch a cold. But Prem would have none of it. He insisted, telling the Pathan that he was in the car, and in any case, he was going to his room in the mess, which was quite warm. Then he got in the car and drove off. No one had witnessed the incident, and neither did Prem ever talk about it. Many years later, when a Sapper officer stopped at the petrol pump, and asked the attendant how he had come by the pullover - it had the regimental colours - the Pathan proudly told him that it had been given to him by 'Bhagat Sahib'. The pullover was faded, and in tatters, but the Pathan seemd to glow with pride as he recounted the story.
Prem's kindness was not confined to human beings. An interesting anecdote regarding Prem and his pet dog, was related by Mrs. Bhandari, and reproduced in the Commemorative Issue of the Bombay Sappers Newsletter, dated 23 May 1976. After losing consistently at the races for several weeks, Prem decided to have a break. It was Sunday, and he was sitting on the mess lawns drinking beer, when a mongrel crept in through the hedge and stood in front of him, whining with fear. It was an ugly creature, dirty and unwashed, with a wound on its hind leg. Soon afterwards, there was a crunch of boots on the gravel outside, and the dog slunk under his chair. A corporal entered, saluted, and after informing him that he was from the dog-killing squad, enquired if he had seen the nasty looking dog which had just entered.
By now, the Corporal had spied the dog under Prem's chair, and made a move towards the animal. Prem peremptorily asked him to get lost, since the dog belonged to him. The corporal was surprised, but had no choice, and backed off. After this, the dog followed Prem wherever he went, and lost him a few friends in the bargain. One day, it trailed him to the swimming pool. Prem was practising underwater swimming, and when he did not surface for some time, the dog began to bark, and then jumped in. The swimming pool had to be closed for a week, for draining out the water, and refilling it. Prem of course got an imperial rocket from the Commandant.
Prem's proclivity for treading on people's toes, and scant regard for age or seniority was another black mark against him, especially among the genteel society of Poona. However, there were some who had a high opinion of Prem, and could see the firm resolve and strength of character that lay below the surface of the seemingly casual and carefree demeanour. One of these was Maclaughin, the Commissioner of Poona Division. One day, Maclaughin was playing golf with Mohini's father, Colonel Bhandari. Maclaughin had taken his stance, and was about to tee off, when his concentration was broken by a loud rattling noise. He paused, and stepped back, with irritation. Soon afterwards, a Model T Ford, with Prem at the wheel, stopped in front of them. Prem waved to them, and called out, "Sorry, I took the wrong turn." The Commissioner waved back, while Colonel Bhandari only frowned. Prem engaged the reverse gear with a metallic screech, and released the clutch. The car shot backwards like an arrow released from a bow, cleared a two foot ditch, and came to rest with a jarring thump.
Prem stepped out to see what had happened. The golfers also watched - they had no other choice. Prem grinned, ans said, "Didn't see the ditch." He climbed back into the driver's seat, noisily engaged the first gear and released the clutch. The car shot forward and once again the rear wheels cleared the ditch, landing with a thump. Prem waved at the golfers, and drove off.
"That chap", said Maclaughin. "He's off to the wars. You mark my words. He will either get shot or get a VC."
Obviously, Colonel Bhandari did not share Maclaughin's views, about the young subaltern, who seemed to be getting too friendly with his daughter. He tried to discourage their friendship, but did not succeed. Prem had an ally in Mrs. Bhandari, who did not share her husband's opinion about the young man, and stood up for her daughter's right to make her own choice. Whenever Prem tried to be alone with Mohini, or asked her for a dance, he father came in the way. After Prem was ordered to proceed to Africa, for the War, he made one last attempt. It was his last night in Poona, and Prem had gone to the club. He had been in the company of some British officers, and had been drinking rather heavily. When he saw Mohini and her mother, he walked over to their table, and requested Mrs. Bhandari's permission to dance with her daughter. Before she could reply, Colonel Bhandari appeared on the scene, and Prem beat a hasty retreat. However, before he left India, he obtained permission to write to Mohini, by arguing that the morale of soldiers on the battle front depended to a large extent on letters from home, and those not directly involved had a duty in this respect, on similar lines as rolling bandages and visiting the sick and wounded. Colonel Bhandari could not refute this argument, and reluctantly gave permisson.
In September 1940, 21 Field Company was sent to East Africa, with 5 Indian Division. Prem sailed from Bombay on 23 September 1940, on the SS 'Devonshire'. His brother, Tutu, and 'Bimbo' Bhatia were posted in 7 Infantry Brigade Signal Section, and sailed in the same convoy. After a long voyage lasting almost a month, they arrived at Port Suez. 7 Infantry Brigade disembarked, and was sent to Egypt, while 10 and 11 Infantry Brigades sailed on, disembarking at Port Sudan. They became part of the Sudan Defence Forces, under the command of Lieut General W. Platt. 21 Field Company was part of 10 Infantry Brigade, then being commanded by Brigadier W.J Slim. It was located near Gallabat, which was held by the Italians. Captain (later Lieut General) R.N. Batra was commanding 10 Infantry Brigade Signal Section. This was the beginning of a long association between Raj and Prem.
On 6 November 1940, Slim's brigade launched an attack on Gallabat. The assault was spear headed by 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles, commanded by Lieut Colonel S.E. Taylor. No 2 Section of Prem's company was placed in support of the battalion, for the attack. Prem was himself travelling in one of the bren carriers, with the section. After a spirited attack, Gallabat fort was captured, but had to be relinquished because a fierce counter attack. A withdrawal was ordered, and the Sappers were given the task of road denial, to prevent the enemy from following too closely. During this operation, two derelict tanks were filled with explosives, and jammed on a narrow culvert, to cause a bottleneck. The charges were fired, but one of the tanks did not blow up. The culvert did not break, and the situation was critical, since the enemy was following closely. At this moment, Prem dashed out from cover, and went beneath the tank. He adjusted the charges, and lighting the fuse, ran back, in a hail of bullets. The tank exploded, and the culvert collapsed, in the face of the enemy.
Prem's act of heroism was witnessed by his CO, who later recommended him for the MC. This was his first exposure to the battle field, and he had shown exceptional courage. However, he dismissed his act as a 'small thing', in his letter to Mohini. In fact, Prem was overly modest about his own achievements, but did not fail to commend those of others. During the same battle, he witnessed an act of courage which he often recounted later. The enemy had occupied a hill, and repeated attacks by 3 Royal Garhwal Rifles had failed. Finally, a foothold was gained, half way up the hill. The slope was steep, and the going slow. The enemy opened up, with artillery and mortars, and men started to fall. There was a wave of panic, and a retreat started. Only a company of Garhwalis and Bhagat's section of Sappers stood firm.
Seeing the men turn rearward, Lieut Colonel Taylor, the CO of the Garhwalis, leaped onto a prominent rock. He was vulnerable to enemy fire, but visible to his troops. Soon, Prem also joined him. Colonel Taylor began to shout at his men, exhorting them to turn about, and face the enemy. He stood there for twenty minutes, exposed to enemy fire. Seeing their CO, the men began to rally, and slowly, the rout was stemmed. The men turned about, overcome by shame, and a determination to win. They attacked with renewed vigour, and the hill was captured. During this time, Prem noticed that Colonel Taylor was swaying, and one of his arms hung loosely. He had a closer look, and was shocked to find that the Colonel had been wounded, his arm reduced to a mass of mangled bone and flesh. Prem reached out to help him, but the Colonel barked: "Stay where you are. Don't let the men know I have been wounded." And he stood there, till the tide had turned, and the retreat averted. Only then did he ask for medical aid, and collapsed. Prem was stunned. He had never seen such an example of cool courage, and dedication.
In mid November, 1940, 10 Infantry Brigade was relieved by 9 Infantry Brigade, in the Gallabat area. In January, 1941, the general offensive for the battle of Keren commenced. On 31 January, a mobile column of 3/12 Royal Frontier Force Rifles, under the command of Lieut Colonel J.A. Blood was sent to probe towards Metemma. It included a detachment of 21 Field Company, under the command of Second Lieut P.S. Bhagat. He was in one of the leading bren carriers, with the recce party. The road was heavily mined, and very soon, his carrier blew up. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Then, it went over another mine, and this time, the sapper sitting next to him as well as the driver were both killed. Prem got into another carrier, and continued. Whenever they encountered a minefield, he would get down, and start the painstaking process of defusing the mines, by hand. For three days, without a break, he worked, without rest or food. On the fourth day, they ran into an ambush.
The third time his carrier was blown up, on 2 February 1941, Prem's ear drum was punctured. He continued with his task, under close enemy fire, and refused to be relieved, on the ground that having learnt how to defuse the mines, he was now better qualified to do the job, and would be able to do it faster than anyone else. Finally, on 3 February 1941, he was ordered by Colonel Blood, CO 3/12 Frontier Force Rifles, to relinquish his post. Blood oozing from his ears, and utterly exhausted, he was evacuated to safety, and then to a hospital in Khartoum. By this time, he had been working for 96 hours, and cleared 15 mine fields, covering a distance of 55 miles.
In February 1941, Prem Bhagat became the first Indian commissioned officer to be awarded the VC, the highest gallantry award then in existence. The coveted cross was awarded not for an instantaneous act of valour, but for the longest recorded feat of sheer cold courage. With his characteristic modesty, Prem did not mention the award in any of his letters to Mohini. In fact, he never talked of the incident, even when asked about it, in later years. He felt that anyone else in his place would have done the same thing. His association with the Royal Frontier Force continued, even after the regiment was redesignated as the Sikh Light Infantry, after Independence. He remained Colonel of the Regiment even after his retirement, a rare honour.
In June 1941, after the Eritrean Campaign had ended, a victory parade was held at Asmara. General Wavell took the salute at the parade, which was held in the forecourt of the palace of the Duke of Aosta. During an investiture ceremony at the parade, Wavell presented the VC ribbon to Lieut P.S. Bhagat, and the DSO ribbon to Second Lieut Cochrane. Prem wore khakhi shorts, hose-tops, ankle puttees, a fore and aft khakhi cap with the Sapper grenade, and the blue lanyard of the Royal Bombay Sappers on his right shoulder. He had comletely recovered from the wounds he had sustained, except for a slight loss of hearing in his right ear, due to his ear drum being damaged.
In July 1941, Prem returned to India. He was now a war hero, and was feted and lionised by everyone. Datelined Bombay, 28 July 1941, The Times of India wrote:
"To all who met him on his landing in Bombay on Saturday afternoon he was a picture of a dashing but a modest soldier. He was characteristically ill at ease with the press and reluctant to discuss his daring exploit which won for him the highest award for valour.....Were it not for the small purple ribbon on his tunic, it would be impossible to guess from his self effacing conduct that he has displayed a bravery that makes the imagination reel.......Indeed he might have been playing golf instead of exploding land mines."
The Victoria Cross was presented to Prem at a formal investiture ceremony held in the forecourt of the Viceroy's House in Delhi on 10 November 1941. The VC is traditionally presented by the King at Buckingham Palace, in London, and this was the first time it was awarded by the Viceroy. Watched by thousands pf spectators, Lord Linlithgow pinned the coveted bronze cross on the chest of Acting Captain Premindra Singh Bhagat, the first Indian officer to win the award. Prem was wearing a gaberdine service dress, with a cross belt and peak cap. Photographs taken at the ceremony show his cap at the characteristic tilt, which was to become his hall mark.
Prem now began to concentrate on the next battle - wearing down the resistance of Mohini's father. Their long separation had brought Prem and Mohini closer, and they were convinced that they were in love. Mrs. Bhandari had always liked Prem, and felt that he would prove to be a loving and caring husband to her daughter. Even Colonel Bhandari agreed that Prem seemed to have changed. The VC also helped, in changing his opinion about the young man. These signals were conveyed to Prem, and he decided to have a formal meeting with Colonel Bhandari and ask him for his daughter's hand. Taking a deep breath, he walked in, with Mohini waiting outside the door. He emerged after a few minutes, wiping the sweat from his brow, but with a smile on his face. 'My God," he exclaimed, "I should not have got the VC then. I should have got it now."
Prem and Mohini were married on 24 February 1942, in Poona. Prem was then 23 years old, and had just three years service. They spent about 15 months together, at Poona. During this period, he had to undertake a number of tours, in rural Maharashtra, to encourage young men to join the Bombay Sappers. His VC ensured that he was treated like a VIP, wherever he went, and his tours were very successful. During the Quit India movement in 1942, Mahatma Gandhi was interned at the Aga Khan Palace at Poona, under the direct care of Prem's father-in-law, Colonel Bhandari. Accompanied by his colleague, Arjan Singh, Prem went to meet the great man, and asked him how they could help in the freedom movement. Gandhiji told them to continue in their chosen profession. He said that once the country became free, it would require the services of experienced soldiers.
Prem had been raising 484 Field Company, at Dighi, near Kirkee. In mid 1943, the unit was moved to Chhindwara, in the Central Provinces. It was now under 14 Indian (Training) Division, located at Nagpur, which was training troops in jungle warfare, for operations on the Burma Front. Chhindwara was a remote place, without even the basic amenities, and the troops lived in 'bashas' (a basha is a mud walled hut, with a thatched or tin roof) or tents. Mohini stayed on in Poona, with her parents. Prem started preparing for the Staff College examinations, since he thought that this would give him a chance to stay with his family in Quetta for five months. Ultimately, he did go to the Staff College, but not to Quetta.
In January 1945, Prem was nominated to attend the last wartime course at Camberley, in UK. He and D.C. Misra, of the Rajputana Rifles, became the first Indians to be sent to Camberley. The course was of seven months duration, including attachment. Due to the uncertain transport arrangements, they took ten days to reach England, by a combination of aircraft, seaplane, and rail journeys. Prem's first interview with the Deputy Commandant was a disaster. Having never served in India, the Deputy Commandant was not sure if the Indians knew enough of the language to be able to follow the instructions, in English. He asked Prem, in halting English, speaking each word slowly," Can - you - speak - English". Prem relpied in the same manner,' Yes - Sir - I - can." A few days later, Prem had to give a talk, which was attended by the Deputy Commandant. When he heard Prem speaking flawlessly, he knew that the young Indian officer had taken him for a ride.
On return to India, Prem was sent on the Supplementary Course at the School of Military Engineering, Roorkee. This was the first course after the war, and the six Indian officers were surprised to find that they had to dine in a separate mess, and British officers were not keen to fraternise with them. Prem had to contend with another problem. His brother Tony had joined the Indian National Army, and was now facing trial at the Red Fort, in Delhi. He was lucky to get off lightly, but had to resign his commission. Prem and Mohini asked him to stay with them, and he did for about a year, before he was able to get a job, as the Assistant Commissioner of Refugees.
In June 1946, Prem was again sent to England, for a year, to complete the Engineering Course. This time, Mohini accompanied him. During this period, momentous events were taking place in India, and there was talk of partition of the country. Prem was deeply disturbed, and wrote a monograph, 'My Land Divided', in which he pleaded against the attempts to divide the country on communal lines. He cited the example of United States of America and Russia, where people of different ethnic groups had been able to join hands, and become powerful nations. Collins was interested in publishing his paper, but when permission was sought from India, it was refused.
In June 1947, Prem returned to India, and was assigned to the Punjab Boundary Force, under the command of Major General T.W. Rees, with its HQ at Lahore. Soon after Partition, communal violence and riots ripped through the sub continent, and it was realised that each Nation would have assume responsibility for maintaining law and order within its own borders. On 1 September 1947, the Punjab Boundary Force was wound up, and Prem was posted as Commander Royal Engineers, 4 Infantry Division, in the rank of Lieut Colonel. The division was located at Jullunder, and the GOC was Major General K.S. Thimayya. His old friend, Raj Batra, was the Commander Signals, having moved his unit from Rawalpindi to Jullunder at the time of Partition.
Mohini Bhagat was then at Mussourie, staying at Bhagat Kot. However, she and Prem's step mother fell out, and she suddenly decided to join him in Jullunder, in October 1947. One of her lady friends heard that she planned to go in a truck, with the luggage, along with her baby and servant. She offered to give them a lift in her car, and they left Mussourie, accompanied by one of Prem's cousins. At this time, Punjab was in turmoil, and the mass exodus of refugees had begun. By the time they reached Ambala, it was dark. They were stopped at several places, including a picket manned by soldiers of the Baluch regiment, who were escorting Muslim refugees, awaiting repatriation to Pakistan. At each place, they announced that they belonged to the family of Major General Thimayya. This worked like a password, and ensured their safe passage. They reached Jullunder at midnight, to find Prem distraught with worry. He scolded all of them, for taking such a risk. According his wife, this was the only time she saw him lose his temper.
In July 1948, Prem was posted as GSO 1, at the Armed Forces Academy, at Dehradun. He remained there for only eight months. Colonel A.P. Nanda, who was the Commandant of the Bombay Engineer Group, died in November 1948, and a replacement was required. Prem was offered the job, and he readily accepted, though many of his friends and well wishers felt that he should stay with troops, and go to an active formation, rather than a training centre. But Prem had always aspired for this job. On 15 February 1949, he achieved his ambition, and was appointed Commandant of the Bombay Sappers, at Poona. He remained there for four and a half years, and in many ways, this was his best, and most satisfying tenure. It was also here that the Bhagat legend was born, and where he really flowered. He carried out many innovations and improvements, which made the Centre the envy of all others. He took immense pride in being a Bombay Sapper, and whenever he was asked if he was a Sapper, his reply was always, "No, I am a Bombay Sapper".
There is an interesting anecdote regarding Prem, when he was Commandant of the Bombay Sappers. Once, he came to know that the Area Commander, who was based in Bombay, planned to pay a surprise visit to the Centre, with the aim of catching him unprepared. He promptly gave orders to all sentries that on that particular day, no visitor, irrespective of rank, was to be allowed, without his express permission. When the Area Commander arrived, he was stopped by the sentry, who refused to let him enter. After some argument, the General had to telephone the Commandant and identify himself. Prem immediately expressed his regrets, and apologised at not being able to receive the distinguished visitor, due to lack of information. He invited the General to dinner at the officers mess, where he played the gracious host to perfection.
Prem was a go-getter, who believed in getting things done. He had a way of getting around obstacles, and this penchant became more prominent, as he rose in rank. During the early fifties, most States introduced prohibition, in deference to the views of Mahatma Gandhi. This was not applicable to the Armed Forces, who continued to get their quota of liquor through the canteen, and were also allowed to serve it in officers messes. However, the Area Commander directed that Army units and establishments would also follow these orders, and officers messes would go 'dry'. This caused some consternation, but Prem was unperturbed. He ordered the bar in the mess to be closed, and the entire stock of liquor distributed among the officers, for safe keeping. The residence of one of the officers, near the mess, was earmarked for socialising. Since there was no ban on drinking in one's residence, this solved the problem. Before parties, everyone would 'call' on the officer, and be suitably 'entertained'. Afterwards, the entire congregation would walk over the mess, for dinner.
After some time, the liquor stock needed replenishment. Prem found that liquor could be obtained if a doctor certified that it was required on health grounds. Orders were promptly issued to all battalion commanders, to send the men on sick report, to the military hospital, and request for a 'prescription'. A roster was made, to ensure that sufficient 'prescriptions' were obtained, and these were kept centrally, and utilised to replenish the stock of liquor. As a result, while the rest of Poona was dry, Bombay Sappers remained relatively 'wet.'
In 1954, Prem was posted to the Staff College, at Wellington, as the Chief Instructor (Army Wing). The Commandant was Major General W.D.A. Lentaigne, who had achieved fame in Burma, with the Chindits. He had taken over from Brigadier S.D. Verma, who had moved the Staff College from Quetta to Wellington in October 1947. He remained the Commandant for over seven years, from March 1948 to May 1955. 'Joe' Lentaigne, as he was popularly known, brought up the Staff College during its fledgeling years, and gave it the unique character and ethos for which it is well known today. Prem was the fourth Chief Instructor (Army Wing) - Leslie Sawhney, H.C. Badhwar and S.S. Malik had preceded him. The first thing he did was to scrap all existing exercises, and got new ones written. When the new course started, the students got a shock. Most of them had come armed with solutions to the previous exercises, since these were rarely changed. Another change he introduced was outdoor camps. The earlier practice was to go to the exercise area in the morning, and return to Wellington in the evening. Apart from the expense, a lot of time was wasted in travelling. Prem decided to establish a camp in the exercise area, where everyone stayed, in tents, till the exercise was over. This practice was discontinued, soon after he left, and is no longer followed. After Prem left Wellington, Joe Lentaigne once remarked "He is the best CI this college ever had, or is likely to have. I predict that Prem will become the Indian C-in-C in time."
In June 1956, Prem was invited to the Victoria Cross Centenary Celebrations, in UK. The Royal Air Force offered to airlift all the awardees, as well as their spouses. Prem and Mohini attended the celebrations in London. There was a grand parade in Hyde Park, a garden party at Marlborough, and several other functions. They were in England for almost a month, and then went to Europe for a holiday, accompanied by their hosts, the Dewans. Madan Dewan was the Military Attache in London, and he and his wife Guddo were close friends of Prem and Mohini. After a very enjoyable holiday, they returned to India. It had been an excellent trip, and given both of them a much needed break.
In March 1957, Prem was promoted Brigadier, and posted as Commander, 165 Infantry Brigade, located at Ramgarh. This was to be a turning point in his career, as he had now joined the 'General Cadre', and would be automatically eligible for command of Division, Corps, and an Army. Though no Engineer officer had risen to the rank of General, technically this was possible, and Prem could well be the first one to achieve this distinction. By all accounts, his performance as a brigade commander was well above par. His style of functioning was a refreshing change from the stereo typed image of a chair borne commander, who rarely ventured out of his office, and did everything by the book. Prem believed in running a happy team, based on mutual trust and confidence. He delegated authority to his subordinates, and interfered only when it became absolutely necessary. This applied to operational, training, as well as administrative matters.
Prem's brigade was part of 20 Infantry Division, being commanded by Major General Henderson Brooks. Once a two sided exercise was held, in which 165 Infantry Brigade was required to effect an opposed river crossing. Another brigade of the Division was in defence, holding the opposite bank. Prem made a plan which involved a silent crossing away from the expected crossing point, and then concentrating his force in the enemy's rear. When Henderson Brooks heard the plan, he felt that it was very ambitious, and would result in heavy casualties, since surprise would be lost. "You must be expecting a miracle," he told Prem, who accepted it as a challenge, and asserted that he would do it.
Prem was true to his word. He managed to get his brigade across, and behind the 'enemy', without loss of surprise. The exercise, which was to last a week, had to be called off on the fourth day. During the summing up, Major General Henderson Brooks lavished praise on Prem and his brigade, saying that they had "succeeded in achieving what appeared to be the impossible."
In August 1959, Prem was posted to Army HQ, as Director, Military Intelligence (DMI). At this time, Thimayya was the Army Chief, and Krishna Menon the Defence Minister. Though his appointment was at the behest of Thimayya, Prem soon found that he had little say in the higher echelons of power. Over the years, military intelligence had been devalued, and civilian intelligence agencies, particularly the Intelligence Bureau (IB), called the shots. The situation was not improved by the presence of B.N. Mullick, the Director of the IB, and B.M. Kaul, the QMG, who later became the CGS, after Thimayya's retirement in 1961. Both Kaul and Mullick were powerful men, and had the ear of the Prime Minister. Prem soon found himself inexorably drawn into the power games being played at Delhi, which resulted in the debacle of 1962.
Soon after Prem took over his assignment, Thimayya resigned. He subsequently withdrew his resignation at the behest of Nehru, who promised to put things right, but later belittled him in Parliament. After this, Thimayya withdrew into a shell, and his authority was severely eroded. Kaul now became the rising star, and because of his close relationship with Nehru and Krishna Menon, wielded enormous clout. Senior officers in Army HQ started paying court to Kaul, and any one who did not, risked his future. One of them was Prem Bhagat.
Within a fortnight of his taking over as DMI, Prem produced a 30 page appreciation, bringing out the threat from the Chinese, and making specific recommendations, regarding deployment of troops, strengthening the intelligence set up, and improving communications in the North East. At that time, his recommendations were not given serious consideration, but as later events were to prove, he was right in his assessment.
In October 1959, a border incident took place in Ladakh, in which a police party led by Karam Singh of the IB was fired upon by the Chinese, and ten policemen were killed. Karam Singh and several others were taken prisoner. There was an outcry in Parliament, and a demand for more effective measures for security of the borders, which at that time was controlled by the IB, under the Home Ministry. The Prime Minister played down the incident, saying "not a blade of grass" grows in the region, which sought to convey the impression that the area was of no importance. The opposition was quick to catch on to this phrase, and grilled Nehru for his unfortunate choice of words.
Shortly after the incident, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of India, who is also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, summoned the DMI to brief him about the incident. Prem went to Rashtrapati Bhawan, and briefed the President, regarding the incident, as well as his own assessment, as he had given out in his appreciation. After the briefing, the President told him to give a similar briefing to the Prime Minister. When Prem approached the Ministry of Defence, for an appointment, Krishna Menon turned down the request, expressing his displeasure.
In May 1961, Thimayya retired, and was succeeded by P.N. Thapar, as COAS. 'Bogey' Sen was sent to Eastern Command, as GOC-in-C, and Kaul replaced him as CGS. Prem was lucky enough to be nominated for the National Defence College course, which was to commence in June 1961. The NDC had been established in April 1960, and Prem was to undergo the second course. If he had not been nominated for the course, it is doubtful if he would have survived in the Army, with Thimayya having retired, and Kaul as his new boss. He was not one of the 'Kaul boys' - a term coined by Sam Manekshaw, for the officers who were members of Kaul's 'court' - and his reluctance to attend the 'durbars' held at Kaul's residence would soon have put paid to his future in the Army.
In May 1962, on completion the NDC course, Prem was posted as Commandant of the IMA, at Dehradun. When the Chinese attacked India, in October that year, Prem was at Dehradun. In fact, in spite of his war experience, Prem missed all the major actions, after Independence. In 1962, he was the Commandant of the IMA. In 1965, he was commanding 9 Infantry Division, but it did not take part in the battle. In 1971, he was the Army Commander, at Lucknow, and again missed the show, since the Central Army was not directly involved in the war.
During Prem's tenure at the IMA, several memorable events took place. In the wake of the Chinese invasion, there was a massive increase in the intake of officers. The duration of training of the cadets already at the IMA was curtailed, and emergency commissions were introduced. The strength of the regular courses as also substantially increased. From 720, the number of cadets increased to 1800, within a year. This necessitated construction of new facilities, such as class rooms, lecture halls, firing ranges, obstacle courses, living accommodation, dining halls etc. Prem had his hands full, supervising the new projects. But when Army HQ proposed that the training period of regular officers at the IMA should be shortened to six months, and they be granted their commissions after undergoing the balance of training at their respective schools of instruction, Prem put his foot down. He felt that this would create a second class officer, which would harm the character of the Indian Army, in times to come. Fortunately, his view prevailed, and the situation which was created by having two types of officers, KCIOs and ICOs, in British days, was not repeated.
Another important event was the presentation of Colours, to the IMA. The Academy was holding King's Colours, which had been presented soon after its establishment in 1932. After India became a Republic, in 1950, these could not be carried on parade, and had been laid up. The President, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, presented new colours to the IMA, at an impressive ceremonial parade, on 10 December 1962. These were received by Gentleman Cadet V.B. Batra, of the 30th (21st NDA) course, on behalf of the IMA. The old Colours were laid up in the Chetwode Hall, with due ceremony, alongwith the King's Colours of various other regiments of the Indian Army.
Prem introduced the custom of inviting the parents of the passing out cadets, to the 'pipping ceremony', and the dinner held afterwards. Earlier, they had been invited only to the Passing Out Parade, which is held in the morning. In British days, the pipping ceremony was accompanied by a ball, and only the families of officers on the staff were invited. The passing out cadet was permitted to invite a girl friend, if he had one, and she did the honours of putting on the star on his epaulette. Prem's scheme was opposed by many, who felt that due to the diverse background from which the cadets were drawn, the presence of their parents may affect the formality and solemnity of the occasion. Prem disagreed, and the glow of pride on the faces of the cadets who brought their parents to be introduced to him proved that he was right. He thus brought a truly Indian flavour to the Passing Out ceremony, making it an occasion to be shared, and cherished, by the cadets and their families.
Prem gave considerable attention to the training of gentleman cadets, or GCs, as they are called. Even more than military training, he laid great stress on what are known as OLQ, or 'officer like qualities'. Perhaps no one else has defined these, as well, and as succinctly, as he did. During his address to the GCs at their Passing Out, he said: " Do nothing petty, selfish or mean. Be magnanimous, be loyal, be courageous, and be a gentleman. You will then be an officer in the true sense."
During his stint at the IMA, Prem had to perform another task, which was to have wide ranging repercussions. After the debacle in NEFA in 1962, there was a public outcry, at the humiliation suffered by the Nation, and Prime Minister Nehru agreed to institute an enquiry. The NEFA Enquiry, as it came to be known was to be headed by Lieut General Henderson Brooks, who was then GOC 11 Corps, at Jullunder. Prem Bhagat was to be the sole member, and was attached as Brigadier General Staff to Headquarters 11 Corps, in January 1963, for this purpose. During the next three months, he travelled extensively, to the areas where the operations had taken place. He met hundreds of officers, JCOs and men, to get a first hand account of the events which took place. He also had to study thousands of operational orders and instructions, war diaries, and other documents, to piece together the story.
The Enquiry Report was submitted to the COAS on 12 May 1963, and he in turn forwarded it to the Defence Minister on 2 July 1963. Though it had been ordered by the Army Chief, the Ministry of Defence decided that its contents should not be made public, and it was graded as Top Secret. This was probably because it showed certain failings on the part of Nehru, Krishna Menon and a few others in the Government, and the Army. However, the Defence Minister, Y.B. Chavan, made a statement in Parliament on 2 September 1963, in which he referred to certain portions of the Report, and its recommendations.
The four specific terms of reference which the Enquiry had been asked to examine were shortcomings in training and equipment; system of command; physical fitness of troops; and capacity of commanders at all levels to influence the men under them. The Enquiry decided to include three other points, pertaining to operational aspects, in order to give a comprehensive picture. It thus also covered intelligence; staff work and procedures; and the higher direction of operations. Though the report was never made public, Neville Maxwell was somehow able to read it, and he has written about it in his book 'India's China War'.
Prem's exposure to the real story of the NEFA debacle had a profound effect on his thinking, especially the shortcomings in training, equipment, system of command, and intelligence. During the rest of his career, as he rose in rank, he tried to correct the failings which he had noticed. He also wrote extensively on the subject, in his book 'Forging the Shield : A Study of the Defence of India and South East Asia.' Though he did not refer to the findings of the NEFA Enquiry, his views were influenced by them, and give an insight into his thinking. He dwelt at length on the subject of civilian control over the military, and the division of responsibilty between the political and the military leadership. As a result of the Enquiry, far reaching changes took place in the Army. Many new organisations were created, and existing ones strengthened. New weapons, equipment and clothing were ordered, and systems of command were altered. The effect of these was felt in 1965, when India had to go to war again, with Pakistan, and was able to redeem the honour of her arms.
In May 1963, Prem was promoted Major General, and posted as Chief of Staff, HQ Eastern Command, at Lucknow. The Army Commander was Lieut General P.P. Kumaramangalam, who later became COAS. Eastern Command was in the process of reorganisation and expansion, in the aftermath of the Indo Chinese War. One of the first tasks given to Prem was to prepare an administrative plan, to match the Army HQ directive issued recently. Within a fortnight, Prem produced an administrative appreciation, which outlined details of facilities required in Eastern Command. When Kumaramangalam read it, he was astonished, at the size and cost of the maintenance infrastructure recommended. He told Prem that perhaps he had exaggerated his requirements. Prem's reply was that the Army Commander had obviously not read the appreciation thoroughly. Kumaramangalam read it again, more deliberately, and found that everything that had been included was justified. He ordered it to be sent to Army HQ, without modification, even though it was far in excess of the figures catered in the directive. Even Army HQ could not find any fault in the calculations, and had to modify their instructions.
Prem also wrote an appreciation of the Chinese threat in Eastern Command, for the Army Commander. Having worked on the NEFA Enquiry, he was familiar with every aspect of the subject, and produced a comprehensive document, remarkable for its lucidity and attention to detail. He also planned a massive project, for accommodation of troops in forward areas. With his experience and background, as a Sapper, he was able to work out the plan of accommodation at each station, and also the method of accounting for the expenditure, in consultation with the audit and finance authorities. Though he stayed at HQ Eastern Command for just over a year, his contribution was immense. Kumaramangalam was sorry to see him leave, and called him 'the perfect example of a Chief of Staff, doing all the donkey work and leaving the boss to take credit.'
On 1 August 1964, Prem was posted as GOC 9 Mountain Division. The division had fought in World War II, as an infantry division, and had been disbanded afterwards. It was now to be re raised, as a mountain division, at Saugor, in Central India. In November 1964, it was moved to Ramgarh, in Bihar. After a year, it was again redesignated as an infantry division, due to change in its operational role. On 3 September 1965, India and Pakistan went to war. 9 Infantry Division was not directly involved, but kept in readiness for operations against East Pakistan. However, after 22 days, a cease fire was declared, and the war ended. Prem had been following the events closely, and was somewhat disappointed at not being directly involved. However, he was elated at the performance of the Indian Army, and wrote a paper, entitled 'A Reputation is Redeemed', shortly after the war. He wrote:"The black mark against the Army in general, and the Officer Corps in particular, has been washed clean." Later, when he wrote his book 'The Shield and the Sword', in 1967, he included this paper as a chapter, under the heading 'Honour Redeemed.'
In August 1966, Prem was promoted Lieut General, and appointed GOC 11 Corps, at Jullunder. The Army Commander was Lieut General Harbaksh Singh, who had blunted the Pakistani attack during 1965. Prem spent four years in Jullunder, and carried out extensive changes in tactical doctrine, and training. From a purely defensive role, he visualised a mixed offensive and defensive role for 11 Corps, and practised the troops in such tasks. He also planned the construction of fixed defences, on the border, to prevent being surprised by Pakistani armour, in future wars. He was one of the exponents of the ditch-cum-bund (DCB) defences, which now form part of the fixed defences in the Punjab.
The welfare of troops had always been a major concern of Prem. He paid attention to this aspect in Jullunder too. He spent a lot of time visiting the living accommodation of officers and men, and came down heavily if he found them in a state of disrepair. Several new projects were sanctioned, and he was rarely deterred by rules and regulations. An incident which occurred in 1970 is typical. There was an acute shortage of married accommodation at Jullunder. There was a young captain, who had recently been married, but could not bring his wife to the station, due to lack of accommodation. His CO advised him to ask for an interview with the Corps Commander, which he did. On hearing this, two of his colleagues, who were in a similar predicament, followed suit. When the requests reached Prem, he called the three officers, to his office. He made them sit down and treated them to a lavish high tea. In the meantime, he had asked his ADC to get Station Commander, and the Brigadier in charge Administration. When these two officers arrived, Prem asked them if they had houses, for themselves. When they replied in the affirmative, Prem wanted to know why the young officers, all newly married, did not have any houses. There were the usual excuses, of shortages. Prem said, "If we go to war tomorrow, it is these youngsters who will die, while you and I will be twiddling our thumbs in the Corps HQ. I am not interested in excuses. If you do not have MES accommodation, hire it from civilians. If these youngsters don't have a house by next week, I will ask both of you to vacate yours, and allot it to them". Needless to say, the officers got the accommodation, and three joyful brides joined their husbands soon afterwards.
In August 1970, Prem became an Army Commander, and was appointed GOC-in-C Central Command, at Lucknow. He had now reached the highest echelons of the profession, just one rung from the very top. He now had the authority and the wherewithal to put into practice many of his ideas, and improve the living nad working condition of troops. Soon after taking over, he visited Jabalpur. When he went to see the single officers accomodation, he was shocked to see them living in a barrack, without any furniture or furnishings. Prem was furious, and asked the Area and Sub Area Commanders, who were present, to explain. When he heard the usual excuses about MES procedures, and shortage of funds, he blew up. "You expect these officers to be leaders of men, and yet you make them live like pigs....If these youngsters do not get proper accommodation in three months, I will make you vacate the Flag Staff House, and allot it to these officers," he told the Area Commander. The officers got the accommodation, well before the dead line.
By now, Prem was a well known figure, in Army circles, but very few civilians had heard of him. All this changed in September 1971, when the city of Lucknow was ravaged by unprecedented floods, and the Army was asked to provide assistance. Under his directions, the Army provided immediate aid, and was able to plug the breach, thus saving a large part of the city from inundation. There are several stories about how he literally saved the city. A large embankment, built on the western bank of the Gomti river, to protect the city, had been breached. Prem was present on the spot, and could see that all attempts to plug the breach were proving futile. The force of the gushing water was just carrying away the large boulders and sand bags being thrown in. There were several trucks, of the Public Works Department (PWD), loaded with stones and boulders, waiting to be unloaded. Prem called the Sapper officer who was in charge and explained to him what he wanted done. As several hundred people looked on, aghast, the first truck was driven upto the edge, on the embankment, and then pushed over the brink. This was followed by another truck, which settled on top of the first one. Due to their heavy weight, the trucks sank into the breach, and the flow of water was checked.
The next day, all newspapers carried the story, and called Prem the 'Saviour of Lucknow'. Thereafter, whenever his car drove through the city, policemen stopped all traffic, the moment they heard his pilot's siren, a privilege extended not even to the Governor or Chief minister. When he was transferred to Udhampur, a few months later, there was genuine grief among the citizens of the city.
Prem's concern for the welfare of men was well known, and there are several anecdotes which bring out this fact. Once, during a visit to an infantry battalion, he asked one of the men what time he got up in the morning.
"At three o'clock," replied the soldier.
"Why so early?" asked Prem. "I thought the PT parade is at six thirty."
The soldier hesitated, then came out with the reason. They had to spend a lot of time, in the queue, at the lavatories. Prem promptly asked the soldier to lead the way, and take him there. He found there were only twenty lavatories, for the eight hundred men in the battalion. Naturally, there were long queues, in the morning. Taking the CO aside, Prem gave him a dressing down. When he asked the CO if he had ever visited the lavatories, he got an answer in the negative. Prem literally blew his top.
"No wonder you don't know what is happening in your battalion", he boomed. "Well, I want you to not only visit the men's lavatory, but to use it, tomorrow morning. And then confirm to me on telephone."
Next morning, the hapless CO got up at 2 a.m., so that he could visit the lavatory before the men did. Then he returned to his room, and telephoned the Army Commander. Of course, the battalion got additional lavatories, within a month.
While he was GOC-in-C Central Command, Prem visited Mhow, where a large number of training institutions are located. There were several officers doing long courses, at the Infantry School and the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE). Due to shortage of married accommodation, they were not allowed to bring their families to the station, and were forced to stay alone. When Prem came to know of this, he was very angry. He was told that additional married quarters would cost a lot of money, and take several years to build.
"If we can't give them proper houses, let us give them tents," he said. He sanctioned, on the spot, accommodation for eighty officers, comprising a plinth, with walls, and covered with tents. This would serve as the drawing cum dining room, and a bed room. The kitchen and bath room would be built alongside, and covered with asbestos sheets. He gave three months time, and said he would come and inspect them, when they were ready.
After three months, Prem came to Mhow, as promised. By now, the two tented colonies, of forty houses each, were ready, and occupied. When Bhagat was going around, he met one officer's wife, whose husband was doing a course, at the MCTE.
"How long have you been married?" he asked.
"Two weeks", she replied.
"Then you are on your honeymoon. I hope you are enjoying it?" asked Prem.
"Hardly", replied the young lady, who had never seen a general before. "These tents are so hot, I have to sit under a tree the whole day."
Prem apologised to her, for the inconvenience, and assured her that he would put it right. He asked the Garrison Engineer, who was accompanying him, the reason for the absence of fans in the tents.
"But Sir, how can we put fans in the tents. The ceiling is so low, and there is nothing to hang them from."
"Who is asking you to put ceiling fans. Get two table fans for each tent, by tomorrow. I want a completion report before I leave," said Prem, and stomped off. That evening, all the table fans in Mhow were bought up by the MES. But they did not add up to 160, so someone had to go to Indore, and purchase the remainder. Next morning, each officer had two brand new fans in his tent, thanks to General Bhagat, and the outspoken young lady.
After the 1971 Indo Pak War, about 90,000 prisoners of war were taken, and had to be housed in camps, in Central Command. This was a major task, which Prem had to undertake, at extremely short notice. Apart from construction of the camps, it involved arrangements for housing, security, feeding, and administration. Prem insisted that the prisoners be given all the facilities authorised to them, and be treated exactly like Indian soldiers. He ensured that canteen stores, postal facilities, and medical cover was given, as well as a portion of their salary, as provided in the Geneva Convention. In some cases, he got the accommodation occupied by our own troops vacated for the prisoners. As a result, Pakistani prisoners had only praise for the way they were treated, in India, and often remarked that they wished their officers were like Indian officers, in their concern for the welfare of men.
After the Indo Pak war of 1971, it was decided to form a new Army Command, to look after Jammu and Kashmir, and Northern Command came into being, with its headquarters at Udhampur. Prem was appointed as its first GOC-in-C, in June 1972. Having been an Army Commander for the last two years, he was eminently suited for his new assignment. His priorities remained the same - improvement of defences, and the working and living conditions of troops. He had also developed a certain style, which was often regarded as ostentatious. As an Army Commander, he expected the best, in accommodation, food, drink, and other facilities. He was fond of parties, and entertained lavishly. He wooed the civilian officials, as well as Air Force officers posted in Udhampur, and they were often guests at functions held at the club or the officers mess. He smoked a particular brand of cigarettes, and drank only Vat 69 whisky. Some of his staff officers did not see eye to eye with him on such matters, but Prem insisted that it was necessary, to maintain standards. If he himself accepted low standards, how could he expect others to keep them high, he argued. When he had been in Lucknow, he normally travelled by rail, in the Army Commander's railway saloon, which was luxurious. He found air travel painful, because of his ear, which had been damaged in East Africa, and had also rendered him partially deaf. In Northern Command, he did most of his travelling by road, since there was no railway in Jammu and Kashmir.
One of his first tasks was delineation of the Line of Control, after the 1971 war with Pakistan. He was appointed the leader of the Indian team, which also included his Chief of Staff, Major General M.R. Rajwade, and the Director of Military Operations at Army HQ, Major General I.S. Gill. The Pakistani team was led by Lieut General Abdul Hamid Khan. The main task of the teams was to delineate a Line of Control, along the entire border, in Jammu and Kashmir. The first meeting was held at Wagah, on 3 September 1972. this was followed by others, at Lahore, on 28 November and 7 December, between the two Chiefs, Sam Manekshaw and Tikka Khan. The final meeting, at which the Agreement was signed, took place on 11 December 1972, at Suchetgarh. Prem carried out the task with distinction, and won the admiration of the Pakistani officers, due to his forthright manner.
During this tenure in Udhampur, which proved to be his last, he undertook a large number of welfare oriented projects. While visiting an infantry battalion in the Rajauri Sector, he found the men in a high state of morale, and complimented the CO. When Prem asked him if he could do something for his unit, the CO, after some hesitation, asked for some transistor radios, for the men on the picquets.
"You will get them", said Prem "What else"?
The CO looked at his Subedar Major, and then very diffidently, wondered if they could have a cinema projector.
"Okay. What else"? asked Prem.
By this time the CO was in a sweat. He was not sure if he had not already exceeded the limits of good manners, and a scowl on the face of his brigade commander did little to enhance his confidence. He shook his head, and said, "Nothing, Sir."
"Nothing, my foot," said Prem. "You chaps don't even know what to ask from an Army Commander. Tell me, how much time and effort do your men spend, fetching water from the nullah. Wouldn't you like to have piped water, in each post"?
"Yes, Sir. But it would cost a lot of money".
"That is no concern of yours. If it can make life easier for the men, it is money well spent," said Prem. After a month, the CO got a letter, saying that the Army Commander had sanctioned a project costing ten lakh rupees, for water supply to the picquets of his battalion.
Prem's propensity to spend money often annoyed the auditors, and there is a story, whose veracity is suspect, that it was the Finance Ministry which scuttled the proposal for his appointment as Chief of Army Staff. While this may not be true, there is no doubt that during his tenures, as Army Commander in Central and Northern Commands, he sanctioned more new projects than any of his predecessors. He felt that his first duty was towards the safety and well being of the men, and no expenditure was to be grudged, to achieve this.
When he was in Northern Command, work had started on building residential accommodation for officers, at Udhampur. The land for the project had still to be acquired, but Prem nevertheless ordered the construction to commence, since there was an acute shortage of accommodation. In 1972, the Government imposed several restrictions, on new projects, as part of general financial stringency measures, after the 1971 war. This placed a ban on all new construction. For projects which had already commenced, only those which had reached roof level were to be completed, and the rest to be stopped.
Prem was informed by his staff that construction of the officers accommodation would also have to be stopped, since only the foundation had been laid. When told about the stipulation regarding roof level, he gave a reply that is classic, and is still quoted.
"Make out a certificate that it has reached roof level, and I will sign it. Nobody can tell an Army Commander that he is a liar".
There is no doubt that his methods were unorthodox, and sometimes legally untenable. But there is no denying the fact that the troops have to thank Prem Bhagat, for making them more comfortable. If it was not for him, the accommodation at Udhampur, aptly named Bhagat Enclave, would not have come up, since the land acquisition proceedings were never completed.
The Army Chief, General G.G. Bewoor, was due to retire on 11 April 1974. (At that time, the retirement age for the Chief was 58, and 56 for Lieutenant Generals). Since Prem was to reach the age of 56 only on 13 October 1974, he was almost certain to become the next Chief, being senior most. But the bureaucrats in the Defence Ministry had other ideas. Having dealt with an intractable Chief like Sam Manekshaw for four years, they did not want another strong Chief on their hands. A routine letter is sent to officers who are due to retire, about six months in advance. This was done in case of Prem also. In order to bring pressure on him, and force him to resign, this fact was leaked to the Press, which speculated that he would now seek premature retirement. Prem was furious, and made it clear that he had no such intentions.
The Government now realised that the only way to deny Prem the post of Chief of Army Staff was to supersede him. However, by now he had become immensely popular, and his supersession would have had wide ranging repercussions. So another ploy was thought of. Due the extension granted to Manekshaw, Bewoor's tenure had been reduced, and he had been Chief just for a year and half. To compensate him, it was decided that he should be given a year's extension. This would ensure that Prem would retire, as a Lieut General, without technically being superseded.
When this was announced, there was consternation in Army circles. For Prem, it was a mortal blow, but like a good soldier, he did not utter a word. There were many who felt that if Bewoor had refused the extension, he would have considerably enhanced his stature, within the service and outside. What is more, he would have thwarted an attempt by politicians and bureaucrats, to play around with senior level appointments in the Army. It may be recalled that earlier attempts to interfere with top level promotions had been scuttled by the Army, due to the espirit de corps, and camaraderie which prevailed among senior officers. Both Nathu Singh and Rajendra Sinhji had refused the appointment of C-in-C, when it was offered to them, on the grounds that Cariappa was senior, thus paving the way for his promotion.
In July 1974, Prem accepted the appointment of Chairman, Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC). True to his word, he did not resign, and proceeded on his new assignment as a serving officer. With his characteristic vigour and no nonsense approach, he got the sluggish behemoth moving, and soon, the results were there for all to see. From 45 Megawatts in August 1974, the production rose to 700 Megawatts in October 1974, an increase of more than fifteen times, in just two months. During the ten months he was at the DVC, production increased twenty fold, and he had become the toast not only of Calcutta, but the whole of West Bengal. The bureaucrats in the DVC were skeptical that an Army officer, with no previous experience, could manage such a large organisation, but Prem Bhagat's achievements soon turned them all into his most ardent admirers.
On his first visit to the office, he insisted on meeting all the staff. When he shook hands with an old junior employee, the man had tears in his eyes. When asked the reason, he replied that this was the first time he had seen the face of the Chairman, let alone shake hands with him. Very soon, he was visiting not only the power plants, but also the houses where the employees lived. His visits to the family quarters became a much awaited event, and he was followed by a throng of hundreds. Needless to say, after each visit, there was a visible improvement in the amenities and living conditions of the employees.
Prem achieved spectacular results by using unorthodox methods. During a visit to a power plant, which was showing very low productivity, he found the reason was non availability of certain 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 picking up a pencil, wrote 'sanctioned', signing his name below it. "Now get on with it", he said, not even bothering to ask what was the total amount involved. After going back to his office, he issued instructions, increasing the financial powers of the plant managers, so that they did not have to refer to him for making urgent purchases. At another power station, he found that some generators were not working, and the replacements were expected to be shipped out from Japan. When Prem asked how long it would take before the generators arrived, he was given an estimate of six months. "That is too much", he said."Why can't we fly them down?" His staff looked incredulous, and wondered how much it would cost. "Much less than the losses we are incurring due to shortage of power," said Prem, and ordered that an aircraft should be chartered, and the generators flown to India.
Soon after he took over as Chairman, the union leaders came to meet him. When Prem asked them what exactly was their role, they mentioned that it was the welfare of workers. Prem told them that in the Army, the welfare of men was one of the prime responsibilities of officers, and he would see that this is done in the DVC also. Hence, the union would not have anything to do, he said. Sometime later, he was told that there was normally a strike, before the Puja holidays, with the workers demanding a bonus. Prem declared an 8% bonus, on his own, several months beforehand. The union leaders were completely baffled, and could not organise a strike, as Prem had pre empted them, and removed the only ground they had.
Unfortunately, Prem did not live long to savour his success, at the DVC, and died pre maturely, on 23 May 1975. He had gone to Delhi, and on his return, came down with fever. He was taken to the Military Hospital, but instead of improving, his condition deteriorated. The cause of his death was given out as Kleibsella Pneumonia. However, his wife Mohini feels that it may have been due to reaction caused by injection of penicillin, to which Prem was allergic. During his ten month stint at the DVC, he had endeared himself to everyone, and there was genuine grief, among the workers as well as there families. In fact, his name had become a household word in Calcutta, whose residents had almost forgotten about power cuts, thanks to him.
Prem had written his Last Will and Testament on 16 September 1968. Characteristically, he ended with the following lines:
"..... Finally I wish to thank officers and men of the Army for all the happiness that has been given to me. I would place on record the happiness that I have derived from my family and my wife."
In Prem's biography, written by Mathew Thomas and Jasjit Mansingh, Sam Manekshaw wrote the Forward. He wrote:
"As a senior officer the characteristics I admired in him, both as a Staff Officer and Commander, were his friendliness, outgoing and funloving attitude, his generosity, loyalty to his subordinates and colleagues, his outspokenness, and that he did not mince his words. He was well read, militarily sound and a thinker. I had considered him as my NATURAL SUCCESSOR as the Army Chief, but then the Government must have felt it would be uncomfortable having two successive strong Army Chiefs. SO THE ARMY MISSED A FIRST RATE CHIEF."
Prem Bhagat is still remembered fondly by all those served under him, or met him even once. He was truly a soldiers' general, who always had his feet firmly on the ground. He took enormous risks, not for personal gain, but for the welfare of his troops. He did not believe in regulations and red tape, and often waded through them like bull dozer. He wanted to get things done, and quickly, and never worried if he trod on a few toes, especially those of the auditors. To his eternal glory, it can be said that he lived by the maxim of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode, and always kept the interests of the country uppermost, followed by those of his men. His own were last, always and every time.