LIEUT GENERAL S.P.P. THORAT, KC, DSO
Shankarrao Pandurang Patil Thorat was a name well known in military circles, during and after World War II. One of the senior most King's Commissioned Indian officers, he was known and respected for his professional acumen, impeccable conduct and forthright views. After a brilliant career, during which he held some of the most coveted appointments, in India and abroad, he retired as an Army Commander in 1961. Along with Cariappa and Thimayya, he was one of chief architects of the Army of Independent India. Like Thimayya, he too fell out with the irascible Krishna Menon and his counsel was ignored, leading to the debacle and ignominy of 1962. In 1947, when India gained Independence, Thorat had a ring side seat and witnessed momentous events at close quarters. He had the unique opportunity to rub shoulders with great men, like Nehru and Patel, the founding fathers of modern India. It is a tribute to his reputation that in spite of his close association with political leaders, there was never a whiff or whisper tainting his conduct as a officer and a gentleman.
Thorat was born on 12 August 1906, in Vadgaon village in the erstwhile princely state of Kolhapur. His father, Rao Bahadur Dr. Pandurang Chimnaji Patil Thorat, who was the village headman, later became the principal of the Agricultural College in Poona, and after retirement, the Minister for Agriculture and Education, in Kolhapur State. Thorat was the eldest of four children which included one sister. He had his early education in the village school, and at various other places, where his father was posted. In 1914, the family moved to Poona, when his father was transferred there, and the young boy was admitted to the Poona High School. He was later shifted to the Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya, from where he passed the Matriculation examination in 1923. Thorat then joined the New Poona College, which later came to be known as the Sir Parshuram Bhau College.
The Thorat family had not thought of a military career, for the young lad. However, just three years earlier, the first batch of Indian cadets had gone to Sandhurst, and this had opened a new avenue for aspiring young men. Thorat decided to try his luck, and applied, after having deposited the requisite fee, of twenty thousand rupees, which would cover the cost of his education, and leave expenses. The selection procedure was very stringent, and after initial screening by the provincial governors, only ten candidates, form the whole of India and Burma were allowed to appear in the written examination, held at Simla. This was followed by a series of interviews, beginning with a selection board. After clearing the selection board, Thorat was interviewed by the C-in-C, Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood. His final interview was with Lord Reading, the Viceroy of India, and Thorat was so overawed that he addressed him as "Your Majesty". Lord Reading rarely smiled, but this time he did. At the end of the interview, he shook Thorat's hand, with the words that he hoped that would make a good officer.
Thorat was one of five boys selected for admission to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, the others being Digamber Singh Brar, Gurbachan Singh Bhagowal, Agha Mahmood Raza and H.A. Francis. All five sailed from Bombay in December 1924, aboard the P & O liner Caledonia, and reached England after a voyage lasting fourteen days. They joined Sandhurst in January 1925, for the commencement of the first of their three terms of training. Thimayya and Thapar was already there, having joined six months earlier. Rajendra Sinhji and Thakur Nathu Singh had passed out earlier, in 1921 and 1923 respectively, while Cariappa had been commissioned after passing out from the Cadet College at Indore in December 1919. Thorat found himself in the same company as Thimayya, and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and close association between the two.
Unlike Thimayya, who had been educated in a public school, Thorat had never mixed with Europeans before, and initially suffered from an inferiority complex. But he soon overcame his diffidence, thanks to his prowess with the rifle, and in the saddle. He did well in musketry, and was one of the twelve cadets graded as 'Marksmen', which entitled him to wear the coveted 'Marksman' badge on the sleeve of his uniform. He also excelled in equitation, and was awarded 'Spurs' in his first term, a rare feat those days. These awards earned him the respect of his British colleagues, who began to treat him as an equal. He also did well in studies, and played several other games. Soon, he had a large circle of friends, and gradually, overcame his diffidence.
By the end of his first term, Thorat had gained enough confidence to go on a long holiday. He toured Scotland, Ireland, and England extensively, rounding off his tour with a couple of weeks in London. This was in the summer of 1925, and the London 'season' was in full swing. As a Sandhurst cadet, Thorat had no difficulty in being a part of the many social events which took place, almost very day. Though Britain was then at the height of her power, and prejudice against coloured people quite common, Thorat found that his being Indian actually helped in opening doors. During those days, only wealthy Indians, mostly of the princely class, could afford to visit England, and they were treated with courtesy, not only in hotels and shops, but also by Englishmen of the upper classes. Of course, to pass as a gentleman, one always had to be suitably attired, in a suit, along with a bowler or a top hat, spats, and a walking stick.
At the end of his second term, there was an incident which left a deep impression on Thorat. After a regatta, some boisterous cadets drowned all the canoes in the college lake. During the guest night in the mess, the same evening, the Commandant, Major General Cochran asked the cadets who had played the prank to own up. Without hesitation, every hand, including Thorat's went up. "Good", said the Commandant. "Now will you please run along and fish them out." It was very cold, and the lake had a thin crust of ice. The guilty cadets spent the better part of the night fishing out the canoes, their teeth chattering. Next morning, the Commandant told them that he knew the name of every cadet who was responsible for the incident, and if anyone had not owned up, he would have rusticated him, not for drowning the boats, but for not having the courage to admit that he had done so. "Remember that when you are commissioned", he said, "you will be known not only as officers, but as officers and gentlemen, and never you forget the gentleman part of it. Remember also that a person who is afraid of telling the truth is a moral coward, and no coward can become a successful officer." Thorat never forgot these words. As a young officer, whenever he was tempted to hide the truth, in order get himself out of a spot, it was Cochran's advice which prevented him from doing so.
During his third and final term, a sub committtee of the Skeen Committtee, appointed by the Government of India, visited the College, to study the possibility of starting a similar college in India. It consisted of Mohd. Ali Jinnah, Sir Pheroze Sethna, and Major Zorawar Singh, MC. Based on the recommendations of the Committee, the Indian Military Academy was later established, at Dehradun. On 30 August 1926, Thorat passed out from Sandhurst, with an 'Above Average' grading, and 'Exemplary' character. Of the 32 cadets who were commissioned, there were only three Indians, with Thorat being placed 15th, Brar 17th, and Gurbachan Singh 32nd, in the order of merit. Thorat and his two Indian colleagues sailed for India in September 1926, on the P & O liner ' Kaiser-i-Hind'. They had as their co passengers two well known Indians - Lala Lajpat Rai and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. As Thorat recalls in his memoirs, both of them took a paternal interest in the newly commissioned Indian officers. Lajpat Rai asked Thorat to correct the proofs of his latest book ' Unhappy India'. One day Thorat asked him, " Sir, do you think that we have done wrong in joining the Indian Army on the strength of which the British are ruling us?" Lalaji thought for a while and then replied, " No, I don't think so at all. How long will the British continue to rule us? One day, India shall become a free country, and them we will need trained men like you. So work hard and qualify yourself for that moment".
As was customary, Thorat had to be attached to a British battalion for a year, before being posted to one of the eight Indianised units. He did his attachment with the 2nd Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, then stationed at Ahmednagar. He was the first Indian officer to serve in the unit, but since he held the King's Commission, like any British officer, he found that he was readily accepted by the officers, as well as the men. Thorat was given command of a platoon, and he soon got to know his men well. He and his company commander, Lieut Phil Wray, shared a common passion for 'shikar', and spent many a Sunday afternoon shooting partridge, quail and sand grouse. Once in a while, they also bagged a black buck, or a chinkara. Wray taught Thorat the rules and etiquette of shooting, such as not shooting a sitting bird, or a female with young. Thorat also learned about the closed seasons, for various types of game, and the art of stalking, which helped him in later years, when he took to hunting big game.
In October 1927, his attachment with the Middlesex finished, and he was posted to the 1st Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment, also known as' Sher-e-Dil Ki Paltan', then stationed at Manzai, in the North West Frontier Province. He was given command of a Pathan company and had his first taste of life on the frontier. The Pathans were a recalcitrant race, with the several tribes continually fighting each other, or the British. Blood feuds were common, and were rarely settled, being handed down from one generation to the next. However, Thorat found that the Pathan could also be a staunch friend. Once, the Political Officer arrested the headman of a small tribe, called Malik Abdul Rehman, and handed him over to Thorat's battalion for safe custody. One day, the tribesman requested Thorat for permission to visit his wife, who was expecting their first child. Thorat obtained the necessary parole, and Rehman went away, swearing to return the day his wife delivered. After three days, he was back, with the news that his wife had given birth to a son. He told Thorat that his wife had asked him to convey to the Sahib, that henceforth, she was like his sister. Almost eight years layer, when Thorat was again posted to the Frontier, Rehman came to meet him, accompanied by his son, whom he introduced as 'your nephew'. He also carried a large basket, which he said was from 'your sister'. It contained dozens of hard boiled eggs, about fifty quail, and a whole 'barra' (the meat of an unborn lamb), which was considered a great delicacy. Thorat was touched by another gift - a 'tawiz' (charm to ward off evil), which his 'sister' had obtained from a holy man, to protect him from harm.
After a year, in December 1928 the battalion was ordered to move to Aurangabad, having completed its two year tour of duty on the Frontier. On reaching Aurangabad, some more Indian officers joined the battalion. among them was Second Lieut Mohd. Ayub Khan, who rose to be C-in-C of Pakistan and also its President. Thorat remembers him as a strikingly handsome officer, with average professional abilities. He was able to indulge in his passion for 'shikar', and shot his first panther, followed by a tigress. He also bought his first car, a second hand Ford, which cost him all of four hundred and fifty rupees.
Thorat spent about three years, on regimental duties, before being posted to Delhi in October 1931, as Adjutant of the Territorial Army Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment. Thorat decided to perform the journey by road, in his now third hand Ford. The roads were metalled but not tarred, and full of potholes. There were no facilities for getting punctures repaired, and petrol was sold in four gallon drums, and that too only during certain hours. Often, fords were deep, and cars had to be pulled across by bullock carts. No wonder, it took him eleven days to cover the eleven hundred kilometers between Delhi and Aurangabad, in December 1931, accompanied only by his bearer.
Thorat spent about three years with the Territorial Battalion, before being reverted to his battalion in 1934, then located at Jhelum. In 1935, it was ordered to move to Peshawar, to take part in the Ghalanai operation, on the Khyber front. By now several more KCIOs, such as Khan Ata Mohd Khan, Rajinder Singh Kalha, Mahabir Singh Dhillon and Rajendra Nath Nehra, had joined the battalion. In addition, some Indian officers had joined after passing out from the recently opened Indian Military Academy at Dehradun. Among them were Mohan Singh and Shah Nawaz, who later joined the Indian National Army, formed by Subhas Chandra Bose, with the help of the Japanese.
It was in the Ghalanai Operations on the Frontier that Thorat first saw real action, and was 'blooded'. The operations lasted two months and involved a force of two brigades, under the command of Brigadier (later Field Marshal) Sir Claude Auchinleck. Thorat was once given the task of laying a large ambush, with the aim of destroying a party of Pathan tribesmen who had been harassing the Force HQ. With a force of about a hundred men, Thorat set a night ambush on a route which was frequently used by the tribesmen. After a long wait, the tribesmen walked into the ambush, and there was a bitter hand to hand fight. The Pathans lost seventeen men, while Thorat's company suffered eight casualties. Thorat himself used his 'kukri', on several of the tribesmen. The ambush was a success, and Auchinleck himself summoned Thorat and his CO, to give them a pat on the back.
During his stay in Delhi, Thorat had met Leela, who was studying medicine in Lady Hardinge Medical College. She was a brilliant student, good at sports and dramatics and an ardent admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. Her father, Bakshi Bhagatram Anand, was a leading advocate, in Amritsar. The young couple had fallen in love, and decided to get married. By now, Leela had passed her final examinations, and was doing her internship at the Lady Hardinge Hospital. Thorat had also been promoted to the rank of Captain, in August 1935. But there was a small hitch. Thorat came from a traditional Maharashtrian family, while Leela was a Punjabi. Finally, he and Leela were able to wear down the opposition from their parents, and were married on 29 January 1936. Thorat's father, Dr. P.C. Patil, attended the wedding, which was held at Amritsar with great fanfare. Leela had obtained a scholarship to go abroad, but she gave it up, and preferred to get married instead.
Soon after his marriage, Thorat was posted to the Training Battalion at Ferozepur, in 1936 where be remained for two years, before returning to his battalion, as Adjutant, in 1938. 1/14 Punjab was then in Bannu, in Waziristan. Though it was a frontier post, families were permitted in Bannu, and Leela not only joined him there, but soon began doing medical work, in the villages around the camp, which was surrounded by barbed wire and heavily protected. One day when Thorat came home for lunch, he was told that his wife had still not returned from a delivery case she had gone to attend in the morning. By the time she returned, late in the evening, Thorat was anxious for her safety and scolded the two Pathans who accompanied her, saying " I thought that you people had murdered her." One of them laughed and replied, "why should we kill her who saves the lives of our women and children? We would gladly cut off your head, but why hers?"
In 1939, World War II commenced. In September 1940, 1/14 Punjab was moved to Secunderabad to join the newly raised 11 Indian Brigade, which was to proceed to Malaya. However, Thorat was not destined to go with the battalion. He was selected to do the Staff Course, and left for Quetta. On completion of the course, in 1941, he was posted to the Staff Duties Directorate, in Army HQ, then located in Simla. His section, SD 2b, was responsible for weapons and equipment. The Indian Army was then on low priority, and there was an acute shortage of weapons and ammunition. Most units had less than half their quota of rifles, and even less of mortars and other service weapons. The work load was heavy, but routine and boring. Thorat began to agitate for a transfer to regimental duty, but since staff trained officers were few, he was refused. Then his luck changed, with the decision to convert some Indian State Forces into regular units. One of these was the Rajaram Rifles of Kolhapur State, and Thorat found himself posted to this unit, since he happened to be a native of Kolhapur.
He served for about a year with the Rajaram Rifles, but he was not very happy. He wanted to serve in an active unit, and not in one that seemed to have no chance of ever going to war. Since his own battalion, 1/14 Punjab, had been captured by the Japanese, he asked for a transfer to any battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment. Finally, after a great deal of badgering, he was able to get a posting to an active battalion, 4/14 Punjab, which was part of 114 Brigade, of the 7th Indian Division, then involved in pushing back the Japanese, from the Naga hills. Thorat was in the reinforcement camp at Dimapur, when the famous battle of Kohima took place, but was able to take part in the subsequent operation, of clearing the Japanese from Kohima. Shortly afterwards he was posted to 9/14 Punjab, at Imphal, as second-in-command. The battalion was part of 20 Indian Division.
Thorat got a lift in a cargo plane, carrying live goats, also called 'meat on hoof', for troops. At this time, 20 Indian Division, along with two other divisions, was trapped in Imphal, having been surrounded by Japanese from all sides. The divisions had to rely on the Air Force for their supplies, as well as evacuation of casualties. Thorat requested his CO to give him command of a company, for a few days, so that he could get the feel of the ground, and the troops. This was agreed to, and he took over a company. However, after a few days, the CO was evacuated, and Thorat had to assume command of the battalion.
Thorat recalls an interesting anecdote concerning his orderly Nandu, who was utterly fearless. During an attack, Thorat and the Artillery Forward Observation Officer (FOO), started moving towards a vantage point, followed by Nandu, who had a bedding on his head. Suddenly they came under fire, from the Japanese artillery, and a salvo of five a six shells landed close by. Thorat and the FOO dived for cover, but Nandu kept walking. Thorat shouted " Nandu, you idiot, why don't you throw away that bedding and take cover."
"Throw the bedding down," shouted back Nandu. "And what will happen to the thermos which is inside? How will you get your tea, at the other end?"
In November 1944, 20 Indian Division was ordered to concentrate West of the Chindwin river, for the final push into Burma. Thorat marched with his men, through terrain that had been heavily mined by Indian troops, during the retreat from Burma. In spite of extensive mine clearance, there were many casualties, by the time they reached the Chindwin. Just then Thorat received a signal, posting him, on promotion, as CO of 2/2 Punjab, also called the 69th Punjabis, in the Arakan.
2/2 Punjab was then located in Maungdaw, and was recuperating after being badly mauled in the famous Battle of Buthidaung. The CO, Lieut Colonel Middleton-Stewart, had been killed in an unfortunate accident, while debriefing a patrol, along with several other men. This, coupled with the casualties suffered during the Buthidaung battle, had considerably lowered the morale of the unit. Thorat was the first Indian officer to command the battalion, which was almost two hundred years old, and he knew that he would have to gain the confidence of the men, as well as the officers, before they would accept him. The best way to do this was by leading them in a successful action, and the opportunity came soon afterwards.
The battalion was part of 51 Indian Infantry Brigade, under the command of Brigadier R.A. Hutton. It soon came to be as the 'All Indian Brigade', since all the battalions were Indian, unlike other brigades which had at least one British or Gurkha battalion. What is more, all three battalion commanders were Indians. Apart from 2/2 Punjab commanded by Thorat, the 8/19 Hyderabad was commanded by Lieut Colonel K.S. Thimayya and the 16/10 Baluch by Lieut Colonel L.P. Sen. In January 1945, the brigade took part in the famous Battle of Kangaw, which lasted three weeks, and cost two thousand lives. Mountbatten called it the 'bloodiest battle of the Arakan', and the Japanese got a bloody nose. At the end of it the brigade commander, and the three Indian COs were all awarded DSOs.
In the Battle of Kangaw, 51 Indian Brigade suffered about eight hundred casualties, while the Japanese lost about two thousand men, killed and wounded. It was decided to send the brigade back to India, to rest and refit. Thorat moved with his battalion to Pollachi, in South India, in February 1945. Soon afterwards, the Allied plan for the invasion of Malaya was finalised. The invasion force was to comprise two corps, 15 and 34, and seven divisions were to land at Port Swettenham, in September 1945. The operations commenced, but before the landings could take place, the Japanese surrendered, and the war ended, on 5 August 1945. 51 Indian Brigade, under 25 Indian Division, was part of the invasion force, which became an occupation force, after landing in Malaya. After spending a few months in Kuala Lumpur, Thorat's battalion was moved to Quantan, on the East coast of Malaya. He visited the battlefield where his parent battalion, 1/14 Punjab, had been over run by the Japanese, and captured, in 1941. A large number of them had joined the Indian National Army, and fought against Indian troops, as part of the Japanese forces.
Shortly afterwards, Thorat was called to the Divisional HQ, as the AA & QMG. A large number of Japanese were held in prisoner of war camps, and Thorat's job involved looking after these camps. A Japanese battalion had been detailed to clear and repair an airfield, which had been damaged. When Thorat went to visit the camp one day, an elderly Japanese officer wearing the rank badges of a brigadier, came running and saluted him smartly. Thorat asked him why he was running. He was informed that the Supreme Commander had issued orders that the prisoners were to do all work on the double. Thorat spoke to the GOC and got the orders rescinded. Next time when he visited the camp, the same brigadier marched up to him, and said, "Colonel, allow me to thank you, for what you have done. Neither I nor my country will ever forget it." And he was true to his word. Ten years later, when Thorat went to Korea, as Commander of the Custodian Force, he and his wife visited Tokyo, and stayed at the Imperial Hotel. When he left the hotel in his car, the entire traffic outside was held up to let his car pass. Thorat was surprised. On enquiry, he found that the same brigadier had persuaded the Tokyo police to show this courtesy to him.
While Thorat was busy fighting in Burma, Leela had not been idle. Though she had a young child to look after, she joined the Indian Medical Service, as a commissioned officer, and did excellent work in the Military Hospital at Lahore. After the war, when Thorat came to Delhi, Leela set up a free clinic in the stable of their house in Dupleix Lane, in conjunction with Lady Monica Smith, the wife of Lieut General Sir Arthur Smith, the Chief of General staff. The clinic became very popular, and when the number of patients grew very large several other ladies pitched in to help. Auchinleck gave them a large stock of captured Japanese medicines and medical equipment. Leela also began to educate her patients about family planning, for which she came into conflict with Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Minister for Health, who felt that it was the prerogative of her department, and asked Leela to stop her activities. Leela told the Rajkumari to mind her own business, and carried on. The only person who encouraged her was General Cariappa, who understood the importance of family planning, and stressed the need for it in all his talks.
The Thorats had three children, two daughters and a son. The eldest daughter, Kusum, was born on 16 June 1937 at Amritsar. She later married a Punjabi, Mr C.N. Kapur, who was in the Indian Railways. The second daughter, Kumud, was born on 30 September 1942, in Delhi. She married a Bengali, Mr R.K. Bose, who was in Dunlops. Their son, Yashwant, was born in Ranchi on 11 November 1947 at Ranchi. He married a South Indian girl, Usha, whose father, Mr M. Ramachandran, was a civil servant. Yashwant, who is affectionately known as 'Bhaiyya' (brother), joined the Reserve Bank of India, and is based at Bombay. Incidentally, he and the author were in school together, at St. Francis Convent, in Jhansi, where Yashwant was three years junior. The author vividly remembers the birthday party, at the Flag Staff House, in November 1954, when Yashwant had turned seven, and the author was a little over ten years old. Yashwant's father had just returned from Korea, and brought back a lot of toys, and a huge balloon, the like of which had not been seen before.
Thorat was promoted to the rank of Brigadier in 1946, and appointed Secretary of the National War Memorial Committee, which had been set up with the intention of setting up a military academy on the lines of the United States Military Academy, at West Point. At this time, various proposals were being discussed regarding construction of a suitable war memorial, to commemorate the services of Indian soldiers, during the War. Funds were readily available, as the Government of Sudan had donated a sum of a hundred thousand pounds to the Viceroy of India in 1941, as a contribution to the war effort. The credit for suggesting that the memorial take the form of a training institution, rather than a building or archway, like the War Memorial built after World War I (now called India Gate), is claimed by Brigadier A.A. Rudra, who was then Director for Morale at GHQ, in Delhi. His suggestion was accepted by Field Marshal Auchinleck, who was the C-in-C. He wrote to Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, recommending the establishment of a military academy, on the lines of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where basic training could be imparted not only to the Army, but also the Navy and Air Force. He felt that this would be the most suitable form for a National Memorial, and his advice was accepted.
The C-in-C was the Chairman of the National War Memorial Committee, which was set up on 2 May 1945. Dr. Amar Nath Jha, the Vice Chancellor of Allahabad University, was the Vice Chairman. The other members were the Chief of General Staff; Flag Officer Commanding Indian Navy; Secretary of the Government of Indian War Department; Educational Adviser to the Government; Sir Mirza Ismail, Prime Minister of Jaipur State; Rao Raja Narpat Singh of Jodhpur; Mian Afzal Husain of Punjab; Mr William Xavier Mascrenhas of the College of Engineering, Poona; and Mr A.E. Foot, Principal of the Doon School. The Secretary was initially Lieut Colonel P.C. Gupta, till he was replaced by Brigadier S.P.P. Thorat.
The Committee held formal meetings every two months, though informal discussions were held from time to time. The Prime Minister, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, took keen interest in the project, and usually attended the meetings. One of the most important decisions taken by the Committee was that cadets of all three services should be trained together, which was not done anywhere else. Even at West Point, only Army and Air Force cadets were trained, with the Naval cadets going to Annapolis. Another important decision concerned the location of the proposed academy. Almost every important leader wanted it to come up in his own region or state. Malik Khizr Hayat Khan, the Chief Minister of Punjab, recommended Punjab; Dr. Rajendra Prasad suggested Patna; Sardar Baldev Singh felt that Ranchi was the most suitable place. Auchinleck personally visited Bangalore, Bhopal, Belgaum, Deolali, Dehradun, Jabalpur, Vishakapatnam, Secunderabad, Karachi and Khadakvasla, before deciding on the last place. Khadakvasla was located close to Poona, had adequate land, and also a lake, which could be used for training of Naval cadets.
The Committee finalised its recommendations in 1946. The name of the proposed academy was changed from National War Academy to National Defence Academy. The period of training would be four years, and the age of entry between 16 and 19. The minimum educational qualification would be matriculation, and admission would be granted after an entrance examination, followed by a test conducted by the selection board, and a medical examination. Admission would be purely on merit, and there would be no reservation of any kind, including for sons of ex servicemen. The entire expense, including tuition, accommodation, messing and clothing, would be borne by the Government. At the end of their training, the cadets would join the respective Service training institutions, for specialised training. They would pass out with a diploma, which the universities would be persuaded to recognise as equivalent to a degree. (This did not happen, and to enable cadets to get a degree, the educational qualification was later revised to Class 12, and the age of entry also correspondingly raised by two years). Though this would be the main route of entry into commissioned ranks in the three services, it was decided that other channels should not be closed. Entry through the Universities, under the UOTC scheme, and through the ranks, would continue, on a much smaller scale.
There was a hitch when the question of transfer of 12,000 acres of land which had been identified at Khadakvasla came up. The Chief Minister of Bombay State (now Maharashtra) Balasaheb Kher, wanted the Academy to purchase the land, while Thorat felt that the Government of Bombay should gift it. Thorat met Sardar Patel, who was a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council, and explained the case, including the benefits which would accrue to Bombay State. Patel listened patiently, but gave no assurance. Within a few days, Thorat got a phone call from Bombay to say that the 'Government of Bombay would be happy to make a free gift of the required land to the Academy.'
Thorat recalls several other incidents, involving Sardar Patel. In early 1947, Thorat was given command of 161 Brigade, located at Ranchi. Communal riots erupted in Calcutta soon afterwards, and his brigade was rushed there to quell them. During the unrest, a patrol led by a lance naik (a naik is equivalent to a corporal, and lance appointments rank below the ranks which they prefix) encountered a gang of armed hooligans. The police sub inspector accompanying the patrol asked the patrol commander to open fire, which he did, and one gang member died. Later the lance naik was charged with murder. Thorat tried to get the charge dropped, but the West Bengal Government insisted that he must stand trial, though an assurance was given that he would be exonerated. Thorat was not satisfied. He felt that the indignity of being tried for murder, while performing his duty, would affect the morale of troops. During a visit to Delhi he called on Sardar Patel, who was the States Minister. When Thorat explained the case to him, the Sardar had the charges dropped.
India became independent of British rule on 15 August 1947, and soon after this Thorat was posted to Delhi, as Director Staff Duties and Weapons and Equipment (SD & WE), at Army HQ. One of his jobs was to divide the assets of the Army between India and Pakistan, in the ratio of 3:1. He was also responsible for sending Pakistan's share of weapons and equipment to that country. He soon realised that most of it was being used against Indian troops, in Kashmir. Thorat tried to stop or at least slow down the flow but the C-in-C, General Bucher, insisted that it should continue. Thorat sought an appointment with Sardar Patel who was also the Deputy Prime Minister. After hearing him the Sardar smiled and said," Why have you come to me? You should have gone to the Prime Minister?" Then, without waiting for a reply, he added," All right. Don't be too prompt in doing your duty." Thorat was puzzled and said, "Sir, these are the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. What will I tell him when he finds out?" Patel smiled, and said, "Surely you can tell a plausible lie for the delay? I am with you." After this there were a sharp decline in the quantity of arms and ammunition but a corresponding increase in innocuous items to make up the tonnage.
On 31 January 1948, a day after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, Thorat was promoted to the rank of Major General and appointed GOC Delhi Area. Conditions in Delhi were disturbed, and refugees from Pakistan were still pouring in. Thorat also had to provide protection to Muslims in Delhi, as well as in the surrounding areas of Punjab, and several princely states in Rajasthan. He had to assist in the installation of civil administration in Alwar, where the Maharaja had to be taken in 'protective custody'. This was also done in Bharatpur, where the ruler accepted his arrival with grace, and also invited Thorat for the annual duck shoot, for which Bharatpur was famous. During winter, millions of migratory birds from Siberia arrive in the lake at Bharatpur. Being a royal preserve, no shooting was permitted till the annual duck shoot, when the Viceroy and hundreds of other guests were invited. Thorat had heard about these shoots, but never seen one. After a few months, he accompanied Lieut General Rajendra Sinhji, and several other guests, including a few Maharajas, to Bharatpur. Thorat shot almost a hundred ducks, with the total bag running into several thousand. Fortunately for the birds, this was one of the last of the 'royal shoots', and conservationists soon prevailed upon the Parliament to make laws banning them altogether. The lake has now been converted into a sanctuary, and visitors can shoot birds only with a camera.
There is an interesting anecdote, related by Colonel A.B. Jadhav, regarding Thorat. During this period, a large number of refugees were housed in refugee camps around Delhi. To cater for their needs, a large number of DTLs (deep trench latrines), such as those used by troops in the field, had been made in the camps. During one of his morning walks, Thorat found that the refugees were not using the DTLs, but defecating in the open. Diseases such as cholera and hepatitis were already on the rise, and Thorat was alarmed. He tried to persuade the refugees, through his staff, to use the DTLs, but they continued to go to the fields. As a result, conditions soon became unhygienic, and Thorat knew that he had to do something. One day, he collected all the children in the camp, and told them that if they found anyone answering the call of nature in the field, instead of the DTL, they should surround him, and raising their hands above their heads, chant "Oye, Oye Oye." He promised them each a four anna (a rupee had sixteen annas) coin everyday, for this chore. The children agreed, and set to work next morning. Within a few a days, the DTLs began to be used.
After just six months in Delhi Area, Thorat was asked to take over East Punjab Area, from Thimayya, who was being sent to Kashmir. He moved to his new HQ, in Jullunder, in the Punjab. The problems of refugees, evacuee property and border defences kept him quite busy, and he had to visit Lahore several times. The C-in-C of the Pakistani Army, General Gracy, had been Thorat's guardian at Sandhurst, and the Chief of General Staff, Major General Hutton, his brigade commander in Burma. As a result, Thorat was always treated as a VIP in Pakistan, and received at the Wagah check post with a ceremonial guard of honour. On every visit, he made it a point to visit the men of his parent battalion, 1/14 Punjab, which was fighting in Kashmir, but had its rear party in Lahore.
In March 1950, Thorat was asked to take over as CGS, at Army HQ, in Delhi. Thorat was surprised by the appointment, which was normally held by a senior lieut general, while he was only a major general, and that too one of the junior ones. However, the C-in-C, General Cariappa had selected him, and he had to go. During this time the strength of the Army was about 5 lakhs (a lakh is a hundred thousand), which the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence wanted to be reduced to 3 lakhs. In spite of vehement opposition from Army HQ, the Defence Secretary and Financial Adviser succeeded in persuading the Cabinet to accept this measure. As soon as the process started, Pakistan started virulent propaganda against India. Army HQ wanted the Armoured Division to be moved to Amritsar as a precautionary measure, but the Prime Minister did not agree. Finally, General Cariappa, went to meet the President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, accompanied by Thorat. He listened to them and asked the Prime Minister to re-examine the proposal. A meeting was called and Nehru was not in a good mood. At the end, he said "I refuse to believe that Pakistan will go to war. How can I take a warlike stance, when I am myself trying to maintain peace in the world?"
Thorat requested the Prime Minister for a hearing. He opened a map of Punjab and explained the strategic importance of the river Beas. If Pakistan decided to capture Amritsar, it would not be possible to reinforce it since there was only one bridge on the Beas, with limited capacity. Nehru grasped the situation and rescinded his earlier decision. The concentration of troops in Amritsar was completed and the Pak propaganda died down.
In February 1952, Thorat had a providential escape. A tactical exercise was held in Lucknow, and Thorat, accompanied by several other senior officers, including Shrinagesh and Thimayya, left Delhi in a twin engined Devon aircraft, belonging to the Indian Air Force. On the return flight, one of the engines caught fire, and very soon, the fire began to spread towards the fuselage. There was every likelihood that the petrol tanks would explode, or the cabin would soon be engulfed in flames. The pilot put the plane into a nose dive, hoping to land before this happened, but this appeared a remote possibility. Just then, the burning engine fell out, the frame having been melted by the intense heat. The fire subsided, but the plane now seemed to be out of control. Finally, after many anxious moments, they landed with a crash. Miraculously nobody seemed to be hurt, and after picking up their hats and canes, they got out of the aircraft, in strict order of seniority ! They had landed in a field, close to Lucknow, and were soon rescued by the villagers. By early next morning, they were back in Lucknow, to the relief of everyone, including their families, who had only heard that the plane was missing, and had been waiting for news throughout the night. When the President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, was told of their miraculous escape, he sent his own airplane, to fly them back to Delhi.
During this time, Thorat and his family were staying at 16 Akbar Road, in New Delhi. His wife Leela was fond of gardening, and the house was full of flowers in front, and a large vegetable patch in the rear. Once, there was an abundant crop of pumpkins and lady fingers, and one of the two vegetables would be served at lunch, with the other at dinner. One evening, Thorat told his wife, "Leela, there is a new restaurant called Kwality, that has been opened in Connaught Place. Why don't we take the children out, and have dinner there". Their two daughters, Kusum and Kumud, and son Yashwant, were thrilled. When the family arrived at the restaurant, Leela and the children lost no time in ordering delicacies such as 'Chana Bhatura', 'Pizza', and so on. Thorat was still looking at the menu, and after a lot of deliberation, he asked for pumpkin and lady fingers. Everyone looked at him in surprise, till he explained that he did not want to spoil a good habit. Leela got the hint, and the family soon got a respite from the ubiquitous pumpkins and lady fingers.
In 1953 Thorat was sent to Korea as Commander of the Custodian Force of India (CFI). Thimayya had been appointed the Chairman of the five nation `Neutral Nation Repatriation Commission' (NNRC). The CFI comprised 190 Infantry Brigade, under the command of Brigadier R.S. Paintal. It had three infantry battalions, and an engineer company. Later, two more battalions, and a company of Mahar machine gunners were provided. Thorat selected Brigadier Gurbaksh Singh, DSO, as his Deputy Commander. In July, 1953, when the Armistice was signed, about 30,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners were captured by the United Nations Command. The Korean Peoples Army (KPVA) and the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV) Command held several hundred British, American and South Koreans, as prisoners. All these were transferred to the custody of the CFI, under Thorat, having refused to be repatriated, after the cease fire. It was hoped that after sometime in custody of the neutral CFI, the effects of propaganda and brainwashing would wear off, and the prisoners would agree to be repatriated.
The first contingent of the CFI left Madras by sea, on 18 August 1953, and reached Inchon on 14 September. The fifth contingent, which was also the last, left on 5 September, reaching on 28 September. They were housed in canvas tents, in three groups, at a place known earlier as Tong-Jong-Ni. Thorat gave it the name Hindnagar, which soon became well known. The prisoners were housed in compounds, with each accommodating about five hundred. Each compound had tents for living, kitchen, dining hall, and latrines. There was a double wire fence around each compound, with the space between them used for patrolling. A number of compounds were grouped together into an enclosure, which also had a double wire fence around it. Initially, prisoners of both sides were quite friendly with the Indian troops guarding them. However, this changed, as soon as some of the prisoners began to ask for repatriation. The other prisoners resented this, and beat up the prisoners, who wanted to surrender to the guards, for repatriation. Sometimes, they even killed such prisoners. The Indian troops tried to prevent such incidents, and this brought them in conflict with the prisoners.
On 25 September 1953 there was an anti India demonstration in one of the camps. Thorat entered the compound, accompanied by a few officers and after talking to the prisoners, left. The prisoners caught hold of the interpreter, Major H.S. Grewal and bodily carried him back into the compound. Thorat turned back and rushed in followed by about a dozen Indian soldiers. The prisoners closed the gates and attacked the Indians held captive inside, with wooden poles and stones, causing injuries to some of them. Thorat gave strict orders to his men not to retaliate since he realised that they were heavily outnumbered. He also ordered the brigade commander, who was out side, not to fire, since this would lead to a massacre, and India's position would become untenable.
Thorat found a POW who spoke English. He started talking to him. He asked them to release Major Grewal, but they refused. Thorat then took out his cigarette case, but it was empty. He said "What sort of Chinese are you? I and my men have been your guests for about an hour but you have not offered us a cup of tea or even a cigarette. Where is your traditional hospitality and the good manners for which your race is renowned?" The prisoner was bewildered at this remark, but soon turned around and barked some orders. Soon afterwards mugs of tea and packets of cigarettes appeared.
The situation changed as if by magic. The Chinese apologised and brought Grewal to Thorat. He accepted their representation and promised to forward it to the NNRC. They formed a guard of honour, and cheered lustily as Thorat left the compound followed by the Indian troops. This incident received wide publicity in the world press. After his return to India Thorat was awarded the Ashoka Chakra Class II (now called the Kirti Chakra), and the Padma Shri for his courage, composure, and presence of mind in preventing an ugly situation which could have caused several deaths.
On 15 October 1953, 'explanations' started. A large number of North Korean and Chinese prisoners, captured by the UN Command, had refused to be repatriated. The KVA-CPV Command contended that this was because false information had been given to the prisoners regarding the conditions prevailing in their homelands. They argued that if they were given a chance to explain things to them, they would change their minds. This was to be done by teams from the parent nations, who would be allowed to talk to each prisoner, in camera. Each prisoner had to undergo the process of 'explanation', but was free to make his choice, regarding repatriation.
When the explanations started, the prisoners refused to come out of their compounds. Thorat and his troops had a difficult time, trying to persuade them to come out. Sometimes, they had to use force, to bring the prisoners to the explanation tent. The prisoners often spat on the members of the explanation team, or beat them up. Sometimes, they even tried to rough up the guards. If force was used by the troops, they were denounced by the Swiss and Swedish members of the NNRC, who considered it a violation of human rights. On the other hand, if the CFI did not do this, the Czech and Polish members accused them of not giving adequate protection to the explanation teams. Ultimately, on the insistence of the Swiss and Polish members, who threatened to with draw if force was not used, the matter was referred to the Government of India. It was decided that no force should be used, and prisoners were to be given explanations only if they wished to. After the ninety day period for explanations had expired, prisoners were handed over by the CFI, to the side which had captured them. The UN Command released its prisoners, in January 1954. KPV-CPV Command initially refused to take back the prisoners captured by them, but eventually did so. There fate was never known.
The CFI returned to India in early 1954. They were seen off by General Maxwell Taylor, and were given a guard of honour by the 8th US Army. On their arrival in Madras, they received a tumultuous welcome. The Chief Minister, C. Rajagopalachari, and his entire cabinet was at the quay, to receive Thorat and his men, when their ship berthed. They left for Delhi by special troops trains, which were greeted at every station en route, and showered with sweets and garlands. At Nagpur, the Chief Minister of the State was present, with his ministers. At Delhi, there was a huge crowd at the railway station, when their train steamed in. The Prime Minister was also present, to greet them.
In May 1954, the Custodian Force of India was disbanded, and Thorat was given command of 5 Infantry Division, at Jhansi. In 1955, the division was ordered to move to Ferozepore. The move upto Rohtak was on foot, and Thorat marched with the division. They entrained at Rohtak, and proceeded to Ferozepore, to join the newly raised 11 Corps. Soon afterwards, he was promoted Lieut General and given command of 11 Corps, which had its HQ at Jullunder. At that time, 11 Corps was the only strike force in the Indian Army, and he had under his command two infantry divisions, an armoured brigade, and an independent infantry brigade.
During his tenure at Jullunder, Thorat was involved in two accidents. General Maxwell Taylor came to Delhi, and expressed a desire to meet him. Thorat left for Delhi in his staff car, and after lunch en route, had dozed off, when the accident occurred. He had a temporary loss of memory, and it was later found that he had injured his spine. He was in hospital for a month, and had to wear a plaster for even longer. He was lucky to have survived the accident - one side of the car had been completely smashed. The second accident occurred when Thorat, accompanied by Major General Bahadur Singh, GOC 4 Infantry Division, and Brigadier M.S. Pathania, his senior staff officer, was crossing the Jumna river in an assault boat, during an exercise. All of them had fishing tackle, and were casting for fish. The boat dashed against a rope, that had been slung across the river, and capsized. Everyone threw away his rod, and began to swim towards the bank. Thorat was strong swimmer, and held on to his fishing rod with one hand, using the other to swim. He reached the river bank still clutching his precious rod, to every one's surprise, and amusement.
Thorat was an upright and meticulous soldier, who was always correct in his dealings with his seniors and subordinates. There were few occasions when he fell foul of his seniors. One such incident occurred in 1956, while he was commanding 11 Corps. Torrential rains caused floods in Jullunder and Amritsar districts and there was 6 feet of water over the Grand Trunk road. An artillery unit at Kasu Begu, near Ferozepore was also threatened, by a breach in a canal. Thorat rang up Air HQ, in Delhi, and asked for an aerial reconnaissance, to find out if there were any more breaches. The Army Commander, Lieut General Kalwant Singh, was very annoyed, and threatened to take disciplinary action against Thorat for not following the proper channel. Thorat stood firm and when asked to explain, replied that since the safety of his men and installations was in danger and he could not contact the Command HQ in Simla, he had no other option. He also told Kalwant that in case he decided to take action, he himself was more likely to land in trouble than Thorat. No more was heard from him after this.
In May 1957, General S.M. Shrinagesh retired, and Thimayya was nominated to succeed him as Chief of Army Staff, superseding Lieut General Sant Singh, who was commanding the Eastern Army, and Lieut General Kalwant Singh, in Western Command. Kulwant decided to continue, but Sant preferred to proceed on retirement. Thorat was appointed GOC-in-C Eastern Command, which at that time had its HQ at Lucknow and comprised the area of the present Central and Eastern Commands. Thorat soon fell in love with Lucknow, which was called the city of 'nawabs', and its people, who still the spoke the flawless Urdu of their forbears. Lucknow was well known for its 'tehzib' (good manners), courtesy, and leisurely life style. It was also a centre for classical dance and music, and Thorat soon became a connoisseur, who enjoyed the 'thumri', 'dadra' and 'kathak' (the thumri and dadra are forms of vocal music, and the kathak a style of classical dance) of Lucknow.
Thorat did not get much time to savour the delights of Lucknow, as he was kept fairly busy with operational and administrative matters. Eastern Command was very large - it covered almost the whole of Eastern and Central India. The Naga tribes were in rebellion, and the border problems with the Chinese in the North East had begun. Thimayya and Thorat were both perturbed at the state of defences in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), and tried their best to improve them. However, this was not to be. At about the time when Thimayya took over as Chief of Army Staff, V.K. Krishna Menon had become the Defence Minister. Differences soon developed between Menon and Thimayya leading to the latter's resignation which was later withdrawn. Thorat too fell out with Menon due to a sharp difference of opinion, over the question of the manner in which the defence of the Sino-Indian border was to be organised. At this time, the defence NEFA was the responsibility of the Assam Rifles, a para military force which functioned under the Central Government. Technically, the Army had no responsibility, or authority, in the matter. Thorat realised that if there was trouble, the Army would have to step in, since it was responsible for the defence of the Nation. He pleaded that the defence of NEFA should be included in the operational tasks of Eastern Command.
When Thorat found that the Prime Minister and Defence Minister were not taking serious note of the problem, he decided to put it in writing. On 8 October 1959, Thorat produced a paper on the defence of NEFA, and sent it to the COAS. This was forwarded to the Ministry of Defence but Krishna Menon did not show it to the Prime Minister, accusing Thorat of being an alarmist and a warmonger. Subsequently an exercise, code named LAL QUILA, was held in Lucknow, in March 1960. This was attended by the Chief and all Principal Staff Officers in Army HQ. It was clearly brought out that with the troops, weapons and equipment available at that time, a Chinese attack could not be contained or defeated, and the 'forward policy', being advocated by Menon and Kaul, was not practicable. Thorat also gave out a time table, showing how the defences would fall day by day in case the Chinese attacked. Kaul, who attended the exercise as Quarter Master General, had different views. By that time Thimayya's position had been undermined and he had lost all authority. In May 1961 both Thimayya and Thorat retired and Kaul was appointed CGS. With Thapar as the Army Chief, Kaul had a free hand to implement his ideas.
When Thimayya retired in May 1961, it was expected that Thorat would succeed him as the Army Chief. He was highly decorated, had combat experience, and was held in high regard in the Service. Most important, he was GOC-in-C Eastern Command, and was familiar with the situation on the borders with China. But this did not come about, and the Government nominated Thapar, who was senior, but had little else to commend him, as the next Chief. Many factors were cited as responsible for Thorat having been overlooked. One was a laudatory speech he made during the farewell dinner for General Thimayya at the Kumaon Regimental Centre. Another was the fact that he was not recommended by B.N. Mullick, the all powerful Director of the IB. Mullick had even suggested to the Government that Thimayya was planning a coup, and Thorat was an active participant in the plot. Whatever the reason, both Thimayya and Thorat could not see eye to eye with Krishna Menon, who quite naturally preferred the more pliant Thapar, as Chief.
When Thorat was retired in May 1961, he was still three months short of his 55th birthday. Similarly, Cariappa had retired at the age of 53, Nathu Singh at 51, and Thimayya at 55. This was due to a rule which had been promulgated soon after Independence, limiting the tenure of the Chief and Army Commanders to four years. The decision was unfortunate, as it removed the top leadership of the Indian Army at an age when they had several years of useful life still left, and the Nation could have benefitted from their experience. The rule did not apply to the civil bureaucracy, or to the Navy or the Air Force. Even in the Army, it was made applicable only to the Chief and Army Commanders, and not the heads of technical Arms and Services. If Thimayya and Thorat had not retired in May 1961, the events which took place after a year may well have taken a different turn.
On 8 May 1961, Thorat was given a ceremonial farewell at Lucknow. Donning his uniform for the last time, he inspected the guard of honour, and then mounted the open jeep, which was pulled by officers of Eastern Command, to the tunes of 'Auld Lang Syne'. When he entered his railway saloon, after bidding good bye to the large number of military and civil officials who had come to see him off, his eyes were moist. Out of the window, he saw the Eastern Command flag coming down, and heard the buglers sounding the 'Retreat'. He sprang to attention, from a habit of 35 years, and saluted the flag. He then took unbuckled his sword from his Sam Browne belt, and handed it over to his son Yashwant.
Leela, who was reclining on a couch in the saloon, looked at him askance, and asked him why he had given the sword to Bhaiyya, as Yashwant was called in the family. "I thought a soldier never retires. This is what you always said," she asked. Thorat laughed and replied, " Don't worry. If I am recalled for duty, I will again wear the sword."
After his retirement, the Thorats settled down at Kolhapur. Before his retirement, Thorat had been offered the appointment of Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University, which had declined, since he felt that he did not have the credentials for a job which should be held by an outstanding academician. A little later, the Chairman of Hindustan Steel requested him to join the Company as a Director. Thorat agreed, and the proposal was cleared by Sardar Swaran Singh, the Minister for Steel. However, it was turned down by the Prime Minister, based on the advice of Krishna Menon, as Thorat later learned.
Soon after his arrival in Kolhapur, Thorat was informed that Yeshwantrao Chavan, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, wanted to meet him. Thorat went to the Circuit House, where Chavan was staying, and after greeting him, asked him why he had called him. Chavan handed over a sealed envelope to Thorat and said, " General Sahib, this contains a formal letter, requesting you to accept the post of the Chairman of the Maharashtra State Public Service Commission for five years. If the proposal is to your liking, kindly open the envelope. Otherwise, just tear it up."
Thorat said' "Mr Chavan, you know I am not in the good books of Panditji." Chavan replied," General Sahib, don't worry about that. Maharashtra is far from Delhi". Thorat then said that he and his wife had got used to staying in bungalows, and would feel cooped up in a flat in Bombay. Chavan said that he would not have to stay in a flat, and would be given a a large bungalow. Thorat then came to the most important condition. He said that he would accept the job only if he was allowed to function independently. The day he felt that he was under pressure from any Minister or politician, he would resign. Chavan readily agreed to this condition also.
Thorat then said that they had just moved from Lucknow, and his wife was still unpacking and setting up house. He would like to discuss this with her, before giving a final reply. Chavan agreed, and Thorat left, with the envelope still unopened. After discussing the offer with Leela, he decided to accept, and sent his confirmation to Chavan. Alongwith his appointment letter, Chavan issued a directive that no minister, secretary or party functionary would exert any pressure, or interfere in any manner with the functioning of the Commission. These orders remained in force even after Chavan left for Delhi, to replace Krishna Menon as Defence Minister, and Vasantrao Naik became the Chief Minister of Maharashtra.
Soon after Thorat was appointed Chairman of the Maharashtra State Public Service Commission, Chavan met Krishna Menon during the annual session of the Congress Party at Trivandrum. Menon casually remarked that Chavan had made a mistake by appointing Thorat to the important appointment, and advised him to reconsider the decision. Chavan smiled and replied," Mr Menon, I have never interfered or expressed any views about your handling of defence matters. I would request you to show the same courtesy to me, as far as affairs of my State are concerned."
After the Chinese over ran the defences in NEFA in 1962, there was a lull in the battle, which took place almost exactly as Thorat had predicted. Nehru sent for him and asked, "Thorat, how could this have happened. You were in Eastern Command, did you have any inkling of this disaster?" Thorat replied "Yes Sir. The possibility had occurred to us and the Ministry was warned." When Thorat showed the paper he had sent in October 1959 to him, Nehru was stunned. "Why was this not shown to me ?" he asked. Thorat suggested that perhaps the Defence Minister could answer this question. At this Nehru exploded, "Menon, Menon! Why have you got your knife into him? You people do not realise what an intellectual giant he is."
Thorat said, "If he is, Sir, I have seen no evidence of it in the case under consideration." Nehru glared at him angrily, for a few seconds. Then he smiled, and said, "You know, Thorat, you Maharashtrians are like mules. Normally you are good and docile, but once you dig your toes in, it is impossible to dislodge you." The tension broke, and Nehru rang for some tea. He became once again the affable Nehru, who Thorat knew so well from the days of the Partition riots, and after his return from Korea. Nehru went on to discuss the possibility of the Chinese, who had declared a cease fire unilaterally, advancing into the Brahmputra valley, Thorat told him that they were unlikely to do so, since their lines of communication were already stretched, and they could not get their artillery and tanks across the Himalayas. At this, Nehru perked up, and invited Thorat to be a member of the National Defence Council, which he was thinking of forming.
Thorat was appointed a member of the National Defence Council, which was chaired by the Prime Minister himself. It also had some senior members of the Cabinet, and the Chief Ministers of States. Surprisingly, neither Krishna Menon nor Kaul, the two defence experts on whom Nehru had relied the most, were nominated as members. In the event, the Council could not achieve much, but Thorat felt that his honour had been vindicated. He had been accused by Krishna Menon and Kaul of not implementing the forward policy, which they had been advocating, and which had proved to be a miserable failure.
In 1967, Thorat was persuaded by Chavan to stand for election to Parliament, as a Congress Party candidate. Soon after he had filed his nomination, the Maharani of Kolhapur also announced that she would contest from the same constituency. Chavan advised him to change his constituency, and offered him the ticket for the Satara seat, but Thorat refused. He felt that since he had filed his papers earlier, it was the Maharani who should change her constituency, and not him. In the event, he lost the election, and decided not to contest again.
Thorat was liberal and cosmopolitan in his views, and this was mirrored in his family life. He was himself a Maharashtrian, while his wife was a Punjabi. His son Yashwant married a South Indian Aiyyar girl. His two daughters, Kusum and Kumud, also married outside the State; one chose her life partner from Punjab, and the other from Bengal. The Thorats' house in Kolhapur, called 'Indu Niketan', soon came to epitomise gracious living, and was always humming with tongues from every part of India. Thorat had always been a good sportsman, but never played golf, which he began at the age of 73. For the next 12 years, he was regularly at the golf course, at four in the evening. While he went round his nine holes, Leela sat in the club house, reading a book, or knitting, or sometimes strolling in the lawns.
Thorat had a very strong character, and these qualities were inherited by his children. In 1986, his grand daughter Kanchan's marriage was celebrated at Kolhapur. There were about 300 guests at the function, which was held on the lawns of Indu Niketan. Leela was running a high fever, and her temperature touched 105 degrees. But she did not flinch, and came out to receive the guests in the porch of the house. Her daughters then took her inside, and put her to bed. Soon after this, she went into a coma. The entire family, not wanting to mar the occasion, went through with it with smiling faces, till the last guest had departed. At midnight, Thorat drove his wife to the mission hospital at Miraj. She had meningitis, and battled for two weeks, before she was out of danger. None of the guests who had attended the wedding had known how serious she had been, while the party was going on.
A similar incident occurred when Thorat lost his younger daughter, Kumud. Thorat was in Bombay, when Kumud took ill, and had to be taken to the Hinduja hospital. After struggling for two days, she expired. At that time, Leela was alone in Kolhapur, and her recent sickness had sapped her both physically and mentally. Realising that she would not be able to bear the shock alone, Thorat did not tell her the sad news, and immediately after cremating his daughter, he left for Kolhapur with his son. When their car reached the porch of the house, Leela rushed out, surprised by their unexpected arrival. She asked her husband why he had come back, and was anything wrong. Thorat took her inside, and seating her on a chair, gently told her that Kumud was no more. Leela began to cry, and after she had calmed down, he narrated to her the entire episode of her sickness and death. Later, Thorat explained that he had not told Leela the bad news on telephone because it would have been difficult for her to bear the shock alone. Once he was near her, she was able to draw strength from him, and face the problem squarely.
In 1987, Yashwant was seconded to the Bank of England. Before he left, he told his father that he would like to visit Sandhurst, where he had been trained, and about which he often talked with nostalgia. Thorat laughed, and said, " Bhaiyya, I left Sandhurst sixty one years ago. I wonder if they will even remember me. Anyway, I will write to them." He wrote, and received a prompt reply from the Commandant, saying that they would be pleased to show his son around the College. Yashwant left for England, with the letter, and a copy of his father's autobiography, 'From Reveille to Retreat.'
In London, Yashwant was engrossed in his work, and almost forgot about Sandhurst, till the end of his visit. He telephoned the Royal Military College, and told them about his arrival. When he reached Camberley, he was received by a British Colonel, who conducted him to a staff car, which had the Indian flag, along with that of the Royal Military College. They were piloted by a motor cycle escort, and Yashwant was overwhelmed at the reception, which indicated the respect being given to his father, by his alma mater. He was taken around the entire College, and then to the India Museum, where he found his father's name inscribed among the heroes of World War II, alongwith a description of his gallantry in action in Burma, for which he was awarded the DSO. Later, the officers hosted a lunch in his honour, during which the Commandant gave a speech, which included a vivid account of Thorat's career. Yashwant came away feeling that they knew more about his father than he himself did. He remembers his visit to Sandhurst as one of the most memorable experiences of his life.
One of the qualities for which Thorat was admired, both by officers and men, was his concern for he welfare of troops, and his humane and compassionate attitude. He was able to empathise with his subordinates, and treated them with warmth and consideration. One of his aides, Captain Har Mander Singh, who later joined the Civil Service, recalls that on the very first occasion he met the Thorats, he was made to feel at home. Not only he, but his family was accepted, as part of the household. Thorat's behaviour towards young officers was like that of a father with his son, and his daughters behaved with his aides as they would with their brothers. When being driven in his car, if he saw a young officer walking, he always stopped, and asked the youngster if he wanted a lift. He never asked his aides to perform menial tasks, such as carrying bags, opening doors, or pouring drinks. Irrespective of rank, he treated every soldier with respect, and never made him feel small.
Thorat was a good orator, and a voracious reader. He had a scholastic bent of mind, and was well versed in Sanskrit. Though he always addressed troops in simple Hindustani, he often embellished his talks with Sanskrit 'slokas' (verses), to drive home a point. Thorat's behaviour with ladies was impeccable, and he had none of the so called vices, except for smoking, which he did in moderation. He rolled his own cigarettes, which he carried in a thin cigarette box. He was in the habit of tapping a cigarette three times, before he put it between his lips, and lighted it. This idiosyncracy was often copied, by younger officers, who felt that it was it made them look suave and debonair.
Thorat died on 10 August 1992, at Kolhapur, at the age of 86. His death was widely mourned not only in Maharashtra, but the whole country, by soldiers as well as civilians. He was well known in India and abroad, due to his tenure in Korea, and almost all national dailies published his profile, after his death. He had many friends and admirers, and it was difficult to find a single instance in his long and distinguished career during which he had acted in a manner which was not expected of an officer and a gentleman.
It was indeed unfortunate that when the Chinese attacked, in 1962, both Thimayya and Thorat had retired. If they had not, the nation would perhaps have been spared the ignominy and humiliation it had to bear, resulting mainly from lack of courage, experience and decisiveness, in the top military leadership at that critical juncture. Though he did not rise to the highest rank, Thorat's place in Indian military history is assured. A highly respected soldier, known for his upright behaviour and gentlemanly ways, he epitomised the highest standards of professionalism in the Army.