A Tale of Two Victoria Crosses is a tribute paid by the author, Lt Gen Baljit Singh, to a hero of the Indian Army, who won a posthumous Victoria Cross in the Second World War in Burma — Lt Karamjeet Singh, VC.
Set in the pre-world war II era, the story of Karamjeet is indeed one from which fairy tales are woven. As a young strapping lad, going for a stroll with his elder brother, the duo chance to stand beneath a poster exhorting young Indians to join the British Indian Army and serve the nation in the war against the Axis Powers. The poster was adorned with an image of Lt John Smyth of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs proudly wearing his Victoria Cross medal, the sight of which made young Karamjeet exclaim to his older brother, Ajit Singh, “Chalo aapaan wi ik ik lelaekay iyea, prah Ji” (let us go and get a VC each, brother). It was not a casual statement made in jest, but was borne out of conviction, though little would young Karamjeet have known at that time, the insurmountable odds of getting this most prized military decoration for valour. So the brothers set out on their quest, both joining the Army, opting for the “Y Cadets’ route— a scheme aimed at encouraging educated youth from affluent families to enrol in the ranks for a start and a year later, seek nomination to join an Officer Training School and ultimately become a commissioned officer.
Ajit was allotted the Regiment of Artillery though he had opted for enrolment in 45 Rattrays Sikhs. Karamjeet however was commissioned in 4th Battalion of 15 Punjab Regiment — and thus was closer to his dream of winning a Victoria Cross. Gen. Baljit Singh deftly weaves the story of Karamjeet’s gallant action in winning the Victoria Cross posthumously, by juxtaposing it with the equally gallant action of Lt John Smyth, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross 30 years earlier. Told with extreme sensitivity, the book gives an account of Smyth’s heroic action which won him the coveted VC, and then of the action by Karamjeet, three decades later, which won him the VC too, though this time the award was posthumous. In the author’s words, the two actions, though separated in time by 30 years,were identical in their valour and dedication to serve the nation,as if they were biological, zygotic twins.
Why is Karamjeet not accorded his rightful place in the list of the heroes of the Indian Army, who by their supreme acts of valour, made the nation and the Army proud? The answer is simple and lies in the fact that post partition, the 4th Battalion, 15 Punjab Regiment went to Pakistan, and in that act of displacement, an aberration in celebratory remembrance at the institutional, regimental and personal levels took place, which as the author so rightly states is sacrilegious to the universally prevalent martial customs, traditions and heritage of the Indian Army.
A slim book which can be read in one sitting, it is a tale of heroism and valour beyond compare. This is a ‘must read’ book, both for those in uniform as also for the civilian fraternity, for it brings out values which are most cherished by the forces — values which need to be inculcated by people in all walks of life.
Deeksha Goel is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. Her areas of interest include legislative research, and geopolitics of Indian Ocean Region.