Tribute to Lt Gen Narinjan Singh Cheema
On 10 January 2019, aged 91, Lt Gen. Narinjan Singh Cheema of the Armoured Corps, passed away peacefully in his sleep, leaving behind everlasting memories. His passion for the forces and sports was inspiring. Even after his retirement, he was often found on the sports field in the Bombay Sappers (where he stayed) teaching the jawans how to throw the javelin (at which he was a champion in his young days) or playing cricket with the children. He would spend hours every week at the Queen Mary Technical Institute for the differently-abled soldiers, interacting with them and guiding the administration. He continued to play golf well into his 80s, even hitting a Hole in One when he was 85!
His father, Dr Ganda Singh Cheema, too was a legend in his times, who earned name and fame as Director of Horticulture, Agriculture University, Bombay. The Government of Maharashtra gave him the title ‘Father of Indian Horticulture’ and Mr Sharad Pawar named a block after him in Agriculture University, Poona. He had hundreds of copyrights under his name and as a tribute to this great horticulturist for his pioneering work numerous fruits have been named after or by him. Among others, Selection 7 Grape was renamed Cheema Sahebi Grape and Lucknow 49 Guava was renamed Sardar Guava.
Dr Cheema was a firm believer in education and sports. Hence, across the late 30s and early 40s, the Cheema siblings ruled over the sports arena in the then State of Bombay, winning championships for their school St. Vincents for over a decade. Dr. Cheema was asked by many, ‘Sir, you have enough wealth that seven generations could live off it, why then do you tell your children to study?’ His emphasis on the value of education was proved right when the partition happened. All that his seven children had left, post partition, was their education and degrees. Young Narinjan, however, chose the Indian Army over academia and as we all know, made his mark there. Commissioned into the famed Poona Horse in 1948, he earned his spurs for courage and competence, these qualities being displayed in abundance in the 1965 war with Pakistan, where Poona Horse was operationally committed in the Shakargarh sector. Narinjan was a squadron commander in the war and along with his regiment, took part in the famous battles of Philora and Chawinda. A frontline leader, Narinjan distinguished himself by his prowess on the battlefield, escaping death many a time, both from the enemy air as well as in the intense tank battles that he took part in. It was on the evening of 16 September, in Jassoran when he was with his CO, Lt Col Ardeshir Tarapore, fondly called Adi, that tragedy struck. An enemy artillery shell landed near the COs tank, mortally wounding Col Tarapore. Narinjan ran and picked up Adi, but the CO passed away in his arms. Later, Col Tarapore was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the nations highest gallantry award for valour on the battlefield.
A few days earlier, as if having a premonition of his death, Narinjan had received a call from Adi. It was the first day of the battle of Chawinda. After a few perfunctory remarks, Adi said, “if I die on the battlefield, I must be cremated in the battlefield; my prayer book must be given to my mother, my gold chain to my wife, my ring to my daughter, my bracelet and pen to my son”. He paused and then added “And Narinjan…please tell my son Xerxes to join the army.” Such was the bond of faith between Col Tarapore and Major NS Cheema, who dutifully fulfilled the last wish of his CO. The Regiment was awarded the “Battle Honour – Philora” and also the coveted title of “Fakhar-e-Hind”.
After the war, on promotion, Narinjan was given the rare honour of raising and commanding a new Armoured Regiment—67 Armoured Regiment on 15 Sep 1967 at Ahmednagar. It was a coincidence of some interest that the ‘Spearhead’ was raised in the year 67th of the 20th century. The contribution for raising came from various armoured regiments. However, The Poona Horse had the befitting distinction of providing the Founding Commandant, Lt Col N.S. Cheema. Since it was amongst the first new raisings to take place after 62 Cavalry, it is a tribute to his soldierly qualities, because only the best were sent to raise new units in those days. He was a genuine ‘father figure’ to his command, and this is vouchsafed by everyone from that Regiment.
67 Armoured Regiment was the first regiment to be raised with the newly inducted indigenous Vijayanta tanks. Later, in June 1984, the Regiment was equipped with the T 72 tanks. Four years later, in 1988, it was the turn of Poona Horse to be equipped with the T 72 tanks. The tanks were to be collected from Kirkee and Major Jaspal (Jasper) Singh Sandhu as Technical Officer, along with a team who had undergone conversion training in Ahmednagar, proceeded to collect the tanks from the depot in Kirkee. Gen. Cheema, the thoroughbred Regimental Officer that he was, interacted with the officers and other ranks of his Regiment in a manner befitting a veteran of 17 Poona Horse and fully facilitated their stay at Kirkee. For Jaspal and his team, it was an unforgettable experience. The General was also gracious enough to give his consent to flag of the train which was to transport the latest T-72 tanks to the Regiment. It was a momentous and emotional experience as 17 Poona Horse, having been raised in Poona in 1817, was now collecting their battle tanks from the place of birth of the Regiment. What better occasion could it be for a ‘send off’ with blessings of a senior officer commissioned in the Regiment and who, under the command of Lt Col Adi Tarapore won laurels for the Regiment in the 1965 Indo-Pak war.
Post retirement, the General remained immaculate in his personal and professional demeanour and conduct. He led a well rewarding and a simple life till he proceeded to his heavenly abode after fulfilling his professional and personal duties. He was a brave soldier, a gentleman of the old school, to whom honour remained a cardinal principle. He is survived by his two daughters, Subhag and Anjali. He remains a source of inspiration to his grandchildren and his great grandchildren.
Maj Gen. Kuldip Singh Sindhu recalls meeting General Cheema in June 2016, at his bungalow in CME Poona. General Cheema was 88 years old and in frail health at the time, having just recovered from a near fatal hit on the temple by a wayward golf shot, but despite that he was in good spirits. “My intention in meeting him was to elicit some details about Poona Horse actions during 1965 operations, as I was researching the subject. He was kind enough to show me some of his old records, photos, and notings. The General was a bit concerned about distortions he had heard about in the narration of the 1965 actions, namely, exclusion of exploits of Major Verinder Singh and those of Bravo Squadron. He told me that he had given a lengthy video interview to an officer of the Regiment just prior to the 200th Raising Day, and hoped that would put at rest any controversies, and place facts on record.” That level of concern for the Armed Forces at the twilight of his life highlighted the man. Truly, an icon and a soldier for all seasons.
He shall be missed by all who knew him, especially by the fraternity of the Armoured Corps, 67 Armoured Regiment and the Poona Horse. While legends pass away, being all to mortal, their tales remain in the consciousness, a source of inspiration to generations yet unborn. We Salute you Sir; Farewell and may you find your rightful place in the abode of the warriors who lived up to the soldiers code and ever placed duty above self.