On 10 April 2015, a legend of the Indian Army, Lt Gen Hanut Singh, PVSM, MVC, passed away. He was two months short of 83 years when he died, and was cremated three days later on the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar. The mainstream print media did write nostalgically of the legend, but the outpouring of eulogies on the social media from across the world, was indeed something only reserved for a very special few. What was it in the man that made it impossible to forget him even after he had shed the uniform for a quarter of a century and lived the life of a recluse?
Most people remember the Battle of Basantar in the 1971 War, when Hanut, then commanding the iconic Poona Horse, gave a crushing defeat to Pakistan’s mechanised forces, his regiment virtually decimating the enemy’s 8 Armoured Brigade. This was also the battle where a young officer of the Poona Horse, 2 Lt Arun Khetrapal became a byword for courage and honour, being posthumously awarded the nations highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra. In his biography of General Hanut Singh, Major General VK Singh states that “Arun Khetarpal’s act of supreme sacrifice was more than an actof personal courage, and valour. It was a manifestation of ‘The Poona Horse Spirit’, which Hanut had inculcated amongst his officers”. While that famous victory was adequate to grant Hanut a permanent place in the pantheon of heroes, it could not by itself have led to such a cult following within the Armed Forces. There had to be that something extra, which distinguished him from the rest; something which made people remember the General, long after they were no longer in contact with him.
Lt Gen Ajai Singh, who was Hanut’s Second in Command in Poona Horse during the 1971 War describes an incident which has remained deeply etched in his mind. When Ajai joined the Poona Horse on Commissioning in 1956, Hanut, then a Lieutenant and the Senior Subaltern met him for the first time. In Ajai’s words, “He met me with such enthusiasm, warmth and affection that I felt as though we had known each other for ages”. Hanut then took Ajai around the Squadron and introduced him to all members of the troop he was to take over. Having done this at the garages itself, he gave him a programme for his training which was to commence from the next day and also gave him a large bundle of books and précis which he was to read in his own time. “I went through all this businesslike activity in a state of total shock,” said Ajai, “because till then, such a serious approach to professional matters had neither been seen nor heard during the few days I had spent in the Regiment”. At that time, Hanut had less than four years service, having been commissioned in December 1952. But even so, he exhibited a standard of professionalism at that young age and service, which was exceptional and rare, even for officers many years his senior in age and service. Later, his thoughts on armoured warfare were to become standard text for training in the military establishment and remain so till date.
His close friend, the former Maharaja of Kapurthala, Brigadier Sukhjit Singh, MVC, spoke of Hanut as “The standard bearer of a set of values that place him above mortals that I ever knew.” According to Lt Gen Surrinder Singh, a former Army Commander of Northern Command, Hanut was “uncompromising in his beliefs and convictions… a man of sterling character combined with a forceful personality, he had no time for fools – a fact which was soon apparent to those in this category.” This is what characterised the General – total professionalism, integrity and courage of his convictions, that set him apart from the rest. General PK Singh, a former Army Commander, South Western Command and the present Director USI, succinctly summed up Hanut as “A tall military leader who inspired confidence amongst the professionals and fear amongst the others”!
Physical courage has never been a shortcoming in the Indian Army, but men with exceptional moral courage, especially at senior levels of command, remain a rare breed across the world. General Hanut was one of them. On professional matters he never compromised. Indeed, he never compromised on any matter at all. Many of his superiors felt that Hanut was too individualistic and did attempt to side line him. He was after all a loner who abhorred socialising, had no time for sycophancy and worse still, was intellectually far superior to those under whom he had to serve – a quality which certainly would not have endeared him to them. But there were others who appreciated his mastery over his profession and his vision. General Sundarji, who later became the Chief and General Inder Gill, who rose to Command the Western Army, both iconic Generals in their own ways, recognised his genius and integrity and appreciated his honesty of purpose, even when he differed with them on professional matters.
In many ways, the human side of General Hanut Singh, merged with the professional. Lt Gen Baljit Singh speaks of an incident in 1974, when Hanut was the Colonel GS of the Division and he was commanding a SP Artillery Regiment equipped with the ABBOT Field Gun. At that time, reminisces Baljit, 11 of the 18 Guns in his Regiment were declared “out of action” for want of replacements for the electric diode that activated the firing mechanism. This status prevailed for over a year as their was an embargo in the warranty clause that they could not use any derivatives and the spares had not been bid for in the contract. The regiment took the initiative of stripping the circuit and finding a replacement from the Bangalore electronic market for a mere Rs 20/- per piece. The guns were made functional and they all fired successfully in the Annual Practice Camp which was overseen by a Gunnery Instructor who reported that “All 18 guns fired to perfection on all ten days.” However, instructions had been violated and a Staff Court of Inquiry (COI) that was ordered, found Baljit guilty of procedural lapses and the Army Headquarters ordered the Division to initiate appropriate action. When Hanut saw that letter, he drove over to Baljit’s office to familiarise himself with the case. After having done so he spoke to the Divisional Commander who thereafter disagreed with the conclusion of the COI, recommended closure of the case and the Powers that be accepted the Bangalore manufactured derivatives as valid replacements.That too was the measure of General Hanut Singh.
His concern for the men was legendary and he did everything in his power to make their life more comfortable, both in terms of giving them time to look after their own requirements and to aspects such as their accommodation, entitlements and training. A deeply religious man, his unimpeachable moral conduct was the product of his deep spirituality. He did not just set matchless standards of professionalism, probity and character; he lived them in his daily life. This continued post retirement too, extending right unto his final days, when he left his body and found union with the Creator, while in ‘Dhyan’ (meditation). His concept of a ‘soldier’s dharma’, was ‘righteous living’, a precept he unwaveringly followed. That he left his body while on meditation, speaks of the remarkable levels of spirituality attained by him. The legacy he leaves behind would be hard to emulate. As one of his admirers said, he was that rare breed of professionally competent senior officers, the like of which I have not met till date. What more can one say. He was truly a soldiers General, but more than that, he was a visionary and an original thinker. Not for him the trodden well beaten path, taken by so many others. His vision, his courage, his strength came from his own spirit – a spirit nurtured in ‘Dharma.’ And he had the strength of character to walk the path, even if that path was a lonely one.
In his poem ‘The Road not Taken’, Robert Frost ends with the famous lines…
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
General Hanut took the less travelled road. Hopefully, some at least in our Armed Forces will continue in that tradition. In that lies our strength – and our salvation.