RESPECTING A VICTORIA CROSS:

Closer to our times, my mind goes back to one among the several megacelebrations organised in the UK in 1995 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of WW II.

It was appropriate that the Indian contingent to the celebrations would include soldiers decorated with the Victoria Cross (VC), the foremost British award for gallantry on the battlefield. Of the 32 Indian awardees of the VC during the war, only 11 were alive in 1995. Four VC veterans could not undertake the journey to the UK due to age and infirmness, but the remaining seven were glad to participate. Of these, the six doughty Gorkha veterans had various grades of flab around their midriffs but the seventh, Subedar Major (Honorary Captain) Umrao Singh, over six-foot tall, of ram-rod stance, flat bellied and broad chested, became the cynosure of all eyes

The way he walked up to Queen Elizabeth in the Audience Hall of Buckingham Palace, any drill sergeantmajor from the Coldstream Guards Brigade would have been envious. Little wonder that breaking precedence of ceremonial etiquette, the gathering burst into spontaneous applause! The following day when Prime Minister John Major happened to drive past some invitees and from the corner of his eye caught the sun glinting on their VC medals, the Prime Minister had his car halt.

Walking up to the veterans, he saluted and greeted each with a firm handshake. In the UK, if a man (nationality notwithstanding) with a VC or MC pinned on the chest were to walk out, chances are that nine out of 10 passersby would halt mid-stride, smile and nod in salutation. In India, even though righteous wars and warriors have been glorified by the gods through the epic Mahabharata, yet not one in a thousand Indians will know what a PVC, MVC or VrC looks like, leave alone greet its bearer.

Dismissing his car, John Major escorted them to the venue of the function. Striking a conversation, he inquired if the veterans had any hardships that needed attention. Umrao Singh was prompt to state that although the prevalent currency exchange rate was Rs 50 to a pound, yet the VC pension handed out to them was at the paltry exchange rate of 1945. He asked, would it not be fair to revise their pension, which was last fixed in 1945, and bring it on a par with their counterparts in the UK? John Major was visibly upset at the injustice and promised that Her Majesty’s Government would rectify it.

Six months later in March 1996, Christopher Thomas, South Asia correspondent of The Times (London), drove to Umrao Singh’s home at Palra village (Jhajjar district, Haryana) with the news that Her Majesty’s Government had enhanced their VC pension from 100 pounds per annum to 1,300 pounds! And it would be admitted at that day’s prevailing currency exchange rate or a subsequent rate, whichever was higher, but never lower than that day’s! Obviously, Umrao Singh was astounded at this windfall. He rushed to his wife who was frying “parathas” on a wood fire and declared, “Vimla, now we can live in style.” Umrao Singh brought out an unopened bottle of rum. He filled two large steel tumblers almost to the brim. Handing one to Christopher and holding his own in the left hand, Umrao came to attention, and giving a smart salute said, “This is for John Major, the Prime Minister of Britain! He has made me happy and proud.” He could now pass his allotted days with the dignity due to a VC. He passed away on November 22, 2005.

Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.

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