Thakur Nathu Singh was the second Indian officer to pass out from Sandhurst, who achieved a three-star rank in the Indian Army, the first being Maharaj Rajendra Sinhji. Though not very well known outside the Army, he was one of the most colorful of our military leaders. He rose to the second-highest rank and appointment in the profession and did not reach the top by choice. He could have become the first Indian Commander-in-Chief if he wished to, but he declined, in deference to Cariappa, who was senior to him. Though trained by the British, he was born an Indian and never allowed anyone to forget this. A nationalist to the core, he was frequently in trouble for his anti-British views. His brushes with authority were many, and if it was not for the legendary British sense of fair play and justice, he would not have survived in uniform.
Nathu Singh was born in 1900 - his date of birth according to his school records is 10 May 1902 - at Gumanpura, in the princely state of Dungarpur, in Rajputana. He was the only child of Thakur Hamir Singhji of Gumanpura, who was a nobleman from the vassalage of Dungarpur. Unfortunately, he lost both his parents before he was seven years old. During a visit to his village, Maharawal Vijay Singhji, the ruler of Dungarpur State, was impressed by his intelligence and quick wit and took the young boy under his wing. The orphaned Nathu was educated at the Maharawal’s own alma mater, the prestigious Mayo College at Ajmer, along with the scions of most of the Rajput nobility. In school, he topped his classes and was nicknamed ‘Baghi’ (rebel), by his colleagues for his outspoken and forthright manner.
In 1911, he visited Delhi and attended the Grand Durbar, on the occasion of the coronation of King George V. Far from being impressed by the pomp and pageantry, he was filled with shame and revulsion at the subservience of the Indian rulers, who had to pay obeisance to the Crown. This made a deep impression on the young boy, and he felt the first stirrings of nationalism. During his visit to Delhi, he also came into contact with the Nehru family. After attaining the age of 15, he began to take an interest in national affairs and attended a few meetings of the All India Congress Committee. In 1915, he met Jawahar Lal Nehru for the first time, and thereafter, his father, Moti Lal Nehru. The Maharawal, who was a descendant of the senior branch of the Udaipur royal family - one of his ancestors, Jaimull, had died defending Chittor, against Akbar - was himself a great patriot. He had implanted the seed of nationalism in Nathu Singh’s mind, which took root, and flowered, as he grew older.
Nathu Singh’s background and heritage - he was from the Mairtia clan, of Rathore Rajputs, renowned for their valour - resulted in a natural inclination for the military profession. His guardian, the Maharawal had also expressed a desire that he should follow the martial tradition of his forbears, and join the Army. Unfortunately, the Maharawal died in 1918, when Nathu Singh was still at school. This left him alone in the World, without a guide or friend. Soon after he returned from school in 1920, he had the first of his many rows with the British. The Political Officer in Dungarpur was a diehard imperialist, who treated all Indians as subjects of the British Crown. He asked Nathu Singh to carry out certain orders, which were contrary to the wishes of the Rajmata (Queen Mother). Nathu Singh refused, and there was a fearful ruckus. However, the British Political Officer later developed a liking for the young firebrand and advised the Rajmata to send him to Sandhurst, which had just been opened to Indians. Nathu Singh wanted to become a soldier, but not under the British. He would have preferred the Army, or even the Police, in one of the princely states, of Rajputana. But this was not to be. He bowed to his guardians’ wishes, and applied for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He had been an exceptionally bright student, and this, coupled with his background, enabled him to clear the written examination and the interviews with the C-in-C and the Viceroy. He sailed for England, in July 1921, along with Kumar Shri Kishensinhji, and Gurbachan Singh. They were later joined by Charles Ba Thien, from Burma.
Nathu Singh spent a year and a half at Sandhurst. The only other cadet from Rajputana, Kunwar Sheodutt Singh, who had joined six months earlier, acted as his guide, and the two became close friends. Nathu Singh took the tough regimen in his stride and did well in all activities. His British instructors and colleagues were impressed by his intellect, but somewhat surprised at his boldness and lack of servility, which they had come to expect from all Indians. Nathu Singh disliked the British and made no effort to conceal this. Unlike most other Indians of that time, he did not suffer from an inferiority complex and considered himself the equal, if not the better, of any Englishman. One can imagine the difficulties he must have encountered at Sandhurst, on account of his views. In fact, his anti-British attitude persisted throughout his service, and he was frequently in trouble on this account. Amongst the British, he was known as a rebel, while his Indian colleagues promptly christened him ’ Fauji Gandhi’, a name which Nathu himself did not relish. At this time, Mahatma Gandhi had begun his non-cooperation movement in India, and Nathu seemed to be following in his footsteps. However, much as he admired Gandhi for his patriotism, he did not share his creed of non-violence and considered his methods of achieving Independence through non-cooperation as impractical. He was of the view that apart from causing delay, such tactics would harden the British attitude, and create antagonism. He felt that a better method was for Indians to gain a strong presence in the Services, both civil and military. They could then weaken the British structure from within, and take over at an opportune moment.
At Sandhurst, General Jacob of the Indian Army, addressing the cadets, told them that since the British were likely to stay in India for a long time, the best among them should join the Indian Army. Nathu Singh immediately sought an interview with the Commandant and told him that if the British had no intention of leaving, he was not interested in getting his commission. During his stay in England, he also met Subhas Chandra Bose, who was in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) at that time. They had a common meeting ground, in their dislike of British rule, and desire to be rid of it. However, they differed in their views regarding the best method to achieve their goal. Both were strong personalities, and their frequent interaction helped in fuelling the fires of nationalism, which burned in the hearts of both these great patriots. Their meetings also generated a feeling of mutual respect and admiration. Two decades later, when the British Government ordered the trial of the Indian National Army (INA) prisoners, one of the few men in uniform who protested against the decision was Nathu Singh.
On passing out from Sandhurst, Nathu Singh was commissioned on 1 February 1923 and assigned to 1/7 Rajput Regiment. All newly commissioned Indian officers had to do an attachment with a British battalion, and Second Lieut Nathu Singh was attached to the 2nd Battalion, the Prince of Wales’ Volunteers, which was located at Mhow, in Central India. His CO, Lieut Colonel B. Ritchie, found him to be a keen and energetic officer, who made himself very popular with officers and men. In his recommendation for his retention in the Army, he wrote:
" I certify that, in my opinion, the retention of Second Lieutenant THAKUR NATHU SINGH 1/7th Rajput Regiment, attached 2nd Bn. The Prince of Wales's Volunteers, is, in every respect, desirable, and likely to be advantageous to the Service....". This opinion was also held by Major General L.R. Vaughan, the GOC Central Province District. On 28 August 1924, while endorsing his remarks in the annual confidential report of Second Lieut Nathu Singh, he wrote:
" One of the most promising Indians I have met. He should make good, if he continues trying."
After a year with the British battalion, he was posted to his parent unit, the 1/7 Rajputs, also known as Queen Victoria’s Own Light Infantry (QVOLI), then located at Dardoni, in the North West Frontier. He served with the battalion from 1923 to 1926. During these three years, he worked hard and learned the ropes. However, unlike most subalterns, he did not follow the dictum of being seen, but not heard. He had strong views, and he did not hesitate to articulate them. His antipathy for the British, and their ways, could not be hidden, and this soon brought him into conflict with his superiors.
Nathu Singh’s first brush with authority was over the matter of dining in the officers mess. He was a high caste Hindu, and initially refused to dine in the mess, with other officers. He made it known that in his home, at Dungarpur, his parents would never have permitted him to share a table with an Englishman, regardless of his station, and he found no reason to deviate from his religious beliefs. Naturally, this created a commotion, and he was hauled over the coals. Finally, he agreed to dine in the mess, but considered it an act of condescension. His CO, Lieut Colonel A.H. Macleverty, has this to say, on 1 February 1925:
"Quick and intelligent at his work, and professionally upto the standard of his rank; good at games. Must become more liberal in his views, if he expects to come upto the standard of a British officer in all respects.
…I do not consider him well suited for regimental life…he has strong religious convictions, which colour every question…He finds mess irksome, and states that he cannot dine with Europeans when at his home…I do not think that his heart is in his profession, as he has more than once stated that his ambition is service in his state…his wife is and must remain purdah, which will seriously affect the social side of regimental life…" .
According to the custom then in vogue, apart from the CO, two other senior officers of the battalion were required to give their recommendations regarding retention of an officer in service. On 3 February, 1925, Major B.S.A.F.Greville, wrote:
"I am of the opinion that the retention of 2nd Lieutenant NATHU SINGH 1/7th Rajput Regiment, in the Indian Army is undesirable…owing to his high Hindu principles he conveys the impression that he is conferring a great concession on his brother officers by dining with them…he will find it difficult to come into line with British officers, and in every respect, take their place…On the other hand, I consider he has an excellent knowledge of his profession and has good powers of imparting it to others. He is keen on games and speaks good English."
This opinion of Nathu Singh was seconded by another officer of his battalion, Major E.M.C.Brander, who wrote:
"Considering that 2/Lieut THAKUR NATHU SINGH has been trained at Sandhurst, he is obviously very backward in the ideas, which not only make things difficult for him but awkward for the other officers… He has been dining in the mess, but on account of his strict religious principles it is obviously distasteful to him…he appears to be completely dominated by his religion…I do not recommend his retention in the Indian Army. This is to be regretted as professionally he is very competent. He is intelligent, picks up things quickly and is also good at games.".
The recommendations of Nathu Singh’s CO and other officers of the battalion were endorsed by senior officers in the chain. If anything, they used stronger words. Major General A.L. Jacob, GOC Waziristan District, wrote:
"This officer is entirely out of place in a regiment. The fact of his considering it a mark of condescension on his part having his meals in the mess with the other officers speaks for itself. From enquiry it appears that he himself personally had no wish to proceed to Sandhurst…wishes to serve in either the Army or police in a Native State, and I strongly recommend that he be allowed to do so."
Finally, General Claud W. Jacob, GOC-in-C, Northern Command wrote: " The sooner this officer is removed from the Army the better." With this, it appeared that Nathu Singh’s fate was sealed. He was called for a final interview with the Army Commander, where his CO was present. After talking to Nathu Singh, the General was impressed by his family and educational background, as well as his obvious intelligence. He decided to give him another chance, and sent Nathu Singh out of his office, after advising him to adjust himself to Army life. The Army Commander then gave a dressing down to the CO, for not appreciating the background of the young Indian officer, and told him to handle him properly. Nathu Singh was standing outside the door, and heard the whole conversation, which he often related in later years.
When his first report had been written, he had been in the battalion for just three weeks. After a year, the perceptions of his CO and other officers had changed. Nathu Singh had become moderate in his views as well as his behaviour, based on the advice of the Army commander. On 1 April 1926, Lieut Colonel B.S.A.F. Greville, who was now commanding the battalion, wrote:
"A keen, hard working officer who takes great interest in his work…With regard to the adverse remarks in last year’s report he has shown much improvement in all respects and appears to be much more broad minded in his views…His manners in the mess are now satisfactory and he finds no difficulties in the feeding arrangements…conveys the idea that he is very pleased and happy with Army life."
Nathu Singh’s reluctance to dine in the mess can be attributed not only to his religious beliefs, but also to the fact that he was married, and since his wife was in ‘purdah’, as most Rajput women of station were in those days, he did not relish the thought of leaving her alone at home, while he dined in the mess. He had been married at a very young age to Surya Kumari, the daughter of Thakur Laxman Singh, a high born Rajput chieftain from Mewar, in Rajputana. He had two daughters and three sons, two of whom joined the Services. The eldest daughter, Chandra Kumari, who was born in November 1927, was married to a police officer. The second daughter, Anand Kumari, was born in March 1929. She was married to Major Guman Singh, who later commanded his father-in-law’s battalion, 1/7 Rajputs, during the Jammu and Kashmir operations in 1947-48, when it performed with legendary gallantry, suffering heavy casualties. He retired in 1967, as a Colonel. His elder son Pratap Singh, born in July 1931, was commissioned into an elite Cavalry regiment, but had to leave after a few years due to ill health. The second son, Ran Vijay Singh, was born in December 1932. He joined the Indian Navy, and was trained at Dartmouth, from where he passed out in 1952. He retired as a Rear Admiral. The third, Amarjeet Singh, who was born in December 1935, joined a tea company.
In 1926, Nathu Singh was posted to the 10/7 Rajput, which was the Regiment’s training battalion, at Fatehgarh, in the United Provinces. He remained there for three years, before being posted back to his parent battalion in 1929. During his stay in Fatehgarh, he continued his association with the Congress leaders, such as the Nehrus, Jinnah, and Sarojini Naidu, whom he had met while giving evidence before the Skeen Committee. In 1926, a committee had been appointed, with Sir Andrew Skeen as Chairman, to go into the question of an Indian Sandhurst. Pandit Motilal Nehru and MA Jinnah were members, along with several others. The Committee examined 122 witnesses, which included commanding officers, KCIOs, their parents, and VCOs. Among the KCIOs who gave evidence were Cariappa and Nathu Singh. During this period, Pandit Motilal Nehru, who had resigned from the Committee in March 1926, heard about his desire to leave the service, and dissuaded him from it. He spent a couple of evenings in Nathu Singh’s house in Fatehgarh, where he also met some British officers and their families. He strongly advised Nathu Singh to stick to the Army and not join the National movement or political department of the Government of India, or return to Dungarpur State service, all options which he was considering. Nathu Singh followed this advice, and continued to serve in the Army, even though his heart was not in it.
During his stay in Fatehgarh, the C-in-C, Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood, visited the battalion. All officers were lined upto be introduced to him. Nathu Singh was wearing a ‘safa’ (turban), instead of a regulation hat. He had been wearing the ‘safa’ since he had been commissioned, and surprisingly, nobody had objected to it. When the C-in-C came to Nathu, he took him to be a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer (VCO), who normally wore such head gear. Shaking his hand, he asked, in Hindustani: “Kaisa hai, Sahib” (“How are you?” VCOs were normally addressed as ‘Sahib’, as JCOs in the Indian Army are even today). Without batting an eyelid, Nathu replied, in Hindustani: “Bahut accha hai, Sahib” . (“Very well, Sir”). By now the CO had realised the confusion, and introduced him to the C-in-C, as Mister Nathu Singh. The Chief quickly said: “How do you do, Nathu Singh.” Once again, he replied: “Very well, Sir.”
Nathu Singh is standing first from left.
Nathu Singh returned to 1/7 Rajput, which was in Razmak, in Waziristan, in 1929. The battalion moved to Peshawar in 1930, and the next year, Nathu Singh was promoted Captain. Soon after this, the C-in-C, Field Marshal Birdwood, again visited the battalion. He enquired as to the number of Indian officers present in the unit. When told that Nathu Singh was the only one, he came upto him, and said: " How are you getting on? Remember, one of these days, you will command this battalion. Learn how to do it now, so that you can do it well in battle."
At that time, Indian officers were members of the officers mess, but were not given membership of the club, which admitted only Europeans. This created a peculiar situation, and a solution was found by making them honorary members. In 1933, three Indian officers, who were honorary members of the Peshawar Club, applied for permanent membership, and were black balled. When Nathu Singh heard about it, he was furious. He had already resigned his honorary membership earlier, and he now advised other Indian officers to do the same. As a result, all Indians resigned en masse. This caused a commotion, and the Club President wrote to him, on 21 November 1932:
"The Club Committee hopes that you will accept their invitation to become an Honorary Member of the Club, as they consider it would help the matter when, at a suitable time, the case for full membership is again brought up for discussion. The Committee much regretted your decision to resign from the Club the year before last."
Copies of the letter were sent to other Indian officers. Nathu Singh anger shows in his remarks, noted on the letter, which is marked ‘Strictly Personal’. " Left to me, I would have much liked to get the Bar ploughed by donkeys or better still by the breed mules, where the plot for black balling of a few of the WOGS, who wanted to join as permanent members instead of Hon. was hatched." Soon afterwards, a dinner was held in the club, to celebrate the satisfactory conclusion of the Mohmand operations, for which Nathu was later “Mentioned in Dispatches”. He decided to boycott the dinner, and other Indian officers did the same.
There was a furore. His CO, Lieut Colonel V.R. Munton, was on leave, and wrote, from England, on 16 November 1933:
"Blaxland tells me he has put in for a mention & I met Gen. Coleridge yesterday & he tells me he has forwarded it, so I hope you will get it & I add my heartiest congratulations. But about this “dinner at the club” question. Gen Coleridge told me that you engineered the whole refusal. At this distance it is very difficult to visualise the show & to gauge what the atmosphere was at the time - I will look into this on my return. But I do feel it was a damned silly thing not to go to the dinner. A regiment is rather a sacred thing, if you work it out & it is hallowed by a hundred odd years of tradition & blood. To let it down merely to vent a private grievance sounds very petty. You probably didn’t mean it as such but it savours of non-cooperation - & the latter in the Army is absolutely disaster. To take up the attitude of a “die-hard” isn’t going to do much good. Quite apart from the fact that at the next show the Bn. will probably be left behind, your own military career may be affected. A successful staff officer has to show tact & sympathy, & be prepared to advance to a half-way line."
On his return from England, Lieut Colonel Munton went into the affair, and found that it was some British officers who had done the mischief, and not Nathu Singh. Of course, he had declined to attend the dinner, but this was in reaction to the black balling of the three Indian officers. In fact, by standing up for his Indian colleagues, Nathu Singh gained the respect of several British officers, who felt that the club rules were unfair.
In 1934, 1/7 Rajputs moved to Secunderabad, in the Deccan. By now, Nathu Singh and the battalion had got used to each other. At that time, as it is now, the Staff College was considered a stepping stone to higher ranks in the Army, and all officers attempted to clear the entrance examination, as soon as they were eligible. However, before they could do so, they had to be recommended by their COs. In Nathu Singh’s case, it was not just ambition which spurred him, but a burning desire to prove to the British that he was better than they thought him to be.
For three years, Nathu Singh was denied the recommendation to compete for the Staff College examination, on the grounds that he lacked experience. Naturally, he was livid with rage, especially as several other officers, junior to him, were granted permission. However, there was little he could do, but wait. Then, a new CO took over, and in 1935, Nathu Singh was given the necessary recommendation. He appeared in the entrance examination, and not only qualified, but secured a competitive vacancy. In fact, he secured 915 marks out of 1000 in the Strategy paper, a record which has still not been equalled. The fact that he had done so, without any guidance or coaching, was noticed, and commended by his CO. To Nathu Singh, his success was especially sweet, as his earlier CO had considered him inexperienced, and not yet ready to take the examination.
At Quetta, one of his instructors was B.L. Montgomery, who later achieved fame as the victor of El Alamien. ‘Monty’ was greatly impressed by Nathu’s sharp mind, and grasp of tactical problems, and predicted that he would go far in the profession. He was known for his anti Indian bias, and held a poor opinion of Indians, and their intellectual capabilities. Once, he is said to have remarked “I do not like things Indian”, drawing a prompt retort from Nathu Singh, “then what are you doing here, Sir?”
After successfully completing the course at the Staff College, Quetta, in 1937, Nathu Singh was posted as Staff Captain of the Naushera Brigade. After the outbreak of World War II, he was promoted Major, and appointed Brigade Major of the same brigade. He was on excellent terms with his first brigade commander, Brigadier Nye, who later became Vice Chief of Imperial General Staff. However, he was at logger heads with Nye’s successor, due to his views supporting the stand of the Congress Party. In 1942, he was packed off to Imphal, as GSO 2 (Chemical Warfare), of IV British Corps. He was mainly concerned with the evacuation of refugees, who poured into India, as a result of the Japanese invasion of Burma. He literally saved thousands of refugees from certain death, and his contribution was acknowledged when he was transferred to 2/7 Rajput, as the second-in-command.
By now, Nathu Singh had put in almost twenty years service, and should have been promoted to Lieut Colonel, and given command of a battalion. However, his promotion was delayed by almost a year, and he remained the second-in-command. This was probably due to his pro nationalist stance. During the Quit India movement in 1942, he was asked to suppress an agitation. He placed a picket on the route of the rally, but persuaded the Congress leaders, who were known to him, to take another route. Next day, the CO again asked him to do the same. Nathu Singh objected, saying that it was not fair to ask him to shoot at his own countrymen, who were only asking for their freedom. He requested the CO to give the job to some other officer, but this was refused, and he was told that if he disobeyed orders he would be court martialled.
Nathu Singh refused to carry out the orders, and the matter was reported to the District Commander, Major General Bruce Scott. Most British officers could barely conceal their glee, as they felt that the ‘die hard’ had finally been trapped. When he was marched up to General Scott, Nathu Singh defended his action, as a ‘concientous objector’, quoting the example of similar cases in Ireland. To his good luck, Scott turned out to be an Irishman. He appreciated the stand taken by Nathu Singh, and let him off.
On 20 October 1943, he was promoted Lieut Colonel, and given command of 9/7 Rajput, at Chhindwara. When he took over the battalion, it had been graded ‘unfit for war’, after having been mauled by the Japanese in Burma. Nathu Singh set to work like a man possessed, and within a few months, had turned it round. He was full of energy and determination, and his hard work paid off. During the next inspection, the Brigade Commander could find little fault, and the battalion was graded ‘fit for war’. In fact, it was graded as the best battalion in the division, and Major General ‘Tiger’ Curtis, GOC 14 Indian Division, congratulated them at a parade, in front of the entire division. The irony that this was done by Nathu Singh, who had been considered unsuitable by his CO twenty years earlier, was not lost on his British superiors, or his colleagues.
The Divisional Commander, Major General ‘Tiger’ Curtis, was known to be man who was difficult to please. Once, Nathu Singh was asked to conduct a demonstration, for all officers of the division. Curtis was so impressed by Nathu Singh’s performance that he saluted him, in front of all officers, a rare honour for a subordinate officer, and that too an Indian. After this, Nathu Singh became the blue eyed boy of the GOC. This was resented by Brigadier Talbot, Commander 109 Indian Infantry Brigade, who was Nathu Singh’s immediate superior. However, even he admired Nathu Singh for his professional capabilities. One day, after Nathu Singh had left the battalion, Brigadier Talbot came to visit 9/7 Rajput. While talking about Nathu Singh, he remarked: “Your previous CO, with his electric moustaches, could get anything done.”
After about a year, he received orders transferring him to 3 Maratha Light Infantry, in Italy. Nathu was surprised, and annoyed, as he had been expecting to get command of his own battalion, 1/7 Rajput. Command of a battalion in action would entitle him to quick promotion, and he would probably get a chance to command a brigade in field, and become the first Indian to do so. But Nathu Singh wanted command of his own battalion, and nothing else. He appealed to the C-in-C, General Auchinleck, under whom he had served in the NWFP, and who had become his mentor. 1/7 Rajput had been part of Brigadier Auchinleck’s brigade, during the Mohmand operations, in 1933. Nathu Singh was the Adjutant of the battalion, and could be seen galloping from company to company, conveying orders and instructions, under heavy fire. Auchinleck was impressed by his courage, and mentioned him in dispatches. This was also the beginning of a long association between Nathu Singh and the ‘Auk’.
The Auk promptly had his transfer orders rescinded, and Nathu Singh assumed command of 1/7 Rajput on 17 September 1944. When World War II ended, he was commanding the battalion, in the Andamans, and accepted the formal surrender of Japanese troops in the Andaman and Nicobar islands frmm Vice Admiral Teejo Hara, on behalf of the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia.
23rd Oct, 1945. Japanese officers salute Lieutenant-Colonel Thakur Nathu Singh, Commanding Officer of the 1/7 Rajput Regiment, and other British Indian officers at a ceremony on board HMS ‘Rocksand’ following the landing on Nancowry Island, one of the Nicobar group.
It was from Andamans that he wrote the famous letter to Auchinleck protesting against the INA trials. Running into eight pages, and couched in the strongest language, it brings out his anger, and anguish, at the unfairness of the trials, and its repercussions. As an example of courage, and candour, it has few equals.
In his letter, dated 17 December 1945, Nathu enclosed a Note, which bore the heading REPERCUSSIONS OF THE I.N.A. TRIALS ON THE MINDS OF AN INDIAN IN THE ARMY. It summarised the following main reasons which led to the formation of the INA:
The general treatment of Indian officers, including denial of Indian food, in messes, and the freedom to wear Indian clothes, listen to Indian music, or talk in their native language.
Brainwashing, propaganda, and torture inflicted on Indian prisoners of war by the Japanese.
The British Government tried to satisfy the demands for Indianisation of the Army, by opening entry to Sandhurst, and establishing the Prince of Wales Royal Military College (now called the Rashtriya Indian Military College, or RIMC). With only five vacancies at Sandhurst, and only one school to prepare candidates, it was a hoax.
The Eight Unit Scheme, which ensured that British officers would not have to serve under Indians, and effectively segregated them.
Restricting entry of Indians to Artillery, Navy and Air Force, to negligible numbers.
The opening of the IMA was supposed to be a step towards Indianisation. However, whereas KCIOs were posted as company officers, ICOs were given command of platoons, replacing VCOs. Hence, there was no reduction in the number of British officers.
After establishment of the IMA, Indians ceased to get King’s commissions, and were given Indian commissions. This conveyed an impression that Indian officers were inferior, and were equivalent to the Provincial Civil Service, which is subordinate to the ICS, to which KCIOs were equated. As a result, the upper classes stopped sending their wards to the Army, and preferred the ICS.
Discrimination between KCIOs and ICOs in terms of pay, though they did the same job, and had to maintain the same standard of living.
ICOs took the place of VCOs in units, leading to reduction in vacancies of the latter, and dissatisfaction.
As soon as World War II began, Indianisation was’ thrown to the winds’, based on the premise that units officered by Indians could not be trusted.
Nathu Singh felt that all these factors, put together, led to grave doubts whether the British were serious about Indianisation, or it was merely ‘window dressing,’ to impress the public and the outside World. Though two and a half million Indians had fought in two wars, they had not been able to produce a single General. Important appointments dealing with operations were denied to them, and just a handful were given command of units. Drawing a parallel with the Soviet Union, which took shape at about the same time as Indianisation began in India, the disparities were obvious. However, his most scathing comments were reserved for the unfair treatment meted out to Indians, which he covers at length.
Nathu Singh wrote: "…The formation of the INA was not alone the work of its leaders like Bose, or of the Jap Opportunist. The creation and growth of the INA was a direct result of the continuous unjust treatment of Indian officers in the Army. It is the natural heritage of years of dissatisfaction, disappointment and disgust of various elements in the Indian Army. The present members of the INA are to be blamed for their conduct, but equally to blame is the Imperialist Anti-Indian British element in the army who by their talk and action daily estranged the otherwise loyal mind of the Indian, and last but not the least to blame are the British reverses in the Far East, which left the Indian soldier to their fate.
Time is critical, and at this juncture, large issues are at stake. Momentous decisions have to be made, and on them will depend the future Indo-British relations. The previous services of those in the INA who actually fought for the British till they were captured by the enemy deserves lenient treatment. Wisdom and foresight suggest that the crimes of the members of the INA be condoned."
One can only marvel at the brashness of a Lieut Colonel, addressing the C-in-C, on such a sensitive political issue. No less surprising is the Auk’s response. Far from taking offence, he realised that the feelings expressed by Nathu Singh stemmed from nationalistic fervour, rather than a rebellious disposition. He not only chose to ignore the fact that the writer had disobeyed orders, in addressing the C-in-C directly, but replied, in his own hand. He could sense the anguish in the heart of Nathu Singh, and could empathise with him. However, he felt disturbed and hurt at the bitterness in Nathu Singh’s letter, and admonished him, much as a school master would his favourite pupil. Written in a human vein, the letter brings out the Auk’s deep attachment to the Indian Army, and his fondness for his Indian subordinate.
Marked ‘Personal and Private’, the Auk’s handwritten letter of 19 February 1946, reads:
"…I know that many of the views expressed by you are based on fact. All the same, I do feel that you are wrong to dwell so much on past mistakes and bitterness and I know that many of your opinions are exaggerated and unfair. I say I know this and it grieves me to think that you, whom I regard as an old friend, should deliberately rake up old errors and misunderstandings…You are one of the people on whom I had hoped to rely…I was deeply disturbed and I may say, disappointed by the general attitude of mind expressed in your note, but I still hope that it does not represent your permanent frame of mind, as this would cause me sorrow…Needless to say you have my assurance that this matter is private between us. Your note will not be seen by any one else and it will not have the slightest effect on your official standing, so far as I am concerned, because I realise that you would not have written as you did had you not had full trust in my good faith and friendship for you…I do value your having written to me as freely and openly as you did…"
In May 1946, Nathu Singh was promoted Colonel, and posted as Deputy Director, Personnel Services, in the Adjutant General’s Branch in Army HQ, which was then located at Meerut. Very soon, he had differences with the Director, Brigadier Duke, which necessitated the transfer of one of them. Under normal circumstances, Nathu Singh should have been moved out, but the Auk decided to post out Brigadier Duke instead, and Nathu Singh was promoted Brigadier and appointed Director in his place. Nathu Singh pleaded with the C-in-C to transfer him, instead of Brigadier Duke, but he did not agree. The Auk either felt that Nathu Singh was right, or perhaps it was because he was fond of him that he took such a decision.
Nathu Singh’s closeness to the Auk can be gauged from the fact that when the latter heard about his differences with Brigadier Duke, he called him to Delhi, and made him stay in his own house. He even took him to England, to enable him to study the selection procedure for officers in the British Army. When the time came for Nathu Singh to return to Meerut, he asked the ADC for the bill, for the drinks he had, while staying in the C-in-C’s house (This was later renamed as Teen Murti, and became the Prime Minister’s House, in Nehru’s time). The ADC told him to talk to the C-in-C himself, which he did. The Auk said: “Don’t be silly, Nathu. You are my guest.” To this Nathu Singh replied: "Sir, I wish I had known this earlier. I would have had a few more drinks."
Soon after becoming the Director, Nathu Singh submitted a paper on the reorganisation of the Army, and its officer cadre, which was approved by Auchinleck. A training school was immediately started at Yol, for emergency commissioned officers (ECOs), so that they could be granted permanent regular commission (PRC). This helped about 4000 ECOs to get absorbed in the regular Army, as ICOs. It was at this time that he was offered the post of the C-in-C, after Independence. Sardar Baldev Singh was then the Defence Minister of the Interim Government. At a tea party held at his house, Baldev Singh conveyed this to Nathu Singh, in the presence of several other leaders, including the premiers of Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. He followed it up with a letter, on 22 November, 1946, addressed to Nathu Singh:
Your letter of 21st November has reached me. You have been selected and earmarked to be the First C-in-C of India, with Command over the three Defence Services. This decision has been arrived at, after the Muslim League joined the ‘Interim Government’, and with the consent of all the Political Parties comprising the Government. It is on the recommendation of the present C-in-C, and with the approval of the Governor-General, the Viceroy, and maybe the HMG. The approval of the officers senior to you does not arise.
The letter goes on to answer several other questions raised by Nathu Singh, such as acceleration of nationalisation, integration of the three Defence Services, ‘Dominion Status’ for the country, and the appointment of an Indian as the next Governor-General, after Lord Wavell. Baldev Singh also made it clear that after the ‘Transfer of Power’, the C-in-C would be working under the Ministry of Defence. Nathu Singh is said to have declined the offer, since he felt that Cariappa was senior, and the appointment should rightfully go to him. However, the next letter from Nathu Singh contains no reference to this offer of promotion. Instead, it deals with a very important subject - the partition of India. Dated 24 November 1946, it reads:
"…In our case, unless we remain within the Commonwealth maybe for a short period of a year or two, it is clear to me that by the Cabinet Mission’s latest suggestion of groupings into zones, they may have made sure of cutting the country into three pieces and controlling India, the subcontinent, as they have no doubt they will play havoc with us. To put them in their place, I know Pandit Nehru, and through him, the Congress are trying to do so. But please beware lest India is broken up by bolstering the Muslim League and other communal forces - Sikhs demand for Khalistan, the Princes bid for Federation and encouraging Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir becoming independent by joining hands with other reactionaries…"
The Defence Minister replied, on 27 November 1946:
"Your letter of 24th has reached me, its contents are much appreciated by Pt Jawahar Lalji, Sardar Patel, and my other colleagues of the Executive Council, including the members of the Muslim League…I know you are keeping yourself well out of the present constantly changing political developments, much influenced by the British Imperialists in combination with Mr Jinnah and other leaders, and I expect of you to keep a special eye on the various communities that are being tapped and influenced by them…I understand you are preparing a paper on acceleration of Nationalisation…I would much like to discuss this very vital matter with you before you finalise your proposals for the consideration of the Gopalaswamy Nationalisation Committee."
Nathu Singh and Sarojini Naidu had given evidence before the Skeen Committee on the same day, and they had become quite close to each other. Sarojini Naidu insisted that Nathu Singh should call her ‘Mah’ (Mother), and that is the way she signed her letters to him. The two often corresponded, and at this juncture, he wrote to her, about the problems facing the Country, and nationalisation of the Army. Sarojini Naidu responded, on 9 January 1947, and wrote:
"Dear Nathoo Singh,
Many Thanks for sending me your very illuminating ‘Shot in the dark’. It gives a correct picture of the situation from every angle.
…As the security of the country depends entirely upon the Army, the army should not be based on what the country can afford to have for its defence. It will be fatal to rely on a small armed force, however efficient and modernly equipped it may be; because our country is vulnerable, bristling with traitors and the fifth columnists, in millions in every part of India. We all know the character and honesty of our potential enemies and so called friends.
Our leaders should get advice from us Indians in the army and other branches… and not repeat not from hirelings, who have their own axes to grind;…
One thing more, probably you have noticed but have not mentioned; is how the army is at a disadvantage because of that ‘steel frame’, who wants to have the last word in everything pertaining to the Army. That steel frame must go.
Once again, many thanks for sending me the most illuminating 'Shot in the Dark.'
In February 1947, Nathu Singh was called to give evidence before the Armed Forces Nationalisation Committee. The Committee was set up in November 1946, and consisted of Sir Gopalaswamy Ayyangar (Chairman), Pandit Hriday Nath Kunzru, Muhammad Ismail Khan, Sardar Sampuran Singh, Major General D.A.L. Wade, Brigadier K.S. Thimayya, Wing Commander Mehr Singh and Commander H.M.S. Choudri as members, with Lieut Colonel B.M. Kaul as Secretary. Auchinleck had indicated that out of 22,000 officers in the Indian Army, only 8,500 were Indians, with most of them being ECOs, with very little service or experience. If the Indian Army were to be nationalised immediately, officers with less than nine years service would be commanding battalions. While this could be acceptable in war, it would do incalculable harm if resorted to in peace, where officers needed to have judgement, wisdom, patience and a knowledge of human nature, which could only be acquired by experience. He warned against the dangers of entrusting the command of the Army to officers who lacked experience, especially in the prevailing circumstances, when disruptive forces were swaying public opinion.
Nathu Singh was in Meerut, when he received a questionnaire, which covered several aspects of the problem. He wrote a personal letter to Thimayya, who was member of the Committee, on 8 February 1947, in which he suggested that each issue should first be discussed ‘in house’ by the Army, before Indian officers give evidence. Unless this was done, the Committee may arrive at wrong conclusions, since most officers lacked knowledge and experience, and did not have at their disposal the necessary data to arrive at valid conclusions. He felt that “Each problem should be thrashed out by experienced Indian officers selected by the Nationalisation Committee, prior to the matter coming up before them. It is in this manner that the Committee will be able to get well considered opinions for their final recommendations.”
When Nathu Singh appeared before the Committee, the date for transfer of power had been announced as June 1948, by the British Prime Minister. He suggested that by that date, Indians should be in full control of the Army, and if this was to be achieved, they must begin to hold responsible positions straight away. He strongly refuted the Committee’s suggestion of a Military Mission, to continue after transfer of power, and recommended advisers, who would be responsible to the Indian Government instead of the War Office, as would happen in case of a Military Mission. He also objected to the concept of keeping Indian officers as apprentices or under studies, for important appointments, and felt that they should be deputies instead, so that they had authority as well as responsibility. When asked about the partition of the Army, in case power was transferred to more than one State, Nathu Singh stated that he would hate to do that. In fact, he said that it is not possible to split up the army. He closed by saying, “I suggest that Indians should be consulted in all future planning at A.F.H.Q. This has not been done in the past. We are going to be holding the baby soon. We must be taken into confidence.”
The Armed Forces Nationalisation Committee submitted its report on 12 May 1947. However, by this time the date of transfer of power had been advanced to 15 August 1947, and the Committee’s recommendations became redundant. Nathu Singh again wrote to the Defence Minister on 31 May 1947, after reading his broadcast, about Partition. By this time, he had been transferred to Derajat Force, in Dera Ismail Khan. He wrote to Sardar Baldev Singh:
"…I was amazed and shocked to read your broadcast in the paper at the possibility of a division of the defence services. As an Indian I hate it. My conception is that to partition India would be equivalent of committing rape of our Motherland and to partition the defence services means nothing short of civil war within a few years time…You will play an important part in the final shape of things to come. What about your collecting a selected number of senior officers from all classes and communities from the services and forcing down the throat of uncompromising political leaders, the wisdom of a united India staying within the Empire…"
The Defence Minister replied, on 12 June 1947:
" …I entirely agree with you that the division of India would be equivalent to committing rape of our Motherland and the division of the Defence Forces will have a serious effect on the Military. If in case there is no other solution to our political problem except the division of the country, then division of the Army is inevitable, and this is what I have stated in my statement…I have noted your suggestion about certain officers. We have at present a number of problems facing us and we will need the help of senior Indian officers, but the final decision will have to be taken after the Provinces of Bengal and the Punjab have given their verdict about partition of the Provinces."
Nathu Singh’s correspondence with Sardar Baldev clearly brings out his concern for the unity and integrity of India. He was of the opinion that the British deliberately partitioned India, to make it weak, even hoping that it would be ‘ungovernable’, and force the warring factions to ask them to extend their stay in the Colony. He felt that the Armed Forces, being unaffected by the virus of religion and communalism, were capable of holding the country together, and partition could have been avoided. He never forgave Nehru and the other leaders for their failure to consult the Armed Forces, or take them into confidence, before taking the decision to accept partition. At this time, Nathu Singh was posted on the North West Frontier, from where he could do little but write letters. Also, he was only a Brigadier, and though the most voluble of the KCIOs, he was not the senior among them. Had this been the case, perhaps he could have influenced matters, and events may have taken a different turn. It is pertinent to note that in January 1947, Cariappa had been sent to the Imperial Defence College, in UK, from where he was recalled only in July, and was thus absent at a very crucial juncture, when the fate of the Indian Army was being decided.
When India achieved Independence, Nathu Singh was in command of the Derajat Force, at Dera Ismail Khan. He saw the horrors of Partition, and played an important role in the evacuation of refugees. He was shocked at the behaviour of some British officers of the civil service, who were encouraging the local Muslim population to threaten Hindus, and force them to migrate to India. He tried his best to check this, and brought it to the notice of the political leaders, who expressed their helplessness. He also had a row with his Divisional Commander, Major General W. Fleming and the Army Commander, Sir Frank Messervy. To get him out of way, he was transferred, as Commander, Kamptee Sub Area, on 6 September 1947. In his new appointment, he soon had a tiff with the GOC-in-C, Lieut General Goddard. Nathu Singh came to know that the garrison at Secunderabad was being reduced, and promptly ordered that this should be stopped. He was able to visualise the need of troops, for the Hyderabad operations, which were undertaken subsequently. Goddard was furious, and placed Hyderabad under his direct command. He also got Nathu Singh transferred to Kurukshetra, to look after the refugee camp, which had been set up following the Partition, and the large scale migration which followed. The camp had about twenty thousand people, and it was not an easy task to keep its agitated inmates satisfied. Once, after all his efforts to convince them to keep the camp area clean failed, he collected his entire staff, and along with them, gave a demonstration. After this, the inmates began to cooperate, and he had no more problem on this score.
While he was at the refugee camp, Edwina Mountbatten came to visit. She was impressed, and told Nathu Singh
"You must be a genius." She said that he should ask Mahatma Gandhi to visit the camp, which he did. When Nathu Singh met Gandhiji, they had a discussion about non violence. Nathu Singh asked the Mahatma how he expected his principles of non violence to work, in the existing circumstances. He also asked “In 1921, you had said that we would achieve independence in one year. What happened? You had said, division of the country over my dead body. And the country has been divided.” Gandhiji had no answer.
Very soon, he got another promotion, thanks to the large number of British officers who left when India became independent. He was promoted Major General, and appointed GOC Deccan Area, where he was involved in the planning of the Hyderabad operations, which took place later. While he was there, he was called to Delhi, to attend a briefing, so that he could take over command of the operations in Jammu and Kashmir, which had already commenced. Due to some reason, he could not reach Delhi in time, and Brigadier Kalwant Singh, who was then Director of Operations at Army Headquarters, and familiar with the situation, was promoted Major General, and despatched to Jammu and Kashmir, as GOC Jammu And Kashmir Force. When Nathu Singh reached Delhi, he went to the Operations Room, and came to know of this development. After studying the situation, he went to meet the Prime Minister, which was then a normal practice, for senior Army officers.
When he reached the Prime Minister’s house, he found him sitting on the lawn, talking to some ministers, and civilian officials. Presently, Nehru got up and went inside. The others present there asked Nathu Singh for his views, on the best way to deal with the crisis, in Kashmir. Nathu Singh replied that if he had his way, he would use the minimum troops, to hold the passes, and with maximum force, attack and capture Lahore. This would force Pakistan to withdraw, and vacate all occupied territory in Jammu and Kashmir. The civilians were impressed by the logic of this argument, and when Nehru returned, they told him that the General had a good plan, to throw out the invaders. When Nehru asked him to repeat what he had said, Nathu Singh demurred, saying that he would rather not, since he knew it would not find favour. But Nehru insisted, and Nathu repeated what he had told the others. Nehru became angry, and said that a responsible senior officer like him should not have thought of such a foolhardy scheme, which could cause an international crisis. It is interesting to recall that in 1965, a similar plan was approved by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was then the Prime Minister, and it was the threat to Lahore which saved Kashmir, from Pakistani aggression.
In December 1947, Nathu Singh was posted to Lucknow, as GOC UP Area. Sarojini Naidu, who had been appointed Governor of the United Provinces after Independence, was also in Lucknow. Apart from being a well known patriot and freedom fighter, she was a renowned poetess, and known as “The Nightingale of India.” She was very close to Mahatma Gandhi and other Congress leaders, and had played a prominent part in the struggle for freedom. Nathu Singh discussed with her the problems of India’s security, and the Armed Forces. He had put down his views in a paper called ‘Notes on National Security’, and he gave her a copy. She forwarded them to Nehru, who was the Prime Minister, and prevailed on him to through them. Nehru’s comments on the Note make interesting reading. In a hand written note, dated 1 January 1948, he wrote:
"…It is axiomatic that India must be strong militarily etc or otherwise she will not only not progress but might break up. How best to build up strength in various sectors is a question of balancing resources…
… Strength, and even purely military strength, depends today far more than before, on our industrial growth & scientific research. It depends also on internal cohesion and peace in industry etc. This latter is a political & economic problem of exceeding complexity and cannot be dealt with simply by military or police methods.
…The whole question of defence is intimately tied up with international questions as well as economic questions. The Notes (of General Nathu Singh) though they refer to international matters do not show an intimate knowledge of the international set-up or economic questions which are of vital importance today both internally and externally.
…No British officer will be in operational command in the Indian Army after 31.3.1948.
…Some of the lines of approach in these notes are arguable. They may land us in difficulties. But generally Major General Nathu Singh’s notes are helpful and it is desirable that urgent thought should be given to these matters by our senior officers and those in control of the political destinies of the nation.
The divergence of views between Nehru and Nathu Singh are obvious. The ideals, so dear to Nehru’s heart, and his consciousness of the international role which he saw for India, are also evident. However, one cannot but help remark that he also appears to pontificate, much as a school master would on a student’s essay, submitted for evaluation. His remarks about Nathu Singh’s ignorance of international matters are ungracious, when one recalls that having been in office for just five months, he himself had little experience, as Nathu Singh was to subsequently remind him. He was also out, by almost a year, in his assertion about British officers not being in command after 31 March 1948.
Nathu Singh’s tenure in Lucknow was short, but eventful. He had to put down two mutinies, at Allahabad and Jhansi, which were nipped in the bud, and did not affect the rest of the Army. During this time, he also had an unfortunate misunderstanding with Jawahar Lal Nehru, concerning his absence at a parade held at Lucknow. Though he had known Nehru for several years, their relations soured, and were never cordial after this. In January 1948, soon after taking charge, he had written an Appreciation on the Defence of India, and forwarded it to Army HQ. He was greatly perturbed by a directive issued from the office of the C-in-C, which sought to reduce the size of the Regular Army to 150 thousand - during World War II, it had risen to 2.5 million - with an annual budget allocation of 45 crore rupees (a crore is ten million), for the next three years.
In the preamble, he wrote:
"We as soldiers must approach our leaders and submit our minimum requirements and make it clear that if funds are not provided for such a force, the responsibility will be upon them. A soldier is but a servant of the State. He must however, point out any weaknesses in the defensive structure of the country with all the emphasis at his command. In order to arrive at a correct appreciation, we must consider both military and allied factors and not be swayed by any notions of idealism or allow political considerations to affect our judgement…
A NEWLY CREATED NATION WHICH HAS ONLY JUST THROWN OFF HER BONDAGE OF FOREIGN RULE OF 200 YEARS AND MORE CANNOT RISK A REVERSE ALMOST AT HER REBIRTH.
…We must NOT decide on the size of our Defence Service on what we can financially afford but on what we need in the form of a Modern Defence based on the following considerations :-
(a) What is the strength and armament of present and potential enemies of India?
(b) What is the force required by India to meet this threat
© What will be the cost of maintaining such a force?
(d) What is the maximum amount the country can afford to pay for its Defence Forces?
(e) To arrive at a compromise between (b), © and (d0 above, consistent with the safety of our land.
Keeping the above in view, the Land Forces which India should maintain are given in the enclosed appreciation. They are only my first thoughts."
Nathu Singh proceeded to list out the frame work of the Indian Army, for the future. By present standards, he was extremely conservative - he asked for one corps headquarters, one armoured division, two infantry divisions, one parachute brigade, one armoured brigade, and the associated complement of Artillery, Engineers and Signals. The number of infantry battalions was only 28. However, he advocated a large complement of territorial army, which would provide the second line of defence, and boost the resources of the regular army, during war.
In April 1948, he was promoted Lieut General, and appointed GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, at Ranchi. Like many other Indian officers, he had risen from the rank of Lieut Colonel to Lieut General, in less than three years. He continued his efforts to convince the political and military leadership of the necessity of maintaining a strong Army. When asked for a run down of the Army, by Army HQ, he replied, on 24 October 1950 :-
"…The situation facing the country from the military point of view is today virtually the same if not worse because, although Pakistan outwardly appears to be fraternising with our country, recent speeches of their leaders leave no room for doubt that they are preparing for a show-down with our country over the KASHMIR issue.
…Communist China’s complete success over the KUOMINTANG and the establishment of th Peoples’ Government, their recent activities, their declared policy towards liberation of Tibet, and the recent Mission from the latter country clearly indicate the writing on the wall. The Communist menace is gradually spreading towards the very borders of India.
…To ensure the security of our borders and our State, the Defence service ratio between INDIA and PAKISTAN should be two to one . If this is reduced, we will be laying our country open to an ever present danger of a major war."
Nathu Singh’s remarks, especially with reference to Pakistan and China, display an insight of international affairs which very few Indians had, at that time. Even Nehru, who orchestrated India’s foreign policy for almost two decades following Independence, failed to grasp the nuances which Nathu Singh had perceived. As a result, the Defence Forces were neglected, with disastrous results in 1962. Nathu Singh cried himself hoarse, trying to convince the political and military leadership of the need of maintaining a strong Army. He did not visualise a large force - that would be a ‘white elephant’, he felt - but one that was well trained and equipped. Unfortunately, his lone voice did not reach the ears of our leaders, cloistered in their ivory towers, who were more worried about solving the problems of the World than those of their own country. Nehru was a great intellectual, and a patriot. The saga of his sacrifices during the freedom struggle forms one of the most glorious chapters of the history of our Nation. However, as a statesman, his achievements are more than matched by his failures. An intimate knowledge of military affairs is important for those who decide the fate of peoples, and nations. Among his contemporaries, such as Churchill, Stalin, Chiang Kai Shek, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Tito, and Nasser, Nehru was one of the few who had never worn an uniform.
Soon after Independence, the Prime Minister held a conference of senior Army officers, to elicit their views regarding keeping British officers for some more time, as advisors. Nehru felt that Indian officers lacked the experience to take over the responsibility for such a large Army, and wanted to retain British officers for a longer period, as Pakistan had done. Almost every one agreed with Nehru, except for Nathu Singh. He said: " Officers sitting here have more than 25 years service, and are capable of holding senior appointments in the Armed Forces. As for experience, if I may ask you Sir, what experience do you have to hold the post of Prime Minister ?" There was a stunned silence, and Nehru did not reply. Finally, it was decided to keep the British advisors for some more time, as proposed by Nehru.
Nathu Singh had always been a stormy petrel, and neither rank nor age had dimmed his ardour. He had as many admirers as he had detractors. Most of his superiors found him a difficult subordinate. He possessed many fine qualities, but two which he lacked were modesty and reticence. Even Cariappa, who was from the same regiment, while commending his loyalty, sense of duty, concern for the welfare of troops, and administrative abilities, could not help adding that he found him loquacious and immodest. In fact, his close association with Cariappa, who became the first C-in-C, rarely deterred him from doing what he thought was right. Cariappa was a stickler, who never allowed regimental loyalty to affect his behaviour, and this led to several brushes between these two ‘Rajputs’. But they were close friends, and Nathu Singh was not above pulling Kipper’s leg, when he had the chance.
Once when he was the GOC-in-C Eastern Command, he visited Delhi, and was a house guest at White Gates, where Cariappa lived, as the C-in-C. Nathu Singh knew about his host’s rigid rules regarding dress, and wanted to tease him. So he put on a kurta and pyjama, and went and sat in the drawing room. When Cariappa entered the room some time later, he immediately noticed this, and asked his guest why he was improperly dressed. Nathu Singh replied that what he was wearing was now the national dress, and permitted to be worn even at formal functions.
Cariappa had taken over as C-in-C on 15 January 1949, and retired after exactly four years, on 14 January 1953. At that time, the three Army Commanders were Maharaj Rajendra Sinhji, Thakur Nathu Singh, and SM Shrinagesh. Rajendra Sinhji should have retired three months earlier, but was given an extension, probably in order to enable him to succeed Cariappa. Due to a new rule, promulgated in 1950, officers retired after four years in command, and when Cariappa retired, he was only 53 years old. In fact, Rajendra Sinhji, though a year junior, was six months older than Cariappa. Nathu Singh was junior to Rajendra Sinhji by a year and half, but almost three years younger in age. Eventually, Rajendra Sinhji was appointed the next C-in-C. Nathu Singh had already created a few ripples, which had effectively jeopardized his chances of being considered for the top post in the Army. In March 1948, when he was GOC UP Area, he had protested at not being considered for promotion to the rank of Lieut General, merely because he was not graded ‘outstanding’ by the Army Commander, Lieut General Rajendra Sinhji, who promptly rectified the mistake. In 1951, he wrote to the C-in-C, General Cariappa, making certain allegations against Major General Hira Lal Atal, who was then Adjutant General (AG), at Army HQ. Nathu Singh felt the methods being adopted by the AG to screen State Forces personnel were wrong, and resulted in several excellent officers and men, who had served with distinction during World war II, being de-mobilised. He also felt that the one tenure system of four years, proposed by Atal, was primarily to ensure his own promotion as Army Commander. Nathu Singh’s letter was brought to the notice of the Prime Minister, who turned down the allegations. This was not surprising, considering that Atal was a Kashmiri, and close to Nehru. As for Nathu Singh, he was conveyed the ‘displeasure’ of the Government of India, for trying to impugn the character and military reputation of another officer. Later, in 1952, he sent a representation directly to the Defence Minister, regarding his extension of service.
These letters and representations did little to endear Nathu Singh to the bureaucrats and politicians of the day. In marked contrast, the British Government had taken no cognizance of the letter he had written to the C-in-C, in 1946, protesting against the trial of the INA prisoners. Little wonder, that Nathu Singh, in spite of his dislike, could only admire the British sense of fair play. He said that whenever the British said anything derogatory about India, he went for them. But he admitted, "If you take the best of them, we have never produced anyone quite like them. I have not known a British officer who placed his own interests before his country’s, and I have hardly known any Indian officers, who did not."
Whatever one may say about the propriety of Nathu Singh’s representation, it is difficult to refute the logic of his arguments. The four year rule ensured that senior officers retired at a comparatively young age - Cariappa at 53, Nathu Singh at 51, and Thimayya and Thorat at 55. This was at a time when the Indian Army needed officers with experience, and was even considering retaining British officers for several years. In fact, the British heads of technical Arms, such as Engineers and Signals - Major General Harold Williams and Brigadier CHI Akehurst - continued upto seven years after Independence, as did the C-in-C of the Navy, Vice Admiral CTM Pizey. The only persons affected by the four year rule were the Army Chief and the Army Commanders, where experience was needed the most. It is difficult to believe that Cariappa supported the move; perhaps he acquiesced, since he must have felt that to do otherwise may appear selfish, since he too was affected. And being the gentleman he was, that was the last thing he would have liked to be accused of. In the event, he recommended the proposal, and Nehru accepted it, without going into the implications. If he had done so, perhaps the Indian Army would not have had to suffer the infamy of 1962, since Thimayya as well as Thorat would still have been around, to say ‘No’ to Nehru and Krishna Menon, as Sam Manekshaw said to Indira Gandhi in April 1971, when she wanted to go to war with Pakistan.
Nathu Singh retired on 1 February 1953, exactly 15 days after Cariappa retired as C-in-C of the Indian Army. He did not grudge the promotion of Maharaj Rajendra Sinhji, who succeeded Cariappa, after having been given an extension. But he did feel that the denial of an extension to him was unjust. If he had been allowed to serve, he would have automatically succeeded Rajendra Sinhji, when the latter retired, in March 1955. After his retirement, there were strong rumours that he was being appointed Governor of a State. After all, he was just 51 years old, and in the prime of his life. A known nationalist, his loyalty and integrity were beyond reproach. He had many admirers, and one of them was Sarojini Naidu. She was still the Governor of United Provinces, and spoke to him about a gubernatorial appointment. However, by this time, his tiffs with Nehru had taken their toll. Nehru was familiar with his bold and outspoken ways, and did not want to take the risk of dealing with an intractable Governor, who would do what he thought was right, and not what he was told.
After his retirement, Nathu Singh continued to write to Nehru and other leaders, on various issues. He was furious at the incident which resulted in Thimayya’s resignation, and subsequent statement by Prime Minister Nehru in Parliament. Nathu Singh felt that Thimayya had been shabbily treated, and was concerned at the growing demoralisation in the Army. He wrote to Nehru, requesting him to constitute a committee which should review the present state of the Army, and suggest improvements. Nehru replied, assuring that he would do so. When this did not happen, Nathu Singh wrote an angry letter to the Prime Minister, warning him of the dangers of marginalising the Armed Forces, and lulling the Nation into a false sense of security. On his own initiative, he organised the Forum of Old Guard, which could advise the Government on key issues dealing with national security. This had the backing of most of the retired generals, including Cariappa. Unfortunately, Nehru chose to ignore these warnings, at incalculable cost.
Sometime later, he was encouraged to join politics, by Maharawal Laxman Singh, of Dungarpur, whom Nathu Singh respected, and still regarded as his ‘Chief’. He joined the Swatantra Party, of Rajgopalachari (Rajaji), who had been Independent India’s first Governor General. In 1964, he fought a bye election from Bhilwara, in Rajasthan, but lost to the Congress candidate. He was not familiar with the ways of politicians, and often shared the platform with his rival, for his campaign speeches. He would tell the voters that if they voted for him, he would work for the whole Country, and not only for his own constituency. So if they wanted something to be done for their District, they should vote for his rival, and not for him.
Even after his retirement, Nathu Singh continued to take an active interest in National affairs, especially the Army. He was perturbed with the gradual deterioration in the status of Army personnel, and of the decline in moral standards, in the Country. He would discuss these issues with anyone he met, and kept writing letters to successive Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers, as well as the President. In 1993 the author spent two weeks in the military hospital at Jodhpur, where General Nathu Singh was also a patient, in the adjoining room. He was as mentally agile as ever, and carried a bundle of files and books with him, wherever he went. He appeared to be extremely distressed by the corruption, sycophancy and decay in moral standards, in the country, as well as the Army. What was needed, he said, was men of character, a quality which seemed to be lacking in the present day crop of leaders. Having lived by the highest standards of morality all his life, he found it difficult to stomach the present day state of affairs.
In strength of character, personal morality and sense of duty, Nathu Singh equalled Cariappa, though they were poles apart in other spheres. In 1947, when he was a Brigadier, he visited the office of the Military Secretary at Army HQ, who was responsible for postings and promotions, of officers. His son-in-law, Major Guman Singh, was due for promotion, and was to be posted to a battalion of the Rajput regiment, as CO. 1/7 Rajput, which was in Razmak, was likely to be sent to Jammu and Kashmir shortly, while the other battalion falling vacant, 4/7 Rajput, was at Ramgarh, in Bihar. The Military Secretary asked Nathu Singh where he wanted his son-in-law to be posted. Nathu Singh replied that posting suitable officers was the job of the Military Secretary, and he had no choice in the matter. But when asked to indicate his views, as a senior officer of the regiment, he said that he would prefer his son-in-law to be posted to 1/7 Rajput, so that he could see some active service, and do his duty for his country, by fighting the enemy.
Nathu Singh was a man of simple tastes, and moderate in food and drink. But he was a workaholic, and rarely sat still. He would rise at dawn, and go for a long walk, a habit he continued with even after retirement. He always kept a small note pad and pencil next to him, which he used to jot down thoughts as and when they occurred to him. Even when he slept, he kept the note pad under his pillow, and would sometimes get up in the middle of the night or early morning to make notes. His dedication to his job, or the task at hand, was total, and he did not allow anything to distract him, even for a short while. His boldness, and outspoken nature, were often not liked by his superiors, but this did not deter him from speaking out. He possessed a sharp intellect, which even his severest critics acknowledged. He was also a man of wit, and his repartees are legendary.
Once, when he was a young officer, his British CO spat out,“Damn the country, and the people.” Nathu Singh promptly replied, “I was in England, and did not like it, so I returned. Why don’t you?” Another time, a British officer asked him if he was from Rajputana. On receiving a nod, he continued, “I believe your ancestors were bandits?" Nathu Singh retorted, “They may have been. But at that time, yours must be living up in trees.”
Just a few days before his death, he came to attend the Prize Giving ceremony at Mayo College. He was 94 years old, but came, primarily to meet TN Seshan, who was the Chief Guest. He spent three days at his old school, and attended every function. He was continuously ticking off people, and advising the boys to fight for the interests of the country. A few days later, he went to the military hospital at Nasirabad, for a medical check-up. The day after he was found fit, he had a cardiac arrest, and died, in the hospital itself, on 5 November 1994. The next day, his body was taken to his village, near Udaipur, where he was cremated. Though he had served all his life in the Army, and retired as an Army Commander, it was a police guard of honour which reversed arms at his funeral. The famous lines, quoted below, were never so true, as in case of Nathu Singh:
"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note
As they carried his body to the ramparts…"
Like Cariappa and Thimayya, Nathu Singh was one of the founding fathers of the modern Indian Army. Though not as famous as the other two, he equalled them in strength of character, and surpassed them in nationalistic fervour. Many called him a maverick, others a renegade or a rebel. He was highly individualistic, with scant respect for authority. He never hesitated to express his views, and he could not care less if these were not liked by his superiors. However, no one could ever fault him on professional capability, personal integrity, diligence, or courage, both moral and physical. He had many faults, but these were more than compensated by his sterling qualities of character, and his deep sense of national pride. A colourful personality, Thakur Nathu Singh was not easy to ignore, and will not be easily forgotten.
Written by Maj Gen V K Singh (retd) of Corps of Signal