By Lt Gen Kamal Davar
One of India’s finest battle-renowned military leaders and an icon to lakhs in the Indian Army, Lt Gen Hanut Singh passed away on April 10, 2015 at his ‘ashram’ in Dehradun at the age of 82. Gen Hanut --- affectionately “Hunty” to some -- now rests in a soldier’s Valhalla having served his nation, the Indian Army, and the love and pride of his life —his regiment, The Poona Horse --- with uncommon distinction and an unflagging commitment.
Gen Hanut was truly a saint soldier who inspired admiration, awe and an abiding respect from all those who came in contact with him. He epitomized old world values of a sterling character, uncompromising personal and professional integrity, untiring dedication to his responsibilities whilst displaying military professionalism rarely witnessed in recent years.
Born on July 6, 1933 to a noble lineage of the redoubtable Jasol Rathore Rajputs from the Barmer district in Rajasthan, Hanut’s father, Col Arjun Singh was himself a well-known soldier of his times, having served in The Jodhpur Lancers and then had commanded the famous Kachawa Horse in the pre-Partition era. Thus Hanut inherited a love of horses, equine sports and the dash of the cavalry in the battlefield. Importantly, the Jasol Rajputs, having existed down the centuries - --rather independently in their remote and harsh desert habitat---- were known for their fiercely proud and individualistic nature, and Hanut was to display the same traits all throughout his stormy career in the Indian Army. Young Hanut did his early education at Col Brown’s School in Dehradun ---- a town which was destined to become, many years later, his final resting place.
Joining the 1st JSW (Joint Services Wing) Course at Dehradun was just the natural outcome. Subsequently after completing his training at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Hanut was commissioned in December 1952 alongwith his course mates ---- some who rose to the pinnacle in their services like Admiral Ramdas in the Indian Navy, Gen Rodrigues in the Army and Air Chief Marshal N.C. Suri in the Indian Air Force. Right throughout his training days, Hanut displayed his strength of unblemished character, high standards in professional performance though he remained essentially a loner, happy with his books and pursuing his passion for reading military history, especially biographies of the great captains of war. Hanut was an ardent admirer of the German General Staff, who he often stated were the best of their kind in matters professional.
Hanut was commissioned into 17 Horse, popularly known as The Poona Horse, one of the last regiments to be Indianised. Right from his days as a young subaltern till he commanded The Poona Horse, Hanut worked zealously not only to better his own professional prowess but in bringing up his regiment’s technical and tactical standards. With The Poona Horse being later equipped with the formidable British Centurion tanks, Hanut was sent to UK for conversion training. On his return, he was posted as a Gunnery Instructor at the Armoured Corps Centre and School, Ahmednagar. Here, Hanut did yeoman service in formalizing various gunnery practices and training formats which were to prove indispensable to coming generations of officers and men from the Centurion-equipped regiments of the Indian Armoured Corps. Later as an instructor in tactics at the same school, Hanut was instrumental in evolving and writing down tactical doctrine and instructions for the employment of armour in various operations of war in the Indian context. He often stated that the Germans were the only ones in the world who fully comprehended the nuances of mobile warfare in its classical sense. His expositions in handling of armoured forces were a rare treat to listen to.
One of the glorious facets in his soldierly career which will always be recalled was his command of his regiment in the 1971 operations in the Shakargarh Bulge. In the famous Battle of Basantar, Pakistan’s 8 Armoured Brigade strongly supported by the Pakistani Air Force fiercely counter-attacked The Poona Horse, which had crossed into Pakistan as part of India’s 1 Corps offensive and had made some territorial gains. Inspired by Hanut’s leadership, in a single day’s battle The Poona Horse fought like lions and destroyed 50 enemy tanks, losing 13 of its own. Two of Pakistan’s battle renowned regiments, 13 Lancers and 31 Cavalry were virtually decimated.
It was during one of these engagements that a very young officer of this regiment, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal, fought gallantly, refusing to withdraw even when he was getting enemy fire from all directions and made the supreme sacrifice. He was subsequently awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest gallantry award. For his gallant leadership, Hanut was awarded the coveted Maha Vir Chakra. In a rare display of recognition of gallantry of the enemy, the Pakistan Army conferred the title of ‘Faqr-e-Hind’ (The Pride of India) to The Poona Horse. Twenty years later, Hanut wrote the book “Fakhr-e-Hind” and eloquently noted that their regimental spirit is “an intangible compendium of many qualities that defies description, but infuses every Poona Horseman and guides and sustains him both in peace and war.”
Hanut’s levels of military intellect often found him crossing swords (professionally speaking) with his senior officers. Whilst he was commanding 1 Armoured Division and later 2 Corps, he would often disagree with the employment of armour and his strike elements. But it must be stated that despite Hanut’s fierce streak of individuality, most of his senior officers finally would end up agreeing to Hanut’s operational plans and concepts of employment of his strike forces. There were some senior officers who felt that Hanut was far too much of an individualistic and did endeavour to sideline him. However, two of India’s top generals --- Gen Sundarji (later COAS) and Lt Gen Inder Gill, Western Army Commander, despite serious professional differences with Hanut, greatly appreciated the latter’s vision and professional mastery.
Hanut had no time for sycophancy, socializing, or the misuse of regimental or official funds for hosting parties and the like. He generally detested the political class and this aspect of his nearly got him into trouble while he was commanding the Sikkim Division. Hanut refused to attend any civil functions where the Army was not directly involved. Reportedly, then governor A.S. Talyarkhan did his level best to have Hanut removed but then army chief, Gen Krishna Rao prevailed upon then prime minister Indira Gandhi to overlook Hanut’s non-conformist actions ! As is also well-known, even the formidable Indira Gandhi respected the professional advice to her of Gen K.V. Krishna Rao.
Hanut’s concern for the genuine welfare of his men is oft-quoted. He forbade any ‘working parties’ on Sundays and holidays and would often visit the lines and ‘langars’ of the men to see, first hand, the living accommodation and the food being served to his men. He would pull up any erring officer on this score. His spartan and ascetic nature soon rubbed off on many officers in his command.
Hanut was a deeply religious man and, perhaps, his own moral values were shaped by his deep spirituality. Each evening, Hanut would lapse into ‘dhyan’ (meditation) and no worldly affair or telephone calls could ever disturb his communion with the Almighty. He was thus also, sometimes called ”eccentric” by some of his colleagues. Unbothered about any cynicism expressed about him, Hanut believed in his own concept of the soldier’s dharma which he often stated softly was that it was ‘righteous living’. He constantly craved for silence and solitude which he ultimately found in his ashram at Dehradun. Nearly 14 years back, I met him there and did joke with him that outside his meditation room was fluttering proudly, a small pennant of The Poona Horse --- that displayed his abiding love for his regiment, while he remarked that the regimental pennant was his “only link with the outside world”.
One of his fellow regimental officers, Lt Gen Surrinder Singh, later Army Commander Northern Command, reminisces that 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.” Another friend of Hanut’s, the former Maharaja of Kapurthala, Brig Sukhjit Singh, himself a MVC awardee of the 1971 ops, recalls that Hanut’s “life and character blaze across our firmament like a meteor in the sky ----- The Indian Armoured Corps will not see an iconic figure like Hanut for a long time to come…He was the standard bearer of a set of values that place him on a pedestal above mortals that I ever knew.”
Lt Gen Hanut finally merged with the Eternal on April 10, 2015, unsurprisingly, while in ‘dhyan’. He was cremated on the banks of the holy Ganga in Haridwar on April 13. This country does not know how to honour its real heroes. Anyway, Hanut requires no recognition from mortals for he was above all worldly and material cravings. A true saint- soldier who epitomized the ‘karma’ as enshrined in the Bhagvad Gita, Hanut’s moral code and legacy will be fondly recalled by generations of soldiers to come.
(By Lt Gen Kamal Davar is a veteran Armoured Corps officer and now a security analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)