While Brig Pritam Singh displayed commendable frontline leadership as commander of the Poonch garrison, his personal conduct wholly undid the honour that he had earned.

 

A documentary-drama titled “The Saviour”, based on the life of Major Pritam Singh, recently received the Best Punjabi Documentary Award at the 12th Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival 2022, held in Noida on 30 April. By itself, this news item would have attracted little attention, but for the fact that the said documentary is based on the war time exploits of a man, who later was tried by a General Court Martial and dismissed from service on grounds of moral turpitude. This, of course creates a dilemma in the eyes of the military, in how such a legacy is to be remembered and portrayed. Can performance in battle absolve a person from disreputable acts, deliberately committed? Such questions not only must be asked, but need to be answered.
As a young Captain serving in the British Indian Army in World War II, Pritam Singh was captured and made a prisoner of war in Singapore, but he escaped from prison, and walked on foot through Malaya, Thailand, and Burma, covering a distance of over 3,000 miles to reach the Indian border. Post Independence, Pritam was promoted to the rank of Lt Col and given command of 1 Kumaon (Para). Here, the battalion, as part of the newly raised 161 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brig (later Lt Gen) L.P. Sen, took part in the famous battle of Shalteng on 7 November. The enemy was routed with heavy casualties and fled from the scene. Pattan was retaken the same evening and Baramula fell to the Indian forces the next day.
At this time, the situation south of the Pir Panjal pass was fast deteriorating, with thousands of persons fleeing the border areas. Poonch alone had about 40,000 refugees. To relieve pressure on Poonch, Major General (Later Lt Gen) Kulwant Singh, Commander, Jammu and Kashmir Force, despatched a column under 161 Infantry Brigade for its relief. Moving Southwards from Uri, this Force was halted at the Betar Nala, just 16 km short of Poonch, as the Poonch garrison, unaware of the link up being planned, had blown up the bridge there. Consequently, 1 Kumaon under Lt Col Pritam Singh was ordered to effect the link up with the garrison by moving on foot. This was successfully executed and Pritam was made the garrison commander with the acting rank of Brigadier. He successfully defended Poonch for full one year till it was finally relieved in November 1948.
While Brig Pritam Singh displayed commendable frontline leadership as commander of the Poonch garrison, his personal conduct wholly undid the honour that he had earned. The Ruler of Poonch, Raja Kalan Bahadur Ratan Dev Singh had left Poonch in October 1947, when the hostilities had commenced and his official residence, Moti Mahal Palace had been left under the care of retainers. The Raja returned to Poonch in May 1948, after the Indian Army had stabilised the situation, found that Brig Pritam Singh had moved into the palace and had also located the garrison headquarter inside the premises. But what was infinitely worse was the act of blatant theft, Pritam Singh had indulged in. As per the statement given by the retainers of the palace, Pritam Singh had stripped Moti Mahal of its priceless heirlooms and artefacts and carted them away in an IAF aircraft. Writing on this issue, Thakur Raman Dev Singh, the son of the Raja, further stated that his aunt, while on holiday in Mt Abu in the 1970s, paid a courtesy call on Mrs Pritam Singh, the wife of the erstwhile garrison commander of Poonch, who was living there. When she entered the house, she was horrified to find all the priceless family heirlooms displayed there, which was further proof of the villainous theft that had taken place in 1948.
On the Raja’s complaint, the matter was investigated and Brig Pritam Singh was tried by a General Court Martial, for which purpose he was brought down to his substantive rank of Major. The Court found him guilty of the offences as charged and dismissed him from service. The Dismissal Order was published in the Gazette of India, 4 August 1951. Since then, there have been many attempts to gloss over the theft and highlight only the military prowess of the dismissed officer, including petitioning the highest authorities in the land, seeking pardon. Fortunately, both the military as well as the Ministry of Defence have stuck to their principled stand.
A facile argument given in support of restoring the honour of Pritam Singh is that as the garrison commander, he saved the town from falling into enemy hands. Had he failed, the enemy would have been in possession of the palace and the Raja would have lost everything. Such a thought process is poor justification for immoral behaviour and is a self defeating one. Can victorious commanders be given licence to loot their fellow citizens? They cannot be permitted to do so even in lands captured from the enemy, for that too is a dishonourable act. It is this code of ethics, bound in honour, which makes the Indian Army such a formidable force and contributes to its moral calibre. The love and respect which the people of India have for their Army is precisely because they know that the men in olive green will give their lives to protect the honour, dignity, lives and property of its citizens. And the Indian Army lives up to that reputation in foreign lands too, as seen in their conduct in the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, in restoring the government in Maldives in 1988 (Operation Cactus) and in operations in Sri Lanka (Operation Pawan). As the garrison commander, Pritam had a moral obligation to safeguard the property in which he was staying as a guest. He betrayed that trust by stealing from those that had provided him such gracious hospitality and indelibly sullied the image of the Army and its officer corps. The act was unforgivable, even though his role in defence of Poonch was greatly praised and appreciated.
It is regrettable that those defending Pritam Singh and seeking a pardon for his act, have also interjected the communal angle in his conviction by a General Court Martial. This is laughable as the Indian Army has never functioned on that basis. Yes, Pritam was a Sikh, but so were some of the commanding Generals in the chain of command who initiated the court martial proceedings against him—Maj Gen Atma Singh and Lt Gen Kulwant Singh. He was defended by Sardar Swaran Singh, an eminent Sikh lawyer, who specialised in criminal suits, and who was to become, in later years, India’s longest serving Union Cabinet Minister. And the Defence Minister at that time was also a Sikh, Sardar Baldev Singh.
While we appreciate the leadership displayed by Pritam Singh in the defence of Poonch, we must never forget the nefarious role he played in committing theft of priceless heirlooms, while staying as a guest in the Moti Mahal palace. Condoning such acts will set a precedent that will encourage others to follow a path, which can but lead to moral decay. We must never allow that to happen. In India’s Armed forces, valour and honourable conduct go hand in hand. There is no place in the military for villainy, even if it is accompanied by valour.
Dhruv C. Katoch is a retired veteran who is presently Director, India Foundation.