General Shabeg Singh

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General Shabeg Singh

General Shabeg Singh, one of the great generals of modern India, belonged to the village of Khiala, about nine miles from Am Chogwan Road. The General was the eldest son of Sardar Bhagwan Singh and Pritam Kaur who had four sons and a daughter. The family traced its lineage to the great Sikh warrior, Bhai Mehtab Singh who along with Bhai Sukha Singh slew Massa Rangar in 1740 avenging his notorious desecration of the Golden Temple. The family was prosperous holding over 100 acres of land. The village of Khiala was earlier known as Khiala Nand Singhwala. Nand Singh was the great grandfather of Shabeg Singh. Shabeg Singh's mother was a devout lady who was noted for being both--very practical and a great disciplinarian. She never forgot to remind her children and grand children that they were the descendents of Bhai Mehtab Singh and must live up to the famed ancestor's name and achievements. The General's father, Sardar Bhagwan Singh, was the village Lambardar (a village headman) and remained quite occupied with the problems of the village folk who always looked to him for guidance and depended greatly upon his advice.

In 1952, the younger brothers Sardar Shamsher Singh, Sardar Jaswant Singh along with their brother-in-law shifted to Haidwani in the Terrai area of UP after having bought farmlands there. In 1957 their father died. From his early childhood Shabeg Singh had displayed the qualities of leadership with his intelligence beyond that of the average village child. He was quick witted and was known for his, often spontaneously, composed--extemporaneous verses which caricaturized the interesting personalities of his village.

Displaying a keen interest in history and literature his village teachers were so impressed with his intellectual ability that they advised his father and mother to send him to a school. He was sent to Khalsa College Amritsar for secondary education and from there to a Govt. College at Lahore for higher education. He was an outstanding football and hockey player who excelled in athletics. At the age of 18 he had equaled the India record in 100 meters sprint and was the District Broad jump champion. However, even though he had a natural ability for sports he did not wish to pursue that as a career, his mind was on the army, which was considered a noble profession. He excelled in studies and generally topped his class.

In 1940, an officer’s selection team visiting Lahore colleges was looking for fresh recruits to the Indian Army officer’s cadre. Out of a large number of students, who applied, Shabeg Singh was the only one to be selected from a Government College for training in the officer training school. After training he was commissioned in the second Punjab Regiment as a Second Lieutenant. Within a few days the Regiment was in Burma fighting the Japanese, who had their sights on India and its resources. In 1944, when the war ended, he was in Malaya with his unit. After partition, when reorganization of the regiments took place, he joined the elite Parachute brigade. He was posted in the 1st para battalion where he remained till 1959.

By nature he was a voracious reader, he was especially well versed in military history and tactics and knew the biography of every military hero of consequence. He could fluently speak Punjabi, Persian, Urdu, Gorkhali as well as Hindi and English. He became an instructor in the famed Military Academy at Dehra Dun and held a number of important staff appointments in various ranks in the army where he had a reputation of being a fearless officer--one who did not tolerate any nonsense! People either loved him or dreaded him because of his frank and forthright approach. During the course of his service in the Indian army, Shabeg Singh fought in every war that India participated in.

Shabeg Singh Getting a Wartime medal from President of India In 1947, he was at Naushera in Jammu and Kashmir fighting against the Pakistan Army. While at Staff College, in addition to the academic work, he set a record in winning three, point to point and five flat races on horse back--a record never equaled. Because of his knowledge of military science and excellent grasp of military operations he was appointed a Brigade Major after the staff course. As Brigade Major of the 166 Infantry Brigade- a crack unit, he felt most at home when the formation was out on military exercises.

In 1962 during the India-China war, he was in the Northeast Frontier Agency as a Lt. Col. in HQ four Corps where he was GSO-J (Intelligence). In the 196S operations against Pakistan, he was in the Hajji Pir Sector in Jammu and Kashmir, commanding a battalion of Gorkha troops. He commanded 3/11 Gorkha Rifles with distinction and was mentioned in dispatches for the capture of important enemy positions on the Haji Pir front.

A few days before the battalion was to he launched into attack, the Commanding Officer (at that time Lieutenant Colonel) Shabeg Singh received a telegram from his mother informing him that his father had died. Being the eldest he quietly put the telegram in his pocket and no one in his battalion even knew that the commanding officer had lost his father on the eve of battle, Only when the operations were over, did he apply for leave and perform his duty of consoling his mother and family. His mother, Pritam Kaur, never asked why he had not been reached for performing his father's last rites. She well understood her son's call of duty to defend the nation's frontiers was of primary importance.

Soon after the 1965 operations, Shabeg became Col G.S. of an infantry division, after which he was given command of the crack 19 Infantry brigade in Jammu Sector. In 1%9 when the Eastern sector of India was becoming deeply involved in Naga anti-insurgency operations he was posted as Deputy GOC of the largest Indian Division - eight Mountain Division which had nearly 50 thousand troops under his command. With his leadership qualities and use of daredevil tactics he was greatly successful in handling the counter-insurgency operations in that region. Mukhti Bahini In 1971, when the political turmoil in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) started and the Bengalis declared their intention to separate from Pakistan, the Yahya Khan Govt. cracked down on the Bengalis, forcing them to flee to neighboring Indian States. India decided to intervene and in 1971 started the clandestine insurgency operations in East Pakistan.

Shabeg Singh in Bangladesh

The Indian Army Chief, Field Marshal Manekshaw specially selected Shabeg Singh, then a brigadier, putting him in-charge of Delta Sector with headquarters at Aggartala. He was given the responsibility of planning, organizing and directing insurgency operations in the whole of Central and East Bangladesh. Under his command were placed all the Bangladesh officers that had deserted from the Pakistan Army. These included Col Osmani, as adviser, Maj Zia-Ur-Rehman and Mohammad Mustaq. Zia Ur Rehman later became the President of Bangladesh while Mustaq Mohammed became Bangladesh army chief. Starting from about January to October 1971, the insurgency operations gradually grew to such an intensity that by the time the war started, the Pakistan army in East Bengal had completely lost their will to resist.

The Indian Govt. did not want the world to know that the Indian Army was training and directing the Bengali insurgents so all activities were very secret. Shabeg was so thoroughly involved in these clandestine operations that for five months from December 70 to April 71, his family had no news about his whereabouts. They believed he was till in Nagaland and wondered why he did not write because he had always been regular in writing home to his wife. In April 1970, the first letter was received from the Civilian address of a Merchant shop in Aggartala and his name was written as S. Baigh, such was the nature of secrecy maintained of the Army's involvement in the insurgency movement. The wife was quite confused and the family wondered what was going on because the letter was very brief and just said, "don't worry I am ok.”

Meanwhile as the Mukti Bahini got bolder, the Pak Army in the East began to grow demoralized due to the onslaught. It got so widely dispersed in trying to contain the 'Mukti Bahini' that when the Indian Army launched its operations in Nov. 1971 they were able to walk through to Dacca, virtually unopposed. Over one hundred thousand enemy troops with the complete general staff surrendered, leading to the emergence of Bangladesh. The credit for this great achievement was largely due to the efforts of Shabeg Singh, who spent day and night organizing, motivating and training young Bengali youth to fight for their homeland. Such was the motivation of a Bengali youth force known as Mukti Bahini and so perfect the direction of their operation that no senior administrative officer felt safe in Bengal. Guerilia strikes were launched on five star hotels and on ships in Chittagong harbor to drive home the extent of power, which the Mukti Bahini wielded. Strategic bridges were destroyed, factories closed and movement within Bangladesh restricted resulting in a paralysis of the economy.

No doubt it was a cakewalk for the Indian Army when the actual operations were launched. The Indian government promoted Shaheg Singh to the post of Major General and awarded him the Param Vashist Sewa Medal in recognition of his services. He had earlier been awarded the Ati Vashist Sewa Medal also. He was made General Officer in Command of MP Bihar and Orissa. The Jaya Pyakash Narayan movement had started during 1972-73 and became a serious threat to the Indira Gandhi Govt. The Police were sympathetic with JP and his followers, so the Government decided to use the Army. Gen Shabeg was asked to arrest JP and take some harsh measure against his followers but he refused saying this was not his job.

The result was that the Congress Govt. later instituted a CBI inquiry to harass him on cooked-up charges and he was out posted of the area. After the Indo-Pak war, all the Pakistani POWs were under his jurisdiction and senior General Staff were kept at Jabalpur that was also the HQs of MP.Bihar and Orissa area. Due to jealousy of certain senior army officers, he was not given the command of a Division, which was a move of the Army for denying him promotion. Here was a field commander with so much war experience-denied command of a combat formation. Why so? Only to do deny him promotion when his name came up. While he was posted as GOC of the UP Area HQs in whose jurisdiction the Kumaon Regimental Center is placed, it was found that the commander of the Kumaon Military Farm had given a large sum money to the Chief, Gen Raina, who was himself from the same regiment. A court of inquiry discovered that General Raina (a Kashmiri Brahmin), Army received over two hundred thousand rupees from the Kumaon farm to meet expenses for his daughter's marriage.

The General's Stand against Corruption

When this information was brought to the notice of the General Office Commanding, Shabeg Singh; he told Gen Raina about the findings of the Court of Inquiry and requested the chief to return the amount as the Military farm of the Kumaon Regt was already running a loss. The result was that Gen Shabeg was promptly posted out of this indiscretion and the inquiry hushed up.

The forthwith posting was an unprecedented action because peacetime postings had never been conducted on such an emergency basis. Soon after that the Army instituted a court of inquiry against Gen. Shabeg Singh which dragged on for one year till the date of his retirement on May, 1 1976. The main charge against the General was that he had accepted a plaque valued at Rs 2500 as a gift on his posting out of the Jabalpur area HQs. -Even though a similar present had been given to his predecessor and it had been common for senior officers to accept such gifts. However, in the case of Gen. Shabeg it suddenly became an offense. Some other flimsy charges were also leveled against the General a charge was brought against the lands associated with his official residence to be used for cultivation and another permitting resale of goods purchased in the area HQ's Canteen. These practices had been going on long before the Gen. had taken command of the area in 1972.

That the Indian Government, in concert with the Army Chief, was on a witch hunt became perfectly clear, when one day prior to Gen. Shabeg's retirement, on April 30, 1976 the hero of 'Mukti Bahini', a highly decorated general with both the PVSM and AVSM, one who had been actively involved in every operation the Indian Army had fought since his joining the service and who had spent the major portion of his life in field areas far from his family—sacrifycing time with his wife and children, was suddenly dismissed from the Army.

Such was the treatment meted out to one of the nation's bravest and hardest working soldiers and outstanding Generals. The Indian government and some senior Army officers went so far as to dubb him, after Operation Blue Star in 1984, as 'disgruntled' and frustrated, only because he, like his illustrious ancestor, was defending his ideals, community and beliefs in what he saw as an attack aimed at bring harm to the Golden Temple.

Gen Shabeg Singh was convinced, even while he was still serving in the Army, that the Government of India was curbing the freedom of Sikhs all over India. He was aware of the discrimination against Sikhs in denying them promotions and the general hostility of the Govt. (who were intent upon on reducing the numbers of Sikhs in the Army); the general reduction in the numbers of Sikhs in the Army and the policy of the Govt. towards Sikhs in Punjab by denying them capital industries (by restricting Sikh farmers to the planting of wheat and other crops whose prices were controlled so as to deny them any meaningful reward); the denial of full and fare shares of river waters, all of which he viewed as a part of an overall conspiracy to deny Sikhs the same rights of other citizens of India.

Sikh demands for autonomy were treated as treachery and anti-patriotic by the Govt, and the "free" press vociferously branded the Sikh demands as secessionist. The beleaguered Sikhs had no way to voice their grievances, they were not properly organized, they had no press which commanded international attention. The Akali party was painted as a party of uneducated, unlettered, obscurantists Sikhs so that those belonging to the Sikh intelligentsia shied away from the orgnization. The Akalis in turn were suspicious of any Sikhs who had been part of the Government and were suspicious of their loyalties.

This resulted in a growing gap between the Sikh Intelligentsia and Sikh politicians. Retired Sikh Army officers as well as Civil Administration preferred to join the Congress rather than a Sikh political party.

In 1977, Gen Shabeg Singh decided to throw-in his lot with the Akali Party as it was the only party in Punjab which was Sikhism oriented instead of Congress which was more of a secular party. He met Sardar Gurcharan Singh Tohra and offered to work as a soldier of the Panth. The shrewd SGPC president was initially hesitant and distant but gradually was won over by the sincerity of the general and started seeking his advice on important matters like allowing the participation of the Sikh Intelligentsia and ex servicemen with the Aakli Morcha.

Attacks on the General's Family

It was the way of Shabeg Singh that once he took a decision, he stuck to it and refused to be shaken from his resolve. His brother, who was progressive and a succesful farmer and an active political worker in the Terrai (state of UP in North India) at Bazpur became the first victim of the Government's oppression on the General's family. The local Congress leader along with the police connived to finish him and he was killed by the Congress leader in 1978. The same congressman has ever since been terrifying the Sikhs in that area. The loss of his younger brother, was a big blow to Shabeg Singh but his resolve was not weakened.

The general and his family members were harassed, the CBI tried to implicate the general in a case of alleged misappropriation of wealth and dragged on the case till 1983 Dec., to embarrass and harass him. Eventually the case fell through due to its flimsiness and the acquitted general said to his son, "These CBI official knowing too well the weakness of their case and feeling ashamed of their vain attempts to slander me could not bear to look me in the face." For five years he had to bear with this govt. sponsored harassment only because he had opted to politics and not taken repressive means against Jaya Prakash Narain's movement a few years earlier.

Gen Shabeg Singh was very active during the Akali's peaceful agitation against Government policies of "seeing Sikhs as terrorists" and "river waters and transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab" of 1980 to 84. He courted arrest a number of times and won the hearts of the agitationist who saw that here was one leader who did not accept any preferential treatment in prison. He slept on the floor on a single rug and gave his cot to any old or infirm co-prisoner. He cared for their wants and protested to jail authorities for better conditions for the old and weak agitationists. He won the respect of his colleagues and other leaders like Prakash Singh Badal, Balwant Singh, H.S. Dhindsa and Vice Chancellor B.S.Samundri. Most Akali leaders liked and appreciated his work and sense of dedication. All those who associated with him were enthused by his Spirit He became popular with the people in Punjab and was soon fully engrossed in his service to the "'Panth". During the periods when he was out of jail he spent a major portion of his time in the village at Khiala where his mother lived He did not care for the old age comforts that he had planned for by constructing a comfortable house at Dehra Dun. His wife too came to stay in the village where he spent most of the time. This was inspite of her ill health due to a defective kidney and hypertension and the neglect of their house at Dehra Dun. Punjab had become a leaderless state in 1982- or perhaps there were two many leaders. The people of Punjab were confused. There was Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Parkash Singh Badal, Sant Longowal, Jagdev Singh Talwandi and a host of other big and small leaders. But everyone was suspect in the eyes of the people thanks to the Govt. propaganda and machination of Congress led by Gandhi.

Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale

Now stepped another leader, a charismatic personality. A saint and leader of the renowned 'Damdami Taksal' Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. A selfless, dedicated leader who was frank, forthright and outspoken. He had but one interest only - the interest of the Sikh community - the Khalsa. He did not mince words when he attacked the deceitful politics of the Congress. He spoke out plainly on how the Sikhs had been exploited, and how the Akalis', inspite of their assertions, had fallen prey to the politics of deceit and disruption. They were accused of neglecting Sikh interest when in power to appease the Central Congress Government. People flocked to him. He soon emerged as the undisputed leader of the Sikhs. His following grew at an alarming rate to the discomfort of the Indira's congress Government. When Gen Shabeg Singh met Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, he felt naturally attracted to this out spoken, plain and bold man who was a natural leader and whose word, all Sikhs, specially in rural Punjab, The two became closer and closer with passing time. In 1983 Gen Shabeg Singh and other leaders suggested to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Sardar Gurcharan Singh Tohra to get together the Sikh intellectuals and discuss the dangerous situation that was being created by the Government,which was bent upon exploiting the Sikhs to win popular Hindu support and how it could lead to a breaking point. Gen Shabeg Singh worked ceaselessly in drafting letters and inviting eminent Sikhs and ex-Army officers to attend the meeting. which was eventually held and all shades of Sikh leadership felt convinced of the need of unity at this critical juncture. A very large number of retired army personnel attended this meeting and this frightened the Govt. A resolution was made that if need be, Sikhs would sacrifice their lives for the cause. A line was drawn and all who agreed were asked to step across it. Gen Shabeg Singh led the way. With passing time, the only way the Sikhs could escape from the conflagrant situation that was developing was to remain united, but the Govt was steadily working toward eroding any such moves because it had already made up its mind to teach the Sikhs a lesson.

Indira Gandhi, developed a new strategy in dealing with the unwelcome emergence of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. She cleverly planned to use the phenomenon to finish Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and also win the support of Hindu majority at the cost of the Sikhs. A massive smear campaign was launched to denigrate the new leader who she knew would never compromise on principles. The story of what followed is well known. With each passing day the Governments shameless tirade against the Sikhs grew and grew. There was no way for the Sikhs to respond bul only by getting stuck deeper in the quagmire. Eventually Sant Bhindranwale and his loyalist were forced to seek shelter in the apparent safety of Akal Takhat. The only hope of Sikhs was unity of leadership but that was not to be. They were not strong enough to repel an all out Govt attack, though they had the power to hold the police and allied security forces at bay, perhaps for many months. Now Sant Jarnail Singh needed Gen Shabeg Singh's help. The General was away at Dehra Dun trying to recuperate from a serious heart attack that he had suffered a few months before, while on one of his "Sikh Prachar" meetings.

A special messenger reached the house at Dehra Dun in the middle of March 1984, with a message from Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale that he was needed at Amritsar. After convalescence at Dehra Dun, Shabeg Singh and his wife had planned on a visit to Hazur Sahib where his wife had pledged to offer prayers once his CBI case was decided In Dec 1983 he had been acquitted of all charges. But this visit was not to be. Without second thought and still not fully recovered he left for Amritsar and that was last he saw his Dehra Dun home which he had planned to spend a peaceful retirement in pursuit prayer and meditation. At Amritsar, he got fully involved in setting up the defenses against Government attack on the Golden Temple complex. He had to plan his defenses such that they were inconspicuous because the pilgrims' movement to the Golden Temple and around it had to remain unhindered. At the Same time, the defenses had to be very effective. He was in his element now. In the service of his community he did not mind giving up his life. He had always had a love for warfare and thought of death in battle a privilege. Perhaps he had a hidden desire to die fighting and in the holy presence of our Gurus. What better place then, than the Akal Takhat and the close proximity of Harmandir Sahib and in the service of his community. Tirelessly he worked against time with the prayer of Guru Gobind Singh on lips "Deh Shiva Var Mohe……." In the past, whenever in war, he always offered this prayer. Being an Army General he must have been very well aware of the odd against him. Re had less than 200 young Khalsa youth to help him. Though these were no ordinary youth. They were highly motivated, dedicated to the cause and each one resolved to fight to the last when the time came Yet he knew that with this small band, and hardly any resources with which to resist the might of the Indian Army, he might surely be overwhelmed.

In the interest of the Sikh cause, he did suggest to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to leave the Akal Takhat and seek refuge outside the country to carry on the struggle. But how could the head of Damdami Taksal accept such a suggestion however practical it may have appeared. Perhaps Indira to knew and had calculated on this. When the time came, he would prefer sacrifice and martyrdom in the footsteps of Baba Deep Singh. Here was combination of two great traditions. One, the head of the great Damdami Taksal and another a descendent of Bhai Mehtab Singh who had at this very place slashed off the head of vile Massa Rangar and carried it on his spear charging through the bewildered soldiers of the Nawab 250 years earlier. In the meanwhile, the political situation grew worse Indira Gandhi was playing her cards as per the game plan. Hindu feelings against Sikh throughout the country had been sufficiently aroused to condone any action against Sikhs including an assault on the Golden Temple. Commandos had been rehearsed for months at Chakkratta. Come June 1984 and it was time to call in the army and administer the 'coupe de grace'. The army leader had been carefully selected, Lt Gen R.S. Dayal though the Chief of Staff to Gen Sunderji the Army Commander in charge of the operation was yet given greater coverage by the Govt. dominated media to show that the Army Sikh officers even at the highest level approved on the Golden Temple. Major Gen K Brar, a Sikh only in name, clean shaven, married to an anglo-Indian who smoked and drank and cared not for Sikhism, these two were orchestrated as the leaders of the attack. Giani Zail Singh who signed the papers for army action was the President of the country. He later denied that he knew about army action.

On June 1 and June 2 Gen Brar himself went to asses the defenses of the temple dressed as a pilgrim and convinced his superiors the operation would take only six hours. On June 3 at 9:30 a.m. Punjab, Amritsar was sealed off and no movement of people allowed into the Golden Temple or out of it. At 8:30 a.m. that day Gen Shabeg Singh had literally forced his mother, wife, sister-in-law and nephew to leave the complex and go to the village. They had come there to offer prayers on the Shaheedi Gurupurub of Guru Arjun Dev which fell on June 4 and make arrangements for the annual 'Chownki' which pro ceeds from Harmandir Sahib to Gurusar the Gurdwara of Guru Hargobind Sahib. The Chownki (party carrying the Sat Guru Granth Sahib) halts at village Khiala which is on the way. Soft drinks, tea and snacks are served to everyone and this duty had been performed by Pritam Kaur, General Shabeg Singh's mother since many, many years. Even if she was alone, she made sure arrangements for the Chowmki's were made by the village folks At Harmandir Sahib, thousands of pilgrims who had come for the annual occasion could not leave before 9:30 a.m. and were trapped, many thousands would lose their lives in the massacre that was about to be unleashed by the power-hungry Indira and her stooges. Sikhs would be presented with another group of martyrs. The last chapter in the lives of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Bhai Amrik Singh and Gen Shaheg Singh along with those valiant youth who fought for the honor of Golden Temple and the Sikhs was about to close. So too would be lost the lives of thousands of innocent pilgrims while those spared would rot in camps and prisons of the Indian Govt. for many years. Yet a new chapter in the history of the Sikhs was about to begin. Ever since Blue Star, tens of thousands of Sikh youth have lost their lives in the struggle to achieve an autonomous state, a land which the Sikhs can call their own.