Tiger Cubs

This is a short story based on a true incident that took place in the Kashmir War of 1947-48, and it involves the Kumaon Regiment. I found this story referenced in the Indian Army’s Official History of the War, and in Lt Gen L P Sen’s memoir “Slender Was The Thread”. Lt Col Khanna was indeed the CO of the Battalion referenced here. The Battle of Badgam took place in November 1947, in which Major Somnath Sharma and his Company died to a man protecting the approaches to Srinagar Airfield. Maj Sharma was the first winner of the Param Vir Chakra (Independent India’s highest battlefield gallantry award). 
I added a few embellishments to the story (mainly names of characters) to make it more readable,  but the facts are all true. This is a fascinating incident and it’s a wonder it’s not more widely known. 
Kalika Mata Ki Jai is the war cry of the Kumaon Regiment.

It was a cold December day in 1947. The tribal offensive (backed by Pakistani regulars) had been met by a determined Indian Army effort, hamstrung by logistics and weather. The Army was pressing ahead on the road to Muzaffarabad.  Uri had just been taken, and trucks were arriving into Uri from the direction of Baramulla, grinding their way up the narrow road, throwing clouds of dust from the surface. The Jhelum river flowed swiftly on the right-hand side of the road heading west. Each of the trucks carried men from 4th Battalion Kumaon Regiment. Sentries raised the barrier to let each truck in. Platoon Commanders jumped out to marshal their men into formations. Each platoon formed up to meet trucks with equipment and supplies, to unload them as directed by the Subedar-Major. Speed was the essence. The Battalion was headed for immediate deployment to keep the pressure on the Afridis.

Lt Col Manmohan Khanna, CO 4 Kumaon, a grizzled veteran, was watching the arrivals near his jeep. His company commanders joined him as they got down.  The noise of trucks arriving, the shouted orders of subedars and platoon commanders, the sound of stores being unloaded all created a clamour of activity.

The last truck stopped. Out of the back of the truck jumped down a slim lad in uniform, carrying a rifle bigger than him. He wore the lion insignia of Russell’s Brigade on his shoulders. He looked around him cautiously, and then signaled to the others in the truck to emerge. All of them were boys. Thirty of them. None of them more than four feet tall, wiry and lithe, a few of them sporting wisps of growth on their lips and chins but the rest of them beardless. Mere boys.

The noise died down for a few minutes, just long enough for Lt Col Khanna to look at the truck to see why.  The sight of the boys met his eyes. He was aghast. He turned to the Subedar-Major and summoned him.

“What is this. Why are the boys here”, he asked.  The SM was also surprised. He said “Sir, Regiment HQ must have sent all the troops they had including the Boys Company. It is a mistake.”.

The Boys Company consisted of young boys who received an education and military training from the Kumaon Regiment, so that they could become future NCOs and possibly officers.

Lt Col Khanna’s face darkened. The arriving troops were going straight into deployment north of Uri. He would unleash his famed temper on the Regiment tomorrow. Right now, his priority was to deploy before it got dark and he could not spare any troops or trucks to escort these boys back to Srinagar.

He nodded to the SM and asked him to accompany him, and they walked towards the truck, where the boys were falling in on their own. At the sight of the CO, the first boy who got down shouted out an order.  Like real soldiers, the boys came to attention.

Lt Col Khanna walked up to the boy who issued this command. “At ease”, he said. “What is your name?”.

“Alam Singh Sir!”, said the boy, snapping a salute that any soldier would be proud of.

“What are you boys doing here?” asked Lt Col Khanna.

“Reporting for duty sir! Regiment has sent us to fight, Sir!”, replied Alam Singh.

The CO said, “Listen, son, the battalion is going to face the enemy in the next few hours. It is a tough situation. You are in the Boys Company now so that you can prepare to join the Regiment when you are eighteen. It is too dangerous for you. You will rest here for the night and tomorrow transport will take you back to Srinagar”.

Alam Singh just stood still. He was intimidated by this tough looking man who was also his CO. In the Regiment, the CO is like your father, like a God, and you never disobey him. Still, he stood there and looked steadily at the CO.

The CO sensed the boy wanted to say something. So he said “Yes Alam Singh. What do you want to say?”.

“Sir, I apologise for speaking to you. Your orders are orders, Sir. That is what my father told me. We want to stay with you and help the Battalion, Sir. So please can we stay and help, Sir”.

The CO said, “Yes you can stay tonight and help the kitchen staff. There is enough to do”. So saying the CO started to move back to his jeep.

“We wish to fight, Sir! Not work in the kitchen!” blurted Alam Singh.

The CO stopped in irritation and strode back. Alam Singh continued. “Sir, our seniors have died in Badgam Sir. We wish to fight. We will fight hard and well for the battalion sir!”

The mention of the word Badgam stopped Lt Col Khanna. In November 1947, a company of 4 Kumaon had been attacked by a much larger enemy formation near the village of Badgam. Severely outnumbered the Company stood and fought the enemy. Had the enemy gotten through, Srinagar Airport would have been in enemy hands and with that the Kashmir Valley. The Company had fought to the very last man and held the position. The Company Commander Major Sharma had died with his men.

The CO came right up to Alam Singh and said, softly. “Son, your time will come. These are Pathans. Dangerous men from the mountains. They are not professional soldiers, they are animals.”

“Kalika Mata ki Kasam, Sir. We want to fight and we will not let you down, Sir”, repeated Alam Singh, firmly. Tears had formed in his eyes and he blinked them back, furiously.

Lt Col Khanna thought for a minute and shouted out. “Sandeep!”

Captain Sandeep Khatri, a young officer in the battalion, was inspecting his riflemen’s backpacks. He looked up and jogged over to the CO.

The CO took him aside and said “Sandeep, I know you love a challenge but this is a special one for you. This is the Boys Company sent by mistake to Uri by the Regimental Centre. They are children. You need to look after them”.

Capt Khatri looked at the boys, and then looked at the CO, a little disappointed. “Look after them how, Sir?”.

“Sandeep, these boys are eager to see some action. What I want you to do is to deploy them near the Nalwar point but well away from danger. Do you understand? No fighting. Just let them feel like a part of a deployment, and then send them home tomorrow.”

Capt Khatri looked uncertain. “Sir but…”

The CO said “I know what you are going to say. But here are my orders. Deploy them near the peak. Protect them all you can from danger. Not a single child must come to any harm. You have to promise me. Is that clear?”

Capt Khatri saluted and said “Yes Sir. That is clear!”.  He turned to the Subedar Major and requested him to accompany him. Capt Khatri walked over to the Boys Company. Again, Alam Singh issued a command to stand at attention.

“At ease!”, said Capt Khatri. “I am your Company Commander Capt Khatri. You will follow my orders. You will be deployed near Nalwar in defence of the 4 Kumaon position on the peak. Subedar Major Saab here will help you get rations, ammunitions, blankets and covers for the night. Alam Singh, you will take some of the boys with you and take rations from the Subedar Major and distribute.” Capt Khatri noticed the smiles on the faces of Alam Singh and the boys.

Alam Singh asked some of the boys to accompany him with the SM. An hour later, Capt Khatri was checking the personal packs and stores of the Company. His priority was to keep them alive in the cold and protected from the elements. He had asked SM to make sure the boys had just enough ammunition for their rifles – about 30 rounds each. There were extra blankets and warm wear, and extra dry ration for each boy. Every boy was ready with backpack, pickaxe, and rifle.

The terrain north of Uri was suited to the Afridis – mountainous, uneven, dotted with trees, ideal for the Pathan to take on regular armies, as they had done for decades. Accompanying them, the Pakistan Frontier Scouts in battalion strength were dug in towards the west. The Kumaonis were on a feature called Nalwar Point – the highest point north of Uri and they lay east of the Pathans. The previous day, the two companies had engaged the enemy and had to withdraw – and that too, thanks to the fortuitous arrival of a lone IAF fighter-bomber, who happened to be overhead and had been guided to strafe and drop his two bombs on the Pathan positions. They were still pinned down. The new reinforcements were tasked to reinforce them and possibly cover their withdrawal from Nalwar Point to a more defensible position. 

It was snowing. There would only be a few hours of daylight. Judging that it would be better to be dug in before nightfall, Capt Khatri hustled his boys aided by Alam Singh, who ably corralled the boys behind Capt Khatri and they set off on the climb.  He selected a point about 3500 metres above MSL, a few hundred metres below Nalwar and further east of Nalwar.

These boys were like mountain goats, fit and sure-footed, and the climb was easy.  The boys finished the climb and sat on the uneven ground, while Capt Khatri surveyed the terrain and selected a knoll. It was well away from the known enemy position, south east of Nalwar Point, and could rely on the companies at Nalwar Point for defence. If the enemy moved forward Nalwar, the Kumaonis would engage them before they got to where the boys were. He told the boys to dig in and settle down for the night  The boys went to their task with enthusiasm. If they were afraid, they did not show it.  They ate their rotis and drank some water, and settled in.

The regular Kumaonis had also started the climb towards Nalwar Point to reinforce the position.  The enemy Scouts commander must have been watching the troop movement and must have worked out what was going on.  He must have obviously decided to outflank Nalwar before the position was fully reinforced. Under cover of dusk, he sent a company on a wide movement towards the south and east to attack Nalwar from the rear. They had determined that a knoll south the point was ideal to ambush the Kumaonis, and furtively made towards it.

The boys were ensconced at this very knoll.

Sounds of movement alerted Capt Khatri, and he took out his field glasses. To his shock he saw the company of Pathans moving east and south of Nalwar Point towards the knoll.  They were about a 150 yards away.

He remembered his promise to the CO. He realised that their escape  route back to Uri was being rapidly cut off by the advancing enemy. He used his field telephone and alerted the Nalwar point picquet, keeping his voice as low as possible and as normal as possible, and warned them of the flanking attack. His message was acknowledged.

He looked again at the Pathans, and they were now 100 yards away and closing. The Pathans were not aware that the knoll was occupied and hence did not take too many precautions and were making for the knoll at speed. They would be upon the knoll soon. This meant the time window for the Kumaoni regulars to come to their rescue had also closed. He had no choice but to engage his company of boys.

Capt Khatri made his way to Alam Singh and showed him the advancing Pathans with his field glasses. Alam Singh took a look and asked Capt Khatri, “What do we do Sir?” in a whisper.

Capt Khatri said, “We have to fight. I will tell you when to fire”.

Capt Khatri told the boys to gather round and listen up, and said in a low voice. “The enemy is approaching our position. It’s too late for the Battalion to come and help, and we cannot leave this position. You wanted to fight, so this is our chance. It is OK to be afraid. You are Kumaoni tigers. All you have to do, is aim your rifle at a man, and shoot. Do not waste your bullets. Remember your fathers and grandfathers. You are their sons. Stay calm. Kalika Mata Ki Jai”.

Alam Singh helped position every boy get in cover, rifle at the ready.  He spoke to them in the hill dialect and told them to wait for Captain Sahab’s signal.

Capt Khatri was hoping the Pathans would turn away but they were now 70 yards away. He took position with his rifle and waited. No help was coming. He had not seen how these boys operated as a unit nor had he seen how they handled their rifles. The Pathans were brutal and were known to disembowel their enemy. He hoped that whatever happened, the boys would die quickly. He offered up a prayer to Kalika Mata and waited.

He waited until the Pathans were 50 yards away. There were about forty of them, walking confidently and barely bothering to conceal themselves. This was close enough for the boys to hit the Pathans if they aimed properly and held the rifle in steady hands. He counted off three seconds, then shouted “Fire!”

Almost on cue, thirty rifles fired. As the smoke cleared, Capt Khatri saw to his amazement that some of the Pathans were lying on the slopes, dead or wounded. It was the disciplined fire of experienced warriors, not of a bunch of boys with no hair on their faces.

“Fire!” yelled Capt Khatri again. The boys reloaded and fired. A few more Pathans dropped.

By now the rest of the Pathans were in defensive positions and they returned fire. The bullets pinged harmlessly against the boys’ defences. As soon as the Pathans stopped to reload, the boys fired again, this time at will, picking their targets carefully. Capt Khatri kept moving through the line, encouraging the boys, checking for injuries and making sure his wards were fine.  There were none. They boys had their faces flushed and hands trembling. But every time they fired, their keen mountain eyes and steady hands meant that another Pathan dropped.

The Pathans were now yelling in confusion to each other. The Pathan is not a man who likes standard infantry war. He is happier shooting from the tops of mountains with his jezail. Their commander shouted to the men, urging them to advance. The keen fire of the boys however was telling. The boys fired again, hitting a few more of those exposed. Reloaded, and fired again.

Capt Khatri used his field glasses and found the most heartening sight a field commander can witness. The Pathans were breaking contact and fleeing west.

Capt Khatri shouted to the boys. “Firing band karo!”

The boys stopped, peering over their defences, rifles at the ready.

He looked through his glasses again. Then he beckoned Alam Singh and showed him. The Pathans were now half their number and rapidly moving away. Through the evening gloom, they could see that Pathan dead and wounded lay all over the field. Alam Singh surveyed the scene, lowered the glasses, and smiled. He looked at Capt Khatri and Capt Khatri nodded.

Alam Singh stood up, raised his rifle and yelled “Kalika Mata Ki Jai!”.  And all the boys returned the war cry with all the fervour in their hearts

Boys had become men.

The Afghan Church

The most poignant reminder of Britain’s Imperial folly in Afghanistan can be found in the Church of St John The Evangelist, situated inside the Military Cantonment, in Colaba in Mumbai. It is more popularly known as the Afghan Church. 

Britain has always remembered its great military disasters in art and words, and the beautiful Afghan Church in Colaba is a typical example. In 1808, a British Army went into Spain  to help their Spanish allies fight an invasion lead by Napoleon of France.  Sir John Moore commanded the British Expeditionary Forces. The Spanish were a ragtag army who were no match for the highly experienced French, boosted by victories at Austerlitz and Eylau. Midway through the British advance into Spain, the French completed their demolition of the Spanish Army and went after the British. Realising that he was outgunned and outmanned, Sir John decided to retreat some 400 kilometres through mountainous terrain towards the port of Corunna, which is right at the north western tip of the Iberian Peninsula, to rendezvous with the Royal Navy.  

They were chased and harried by the French. It was winter and conditions were terrible. Wherever possible, the British Army stood and fought and in two cases scored remarkable victories over the French. But mostly, the lack of food and hence the drop in morale reduced the disciplined army into a mob. Wherever possible, wounded were left behind, as the skilled French Army pressed them hard.  

They finally reached the port of Corunna, surrounded on all sides, on January 11 1809. There was no Royal Navy there yet.   Sir John decided to stand and fight. The battle commenced – it was fierce with no quarter given.   On 16th January Moore was hit by a cannonball that took off his left shoulder all the way to his neck.  He lay mortally wounded and handed over command.

On 17th January, the French paused the assault, not having been able to penetrate British lines guarding access to the port. Hundreds of British troops lay dead and wounded. That night, with the second commander also having been killed, the British fought a rearguard and kept up a pretense of staying at their posts while the bulk of their forces silently withdrew to waiting ships from the Royal Navy.  The wounded and sick were left behind. The next day the French discovered the deception and opened fire from the surrounding hills on the Navy transports. Four of them were sunk. Returning fire from Navy frigates allowed the transports to leave. The French then overran the port.

It was a humiliating retreat, but one that the British celebrated for the pluck and bravery with which they withstood fierce fighting to keep the port in British hands until the Royal Navy got there.   A retreat very similar to the more famous one at Dunkirk in 1940, which allowed the bulk of the professional British Army to escape across the Channel to regroup and rebuild. That was also a military disaster which has since been celebrated in art and cinema.

The Afghan Church was built to mark the British Retreat from Kabul in 1843. The Afghan invasion was officered and lead by the British Indian Army (though they were not called that) from the Presidencies and the regular British Army.  The Bengal Presidency contributed Skinner’s Horse, the Forty-third Native Infantry and the Second Light Cavalry,  The Bombay Presidency contributed the Nineteenth Native Infantry and the Poona Local Horse.  Maharana Ranjit Singh offered to contribute troops from the legendary Dal Khalsa but later declined, preferring to wait and watch what happens. The ensuing disaster was inevitable – the hubris and arrogance of local British commanders, and the prurience of the British Resident who brazenly took to partaking of the feminine delights of local Afghan women – all contributed to the disaster, which Dalrymple and (earlier) Jan Morris have described so well.  

The romantic return of Dr Brydon is well known – he furiously urged his tired horse to gallop towards the gates of Jalalabad, chased by baying Afghan horsemen. When they were gaining on him, the first ranging shots from the fort’s walls started to sound. They chased him until they were just short of rifle range from the Fort, and miraculously hung back, watching Dr Brydon reach the gates. His horse collapsed and died.  

What is not celebrated or well known is that for years after, sepoys would show up at Khyber Pass, having been freed from some Afghan dungeon, maimed and reduced to bones. 

The retreat was marked by the same mawkish art that hid the disaster and the shameful collapse of an entire army. Nevertheless, since the Company Armies had taken the brunt of the casualties, the Bombay Presidency decided to erect this church. It was designed by Henry Conybeare, who among other things,  also built much of Bombay’s water supply systems and some of the Great Peninsular Railway.  

Consecrated in 1853, the Church stands in a quiet corner of the Cantonment, shaded by trees, and blessed by peace and quiet. Inside, the Church’s walls are lined with the regimental colours of all the regiments that were destroyed in the retreat. They are torn and tattered due to bullets of the jezail and the swords of the Afghans.  Just the rustling of bats in the roof timbers disturb the peace. The pews still have the slots to enable soldiers to have their rifles to hand in case of emergency. These “rifle pews” were brought in after the 1857 Mutiny which began in Meerut when the garrison was attending evening service unarmed. 

War is a terrible business. People die in the most undignified of circumstances, screaming with pain and dying of thirst. We add solemity to the sacrifice by giving them the honour they deserve. Regardless of the merits of the first Afghan War – or indeed any war – the Church is a beautiful memorial to all soldiers who die in battle, and is a reminder of the folly that causes men to go to War.

Do visit it when you get the chance.

Is Science Insular?

This is a rebuttal of an article published by a friend. You can find the article here.

Last week I had the opportunity to spend long hours in the hospital with my father keeping watch on my mother. My father is a moderately well-known vector control scientist. Even though he is 91, he has written quite a few articles last year explaining to lay people that this virus is zoonotic and originated in bats. Yet, he also personally believes that the Chinese manufactured the virus. When I asked him to explain the contradiction, he said “The evidence clearly says the virus originated in bats. Unless I can find evidence that shows beyond any doubt that the virus is manmade, my personal beliefs will remain personal, and my scientific opinion that the virus originated in bats will remain”.

That is science in a nutshell. It is a mechanism to understand the world around you, based on observation, experimentation and inference. It is very fuzzy and there are lot of uncertainties. By rigorous scrutiny of data, and cross-checking results with peers, and putting in place mechanisms to reproduce experimental results, scientists hope to eliminate bias and opinion from verifiable fact. So my father has a personal bias that says the Chinese cooked this up. But until such time as he can be shown the evidence this is the case, he will not change his scientific opinion.

There is no such thing as a fact that is 100% true – there are always caveats. Even the truism that we are taught in school that mass of an object is always constant but its weight may change depending on gravity, is false – when an object approaches the speed of light, its mass reduces by converting itself into energy.  This is the essence of relativity.

Unfortunately science is also conducted by human beings, who bring their biases and prejudices to the mix. This is where science gets even more rigorous. Sometimes these biases escape into formal dogma and do untold damage. Two examples come to mind – Andrew Wakefield’s paper on how MMR vaccines cause autism reduced measles vaccinations in the UK to the point where it started killing children again. Cold Fusion – the favourite of anyone wanting to solve for the world’s energy problems – is another. In both cases science righted itself through the same process that produces verifiable research. Both these papers were repudiated and the concerned people struck off or blackballed.  People want certainties, but science cannot deliver certainties because of the inherent probabilistic nature of the universe. Therefore charlatans come into being who feed people snake-oil.

To illustrate, let’s get right into the cow and human urine treatments (sorry for the mental image!). It is absolutely not true that science has ignored these urine therapies. Based on a cursory review of the NIH, PubMed and Lancet databases, let me give you a precis. The first formal naturopathic western work on the use of urine therapies dates from 1945[1]. From the world of formal science, there is an excellent review of urine therapy through the ages in the Journal of Nephrology, which admits that right through the centuries human beings have been using either their own urine or that of domesticated animals (cows and dogs) to cure illnesses[2].  Science has examined several traditional uses of urine for therapy. The use of urine in paediatric treatments in Africa has been scientifically evaluated[3]. Dermatological uses have also been scientifically evaluated – in treating acne vulgaris[4] and in improving skin epidermis to aid skin therapies[5]. In fact dermatologists agree that complementary medicine (that includes urine) should be offered to patients[6]. The use of urine in the treatment of eczema was evaluated by scientists[7] [8].

When it comes to ingesting urine of any kind, formal science seems to have problem. This is not because of prejudice – it is because urine is the by-product of digestion and respiration, and is likely to have toxins ejected by the body. The chemical structure of urine from any animal is very well known. While scientists do not reject the anecdotal evidence from people who clearly use auto-urine therapy, they are sceptical about its use as a general therapy for anybody. The second problem is the presence of urethral bacteria present in the body, which can contaminate the urine as it exits the body. The same African paper by Adeyayo et al cited earlier also warns about the presence of toxins. The respected Journal of Clinical Microbiology carried a paper making this warning explicit[9].  So much so, that the United States Army Field Manual specifically warns troops NOT to drink their own urine when short of water.

The review above is by no means comprehensive and neither do I offer any warranties that it is free from errors. I am open to being corrected.  I hope the cursory review I have offered of this alternate therapy shows that science has an open mind on this. If you ask me, the reason people don’t drink urine is because of that scientific characteristic called “the yuck factor”!

The biggest problem that science faces is not its unwillingness to tackle the unknown. The nature of scientific research requires membership into a guild or club, in which a set of previously known and now accepted scientific concepts are taken as given, on which the next set of propositions are built. Every now and then the fundamental assumptions on which these theories are developed change. Given that human beings do science – with their biases and prejudices and egos – these beliefs get ossified into dogma, and it takes enormous effort to break the old and bring in the new. This is what Thomas Kuhn wrote about in 1962 – he termed these “models” as “paradigms”[10].  However, this has not come in the way of genuine science, and more than ever, scientists are conscious that paradigms can become dogma and watch out for it.

It is ironic that we talk about the failure of science at a time when the biggest ever triumph of science is unfolding before us. This is the global response to the pandemic. The foundation stone had already been laid – this was the success with genome mapping, which is likely to be the technology breakthrough of the 21st century. Using this technology, the gene mapping of the COVID 19 virus was published on January 9 2020. By January end, the mRNA vaccine was ready. Moderna and Astra-Zeneca also got into the act. By middle of the year, vaccines were undergoing clinical trials. By the end of the year vaccines were in production. In India alone, some 35 million have been vaccinated.  The mRNA vaccine technique is so revolutionary that it has the potential to be used for almost any disease, especially certain types of cancers. By the middle of the year, Illumina and Oxford Novapore have announced cheap genome sequencing availability. It is now possible to track the variations of the Covid 19 virus within days, and soon it will be within hours. It is now possible to track community transmission in real time between floors of buildings[11]

It is very difficult for laymen to understand what goes on in science today, and it’s almost as if these scientists are grand panjandrums conjuring up their cures dressed in flowing robes speaking a strange language and offering worship to a deity that ordinary mortals cannot address. To a very great extent, we are asking laymen to take science on faith – very much like a religion. This is contradictory to the scientific process itself. The scientific pursuit of truth can get very abstruse. It turns out a dear cousin who is an Oxford don founded a school of physics that has its own conferences, where he is welcomed with respect like a visiting pontiff[12]. Not many physicists have heard of it.

This is inevitable in the world we live in, that has gotten so complex that the generalist of the 19th century cannot survive beyond high school. The fact that this world is incomprehensible to many does not mean it is not rigorous and at the same time, open to new ideas and willing to investigate new phenomena. Rigour is everything. This makes those who push faith cures unhappy because science insists on formal proof – whether through statistical testing or by seeking empirical evidence. Simply asserting that something has been done for a thousand years is not enough –  let us examine the evidence. Clearly the methods to document and test evidence across centuries has not existed. In some areas like medicine, enough large data is available to test across generations if not centuries.

You say “Science and self-proclaimed progressives are today rather insular or perhaps even afraid of any alternative observation, explanation or inferencing methods or alternative methods of evidence. Instead of dissecting to understand it is lampoon and derision”.  This is a sweeping assertion, in my view, unsupported by facts.

[1] Thompson, J, “The Water of Life”, Health Science Press.

[2] Savica V, Calo LA, Santoro D, et al. Urine therapy through the centuries. J Nephrol. 2011;24(Suppl 17):S123–S125.

[3] Adenike Adedayo O, Ogunshe, Abosede Olayemi Fawole, Victoria Abosede Ajayi. Microbial evaluation and public health implications of urine as alternative therapy in clinical pediatric cases: health implication of urine therapy. The Pan African Medical Journal. 2010;5(12)

[4] Totri CR, Matiz C, Krakowski AC. Kids These Days: Urine as a Home Remedy for Acne Vulgaris?. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2015;8(10):47-48.

[5] Grether-Beck S, Felsner I, Brenden H, et al. Urea uptake enhances barrier function and antimicrobial defense in humans by regulating epidermal gene expression. J Invest Dermatol. 2012;132(6):1561-1572. doi:10.1038/jid.2012.42

[6] Ernst, E. (2000), The usage of complementary therapies by dermatological patients: a systematic review. British Journal of Dermatology, 142: 857-861.

[7] Chen YF, Chang JS. Complementary and alternative medicine use among patients attending a hospital dermatology clinic in Taiwan. Int J Dermatol. 2003;42(8):616–621.

[8] Magin PJ, Adams J, Heading GS, et al. Complementary and alternative medicine therapies in acne, psoriasis, and atopic eczema: results of a qualitative study of patients’ experiences and perceptions. J Altera Complement Med. 2006;12(5):451–457

[9] Hilt EE, McKinley K, Pearce MM, et al. Urine is not sterile: use of enhanced urine culture techniques to detect resident bacterial flora in the adult female bladder. J Clin Microbiol. 2014;52(3):871-876.

[10] Kuhn, Thomas: “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, University of Chicago Press, 1962

[11] For a lucid layman’s account do read https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/25/magazine/genome-sequencing-covid-variants.html

[12] Dr C V Sukumar is now Emeritus Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford. The paper he wrote that kicked off the “Super Symmetric Quantum Mechanics” school can be found here:  C V Sukumar 1985 J. Phys. A: Math. Gen. 18 2917. 

Distributing vaccines

An entirely new perspective on the vaccine situation, thanks to John Cochrane of Stanford University.

COVID 19 is not a disease like Ebola or Smallpox which are highly infectious, visibly symptomatic and have very high mortality rates. COVID 19 is infectious but not as much as Ebola or Smallpox, it is possible to be asymptomatic, and mortality rates nowhere near as deadly as ebola/smallpox.

The public health response has been to ask people to quarantine and isolate until such time as a vaccine comes along.  While mortality amongst the young and the relatively healthy is very low, the virus affects the older, the weaker and those with poor health more adversely, causing morbidity and prolonged suffering. However since the young and the old are all in quarantine, the infection rate may slow but the economy – which pays for development of the vaccine – is in a downward spiral. Every government is borrowing money to pay for COVID relief.

Now that the vaccine is here, it is being distributed to the elderly, the vulnerable and to those on the front lines of health care first.

One can argue this is an inefficient allocation mechanism.  The elderly and the infirm are relatively isolated (in the medical sense) than the young. They are at home, at care homes or in nursing homes, being looked after.  They get the disease because the infected visit them.   On the other hand, the young and healthy who are also isolated are the ones who need to man the shops, the farms and the factories, run the trains, fly the aircraft, and otherwise make the economy work. These are the people who are very likely to be asymptomatic or are not very badly affected by the virus in majority of the cases.

If those are young and healthy get the vaccines first, shops and establishments can re-open and people can go to work.  Schools can re-open. Teachers can go back to teaching kids. Asking these people to stay at home has disastrous results for the economy. If these people are emboldened to go to work, with the vaccine, the economy will recover.

Why not let companies buy these vaccines and inoculate their employees? It need not be an auction – it can be an allocation on first come first served basis. After all this is in their direct interest.  The same privilege can be extended to utilities, to transport, to education – to pretty much any government department. Empanel a set of delivery companies to fetch and send the vaccine, and empanel any local GP to administer the vaccine. Allocate a percentage – I would say 20% – to go to the old and the infirm, and health care workers.  

The vaccine is a “Leave Home and Go To Work” pass. Those who have to go to work, should get the vaccine first.

Administrators and governments need to look beyond the (correct) moral impulse and look at how to achieve a re-opening and cut the R rate.  COVID 19 may have come under control to an extent, but this will not be the only pandemic.

India’s Marxist Historians

Historical revisionism is alive and well in India, and has taken hold in the last ten years.

The Hindu right wing believe that Indian history has been hijacked by leftist historians who see Indian history as an interplay of power, caste and class, and not for what it actually is – which is 900 years of religious war and colonisation first by the Muslims and then by the Christians.

Therefore, India’s Muslim rulers are to be regarded as foreign rulers and colonisers, instead of being studied and written about as Indian Kings and Emperors.

They believe that when India became independent in 1947, there was an opportunity to bring Hinduism back as part of the State, since for the first time in over 900 years no foreigner was ruling India. This used to be the case when India was a set of princely states where the prince had a faith. Instead, the new government opted to separate church (or temple!) and state and deny the Hindu religion a place in government.

Under British Rule, India underwent a rapid modernisation of thought and ideas and issues of identity were hotly debated. The Hindu right wing, and its counterpart in Islam, were both alive and well during the early part of the 20th century. In the battle of ideas, the centrist, broad-church Indian National Congress won, headed by people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel. When India became independent, power was transferred to the Indian National Congress who proceeded to set India up as a secular state.

India suffered a violent partition in August 1947 as the British left, leaving nearly 40% of undivided India in Pakistan. Nearly five million people migrated from one country to another in one of the largest population exchanges of all time. The population movement was accompanied by horrendous violence and exact number of those killed on both sides runs into hundreds of thousands.  Despite Partition, a large number of Muslims remained in the new State of India. Prior to Partition the population of undivided India was approximately 435m consisting broadly of 100m Muslims and mostly Hindus forming the rest (Christians and Sikhs are a very small part). After Partition, the population of Pakistan was 75m (with 10m Hindus and the rest Muslim) and India’s was 360m with 35m Muslims. 

Partition is taken as evidence that India’s Muslims have always had extra-national loyalties and Pakistan is nothing more than a visible symptom of these tendencies.

When India became a Republic with our own Constitution in 1950, it embraced secularism as a founding tenet – the separation of church and state. To restore religious harmony in India immediately after Independence and focus on building a new nation, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, consciously downplayed any visible demonstration of India’s Hindu majority to give the Muslims who remained in India the sense of belonging to the new nation.

In 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist who accused him of pandering to Muslims. The loss of the Mahatma was met with revulsion by the peaceful Hindu majority. It ensured that secularism succeeded.

Was this process of secularisation of public life taken too far? In schools, for example, the teaching of history downplayed the violence that conquest brings. As one observer put it, the Islamic conquest of India was treated as a ‘cultural exchange program’ by some historians writing school textbooks[1]. One can argue this both ways – why did Nehru not attend temple openings, for example. Or why did Nehru allow the Haj Pilgrimage to be paid for the exchequer. India’s Muslims were allowed to keep Muslim Personal Law (the right to polygamy, divorce by uttering the word ‘talaq’, no alimony on divorce). But Hindu personal law was brought in line with modern civil law.

Nehru was not anti-Hindu. He was an atheist and had no love for any religion. He frowned upon any display of religious fervour of any description by anyone in his government. He was a moderniser who regarded religion as an obstacle. His economic model was Soviet Union which had undergone the fastest industrialisation of the 20th century so far. The USSR was a strong influence, but not to the extent of making Nehru a communist. Having said that, no one could ever mistake Mr Nehru’s rationalism for lack of love for this country. He had an almost mystical and emotional fascination with India.  As long as he was alive, and his love for and childlike fascination with the people of this country remained palpable to most Indians, the secular approach to public life was tolerated.

Today, the pendulum of public opinion has swung to the other extreme and there are a good number of Hindus who feel aggrieved.  They believe minorities have been pandered to, that Muslims are multiplying in droves, that Christian missionaries have actively targeted Hindus for conversion, etc. The Mahatma is no longer revered, indeed some people celebrate his assassin as a true patriot.

Rising economic prosperity, the availability of the internet, social media and the surge of Islamic terrorism over the last 25 years has only served to amplify these fears.  Christian missionaries in Tamil Nadu have sometimes crossed the line (these are Indians by the way), and Muslims have underperformed the majority in almost all areas including size of families. Repeated border wars with Pakistan (1965, 1971, 1998) and the terrible terrorist assault on Mumbai (2008) have kept relations with Pakistan in a state of suspended enmity. Since it was carved out of India as a Muslim state, it serves as a hook on which question the loyalty of Indian Muslims to the Indian Republic. This feeling persists even today among many Indian elite.

These feelings of Hindu hurt have caused a backlash against Indian historians who have traditionally treated India’s Muslim rulers as Indians first and Muslims second. The Mughals, the Khiljis, the Iltutmish, the Mamluks and myriad other Muslim dynasties may have made their way to India from Iran or Central Asia as conquerors but they settled down and ruled as domestic rulers. The new Hindu wants these rulers to be treated as colonisers, who destroyed temples, converted Hindus, raped Hindu women and stole Hindu wealth to be taken to Central Asia.

The truth is rather more complicated. The first Islamic invasions were just that – violent attacks. Once conquest was complete, society seems to have settled down into co-existence with Muslims. A ‘Persianate’ culture evolved based on imported Central Asian art, music, literature and cuisine, thoroughly indigenized, and which had a huge impact on Indian language, art, music, styles of rulership, warfare, attire – you name it[2].  This Persianate culture is under attack.  For example Urdu, the language born out of contact between Hindi and Persian, is dying out because it is strongly identified with Muslims.  Urdu was the language of class and refinement once upon a time, but no more.

As for temple destruction, it definitely happened. We could always say that one temple destroyed is a temple too many. Scholars have tried to piece together the exact number of temples destroyed by Muslim rulers over six centuries. The number is placed at around 500[3].  We could debate whether this destruction was systematic, targeted  and intentional due to Islam’s abhorrence for idol worship[4]. Or we could ask why the destruction was not more complete, as happened in the Arabian Peninsula once Islam became dominant. Was it because the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which was the predominant school of Islamic law in India, was more conciliatory towards non-believers? That Muslim elites were vastly outnumbered by their Hindu subjects and hence adopted pacifism and symbiotic co-existence[5]? There is some evidence that temple destruction was not only a Muslim practice, but that it was also practised by Hindu kings[6].

The cultural cohesion was deeper than people believe. An American scholar has produced evidence, based on her deep scholarship in Persian and Sanskrit, that shows Muslim rulers and themes entered Sanskrit in poetry and literature[7].

Claims are made that India was a vastly wealthy nation whose riches were systematically drained by Muslim rulers in a systematic manner. This is a frequent assertion by interlocuters these days but it does not stand up to scrutiny. The fact is that the last big foreign Muslim ruler to take over the Indian empire was Babur in the 15th century. But for four centuries after the founding the Mughal dynasty, his descendants settled in India and ruled as Indian kings. It was a fabulously wealthy country, and this is what attracted the Portuguese and the English to come to India as traders. Once the English established supremacy in India, the East India Company systematically drained India of treasure, financing the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the West[8].

The most polarizing Muslim figure is the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who reigned from 1637 to 1707. He is routinely considered a monster who persecuted Hindus, taxed them to death[9] and destroyed some 30,000 temples and did his best to eradicate the religion[10]. Other historians contend otherwise, that he was a ruler of his times who had a complex relationship with his subjects[11][12].

The points made above are to illustrate that contact between cultures and peoples is always complex, and cannot be simplified into tweetable memes. Further, there is no such thing as definitive history given that records get lost, monuments are broken, and memories fade. When Sir William Jones and like-minded Company officers started to uncover India’s Buddhist past, they found that the memory of the faith had been completely lost, and very little trace remained other than a few monuments and inscriptions. And it was not that the invading Muslims destroyed them all[13]. The Buddhist learning centre at Ratnagiri in Odisha functioned until the 15th century before being abandoned, as the religion had died out. It was not due to violence. With so many unknowns, historians struggle to posit reasonable conjectures about the past supported by as much evidence as possible and if that is not available, they leave it as a question.

How these are presented to school children struggling to learn Math and Science and two languages will mean simplification which is sometimes astonishingly naive, as I have alluded to earlier. The lay person has no patience to piece the evidence together for herself and will rely on interpretations. And therein lies the danger, not just in India but in any country.

The new brash right wing Indian is justly proud of being a Hindu. But she believes Hindu pride and pride in our multi-cultural past are mutually exclusive. This is unfortunate. Even if Indian history was not written by Marxist historians (as is now alleged) how can one hide the complexity and the rich texture of cultural assimilation?  You can only simplify by substituting assertion for argument, volume for intellectual rigor.  For these reasons, Indian historians of the old school are under attack.

The struggle to understand and accept the past is a huge step in the evolution of a nation. When the Normans landed on the coast of England in 1066, they brought with them a new language and new practices. The process of conquest was violent. Norman landowners displaced their Saxon predecessors. The practice of droit du siegneur or jus primae noctis  was commonplace.  Yet no one remembers that today. Germany and France fought three wars over a hundred years (1870, 1914-18, 1939-45). Yet they made the European Union a reality. The transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa has not been perfect but has gone better than expected, and the role that the Truth And Reconciliation Commission played in that process should not be underestimated. 

We have to understand and accept the past because there is nothing we can do about it other than learn from it. Revising the past is not the answer; understanding and appreciating it is what is needed. Sadly, India seems to be headed the other way.

[1] Kapil Komireddy. “Malevolent Republic”, 2014

[2] Richard Eaton: “India In The Persianate Age”, 2019

[3] Richard Eaton in “Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identity in Islamicate India” (ed. Gilmartin and Lawrence), 2000.

[4] Andre Wink: “Al-Hind: The Slavic Kings and the Islamic conquest”, 2002

[5] Richard Eaton in “Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identity in Islamicate India” (ed. Gilmartin and Lawrence), 2000.

[6] Romila Thapar, “Somanatha: The Many Voices Of A History”, 2003

[7] Audrey Truschke, “The Language Of History” 2021

[8] Several: Jon Wilson ʼIndia Conquered, 2016; Shashi Tharoor ‘Inglorious Empire’, 2017; and William Dalrymple ‘The Anarchy’ 2018.

[9] Sir Jadunath Sarkar, ‘A History of Aurangzeb’, 1912.

[10] See the writings of Francois Gautier, a French historian living in India.

[11] Audrey Truschke, “Aurangzeb”, 2014.

[12] Romila Thapar and Percival Spears: A History Of India.

[13] Charles Allen ʼThe Buddha And The Sahebs’  2003 has a great account of how the Buddha was ‘rediscovered’!

The Lights Go Out…

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

  •  W H Auden, “September 1 1939”

This is a short account of the last four days before the start of the Second World War. I wrote this for my daughter from well-known sources. I enjoyed writing it and thought I would share it with a larger audience.

Was it possible, in the last days of August 1939, to avoid war? That would have required all parties to back down – the Poles to agree to a hand over of Danzig, for Hitler to agree to yet another peace conference like what he did in 1938, and for the British and French to abandon the Polish guarantee and give Hitler a free hand.  Given the recent past of Hitler’s behaviour, these were unlikely options and it was left to a few men to chart the course that ultimately brought one of the most destructive wars on the world. 

Reflecting on the last few days before the war actually began, it is possible to conclude that there were misconceptions and miscalculations, which usually precede any conflict. Hitler had been playing cat and mouse with the British and French for three years. The British and the French were understandably reluctant to commit to another war so soon after the last horrendous one that had concluded less than twenty years ago.  Every statesman involved had either fought in the Great War or had lost family and friends to it, especially in France. Hitler assumed that Britain and France will blink only in order to avoid a second international war. The actions of the men involved were rooted in domestic preoccupations and expectations from their counterparts in this interplay of personalities.

Germany nearly went to war on August 25th itself. Plans and preparations had been made for the Wehrmacht to move to the Polish border.  SS and Wehrmacht troops had been smuggled into Danzig to seize the city once war began. Yet on the evening of August 25th, with forces about to strike, Hitler cancelled the assault.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed only on August 23 1939. Hitler had hoped this would deter the British and French from confronting Germany, since ideologically this was an improbable alliance and hence might give them pause. Unknown to Hitler, the surprise element was already lost. British and French Intelligence were aware of the developments between Germany and the USSR. As a result, when Hitler did not see any change in British and French positions after the signing of the agreement, he cancelled the attack.

The single most important reason Hitler called off the invasion of Poland was because he did not want a World War. He did not want to internationalize his invasion of Poland and he was hoping that the pact with the USSR and German overtures would dissuade the British. He considered them the more important power to reckon with.

While British resolve was firm, the French could be excused for appearing less resolute. Many French politicians had fought in the Great War and had lost family and friends. The carnage at the Somme and the Marne was still fresh in French minds and there was a strong pacifist streak that arose from the memories of the previous war, scarce twenty years behind. They did not want to be rushed into defending Poland when it was clearly impossible to do so. To them the German-Soviet pact was hugely disconcerting.

There was a better basis for Anglo French resolve largely due to two factors. First, the British and French militaries were much better prepared and the French in particular had a very good army and air force. They also had the Maginot Line of fortifications to counter the kind of infantry thrusts from Germany that occurred in 1914.  Second, public opinion had changed in favour of confronting Germany after March 1939.

Prime Minister Chamberlain, who came from a merchant background in Birmingham, had never met anyone like Hitler who could give his word and then break it. He was deeply disappointed when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939. From then on, he was firm with Hitler without losing any opportunity to stop yet another European war, and any assertion that he was too weak in September 1939 is incorrect.  Even more than Chamberlain, his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (who was Viceroy of India in 1931) was resolved to ensure that Hitler would not get away this time. Both Lord Halifax and Mr Chamberlain were not averse to preventing war through discussions on the principle that all war was bad. But they were equally resolved to make sure Hitler did not repeat March 1939.

The French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier was a man of great energy. French politics of the 1930s was marked by fractiousness between the Right and the Left. In order to govern he had armed himself with near dictatorial powers. Despite internal troubles, by August 1939 he was as resolved as Chamberlain that Hitler should be stopped. More than the British he also hoped that Italy would join the British and the French.

On August 24th, Chamberlain made a statement in Commons expressing concern at the situation and in defence of a Government motion asking for Parliament to arm HMG with special emergency powers in the light of the situation. The motion was carried almost unanimously. Hitler received this news with some alarm, and next morning he summoned Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany at the Chancellery. In a meeting marked by great cordiality, Hitler offered a similar no-war pact along the lines of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to Britain and offered to guarantee the integrity of the British Empire, once the Polish business had been settled. He was hoping for a local war, not an international one.  The next day Henderson flew to London to convey Hitler’s requests.

That very morning Hitler asked the army to prepare to invade Poland.

At this point Hitler was still unsure about whether he had Mussolini’s support. He needed Italy so that he could put pressure on the British and French to keep from internationalising his imminent assault on Poland.  He hoped that Italian naval presence in the Mediterranean would be an advantage. But the Italians were alarmed by Hitler’s expansion into Central Europe and Italian public opinion was not yet inclined towards war. The German-Soviet pact had the effect of signalling to Italy that they were no longer centre stage in European affairs as they had been before the Pact, and this caused concern to Mussolini who had territorial ambitions.

On August 25th the Italian Ambassador to Germany delivered a letter informing Ribbentrop that Italy would stay neutral in any German war in Poland.  That evening at 530pm, the French Ambassador to Germany called on Hitler to tell him, very firmly, that France would stand by the guarantee she had given to Poland. This did not do wonders for Hitler’s mood.

Later that evening at 630pm, Ribbentrop was stunned by the announcement of an Anglo-Polish Pact for Mutual Assistance which the Polish Ambassador to the United Kingdom signed just a few minutes ago. Though the agreement had been in the works for two months, the fortuitousness or otherwise of the timing of the signature was not lost on Lord Halifax. Ribbentrop and other advisers pressed Hitler to find a way to isolate Britain. It was at this juncture that Hitler called off the attack but asked the German Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel to carry on preparations.

On August 27th at 1pm, Henderson reached London and conferred with the Prime Minister and with the Foreign Secretary. A letter had to be sent to Germany that was firm and yet did not leave any opportunity for misunderstanding. On August 28th, Henderson flew back to Berlin with the reply. The letter stated that Germany and Great Britain must discuss how to protect Poland’s essential interests and that failure to do so would be calamitous. The exact words used were: “A just settlement of these questions between Germany and Poland may open the way to world peace. Failure to reach it would ruin the hopes of better understanding between Germany and Great Britain, would bring the two countries into conflict, and might well plunge the whole world into war. Such an outcome would be a calamity without parallel in history”. 

Shorn of diplomatic language, its meaning was clear. When Hitler and Henderson met, Hitler read the letter and again told the Ambassador that he would negotiate and provide guarantees to the British Empire. Henderson replied that Hitler would have to choose between friendship with Poland or war with Britain.

Observers who saw Hitler at close quarters in those days commented adversely on his state of mind. He was unsure of himself, having brought Germany to the brink. Once before, at Munich, Hitler pulled back from the brink. Now was he going to do this again? This had not gone down well in military circles, and indeed within the Nazi Party. Hitler was risking being considered weak minded and less than firm, a man who loses his nerve when at the brink.   The hesitation shown on August 26th was not lost on the French who believed that when confronted with force, Hitler would climb down. It only served to strengthen their resolve.

The mood in London and Paris was optimistic about peace even at this stage, and this was founded on two points. First, Germany was experiencing economic difficulties and the Anglo-French view was that Hitler would not choose this time to risk a bigger war. 

Second, they believed Hitler was facing opposition from the Nazi Party and the German High Command. Many in London believed Hitler was more vulnerable than he actually was to a coup. The reality was that while there were rumblings, they were limited and conditional and not enough to stop Hitler. The Wehrmacht was concerned about an international war and Hitler was shown a military paper that laid out the difficulties of fighting a multi-national war. Hitler dismissed these concerns since he was confident of isolating Britain and fighting a local war. A number of German politicians of the old school who opposed Hitler as a charlatan and a chancer were happy when he called off the attack on August 26, and expected him to lose power quickly as a result.  Word was sent to the British Embassy asking the United Kingdom to stand firm and not let Hitler wriggle away from a difficult situation of his own making.  The British had also been given the impression that Hermann Goering, second only to Hitler in the Reich, was waiting for an opportunity to seize power for himself. This was conveyed by a Danish businessman Dahlerus, who mounted his own peace mission to stop any impending war between August 24th and 28th . But these notions were discounted by the British Foreign Office as being a bit too fanciful and no credence was given to them.

The private diplomacy of Dahlerus and the general reasonable tone of the British seemed to strengthen Hitler’s view that the British could be detached from the French and hence prevent an international war. He gave firm orders to the German Army to cross the Polish border on September 1st.  Meanwhile Hitler and Ribbentrop lost no opportunity to tell the world that they did not want war and that they just had a local dispute in Poland based on genuine German grievances.

In the hope of preventing war,  the British Ambassador to Poland conveyed a message to Berlin asking if they would be willing to meet the Polish Government for talks. Nothing came of it. The Polish Army had anyway been mobilizing, but in the light of these peace moves, Poland stalled forward movement. Valuable time was lost. On August 29th the Polish Army moved into forward positions on the German border.

On August 29th, Hitler handed his reply to Henderson. Hitler and Ribbentrop stood and watched as Henderson read it. The demands it contained were an unacceptable basis for any discussion: the return of Danzig and the entire Corridor territory, safeguards for the other German minorities living in Poland, and the necessity of involving the Soviet Union in any settlement in Poland. At the end of the reply Henderson read the demand that the Polish government send a negotiator with full powers to sign by the following day, 30th  August.

On August 30th, Lord Halifax replied to Hitler that it was unreasonable to ask for a Polish plenipotentiary to be available at such short notice, and that besides, no formal request had been made by Germany to Poland. This reply was delivered by Henderson to Ribbentrop late that night. The reply angered Ribbentrop, who produced his own set of demands on the Polish Government, which he read out but did not hand over to the British Ambassador. The meeting had both men shouting at each other and ended on a hostile note.  The sixteen points were conveyed informally by the Danish businessman Dahlerus to the Polish Ambassador to Germany, who tried and failed to meet Ribbentrop. By the time he was given time to meet Ribbentrop, it was 9pm on August 31st, and the attack was due to begin. The phone lines between Berlin and Warsaw were severed shortly thereafter.

Even as late as August 31st the mood in London was optimistic that Hitler would not go to war, thanks to their reading of the German situation and their view on how vulnerable Hitler was. In Paris however the mood was less certain, and Daladier was committed to confronting Hitler. In Germany, the interval between the cancellation and the final invasion of Poland on 1 September was used to bombard the German public with inflammatory propaganda against the Poles. Details of Polish ‘atrocities’ were magnified by the German press; publicity was given to alleged reports that Germans living in Poland had been castrated. All of this was designed to ensure that the outside world would understand the German casus belli, and that the German public would wage a Polish war with sufficient enthusiasm after years in which they had become accustomed to the bloodless victories achieved by threats, menaces and bluff.

In secret, Germany had begun preparing for instituting lebensraum in Poland, as much as five months prior. Groups were formed and attached to military formations, to round up and murder the Polish elite, destroy synagogues and disable any resistance after occupation.  These groups were now activated and mobilised along with the Wehrmacht.

To give spurious cause, Himmler’s Deputy and Head of the Secret Police Reinhard Heydrich ordered the staging of what is now known as the Gleiwitz incident. On the night of August 31st, a small group of German operatives from the Abwehr seized the radio station at Gleiwitz on the German-Polish border, and broadcast a short anti German message. A mock Polish attack was staged at two other places. German prisoners dressed in Polish Army uniforms were shot and bodies left as proof of a Polish attack. The incident was claimed as evidence of Polish double dealing and as the trigger for military action.

At 4am on September 1, the German Naval vessel Schleswig-Holstein, which was visiting the free city of Danzig on what was ostensibly a training mission, opened fire on a nearby Polish naval fort, signalling the start of the War. German troops and Nazi party officials who had been smuggled into the Free City took control of the city and unveiled the German Swastika.  At the same time, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht began offensive operations. The Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground.

News of the German attack reached London at 7am on September 1, and Paris shortly after. Chamberlain and Daladier conferred to co-ordinate their responses. Both countries had picked up information on a Polish assault on Germany the previous night but they had the good sense to discount it for what it actually was. A note was sent to Berlin asking them to stop the aggression and withdraw troops promptly, failing which HMG would have no choice but to act on its guarantee to Poland. Chamberlain announced this in Parliament that night and told the Members that no time limit had been given.  The French prepared a similar reply despite the objections of some members of the French cabinet on its peremptory tone.

At 930pm on September 1st, Henderson called on Ribbentrop and conveyed HMG’s response formally, and insisted on an immediate reply.  At 10pm the French Ambassador followed suit.

The German response was puzzling, to say the least.  Party functionaries gathered in the chancellery lobbies still thought the West was bluffing. Hitler was unable to decide if the notes were formal ultimatums or not. Henderson had been told by the Foreign Office, according to Halifax’s later recollection, that he was authorized to say that the note ‘was a warning and not an ultimatum’, though he did not relay this to Ribbentrop. 

In London, blackout curtains were hung in all windows. But, among MPs there was a sense of puzzlement about the failure to give Germany a definite time by which to comply. One could argue that adding a time limit would have made it an ultimatum – which the Foreign Office wanted to avoid – but at the same time the insertion of the word “promptly” in the demand for troop withdrawal made it clear it was actually one.  The uncertainty thus created around British intentions caused consternation amongst the many critics of Chamberlain.  So why did Chamberlain not actually declare war if that was his intent.

This could be explained by a few factors. First, the French wanted to mobilise and also move six million reservists close to the frontier. It would take them a couple of days to do so. There were fears that the Luftwaffe would do in France what it did in Poland. The Luftwaffe did not have that capacity but the French were not to know that.  Second, Mussolini suddenly intervened with an offer of mediation between the powers at a conference proposed to be held on September 5th.

London was lukewarm and so was Daladier, but not his foreign minister George Bonnet, who made no secret of his desire to stop war even at the risk of appeasing Hitler. Bonnet went to the extent of telling Ribbentrop that France was in favour of a peace conference and put out a statement to the press to this effect. The Italians were delighted and on September 2nd, they talked to Hitler who wanted to know if the British and French notes were ultimatums or mere requests. He also told the Italians he would reply only the next day.

Historians attribute this to Hitler’s desire to further confuse his adversaries while holding out hope for peace. He may have also believed that attending the conference with Danzig in his pocket might increase his bargaining power. Bonnet, without consulting either his Prime Minister or the British, told Hitler the notes were not ultimatums. 

Daladier, who was also Bonnet’s political rival, told London only Parliament could make or stop war – and he had no intention of backing down, essentially disowning Bonnet’s statements purportedly made on behalf of the French Republic. 

Lord Halifax was taken by surprise by the Italian overture as well as Bonnet’s actions. At 630pm that evening, Lord Halifax phoned his Italian counterpart to tell him that regardless of any Peace Conference, immediate withdrawal of German troops and the restoration of Danzig as a free city were non-negotiable pre-conditions.

Chamberlain and Halifax found themselves in a difficult situation with British MPs who were not happy about their failure to indicate a time for compliance by Germany in the British note. They were not persuaded by the French request to hold off on specifying exact dates and they accused Chamberlain of confusion and weakness. On September 2nd, Chamberlain came to Parliament at 7pm after keeping MPs waiting the whole day. In what is regarded as one of the significant days in British Parliamentary history, he made a brief and unimpressive address, explaining the nuances around a possible peace conference brokered by the Italians and that the French were also in the process of confirming their position. He further stated that if the Germans agreed, they would have to vacate Poland and restore Danzig. He sounded tired and it was not the firm and definitive statement that MPs wanted to hear.

The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Clement Attlee was in hospital, and deputising for him was Arthur Greenwood, who rose to respond. Apparently as he rose, Leo Amery, the Conservative MP, shouted out to Greenwood, “Speak for England Sir!”.  Greenwood rose to the occasion by challenging Chamberlain thus: ‘I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization are in peril.’  There were more shouts and confusion in Parliament and MPs refused to hear Chamberlain’s reply.  Parliament adjourned for the day and the British Cabinet huddled into a meeting at 9pm.

The French Ambassador to Britain Charles Corbin was summoned to Downing Street. Chamberlain was convinced his government would fall the next day. Corbin was asked to get Daladier to agree to an ultimatum and was told failure to do so might cause a collapse of the British Government.  Daladier agreed to send an ultimatum to Germany the next day. The cabinet met again at 1130pm to draft the note to Germany.

At 9am on September 3rd Henderson entered the Chancellery to convey the ultimatum in person to Hitler. It was short.

 “In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on 1st September I informed you, on the instructions of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, that, unless the German Government were prepared to give His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom satisfactory assurances that the German Government had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

“Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks upon Poland have been continued and intensified. I have accordingly the honour to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a. m., British Summer Time, to-day 3rd September, satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German Government and have reached His Majesty’s Government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour.”

If the assurance referred to in the above communication is received, you should inform me by any means at your disposal before 11 a. m. to-day, 3rd September. If no such assurance is received here by 11 a. m. , we shall inform the German representative that a state of war exists as from that hour.”

Hitler’s reaction apparently was one of partial surprise, indeed he was a bit stunned. Perhaps he did not believe it would come to this.  He had been assured by Ribbentrop that Britain and France were in no mood to fight. Germany now found herself confronted by the very thing she wanted to avoid, a World War.

For close to two hours Halifax and Chamberlain waited for a German response. By 1050am it became clear there was going to be no German response. At 1115 am, Chamberlain went on BBC Radio and delivered a sober speech informing the British public that despite his very many efforts to keep the peace, German intransigence meant that Britain was now at War with Germany. In France, a thumping speech by Daladier said that France was now at War with Germany.

While Chamberlain was speaking, a long and rambling reply justifying German conduct was handed over to Henderson in Berlin. Hitler made a bellicose speech to Germany over radio but in private expressed his hope that Britain and France would fight a limited war! Observers say the public mood was sombre and anything but triumphant.

Polish Government officials heard the two declarations of war with some happiness. But that was short lived, as they quickly realised that in practical terms there was no assistance forthcoming from the British or the French.  The Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe completed their demolition of the Polish state. Two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, as agreed with the Germans in the secret codicil to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland ceased to exist.

The evening of September 3rd was calm and the mood sober in all three capitals. That evening, British and French diplomatic staff posted in Germany, and German diplomatic staff posted in London and Paris, were repatriated according to international law.  

Europe, and shortly the world, was at War.

Jinnah – Was His Hand Forced?

This is the term paper I wrote for my course requirements at Ashoka University.

Is it possible that a cosmopolitan, urbane, law abiding jurist of repute was looking to find that equitable representational framework within a United India, but faced with Hindu extremist intransigence, was forced to push for the extreme solution of Partition?

Muslim politics in India from 1858 to 1947 is a narrative of the demand for protected or disproportionate representation in legislatures for the Muslim minority. Right through from the first Council elections in 1892, to 1909, then the Provincial and Central Legislative Council elections in 1919 and after, until the 1935 watershed elections – this is the skeleton on which the entire body of Muslim politics hangs. It ultimately resulted in Partition through the agency of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The two-nation proposition that Jinnah is credited with was not something that he created. Rather, Muslim fears about being swamped by a Hindu majority surfaced when elected representation in Legislative Councils was first mooted in 1883 as a way of bringing Indians into administration.

When it began, the Indian National Congress consisted of largely English-speaking Indians, most of whom were Hindu. Starting with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in 1888, Muslims were told that in the event the British ever left India, a vengeful Hindu majority will extract vengeance for 700 years of Muslim rule. He argued that the Muslims were not just a minority but a nation. And the safety of that nation can be only guaranteed by loyalty to the Crown. This argument was supported and amplified by men like Theodore Beck, Principal of the Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh and his successor Theodore Morrison.

To counter Hindu domination several attempts were made to create Muslim organizations. Finally, with full British connivance that can only be attributed to the desire to Divide et Impera, the Muslim League was born in 1906. The League claimed to speak for all Muslims, loyal to the Crown, and committed to British Rule. The main plank of the League? Electoral and employment preferences in the form of nominated seats, reserved seats, separate electorates and employment reservations.

A friend of Tilak and a disciple of Gokhale, Jinnah entered politics around the time British hostility towards Ottoman Turkey brought League and Congress together. The League adopted resolutions on national goals of self-government since the Congress backed the League’s position on Turkey.

At the 1913 session of the League Jinnah positioned himself as a nationalist first, thereby acting as a bridge between the national and the communal interest, and declared himself a votary of Hindu Muslim unity.

The Lucknow Pact concluded in 1916 ushered in greater harmony between Congress and League. Jinnah was an enthusiastic Congressman as much a member of the League. The Rowlatt Act in 1919 and the Khilafat Movement further united Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi assumed leadership of the movement and Jinnah was supportive but disapproved of the law-breaking tactics of the Congress.

The Chauri-Chaura incident in 1922 not only ended non-cooperation, it also put a brake on the momentum of Hindu Muslim relations. Soon after that, the behavior of the Moplah rebels against Hindus during their Rebellion inflamed Hindu opinion. Right from 1921 to 1924 the country suffered a series of Hindu Muslim riots which British police officers are suspected to have sparked.

Hindu communal forces reappeared in the form of Swami Shraddhananda’s “Shuddhi” movement, and the Hindu Mahasabha emerged from the shadows. Lala Lajpat Rai emerged as a vocal and extreme mouthpiece of Hindu fears. Even the great Tagore voiced fears that Muslims could not be counted on to confine their patriotism to one country.

The League never abandoned its raison d’etre throughout this entire period. In 1924, while insisting that self government and nationalist convergence with the Congress was the goal, Jinnah continued to move resolutions for electoral protections against the Hindu majority. Despite attempts to preserve agreement on representational schemes, by 1925 the Lucknow Pact was dead.

Jinnah continued to be a nationalist. In 1926 he broke ranks with the Muslim League to join Congress in the boycott of the Simon Commission. In 1927 he participated in the Convention to prepare the Swaraj Constitution. A combination of communal obstinacy by the League and the Hindu Mahasabha left the convention struggling for consensus and it foundered on the issue of whether or not Muslim Majority provinces like Bengal and Punjab should have open electorates or reserved seats. He tried again in 1928 to get the League’s objectives

Jinnah attended the 1928 Convention to conclude the Swaraj Constitution and made a case for Muslims getting one-third of seats, reserved seats, proportional representation in Muslim Majority provinces, and residuary powers with provinces. Every one of his amendments was defeated. Nevertheless, in 1929, he tried to argue for the Nehru Report in the League and did not succeed. Instead he prepared his own Fourteen Points, which incorporate the League’s demands but also articulates a federal vision for United India.  This was ignored by Congress and excorciated by factions in the Muslim League. It died a natural death.

Jinnah’s departure from India at this juncture was a result of his distaste for the politics of mass agitation preferred by Gandhi, and frustration at the inability of the parties to compromise. During his attendance at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931, he showed willingness to be constructive even as the rest of the Conference descended into noisy haggling. Sir Mohammad Iqbal’s clear call for a division of India[1] was ignored by Jinnah. The Communal Award was the result of the parties failing to compromise.

The watershed for Jinnah was the 1936 elections following the passage of the Government of India Act 1935. Jinnah returned to India to take charge of the League’s campaign. The League program was very similar to that of the Congress[2] except in respect of restrictions on property.  However, the League lost badly, not just in the open seats which the Congress decisively won, but also in the reserved seats where they won just 108 out of 485. Jinnah’s political career was rescued by the Prime Minister of Punjab Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, who was a Unionist and opposed to the League[3].

Congress should have recognized there was an opportunity to bridge the gap with the League and include them in government. Rather, Nehru’s speeches claimed that the Congress had a better emotional link with the Muslim poor than the landlords who supported the League[4]. The League lost badly.

Behaving like a political party, the Congress ignored the League and formed governments. Since the Congress was largely Hindu, the Treasury Benches were Hindu. The Muslim opposition would never be able to replace the Congress thanks to the communal voting system. Though the electorate was still restricted, it served as an illustration to Muslims of what could happen – just as Sir Syed had warned.

Failure to form governments with the League has been described as a catastrophic error of judgement[5].

The decisive actions Jinnah undertook from here on were designed to make the League an organization with a mass base. The Congress, resorting to behavior akin to a political party than a national movement, undertook populist measures that upset the Muslim minority albeit unintentionally[6]. A series of reports alleged that there were atrocities against Muslims though none of them were properly substantiated[7]. Meanwhile the Hindu Mahasabha accused the Congress ministries of Muslim appeasement[8]!

As War loomed, it was convenient for the British to consider Jinnah to be the spokesman of the Muslims from which community a bulk of the Indian Army was drawn.

The resignation of the Congress Ministries in late 1939 in response to Linlithgow’s Declaration of War was a windfall to Jinnah. In March 1940 he delivered his address to the Lahore session of the Muslim League, declaring unequivocally that Hindu and Muslim were separate nations, and that if the British were going to leave the country, they must leave it as two states and not as one.

It is difficult to prove that this intransigence was due to Hindu extremists in the Congress. The Congress was always in a difficult position – it allowed the League to address the Muslims because the Hindu Mahasabha was able to raise the spectre of Hindu communalism. For most Muslims the Congress was a Hindu party despite its strenuous efforts to be secular.

The contortions that the British went to favour and accommodate Jinnah only served to enhance his sense of destiny. By the time Wavell was in Delhi, very little could be salvaged. The only man who could do so was Jinnah. May be it was his sense that his own life was running out, or that the iron had entered his soul somewhere. He did not compromise to the end.

The State of Pakistan today stands as a monument to the failure to reach a compromise.  The true victims of Jinnah’s stubbornness are the Indian Muslims today – forever condemned to be the other, with loyalties suspect and patriotism questioned.


1     French, Patrick: Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division. Harper Collins, London 1997

2     Gopal, Ram: Indian Muslims: A Political History 1858-1947, Asia Publishing House, Delhi 1959

3     Wolpert, Stanley: Jinnah of Pakistan, Oxford University Press, New York, 1984

4     Jalal, Ayesha: Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994

5     Sarkar, Sumit: Modern India 1885-1947. Palgrave MacMillan. New York, 1989

[1] The Times, October 12 1931

[2] Wolpert, Stanley: “Jinnah of Pakistan”, pp 144.

[3] Jalal, Ayesha: “Sole Survivor”, pp 39.

[4] Wolpert, pp 147

[5] Wolpert, pp 148; Jalal, pp 38

[6] Aziz, ed. Muslims Under Congress Rule, Vol I pp191

[7] Sarkar, Modern India, pp 355

[8] Gopal, Ram: Indian Muslims: A Political History (1858-1947) ,  pp 258

Bir Hakeim

During our years in Paris – which now seems an eternity away both in terms of time as well as memory – the Seine was a constant presence in our lives. We could see the river from our bedroom window over the Parc de Passy. At night the big tourist boats would come sliding close to the banks, with strong searchlights focused on the posh apartment complexes on the 16th Arrondisement. We were in one of these posh complexes but set at a height, so we never had our privacy disturbed. Seeing the boats, my daughter would always be tempted to sing these lines taught to her in her play school:

Bateau sur l’eau
La rivière, la rivière
Bateau sur l’eau
La rivière au bord de l’eau

Bateau sur l’eau
La rivière, la rivière
Bateau sur l’eau
Touni est tombé dans l’eau, plouf

But I digress. The bridge closest to us over the Seine was the Pont du Bir Hakeim. Most early mornings I would run from our home in Rue Lyautey down to Porte d’Auteuil, and run back via Avenue Mozart, cut into Rue de Passy, run all the way down and  turn right to go down to the Passy Metro station.  It was a daily ritual for me to walk on the bridge at the end of the run, and then walk back home.

The bridge itself is a beauty. It has a road at one level, and the Line 6 railway line on the second level on top of an iron bridge.  The beautiful wrought-iron columns of the bridge would be familiar to movie enthusiasts.  Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider are pictured walking separately and unknown to each other on the bridge one cloudy Paris morning in the opening sequence of “Last Tango in Paris”. As you start walking on the bridge towards the South, you cannot miss the spectacular rise of the Eiffel Tower on the left. No matter how many times you see it, the sight of the Tower will never fail to make you sigh at its sheer beauty, silhouetted in the morning sun.

This is the Pont du Bir Hakeim.

Midway between the two banks, there is a small island called the Ile aux Cygnes (Island of Swans). It has a small garden and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. On a nice summer evening I would take my daughter over there to play and gawk at the swans. Where the bridge opens out to the island there is a small balcony.

On the balcony is a plaque.

The balcony is popular with lovers and dawdlers alike and everyone ignores the plaque. But that plaque tells a very important story and explains why this bridge has this funny foreign name.

Bir Hakeim used to be an oasis in Libya, now completely vanished from the map. At one time, when there was water, it was a desert fort during the days when the Ottoman Empire covered these desert tracts.  It was also one of the last outposts of civilization before the desert began – a vast empty sea of sand stretching thousands of miles south almost to the Atlantic Coast.

France fell to Germany in 1940, and most French forces were disarmed and told go home. When Charles de Gaulle escaped to London and made his famous speech over BBC on June 14, 1940, asking all Frenchmen to resist, there were a select few who heeded his call, who refused to accept the apparent finality of defeat and occupation, and decided to fight on. They became the Free French.

War in North Africa began as soon as the French surrendered, when Italy declared War on the Allies. The British, who controlled Egypt, attacked Libya, which was an Italian colony. After the Italian 10th Army was destroyed by British and Allied forces, the Germans stepped in, and the vaunted Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel took charge of the fighting in 1941.

Egypt controlled access to the Suez Canal, and that made it a German target.  There was also the question of oil.  British Commonwealth forces consisted not only of British divisions, but also Indian, South African, and Australian Divisions. It also had the First Free French Division which consisted of former French Army soldiers, some Foreign Legionnaires, some Spanish mercenaries and pretty much anyone who wanted to fight the Nazis.

Taking over from the apparently feckless Italians, Rommel scored some stunning successes. He was going for Cairo, for the Suez Canal.  The fighting stuck closer the coast, where the fortresses were and where tanks could operate. 

By May 1942, Rommel was pushing the British towards Tobruk from the west.  Tobruk would have been an important staging point to begin the offensive on Egypt, and for the Commander In Chief of Commonwealth forces, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, losing Tobruk was out of the question.  This is where the story of Bir Hakeim begins. It lies south of Tobruk, and expecting the Afrika Korps to approach Tobruk from the West and South, it had significance. 

Until this time, the Free French had not made any impression. They had important symbolic value but not as a serious fighting formation – there were too few of them and they had no equipment of their own. General Auchinleck did not expect too much from the Free French. Whether it was because he fully expected the Germans to roll over the French or because he valued their symbolic significance, he assigned the defence of Bir Hakeim to the French.

The Commander of the Free French Division was General Henri Koenig, a colourful man. His friend and alleged lover, a British woman called Susan Travers, was also in the Free French fighting as a Foreign Legionnaire – but assigned to drive the General. She was with him in battle.

General Koenig knew that the Germans also did not think too much of the Free French, and that the Afrika Korps would attack Bir Hakeim as soon as they learnt that the French were defending it.  Expecting a full fledged attack, he prepared as best as he could, laying minefields and hidden explosives and preparing fortifications.  He had about 3600 men under arms – vastly outgunned and outnumbered.

The assault began on the night of May 26, with the Italian armored regiments in the lead.  Successive waves of Stuka dive bombers pounded the French positions.  German tanks soon joined the Italians. The attacks were non-stop, the fighting was hand-to-hand at places.  Water was short – a situation made worse when Indian POWs released by the Germans in the desert a few days before wound up at Bir Hakeim needing medical assistance.  Notwithstanding these challenges, the French stood firm, sometimes taking the attack to the Germans, and defending their position doggedly and with great courage.

Rommel now turned his full attention to Bir Hakeim by the first week of June, realizing that he had a serious problem with his supply lines if he did not take the position.  Respectful emissaries were sent to General Koenig under white flag, offering fair terms if they surrendered.  The emissaries were respectfully spurned.  

By June 10th fresh German forces surrounded Bir Hakeim and it was clear that the position would not survive.  General Koenig realized that his position was untenable.  He then did something remarkable.  He asked wounded French soldiers to man defensive positions and to continue to fire on the enemy.  The territory behind Bir Hakeim towards Tobruk was very heavily mined. He and the rest of his troops essentially drove through the French minefield in a daring move to escape north towards British positions – General Koenig’s transport had Susan Travers at the wheel.  Men and vehicles were lost but the vast majority made it through.  Out of 3600 men, some 2700 survived. Among them were ambulances with the wounded. Through June 10 and 11th British patrols looked for and picked up those lost in the desert. It was a heroic escape.

On the night of June 11, German forces broke through to Bir Hakeim, only to find a couple of hundred wounded Frenchmen. The battle was expensive for Rommel – not only had the campaign to take Tobruk been delayed by three weeks, he lost nearly 3,300 dead and wounded, and 164 tanks and vehicles taken out by accurate French anti-tank weapons. 

Hitler was enraged and apparently he ordered Rommel to execute the French POWs.  History says that Rommel ignored the order and made every effort to treat the Free French POWs honourably, as befits an enemy in war.

Tobruk did fall to the Germans, and this episode by no means marked a turning point in the war. That was to come much later, when in the Second Battle of El Alamein, the new British Commander of the Commonwealth forces – known as the Eighth Army – General Bernard Montgomery famously beat Rommel’s Afrika Korps in an epic battle. That marked an inflexion point not only in North Africa but for the rest of the War. So why is Bir Hakeim important?

The significance of Bir Hakeim is that France was able to tell the world its spirit was not dead.  The fighting soul of France was alive and well.  The easy contempt with which some Allied commanders treated the French due to their spectacular defeat turned to grudging respect. Less than 4,000 Frenchmen held off 45,000 German and Italian troops. By delaying Rommel for three weeks, the French ensured that the British were able to reinforce their positions east of Tobruk.  It indicated to all Frenchmen that their independent heart was still alive, beating somewhere in the sands of North Africa.

The plaque at the Pont de Bir Hakeim is simple and moving.

“At Bir Hakeim from May 27 to 11 June 1942, the First Free French Brigade repulsed furious assaults from two divisions of the enemy and affirmed to the world that France has never ceased to fight”.

Looking for Lt Col D A Taylor

The Indian Army’s Official War History tersely states that Lt Col D A Taylor and 192 men perished in the cold in November 1962. I tried to reconstruct his last two days on earth from available sources. This is what I found.

November 1962. The remnants of the 2nd Battalion 8th Gorkha Rifles, 2 Madras and Assam Rifles detachments started pulling out of Menchuka and commenced their withdrawal to Along. Orders were received over crackling radio from 2 Division Command by the Area Commander Lt Col D A Taylor.

Menchuka is about 30 miles from the McMahon Line, the disputed frontier on the North East between China and India. Its a tiny little town, more a village, that lies in a valley, on the road to the nearest town called Along. At that time this was not so much a road but a bridle path, clinging to the valley as it zigzags between peaks on both sides, heavily wooded with pine. Quite beautiful on any other day but no one has eyes for it on this day. A number of small villages mark the road – you cannot call them villages really, more like small agglomerations of habitations. It heads to the South East, determined not to be distracted or diverted by the big peaks on both sides. It winds forward and backwards, in hairpin bends, hugging the hillsides, not much wider than a cart at some places.

About 8-9 kilometers down, the road crosses a small stream called Sen Chu over a causeway. Towards the South West at that crossing point, lies a spot called Rego.  Another few kilometres down towards the South East the road reaches a town called Payum. There it bends sharply to the South and another 15 kilometres down is the larger town of Along.

Col Taylor instructed his men to travel light. There were no porters or mules to carry anything heavier than a Heavy Machine Gun.  Heavy winter clothing had not yet been issued – there were a number of plainsmen like the Madrasis who were clearly not used to the weather. Everyone was going to find it difficult but there was no choice.

The Siang Front shown on the map below is the broad green line near Menchuka. Five battalions of the PLA were ranged against the Siang Front. It was divided into three sectors, Menchuka being at the centre.

The Chinese attacks had commenced on October 20, all along the NEFA front. The attacks were simultaneous. They had obviously been months in preparation and overwhelmed the thin Indian defences.

India’s Forward Policy, put in place in July 1962, required the Army to operate very close to, and sometimes across, the McMahon line.  The terrain was heavily wooded and mountainous. A distance of two kilometres on the map between two points could take up to three hours to traverse.  Across the border the Chinese built up troop and supply strength. Good roads had been constructed leading right up to the McMahon Line.

Skirmishes between Indian and Chinese patrols turned serious. As Chinese forces pushed in they encountered lightly armed Indian patrols, who sometimes engaged vastly superior forces. At Lamang the Assam Rifles patrol fought the Chinese for three hours until 9pm, until Chinese Verey lights revealed they were surrounded. They withdrew towards Menchuka.

To the right of Menchuka, towards Manigong, the results were similar. Chinese advance parties engaged Indian patrols and pushed them back to local headquarters. The Dogras posted at Manigong retreated under pressure from the Chinese, delaying them as much as possible. Under Major Pandarinath Rege, the Dogras beat back four attacks by the Chinese, causing casualties, until they retreated due to shortage of ammunition.

At Tuting,  the Assam Rifles detachment just managed to delay the Chinese. Lance Naik Hasta Bahadur Gurung and Rifleman Baji Ram Thapa displayed significant heroism under fire.

The GOC of 2 Division was Maj Gen M S Pathania – cousin of the more famous Maj Gen A S Pathania who was GOC 4 Division that operated towards the left of 2 Division, upto the Bhutan border.  The Division was a brand new formation, raised on October 24, to create the command structure to focus the defence of Walong (see map). It was raised just after the disaster of the battle of Nam Ka Chu, near the Bhutan frontier – in the very first battles that took place on October 20, the Chinese destroyed 7 Brigade and took the Brigade commander Brigadier John Dalvi prisoner.

The disaster forced the Army to remove the erstwhile GOC 4 Div Maj Gen Narayan Prasad and bring in Maj Gen A S Pathania to command 4 Division.

Both first cousins were now responsible for the defence of the Brahmaputra Valley.

By November 9th it became apparent that the Chinese were going to outflank Menchuka by cutting off its road link to Along near a place called Tato. Nevertheless, Maj Gen M S Pathania asked the Siang Front to hold at all costs.  

By mid November, repeated Chinese probes convinced the Command that Menchuka risked being cut off.  The Menchuka sub area was told to be ready to pull out towards Along. Two days later they were told it had to be a fighting withdrawal. Col Taylor was in touch with the Brigade Major of 192 Brigade, his direct superior. They tried to get more men from Along to Menchuka but the weather was turning and no mule transport was available. It would have taken days to get there by foot.

Lt Col Taylor and the garrison stood their ground for another day. On 18th November the 2 Madras positions came under sustained Chinese artillery attack. The Madrasis replied with their mortars. Col Taylor and 192 Brigade conferred on wireless. They assumed that the Chinese had managed to cut the road to Along and determined to use hill paths to make their way back.  With that Lt Col Taylor broke off wireless contact.

Lt Col Taylor and a party of 35 men started out in the early hours of the 20th, looking for a jungle track to conceal their withdrawal.  Along with them went the Adjutant 2/8 GR Capt Ghosh, the Medical Officer 2/8 GR Lt Sharma, and Maj Pimple of 2 Madras. They carried no rations and wore their regular uniforms – not winter clothing, because they had none. They traveled mostly in the dark.  The main party, led by Major Dar of 2/8 GR, followed a little while later.

The path Col Taylor took was little used by locals and hard to find. It started to rain and snow quite heavily, and movement became difficult.

Major Dar and his party followed Lt Col Taylor after a few hours but on the more conventional path, lower down in altitude and closer to the road to Along. They were met by a Chinese ambush. The men scattered and decided to take the more hazardous route over the snow.  Some of them decided to trudge on to Dapori Jo, due south about 23 kilometres as the crow flies. Others decided to go towards Tato, about 8 kilometres on the road to Along towards the South East.

Conditions must have been terrible. The snow was steady and visibility was close to zero. The men must have had to make their way very slowly to avoid going over the hillside. Men began to fall by the wayside with severe frostbite and exhaustion. Those who could not move had to be left behind.

The party that tried to reach Tato ran into the Chinese, who had blocked the track to Along. After a brief firefight, they were taken prisoner. They were released in May 1963.

But not Lt Col Taylor. He and his men, hearing the gunfire, must have decided to get off the path going South East to Along, and to cross the mountains, going due south to get to the Brahmaputra Valley, when they had reached Rego. They must have been joined by other stragglers from 2/8 Gurkha Rifles. There were now 190 men, making their way across a snow covered path, 14000 feet high, with nothing more than autumn clothes and no rations.

In the assessment of Brigade, the invading Chinese parties were well-equipped but did not number more than two hundred. The Menchuka garrison alone had 800 men. Beffore setting out on this hazardous journey, Col Taylor must have received confusing orders and heard the traffic of contradictory orders that had flowed up and down between the Corps, the Division and the Brigade. The tone of the messages was pessimistic and confused. They inspired no confidence in Lt Col Taylor that the Division will find a way to support him in case it came to battle. And so he set out on this retreat.

The men who started towards Daporijo reached their destination after a month, enduring severe hardship on the way.

Lt Col Taylor and his men never reached their destination. He and a hundred and ninety two officers and other ranks must have died of exhaustion and frostbite.  Their bodies were never found.

Who was Lt Col Taylor? What are the stories of Captain Ghosh, Lt Sharma and Maj. Pimple, and of the other 190 who perished.  We will never know.

The least we can do is to remember them in gratitude. Rest In Peace.