Saturday, November 11, 2006

Palra: Joining the Army is a tradition here

This little-known village of Haryana, made famous by its most famous son, Subedar Major Umrao Singh, VC, continues to maintain its strong links with the Indian Army, finds Maneesh Chhibber

Palra is one of the countless nondescript villages that dot the landscape of Haryana. Despite being just 60 km from Delhi, development has still to reach this village.

However, ask anyone in Haryana, especially a serving or retired Army man, if he has heard of Palra in Jhajjar district and chances are that he would know about the village. After all, not many villages in India can boast of one of their men receiving a Victoria Cross, the highest wartime gallantry award given to British soldiers.

Palra and Subedar Major and Honorary Captain Umrao Singh, VC, are synonymous with each other. Subedar Major Umrao Singh passed away on November 21, 2005. While for any other area the passing away of such a renowned figure could have resulted in the end of its relationship with prestige, but not for Palra.

Palra has another claim to fame. It is a rare example of a village where almost each family has at least one member serving in the defence services. Villagers say there are over 1,100 persons from a total of over 900 families currently serving in the forces, mainly the Army. Every year, a number of youth from the village join the Army.

"Basically, serving in the armed forces is a tradition that our village follows diligently. When our children grow up, the first job that we want them to try for is with the Army. If they, for some reason, cannot make it, only then do they look at other options," says a resident of the village.

In December last year, following the death of Subedar Major Umrao Singh, the Army held a special recruitment drive for the village youth. The drive was held on the orders of the Chief of the Army Staff, General J.J. Singh, who had attended the last rites of the brave son of the soil.

Such was the enthusiasm for joining the Army that even though the Army authorities had announced that they would select only 25 youths, over 200 youngsters turned up at the recruitment centre.

Hony Capt Om Prakash with a picture showing him with former President R. Venkataraman
Hony Capt Om Prakash with a picture showing him with former President R. Venkataraman

Nobody knows when the village’s affair with the Army began. All that the old-timers remember is that the honours that came to Subedar Major Umrao Singh after he received the Victoria Cross for exemplary courage in World War II had a major impact on the minds of the youth.

"From just another village, Palra became the village. Senior government officers and journalists from other parts of the country as well as abroad started visiting Subedar Major Umrao Singh. All this influenced the village youth, who wanted to join the Army and follow in the footsteps of Subedar Major Umrao Singh. At least, that was what I had dreamt of when I chose to join the Army," says Om Prakash, a retired JCO.

Not surprisingly, new recruits of this Ahirs-dominated village prefer to join the Artillery — the arm of the Army to which Subedar Major Umrao Singh belonged. If the new recruit is unable to join the Artillery, he opts for Infantry’s Kumaon regiment.

There are some families in the village, which have not allowed their link with the Army to break through generations — with the grandson serving the country just as his father and grandfather had done years ago.

There is ex-Subedar Brahma Nand, who joined the Army in 1957. His three sons were also in the Army, while one of his grandsons has recently received his Commission.


ex-Subedar Brahma NandI joined the Army in 1957. My three sons are also in the Army, while one of my grandsons has recently received Commission. There have been very few cases of eligible, fit youths from our village being turned down by the Army.
ex-Subedar Brahma Nand

Santra DeviMy father, who was in the Army, married all his daughters to Army men. My grandson has now become an officer in the Army. He has made the entire village proud.
— Santra Devi
Hony Captain Bhagwan YadavAfter retiring from the Army, I’ve settled in my house in the village. My three brothers were also in the Army. The village has produced three colonels, two of whom have retired and are settled outside the village.
— Hony Captain Bhagwan Yadav

He admits he is unable to pinpoint what drives the village youth to join the Army but adds, "I can assure you that when we go for a job in the Army and tell the officers that we are from Palra, we get special treatment. There have been very few cases of eligible, fit youths from our village being turned down by the Army," he states with a dash of pride.

He also discloses that one of his uncles had received a grant of 350 acres of land near the village from the British for exemplary courage shown in the war.

Apart from ex-Subedar Brahma Nand’s uncle, the village boasts of two other "murraba-holders also. A murraba-holder is one who received a grant/gift of 350 acres from the British for courage shown in a war.

During the India-China war of 1962, the village lost a native, Rattan Singh, who achieved martyrdom. Five of his brothers also joined the Army, and one them still serves as a Colonel. Villagers proudly say that the Colonel’s son has also cleared the "exam" and will soon don the uniform of the Indian Army as a Lieutenant.

Says Subedar Kartar Singh, one of the five brothers of Shaheed Rattan Singh, "What else could we do? Earlier, when we were young, getting good education was not easy. Also, we were enamoured of the Army. It was as if we had been born to serve the nation through the Army. The perils of joining the Army never even occurred to us. But, now with quality education easily available, our children are not so interested in the Army."

There are many in the village who agree with him. But despite that they miss no chance of reminding you that Palra is the village of faujis.

Hony Captain Bhagwan Yadav, who now leads a retired life in his house in the village, says his three brothers were also in the Army.

He discloses that the village has produced three full colonels, with two of them having retired and settled outside the village.

But, villagers rue the lack of development in the village. Despite its fame, the village has not seen much development. So much so that the majority of the villagers don’t have access to potable water. Instead, they are forced to buy water for a hefty sum from a contractor, who supplies it through his tubewells.

There are no proper lanes and bylanes in the village. "If you want to go from one corner of the village to another, you will have to wade through foul-smelling water. We have made so many requests to the local administration but nothing has been done," laments Hony Capt Om Prakash (retd), a nephew of Subedar Major Umrao Singh.

Villagers also point out that the Haryana Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who had come to the village to attend the last rites of Subedar Major Umrao Singh, had announced that Palra would be developed into a model village. "Is this what a model village should look like," asks Om Prakash.

Incidentally, Hooda had also directed the Deputy Commissioner, Jhajjar, to prepare a project for the planned and swift development of the infrastructure of the village. Nobody knows if that project has seen the light of day.

But, despite difficulties, locals are sure of one thing: they will not let their link with the Army snap.

Octogenarian Santra Devi, who lives in the village, proudly says that her father, who was in the Army, married all his daughters to Army men.

"My grandson has now become an officer in the Army. He has made the entire village proud," she says, adding that she would like each family in the village to maintain the tradition of sending at least one male member to the Army.

Umrao Singh’s legacy

Umrao SinghHistory has it that in December 1944, when World War II was on, Subedar Major Umrao Singh, fighting for the British in the Kaladhan valley in Burma, was seriously injured with little chances of survival. Around him lay bodies of 10 Japanese soldiers, whom he had killed single-handedly before being wounded. For this act of supreme bravery, he received the Victoria Cross.

Till his death on November 21, 2005, Subedar Major Umrao Singh remained a popular man, often seen exhorting boys of the area to join the Army.

But, some people tried to get close to him for reasons other than respect and affection. During his lifetime, he received at least three offers to sell his Victoria Cross. The money that he was offered ranged from Rs 5 lakh to 50 lakh, the last offer was made less than a year before his death.

However, each time, he would refuse the offer, saying that the medal was not his alone; every citizen of the country had a share in the medal. Among those who have been openly coveting the medal is a British collector, who is said to have taken it upon himself to own all the Victoria Crosses that have been awarded so far.

Since Subedar Major Umrao Singh’s death, his family has received two more offers for parting with the medal in lieu of money, with the money being raised to Rs 70 lakh.

"We told the agents that there was no way we would part with the medal. We have kept the medal and everything related to it in a bank safe so that there is no danger of it being stolen," says Vijay Singh, the elder son of Subedar Major Umrao Singh.

In fact, after reports appeared in a section of the media that the family was planning to sell the medal, senior officials of the British High Commission in India as well as the Indian Army met the family to offer assistance, including cash, so as to discourage them from selling the family’s treasure.

"When we told them that there was no intention whatsoever on our part to sell, they were surprised. They agreed that the news reports were attempts to lure us to sell the medal. Thereafter, we decided to enter into an agreement that stated that unless the entire family agreed, the medal couldn’t be sold," says Ved Prakash Yadav, the younger son of the late Umrao Singh.

At present, the family has another worry: there is none from the family serving in the Army.

"My younger brother’s son is studying hard and will soon take the entrance test. We are sure soon we will have one from the family serving the country," Vijay Singh asserts.

— Maneesh Chhibber and Deepinder