S S Sodhi
My father, an Indian prisoner of war in Pakistan, captured along with other Indian soldiers near Bunji, a town in the Astore District of Gilgit-Baltistan, shifted to confinement near Attock, spent around 3 years in captivity, lost his entire family in Kabaili riots and had only his nation to call his own.
Here is a son’s tribute to his father who never gave upon his faith in God and inspired many others to strengthen their spirit and follow a virtuous path.
Fighting the first war of Kashmir and the other Indo-Pak wars fought between 1947-1968 and his capture as a prisoner of war was recounted with great pride by my late father – Subedar S. Kirpal Singh, a humble soldier in the Indian Army. All episodes of his life and history touched many lives in different ways. The fact that he was ‘captured’ by the enemy along with his fellow Dogra, Sikh and Muslim associates, but never ‘surrendered’ to the enemy, remained a source of great pride for him and an inspiration for all of us.
Life threw grave challenges at S. Kirpal Singh, from a young age. Amid two limited choices – ‘do or die’ available to him, he chose to remain tough by selecting the former and continued to maintain mastery over his indomitable spirit until the very end.
S. Kirpal Singh was born in 1927 to a middle-class Sikh family in what was then called undivided India in a Village called Chokhoti in district Muzaffarabad, now in POK.
He was the youngest of the five siblings and from a quite early age was drawn towards meditation and singing of Gurbani Kirtans which he had by-heart during his early teens. For hours on end, he would sit quietly immersed in the divine ‘ras’ of meditation, his face reflecting a yogic ‘tej’. Contrarily, this holy child was equally interested in popular outdoor village sports and during his late teens, he had developed a reputation for standing an undefeated champion in kabaddi and achieving many daring feats.
He seemed to have taken his spiritual and martial inspiration from Guru Gobind Singh ji Maharaj – the spiritual master, warrior, poet and philosopher whose blessings reverberated through his heart and mind, while supreme sacrifices of Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and many other brave freedom fighters of Colonial India inspired him to join the army. Although his parents wanted him to settle with a decent caring woman and start a family with her, my father had different plans for his life. He craved for a life of service, devotion, sacrifice and honour which could only be attained from joining the Army.
Thus, after completing his degree from Lahore University in mid-1946, against the wishes of his parents, my father left for Jammu to join Maharaja Hari Singh’s army.
Maharaja welcomed the young and handsome Sikh youth who had volunteered for military services. After rigorous training when the time came for joining the most prestigious Jammu and Kashmir Rifles infantry unit, Maharaja himself was present during his induction to morally boost all new recruits, an incident which would be proudly recalled by my father many years later.
Maharaja’s army was known to be powerful, deeply devoted and ready to die for their Maharaja and the state of J&K. My father considered himself lucky to be serving in his royal army for the glory and sovereignty of the state. The welfare activities undertaken by Maharaja Hari Singh had won the deep trust and love of his subjects and the members of the royal force.
One year later in 1947, the partition between India and Pakistan happened followed by violent communal riots, gory attack on J&K by tribal marauders and war with Pakistan. There are several records in History which support the evidence of those horrible wartimes. However, I choose to focus this narrative on my father.
As S. Kirpal Singh along with the powerful comrades of his unit stood bravely fighting the enemies and defending the beloved frontiers of J&K, his world came crashing down with a heart-wrenching news from home. All members of his family had died. As thousands of Kabaili rioters carrying axes, swords, muskets, and sticks were pillaging and executing innocent citizens in a merciless blood bath in Chakhoti village in Muzffarabad, all members of his family- his old grandparents, father, mother, sisters and brothers – all stood facing River Jhelum, probably huddled up close and saying their last prayers to Waheguru and praying for the safety of my father, hoping to see him and meeting each other again in their next life.
Everyone ended their lives by jumping into the river in self-defence preferring to save their honour rather than to get killed by their enemies.
Thus, before their young and valiant son could do anything to save his family or to fulfil their expectations of him, his familial world had ended. No last words spoken, no goodbyes said, no hope to see each other ever alive again. A terrifying vacuum was created forever in S. Kirpal Singh’s heart which intensified his misery as the days progressed.
His call for duty which had apparently kept him “safely alive” away from the bloody riots at home, also kept him bound to the call of duty with only two available options – ‘do or die’. Like always, he chose the former, hoping to find his salvation through his duty.
The cruel timings of fate would come haunting back to him even during his excruciatingly painful days as a Prisoner of War in Pakistani Jails at Bunji & Attock, where he was subjected to extreme hard labour and torture, watching his fellow associates getting killed one by one upon their refusal to join the Pakistan army. As yielding to the enemy was out of the question, among the only two available options thrown at him – ‘do or die’, all he could do this time was to find his refuge and support in his beloved Guru. And luckily for him through some divine intervention, each time his turn would come for killing, something or the other would avert this act and his life would be spared. Three years thus passed in captivity and strife.
In the following years due to some diplomatic and political channelling that happened between India and Pakistan and as a result of his unbounded devotion and trust in God, it was decided to handover over the prisoners of war to India.
The thrill of being released and the sadness of having no one in the world to rejoice these moments with – no family, no relatives, no friends to return to, brought S. Kirpal Singh to an unusually saddest point in his life. But this time before he could weigh the two options of ‘do or die’, Waheguru intervened in the form of a senior army officer from Jammu who when he was told that my father was all alone in the world, offered to take him home to live with him. The kindness, support and generosity offered by this man strengthed my father’s faith in god.
The Government of India did offer some benefits with retirement but he refused to accept those and decided to continue his service for many more years. By this time he had risen from an infantry soldier to a Subedar and treated his army uniform like a holy book.
Soon this news spread in Jammu that a young prisoner of war who had lost his entire family in the Kabaili attack at Chakhoti village was now living with a generous Army Officer in Jammu. And, as luck would have it, some distant relatives of my father heard this news. They had long assumed him to be dead in the war. With some efforts, they were able to trace him in Jammu. Their thrill knew no bounds when they met my father and found him alive and breathing.
S. Kirpal Singh began to live with them in their home. All lost family hours and family time was relived with them. And in due course of time, he also found a decent homely woman to marry and start his family with. In his later years, he went on to earn a Degree in ‘Giani’ which was an Honours in Punjabi Language and Literature Course from the University of Jammu. For this, he underwent an intensive course of study and evaluation and outshone in his academic attainments.
People would flock to him seeking spiritual and worldly guidance as he possessed a thorough knowledge of Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and had uncanny ability to translate the words of the sacred text into simple everyday language. He also inspired many a youth to take up a career with Army. He was of the opinion that given a chance, every Indian village should send at least one member of their family to join the Army so that the whole village gets the honour of meritorious service to the nation.
Sitting for long hours in meditation, singing Gurbani Kirtans and guiding people for virtuous living became a reflection of his unique strength and courage in his later years which were a testimony to the purposeful life he had lived. But for my father who was always the ‘doer’ believing in action, life seemed just beginning to unfold. He and the other colleagues of his time would hugely admire the benevolent recognition and welfare schemes of PM Modi which he had bestowed upon war widows, army pensioners and POW’s. My father and his associates greatly welcomed such moves of the PM who had honoured all army ranks equally and brought revolutionary changes in the way the Army was looked after. It was something which they had been seeking since last many years. They were at last happy that their hardship and honourable service to Army were being recognised by the present Government of India in the remotest parts of the villages through financial support and other resettlements.
The way he endured all hardships and yet managed to sustain his strong will and faith have an alluring appeal to it. He would say that even if not in the army, you could be patriotic in so many ways by being dedicated to your work and duty as a housewife, student, teacher, doctor, engineer, or any other profession. He would urge people to respect the Tiranga and insist everyone to stand up in praise and honour of the National Anthem whenever or wherever it was being sung or played on TV, radio or live. He was filled with love and pride for this beautiful country and its countrymen, his family and all those who had lost their loved ones to gain this most treasured independence which we all are enjoying today.
I may have missed some important accounts, years or places in my narration, but I feel it was more important for me to finally get myself to write the narrative of the unsung hero and a prisoner of 1947 war, who had lost and gained so much in life.
I take this opportunity to thank all army personnel under whom, my father had got trained, the Government at the helm of affairs during that time, the present government, brave Indian Army as a whole, the generous army officer and the caring distant relatives of my father who filled empty spaces in my father’s life learned professors under whom he trained to become a ‘Giani’, and to all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful Guru Maharaj in whose divine light my father peacefully rests now having breathed his last on 9th October 2015.
This is my humble salute to him.
(The author is a social activist and an education consultant.)
S S Sodhi