The Sikh nation, ever since the time of Guru Arjan Dev Jee has responded to the Call of duty and resisted tyranny even at the cost of sacrificing their lives. Guru Arjan Dev Jee chose to sacrifice his life for the principles of Sikhism rather than hand over a sum of 25 lakh rupees demanded by Chandu Shah. Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed his life to uphold the rights ofBrahmans to follow their religion and resist conversion by the fanatic emperor Aurangzeb. Guru Gobind Singh Jee sacrificed his whole family and himself to uphold the principle of Sikhism. Sikh history eversince has seen a succession of martyrs who following the path of our Gurus, laid down their lives on the altars of the Sikh religion man endeavor to keep it alive and strong.
In this line of martyrs is included a humble, but brave and forthright man, who came from rustic Village surroundings to become a general in the Indian Army. His name was Shabeg Singh. Here is the story of a man, who, when the call for duty came, gave up all the thoughts he had for a peaceful retired life and died trying to serve his community.
Family Background, Childhood and Education
Major General Shabeg Singh belonged to Khiala village (earlier known as Khiala Nand Singhwala) of the Bhangus, about nine miles (14 km) from Amritsar-Chogawan Road. He was the eldest son of Sardar Bhagwan Singh and Pritam Kaur, and had three brothers and a sister. He traced his lineage to great Sikh warrior, Bhai Mehtab Singh Bhangu who along with Bhai Sukha Singh slew the notorious Massa Rangar in 1740 and thus avenged the desecration of the Golden Temple. The family was well-to-do and prosperous and had sizeable land holding of over 100 acres (0.40 km). Sardar Bhagwan Singh was the village Lambardar. Nand Singh was the great-grandfather of Shabeg Singh.
From his early childhood Shabeg Singh displayed leadership qualities and above-average intelligence. He would often spontaneously composed extemporaneous verses to caricature interesting village personalities. He displayed a keen interest in history and literature and his village teachers were impressed with his intellectual ability. They advised Sardar Bhagwan Singh and Pritam Kaur to send him to a school. He was sent to the Khalsa College in Amritsar for secondary education, and later to the Government College in Lahore for higher education.
Shabeg Singh was an outstanding football and hockey player, and excelled in athletics. At the age of 18 years he had equaled the India records in 100 meters sprint and was the District Broad jump champion. However, even though he had a natural ability for sports he did not wish to pursue that as a career, his mind was on the army, which was considered a noble profession. He excelled in studies and generally topped his class.
Indian Army Career
In 1940, an officers selection team visiting Lahore colleges were looking for fresh recruits to the Indian Army officers cadre. Out of a large number of students, who applied, Shabeg Singh was the only one to he selected from Government College and sent for training in the officer training school. After training he was commissioned in the second Punjab Regiment as a Second Lieutenant. Within a few days the Regiment moved to Burma and joined the war against the Japanese, which was then in progress. In 1944 when the war ended he was in Malaya with his unit. After partition, when reorganization of the regiments took place, he joined the Parachute brigade as a Paratrooper. He was posted in the 1st para battalion in which he remained till 1959.
By nature Gen Shabeg was a voracious reader, he had read about every military campaign and knew the biography of every military general of consequence. He had a natural flair for history and loved reading. He could fluently speak Punjabi, Persian, Urda, Gorkhali besides English and Hindi. He was an instructor in the Military Academy at Dehra Dun and held a number of important staff appointments in various ranks In the army he had a reputation of being fearless officer and one who did not tolerate any nonsense. People either loved him or dreaded him because of his frank and forthright approach. During the course of his service in the Indian army, Shaheg Singh fought in every war that India participated in.
In 1947, he was at Naushera in Jammu and Kashmir fighting against the Pakistan Army. While at Staff College, in addition to the academic work, he set a record in winning three, point to point and five flat races on horse back a record never equaled. Because of his knowledge of military science and excellent grasp of military operations he was appointed a Brigade Major after the staff course. As Brigade Major of 166 Infantry Brigade- a crack formation, he feit most at home when the formation was out on military exercises.
In 1962 during the India-China war, he was in NorthEast Frontier Agency as a Lt Col in HQ four Corps where he was GSO-J (Intelligence). In the 196S operations against Pakistan, he was in the Haji Pir Sector in Jammu and Kashmir, commanding a battalion of Gorkha troops. He commanded 3/11 Gorkha Rifles with distinction and was mentioned in dispatches for the capture of important enemy positions on the Haji Pir front.
A few days before the battalion was to he launched into attack, the Commanding Officer (that time Lieutenant Colonel) Shabeg Singh received a telegram from his mother informing him that his father had expired. Being the eldest he quietly put the telegram in his pocket and no one in his battalion even knew that the commanding officer had lost his father on the eve of battle, Only when the operations were over, did he apply for leave and perform his duty of consoling his mother and family. His mother, Pritam Kaur, never asked why he had not been reached for performing the last rites. Everything was understood the call of duty to defend the nation’s frontiers was of primary importance.
Soon after the 1965 operations, Shabeg became Col G.S. of an infantry division, after which he was given command of the crack 19 Infantry brigade in Jammu Sector. In 1%9 when the Eastern sector of India was becoming deeply involved in Naga anti-insurgency operations he was posted as Deputy GOC of the largest Indian Division – eight Mountain Division which had nearly 50 thousand troops under command. With his leadership qualities and employment of dare~devil tactics he was greatly successful in handling the counter-insurgency operations in that region.
In 1971, when the political turmoil in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) started and the Bengalis declared their intentions to separate, the Yahya Khan Govt cracked down on the Bengalis, forcing them to flee to neighboring Indian States. India decided to intervene and in 1971 started the clandestine insurgency operations in East Pakistan. The Indian Army Chief Field Marshal Manekshaw specially selected Shabeg Singh, then a brigadier, and made him in-charge of Delta Sector with lead Quarters at Aggartala. He was given the responsibility of planning, organizing and directing insurgency operations in the whole of Central and East Bangladesh. Under his command were placed all the Bangladesh officers that had deserted from the Pakistan Army. These included Col Osmani, as adviser, Maj Zia-Ur-Rehman and Mohammad Mustaq.
Zia Ur Rehman later became the President of Bangladesh while Mustaq Mohammed became Bangladesh army chief. Starting from about January to October 1971, the insurgency operations gradually grew to such an intensity that by the time war started, the Pakistan army in East Bengal had completely lost their will to resist. The Indian Govt did not want the world to know that the Indian Army was training and directing the Bengali insurgents so all activities were very secret. Shabeg was so thoroughly involved in these clandestine operations that for five months from December 70 to April 71, his family had no news about his whereabouts. They believed he was till in Nagaland and wondered why he did not write because he had always been regular in writing home to his wife. In April 1970, the first letter was received from the Civilian address of a Merchant shop in Aggartala and his name was written as S.Baigh, such was the nature of secrecy maintained of the Army’s involvement in the insurgency movement. The wife was quite confused and the family wondered what was going on because the letter was very brief and just said, “don’t worry I am ok.”.
Meanwhile as the Mukti Bahini got bolder, the Pak Army in the East began to grow demoralized due to the onslaught. It got so widely dispersed in trying to contain the ‘Mukti Bahini’ that when the Indian Army launched its operations in Nov.1971 they were able to walk through to Dacca, virtually unopposed. Over one hundred thousand enemy troops with the complete general staff surrendered,leading to the emergence of Bangladesh. The credit of this great achievement was mainly due to the efforts of Shabeg Singh, who spent day and night organizing, motivating and training young Bengali youth to fight for their land. Such was the motivation of a Bengali youth force known as Mukti Bahini and so perfect the direction of their operation that no senior administrative officer felt safe in Bengal.
Guerilia strikes were launched on five star hotels and on ships in Chittagong harbor to show the extent of power which the Mukti Bahini wielded. Strategic bridges were destroyed, factories closed and movement within Bangladesh restricted resulting in a paralysis of the economy. No doubt it was a cakewalk for the Indian Army when the actual operations were launched. The Indian government promoted Shaheg Singh to the post of Major General and awarded him the Param Vashist Sewa Medal in recognition of his services. He had earlier been awarded the Ati Vashist Sewa Medal also. He was made General Officer Command of MP Bihar and Orissa. The Jaya Pyakash Narayan movement had started during 1972-73 and became a serious threat to the Indira Govt. Police were sympathetic with JP and his followers, so the Government decided to use the Army. Gen Shabeg was asked to arrest JP and take some harsh measure against his followers but he refused saying this was not his job. The result was that the Congress Govt later instituted a CBI inquiry to harass him on cooked-up charges and he was out posted of the area.
After the Indo-Pak wall, all the Pakistani POWs were under his jurisdiction and senior General Staff were kept at Jabalpur which was also the HQs of MP.Bihar and Orissa area. Due to jealousy of certain senior army officers , he was not given the command of a Division which was a move of the Army for denying him promotion. Here was a field commander with so much war experience-denied command of a combat formation. Why so? Only to do deny him promotion when his name came up. While he was posted as GOC of the UP Area HQs in whose jurisdiction the Kumaon Regimental Center is placed, it was found that the commander of the Kumaon Military Farm had given a large sum money to the Chief, Gen Raina, who was himself from the same regiment. A court of inquiry discovered that General Raina (a Kashmiri Brahmin), Army received over two hundred thousand rupees from the Kumaon farm to meet expenses for his daughter’s marriage. When this information was brought to the notice of the General Office Commanding, Shabeg Singh; he told Gen Raina about the findings of the Court of Inquiry and requested the chief to return the amount as the Military farm of the Kumaon Regt was already running a loss. The result was that Gen Shabeg was promptly posted out of the this indiscretion and the inquiry hushed up.
The forthwith posting was an unprecedented action because peacetime postings are never conducted on such emergency basis. Soon after that the Army instituted a court of inquiry against Gen Shabeg Singh which dragged on for one year till the date of his retirement on May, 1 1976. The main charge against the General had accepted a plaque costing Rs 2500 as a gift on his positing out of Jabalpur area HQs. -Even though a similar present had been predecessor and it is common for senior officers to accept such gifts. However, in the case of Gen Shabeg it became an offense. Some other flimsy charges were also made like allowing his official house land to be used for cultivation purposes and permitting sale of goods purchased from customs in the area HQs Canteen. These practices had been in vogue even before Gen had taken command of the area in 1972. The vindictiveness of Indian Government and the Army Chief was made obvious, when one day prior of Gen Shabeg’s retirement, on April 30, 1976 the hero of Mukti Bahini, a highly decorated general with PVSM & AVSM, who had been actively involved in every operation that Indian Army fought since his joining service and who spent the major portion of his life in field areas separated from the cost of his wife’s health and the education of his children was dismissed from the Army. Such was the treatment meted out to a brave soldier and an outstanding General, a leader of men, whom the Indian government and some senior Army officers in 1984 after Operation Blue Star dubbed as ‘disgruntled’ and frustrated because he was loyal to his community and fought for its honor and to protect the Golden Temple against the Army attack.
In 1952, Shabeg Singh’s younger brothers Sardar Shamsher Singh, Sardar Jaswant Singh along with their brother-in-law shifted to Haldwani in the Terrai area of Uttar Pradesh after having bought farmlands there.
General Shabeg had a flair for history, and he loved reading about military generals and campaigns. Besides English and Hindi, he could speak fluent Punjabi, Persian, Urdu, and Gorkhali. He was an instructor in the Military Academy at Dehra Dun, and held a number of important staff appointments in various ranks. In the army he had a reputation of being fearless officer and one who did not tolerate any nonsense. During the course of his service in the Indian army, Shaheg Singh fought in every war that India participated in.
Although he had a brilliant military career, including being an instructor in the prestigious Joint Services Wing of the Indian Military Academy, Major General Shabeg Singh was discharged from Indian Army without court martial one day before his retirement, thus losing part of his pensions. Singh took his case to the civil courts, but with no avail.
Operation Blue Star
General Shabeg Singh was convinced, even while he was still serving in the Army, that the Government of India was curbing the freedom of Sikhs all over India. He was aware of the discrimination against Sikhs in denying them promotions and the general hostility of the Govt. who were set to weed out the Sikhs from the Army. The general reduction in the strength of Sikhs in the Army and the policy of the Govt. towards Sikhs in Punjab by denying them capital industry, restricting the Sikh peasant to farming of wheat and crops whose prices were also controlled to deny them full reward. The denial of full and fare shares of river waters were apart of an overall conspiracy to deny Sikhs their legitimate due. At the same time the propaganda of the Indian Government against the Sikhs, painting them as communal. Their demand for autonomy was treated as treachery and anti-patriotic by the Govt, and the “free” press vociferously branded the Sikh demands as secessionist.
Now stepped another leader, a charismatic personality. A saint and leader of the renowned ‘Damdami Taksal’ Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. A selfless, dedicated leader who was frank, forthright and outspoken. He had but one interest only – the interest of the Sikh community – the Khalsa. He did not mince words when he attacked the deceitful politics of the Congress. He spoke out plainly on how the Sikhs had been exploited, and how the Akalis’, in spite of their assertions, had fallen prey to the politics of deceit and disruption. They were accused of neglecting Sikh interest when in power to appease the Central Congress Government. People flocked to him. He soon emerged as the undisputed leader of the Sikhs. His following grew at an alarming rate to the discomfort of the Indira’s congress Government. When Gen Shabeg Singh met Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, he felt naturally attracted to this out spoken, plain and bold man who was a natural leader and whose word, all Sikhs, specially in rural Punjab, The two became closer and closer with passing time.
A special messenger reached the house at Dehra Dun in the middle of March 1984, with a message from Sant Jarnail Singh Bhandranwale that he was needed at Amritsar. Without second thought he left for Amritsar and that was last he saw his Dehra Dun home which he had planned to spend a peaceful retirement in pursuit prayer and meditation. At Amritsar, he got fully involved in setting up the defences against Government attack on the Golden Temple complex. He had to plan his defences such that they were inconspicuous because the pilgrims’ movement to the Golden Temple and around it had to remain unhindered. At the same time, the defences had to be very effective. He was in his element now. In the service of his community he did not mind giving up his life. He had always had a love for warfare and thought of death in battle a privilege. Perhaps he had a hidden desire to die fighting and in the holy presence of our Gurus. What better place then, than the Akal Takhat and the close proximity of Harmandir Sahib and in the service of his community. Tirelessly he worked against time with the prayer of Guru Gobind Singh on lips
“Deh Shiva Var Mohe…….”