Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lt. General Prem Bhagat - A soldiers' General..

Physical and moral courage are seldom found in abundant measure, in the same person. Yet Lt. General Bhagat was an example of this. For the former, he won the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. For the second, it is said that there are innumerable instances to recount.

P.S. Bhagat was born in 1918, and joined the 10th course at IMA in 1937.

Although he was not able to attain the highest rank – that of the Army Chief, and retired as Army Commander, there is little doubt in Army circles even today, that if there was an officer deserving of this position, it was Prem Bhagat.

Apart from a truly courageous soldier and and officer, both mentally and physically, Prem Bhagat was known to be a true soldier’s general. There are numerous instances that prove this – sometimes his behaviour extending to what may be termed as ‘carrying it a bit too far…’

In 1970 Prem Bhagat was GOC 11 Corps at Jullundar. One young Captain who as posted in the same Station, and who was newly married, was not able to bring his wife to live with him, due to acute shortage of married officers’ accommodation. The Captains’ CO advised him to seek an appointment with the GOC. When two other Captains got to know of this, they too followed suit.

When the applications reached Prem Bhagat, he invited all three for tea, to his Office. He also had his ADC call the Station Commander and the Brigadier in charge of administration, to his Office. He enquired from them whether they had official accommodation. When they replied in the affirmative, Prem wanted to know, why the Captains did not have houses. He then told the senior officers “When there is a war it is these officers who will go to fight and die, while you and me will sit here and twiddle our thumbs. I am not interested in your excuses. If you do not have MES accommodation, hire it from the civilians. If these young officers do not have houses by next week, I will ask you to vacate yours and allot it to them”

Needless to state, the Captains got their accommodations, and their brides were only too happy to join them.

Once, when on a visit to a Battalion, he enquired from a jawan, as to what time he got up in the morning. Prem was surprised to hear the answer. “Three o’ clock” he was told. Prem wanted to know why the jawans got up so early, when the PT parade was at 6 am.

The jawan was hesitant to explain but he did. The men had to spend a long time waiting to use the lavatory. Prem requested to be led to the lavatories. He found that there were 20 lavatories for about 800 men. He then went to speak to the CO and asked him whether he had ever visited the lavatories. When the CO replied in the negative, Prem blew him up. “No wonder you don’t know what’s happening in your battalion! Well, I want you to not only visit the lavatory, but to use it tomorrow morning. And then confirm to me on phone!”

The hapless Commanding Officer had to get up early next morning to use the lavatory, and then reported to Prem. The battalion, of course got additional lavatories within a month.

When Prem was Army Commander Central Command, he once visited Mhow. A large number of Officers were posted there, doing long courses at the Infantry School and the Millitary College of Telecommunciations and Engineering. Due to acute shortage of married accommodation, they were not allowed to bring their families. When Prem got to know of this, he was angry. By he was told, that married accommodation was cost a lot and would take years to build.

“If we cannot give them proper houses, at least give them tents". A plan was made out and sanctioned on the spot by Prem, to build 80 houses which had concrete walls with tent roofs. Prem promised to come back for inspection after three months, when these would be ready.

He was back as promised. The tents had been occupied. He asked one Officer’s wife whether she was comfortable living in her house. The lady was bold enough to tell the General, that it was too hot, and she had to literally sit under a tree the whole day. Prem apologised to the lady, and called for the Garrison Engineer, who explained that the ceiling was too low to install ceiling fans in the tent houses. “Who’s talking about ceiling fans?” he thundered.

“Get two table fans for each tent. I want a completion report before I leave !”

That day, all table fans were bought out in Mhow, but they still did not add up to 160. Additional fans were purchased from nearby Indore later that day. The next morning each of the 80 households had two brand new table fans, thanks to that bold officer’s wife.

Many would say - this was carrying it too far. But there is a lesson Prem Bhagat reminded to all those he commanded " The safety and welfare of the men you lead, is of foremost importance, only next to the safety and welfare of your Country"

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