Descendants bear cross of regret
as war hero's memory comes alive
by Vijay Mohan
From The Indian Express 10 January 1998
HOSHIARPUR (PUNJAB), Jan 9: When an auctioneer
in London paused for a moment before announcing that a small souvenir
was sold for 55,000 pounds, a village thousands of miles away must
have missed a heartbeat. A month after the Victoria Cross (VC) of
Captain Ishar Singh was auctioned, his descendants in Panam, Hoshiarpur
are still trying to tide over the embarrassment.
Captain Ishar Singh was the first Sikh soldier
to win a Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour in the British
Empire. Instituted in 1856 and given until March, 1943, the Victoria
Cross was made from guns captured by the British at Sebastopol during
the Crimean War. The right to receive the VC was extended to Indian
soldiers only in 1911.
After the auction, Ishar Singh's grandson Dalbir
Singh rang up his cousin Kulvinder at Panam and told him: ''I saw
Babaji's Victoria Cross at the auction. I touched it and held it
in my hands. I felt like taking it home.'' Kulvinder heard the news
-- his grandfather's VC, auctioned for the third time, went to an
''We were making efforts to raise money for
buying it back. Relatives settled abroad agreed to pool resources
and I was prepared to sell some of my land, but the time was too
short. I wish we had learnt about the auction earlier,'' says Kulvinder.
Elders in Panam remember Ishar as Kaptan Saab.
But the younger generation appears to have forgotten the war hero.
Ishar Singh won the VC for extraordinary deeds of valour during
a three-hour battle on the North West Frontier in 1921. Though he
was wounded, he captured a Lewis machine gun and shielded the medical
officer with his body while the doctor attended to the wounded.
Then a sepoy with the 28th battalion of The
Punjab Regiment, he was commended by King Gorge V, who wrote that
the ''award was well and gallantly won,''. During his military career,
Ishar Singh had won several other decorations. He died in 1963.
The medal was initially sold by Ishar Singh's son Harbhajan Singh
while he was trying to settle down in England. Familymembers say
Harbhajan took the VC from his mother Raj Kaur ''to show it to his
friends in England.'' ''It was only after it was sold for 400 pounds
in 1973-74 that my father, Jagtar Singh heard about it on the radio.
Everyone was shocked that one of his own sons could do such a thing,''
says Kulvinder. According to the family, Harbhajan, however, had
refused to disclose the identity of the first buyer. Harbhajan died
two years ago.
''It is a shame,'' commented Mehenga Singh,
Ishar's nephew. ''A gallantry medal is a priceless possession and
just cannot be sold. It deserves a place of honour and dignity,
not secreted away for materialistic gain,'' he said. Decorated with
the Indian Defence Service Medal and now turning 75, he recalls
the exhilaration and excitement which swept the village on hearing
the news of Ishar Singh being decorated with the highest gallantry
award. ''The (British) government, as a recognition of his services,
had ordered construction of a road up to his village and building
of a house for him.'' Mehenga Singh says.
Then, Ishar Singh was staying at Nainwan, about
30 km from Garhshankar. While the Sainik Rest House at Hoshiarpur
has been named after Ishar Singh, the family has built a small memorial
to keep the war hero's memory alive.