Amidst a rain of bullets and grenades on the night of November 23, 1914, four months after the First World War broke out, Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of 39th Garhwal Rifles, twice wounded in the head and once in the arm, pushed on to recapture trenches lost to the Germans in Festubert, France.
In what would later become a standard practice, the Garhwal battalion flanked the trench from both sides, bombing, firing and bayoneting its way in. Negi, though wounded, remained among the first to push forward in each traverse. By the time they succeeded, an injured Negi was drenched in blood from head to foot.
For his act of bravery, Negi was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), and with this, he became the first Indian recipient of the highest gallantry award given to soldiers of the Commonwealth.
“While presenting the Victoria Cross on December 5, 1914, when King George V asked him, ‘What can I do for you?’, he simply replied that there weren’t any schools in his area and that a middle school should be started at Karanprayag (Chamoli district, Uttarakhand). The request was immediately taken up,” recalls his son Lieutenant Colonel Balbir Singh Negi (retd), 74. Why Karanprayag, which was 25 miles from his native village Kafarteer? “Karanprayag was a central town, the village wasn’t. Such was the simplicity those days,” says Balbir Singh Negi.
Apart from the Victoria Cross, a century-old parchment paper telling Naik Darwan Singh Negi his duties, a photograph of Commander in Chief of the then Indian army Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck adorning Negi with his Victoria Cross in 1948, a chapter on Negi in a coffee table book, and a handful of medals are among the family’s prized possessions. There is a Darwan Singh Negi museum in Lansdowne but it is as much about him as it is about the Garhwal Rifles, documenting its history through artefacts, photos and weapons.
Despite his achievements, Negi did not want his three sons to join the Army, simply because “he had seen way too much destruction the Great War had caused”. So Prithvi Singh Negi became a civil servant and Dalbir Singh Negi became a professor but, Balbir Singh Negi, the youngest, was too charmed by the Army. Like his father, he joined the Garhwal Rifles (5th Battalion) and his son went on to command the 13th Battalion of the Garhwal Rifles at the Siachen glacier.
During his 34 years in the Army, he took part in “the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971, peacekeeping in Sri Lanka in 1989-1990 and Operation Bajrang in Assam, 1990,” Balbir Singh Negi says. “But as soon as I would join a war, it would become peaceful,” he chuckles.
His father, however, was humbled by the war, he says. Negi took premature retirement in 1924 and began social work, helping war widows and and opening a school in the village. He also requested the authorities to extend the road link and provide a rail link to Karanprayag. Though the former was complete before Independence, the second is yet to become a reality. “The British immensely respected him,” says Balbir Singh Negi, who now lives in Lucknow with his wife. “But the Indian government has not recognised his contributions; the Army rose to prominence the world over due to his act of valour.” Balbir Singh Negi hopes his father is given a Padma Bhushan or a Padma Shri by the government.
He also laments public apathy to his father’s illustrious career. When Negi’s native Kafarteer village was selected under the rural scheme Swarnjayanti Gram Yojana, other villages in the block objected, alleging bias in selection due to the village’s history; there were whispers of a colonial baggage. “They were so unhappy with our village’s selection that they even filed a case. Three years later, the court didn’t find anything wrong with the government’s decision to choose Kafarteer but by then, the scheme had already lapsed,” he says.
Balbir Singh Negi thinks it’s unfair that people and the government say Negi worked for the British. “The soldiers fight on the instructions of the government. In 1914, the Congress had passed a resolution extending support to the British in WWI. He performed his duty wholeheartedly.”