The Nikams are not just a family of armymen, they are a family of armymen who’ve fought wars — big ones like the First and Second World Wars, and the 1971 India-Pakistan War. Brigadier Mohan Nikam (Retd), 64, credits his family’s wartime profile to his village, Apshinge, “where every boy dreamt of being in the Army”. Speaking with the precision of a soldier, he says, “Apshinge is approximately 16 km south of Satara and 2 km off the Mumbai-Bangalore highway.” During World War I, he says, “90 per cent of the able-bodied men in Apshinge were employed with the British Army.” One of them was his grandfather, Havaldar Dhondi Nikam, of the 1/103 Maratha Light Infantry.
Havaldar Nikam had joined the Army in 1900, like his father Patloji Nikam before him. First deployed in Ahmednagar, “a peace-time posting”, he was sent to Iraq in 1914 when the Great War broke out. He fought in the Battle of Kut-al-Amara in Meso-potamia against the Ottoman forces. He was hit in the head by a bullet in late 1916 and was honourably discharged in March 1917. “Between 1914 and 1919, 46 men from Apshinge were sent to Mesopotamia and 14 were killed in action. Sixteen were injured and honourably discharged,” says Brigadier Nikam. He shows a certificate issued to Dhondi Nikam. Signed by King George V, it reads, “…Served with honour and was disabled in the Great War. Honourably discharged.”
The bullet injury left Havaldar Nikam with “a lifelong disability”. “He could not travel anymore even though he lived till the age of 90. Every evening, he used to go to a local temple and sit there for long,” says Nikam. But he was always grateful to the soldier who saved his life. “When he was shot at in Kut-al-Amara, a soldier of a neighbouring village carried my grandfather to a British captain, who later took him to an army hospital. My father visited that soldier’s home and would help them by giving grains or whatever they needed,” he says.
Havaldar Nikam’s disability didn’t discourage his son or grandson from joining the Army though. Ramrao Dhondi Nikam, his son, was a colonel who fought in World War II, and was later commissioned into the Indian Army in 1947. Ramrao Dhondi Nikam’s son Brigadier Mohan Nikam was posted in the Mendhar-Rajouri sector during the 1971 war, and was a part of Operation Pawan in 1987 when the Indian Peace Keeping Forces captured Jaffna from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Mohan Nikam’s home is filled with war memorabilia such as the Princess Mary’s Christmas Box, a five-inch bronze box gifted to all soldiers, including Havaldar Nikam, by the British royal family in the Christmas of 1914. “This Christmas, this gift will be 100 years old. Don’t you think this small box is witness to a very significant period in our history?” he asks.
For Nikam, it is “these things and the stories of valour” which inspired him to fight for the country. “For others, these could be just some metal objects or old pieces of paper but for us, they are symbols of our glorious past.” Nikam’s younger brothers Captain Udaji and Col Sayaji followed him in joining the Army and are now retired.