On June 1, the panchayat allotted us some space in the village. We did a bhumi puja. Now, we want the (state) government to install a statue of Sepoy Hari Singh there,” says Bhim Singh, 50, about his paternal uncle, who died over two decades before he was born but whose ashes have just made their way home to Noganwa, Jhajjar district.
But “we don’t know how he looked,” says Ranbir Singh, who works at the district Sainik Welfare Office. “No one has a photograph of Hari Singh. Not even the Army.”
A part of the British Indian Army’s 13 Frontier Force Rifles’s 4th Battalion, Hari Singh, then 20, had been declared ‘Missing in Action’ (MIA) on September 13, 1944, during a World War II battle against Germany’s 362nd Infantry Division in Poggio Alto (near Florence). Recently, Italian authorities identified some remains found at the site as belonging to Singh.
On June 2, two urns, carrying ashes of Hari Singh and Sepoy Palu Ram, a resident of Nangthala near Hisar, who also died in the same battle, were flown in from Italy. The authorities there carried out a cremation of the remains, and the ashes were sent home to give their descendants an opportunity to complete their last rites.
As per service records, Palu joined the British Indian Army on April 7, 1942, at the age of 17. His nephew Ramji Lal, who is not sure about his own age, says, “My grandfather Pat Ram had three sons, Palu, Birbal (both died in 1944) and my father Mojji (passed away in 1956). Palu joined the Army about the same time that I was born. So I don’t have any memories of him. And no living member in this family has ever seen him.”
However, growing up, Ramji Lal says, he heard stories about him. “Grandfather would say that after joining the Army, Palu came home only once. And then the War began.”
After Palu went missing, the family kept receiving pension for as long as his parents were alive. “I won’t lie… that helped in running the family,” says Ramji, sitting on a cot at the family home in Nangthala village.
Even as the last of the people who knew Hari and Palu died waiting for news, in 1996, human bones turned up at Poggio Alto. Italian doctors started investigating these bones around 2010. On April 26, 2018, military historian and Italian Colonel Antonino Zarcone sent an email to the Defence Wing of the Indian Embassy in Rome, saying they may have finally found Hari and Palu.
The email said: “About 22 years ago, near Montale (about 15 km from Poggio Alto) were found the rest of the bodies of two Indian soldiers KIA [killed in action] while serving in the 8 Army (13 Frontier riflettere regiment). We were able to find the names of the soldiers who died (on) September 13, 1944. Hari Singh and Paul (Palu) Ram. Those bones are still stored in Prato by the Pubblica assistenza. The Commonwealth Grave Commission (CWGC, an organisation of six countries, including India, that maintains graves of Commonwealth soldiers who died in the two World Wars) was interested to get the permission to bury them inside the War Cemetery of Florence.”
On May 23, 2018, the Defence Attache at the Indian mission, Colonel Rohit Teotia, wrote to the Army Headquarters in South Block mentioning Colonel Zarcone’s letter, and added, “DNA and anthropometric tests conducted in 2012 revealed the remains to be those of non-European young adults of about 21 years of age… Data referenced from the CWGC relating to the time and loc (location) of the Battle (of Poggio Alto) and the List of missing pers (persons), led the investigation to conclude that the remains are those of Hari Singh, 20 yrs old from Rohtak, and Palu Ram, who was 19 yrs old and came from Hissar.”
That the 13 Frontier Force Rifles regiment was allocated to Pakistan army after the 1947 partition further complicated the search.
Colonel (retired) A S Yadav, the Sainik and Ardh Sainik Welfare Officer in Hisar, who partly oversaw the search operation, said, “DNA-matching was not done with members of the family. DNA was collected from the bones of the soldiers to determine, among other things, their age and height. Based on the age profile, the investigating team (in Italy) compiled a list of names of soldiers who were declared ‘Missing in Action’ from the Battle of Poggio Alto. The team then provided the details to the Indian Army and we carried out a search for the families. When they were identified, we took no-objection certificates from them and the cremation was carried out in accordance with CWGC norms.”
Ex-servicemen and welfare organisers like retired Indian Navy official Dalvir Singh and retired Subedar Major Gulshan Kumar Bhatia carried out extensive searches on the ground for the families of the two soldiers. “Although we managed to narrow down the area with the help of information that had been provided, the search was not easy as both the soldiers were unmarried, hence without direct descendants. We went about asking members of panchayats and villagers to identify their other family members,” says Dalvir Singh, adding, “I asked an acquaintance, Lilu Ram, a member of the Nangthala panchayat, about Palu Ram’s family. When he confirmed, we visited Ramji Lal’s house.”
The most difficult phase of the search began then. “The absence of identification documents of the soldiers made verification extremely difficult. The family members had no documents that could be treated as proof of ancestry. In Palu Ram’s case, we finally managed to find a bahi (a book with financial details maintained by his father Pat Ram) that mentioned his name,” says Dalvir Singh.
Bhatia says “it was a race against time” as the documents had to be verified and the status report had to be submitted on or before August 2, 2018. “We had to get an NOC from a family member to have the soldier cremated in Italy and the ashes brought to India,” he says.
The ashes were flown to Delhi on June 2, 2018, and handed over to the families the next day. In Jhajjar, a ceremonial function, attended by Haryana Agriculture Minister Om Prakash Dhankar, was organised by the soldiers’ welfare board to hand over the urn containing Hari’s ashes to his family, in Nangthala, hundreds of people from neighbouring villages gathered at Ramji’s house to pay their tributes.
Palu’s family returned two days later after immersing his ashes in the Ganga in Haridwar. Ramji and his three sons, Ram Swarup, 41, Mohan Lal, 38, and Ramesh, 37, work in the 10-acre field adjacent to the house that Ramji inherited from his father following the death of his two brothers.
The families say they aren’t satisfied. Taking a long drag on his hookah, at his modest two-room home in Noganwa village, Bhim Singh says, “After signing the NOC, I informed the Sainik Board that I would like to attend the last rites of my uncle in Italy. We never heard back. We still do not know the exact date when the pyre was lit. All we got for a six-foot man (Hari Singh) is an urn containing ash.”
Not just compensation, the two families also want recognition. Bhim Singh has held meetings with Noganwa village sarpanch Ramkrishn, 58, and with the Zila Sainik Board seeking the ‘martyr’ tag and a government job for a family member .
Bhim Singh’s son Naveen, 23, is employed in the Army and is pursuing a course in sonar technology at Jamnagar, his daughter Preeti, 26, works as a stenographer in the District and Sessions Court in Faridabad. Ramji Lal wants a government job for one of his sons, a statue of Palu, the kuccha road in front of his house to be made pucca, and the sole village high school be named after his uncle.
“Palu Ram’s parents would have received all the benefits, including pension, since he was unmarried at the time of his demise. There is no provision to provide any sort of financial assistance to anybody else… Also, there is no term ‘Martyr’ in MoD parlance. Either it is battle casualty or physical casualty, which could be attributed to military service depending on the circumstances of death,” says Captain (Indian Navy, retired) Pradeep Bali, who is currently serving as the Sainik and Ardh Sainik Welfare Officer in Hisar.
With the Haryana Assembly elections due later this year, Bhim Singh says he is waiting for the right moment to make his demands. “As the Lok Sabha election is over, it is unlikely they (political leaders) will agree to our demands. So, we will wait and put our demands across when they come here for campaigning.”
As for the unavailability of Hari and Palu’s photographs in order to build a statue, Ramji Lal has a solution. “Take a picture of me when I was young and a current picture of mine. Mix the two faces in the photographs and that is how the statue should look. He was my uncle, must have looked like me,” he says, smiling.