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Lt Gen. Hanut Singh — bold commander who led from front in 1971, but was never made Army chief

Five years ago, Lt Gen. Hanut Singh passed away. But ‘Hunty’ is still one of the most revered leaders in the Army who stood up for what was right.

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The fifth death anniversary of the legendary Lt General Hanut Singh didn’t go unnoticed on social media. Much has been written about him, his regiment Poona Horse and his professionalism. But I want to highlight those aspects of ‘Hunty’ and his life from which today’s and tomorrow’s military leaders can draw lessons.

Gen. Hanut Singh was a bold commander, a legendary cavalry general, a considerate senior, and his finest moment was in the 1971 war.

The battle of Basantar, Shakargarh Bulge in 1971

Without a doubt, the Battle of Basantar was Gen. Hanut Singh’s finest hour. He led his famed regiment, Poona Horse, into one of the fiercest tank battles on the sub-continent. His key decision to risk the regiment across an uncleared minefield proved to be the battle-winning factor. When Pakistan’s 13 Lancers with Patton Tanks attacked the Indian position at Jarpal, they were surprised and destroyed by the Centurions of Poona Horse. Lt Arun Khetarpal posthumously won a Param Vir Chakra, and Comdt Hanut, a Maha Vir Chakra.

His citation read: “Undeterred by enemy medium artillery tank fire, Lt. Col Hanut Singh, moved from threatened sector to another, with utter disregard for his personal safety. His presence and cool courage inspired his men to remain steadfast and perform commendable acts of gallantry”.

His heroic leadership and battlefield intuition have cemented Hunty’s place as one of our most valiant and professional battlefield tank commanders in the Indian Armoured Corps.

But it wasn’t just about Gen. Hanut Singh. It was also the very fine teams he trained, each more daring than the last and imbibed with a special ‘Poona Horse Spirit’, which was the hallmark of the brave regiment. Lt Gen. Balraj Takhar, who was Hanut Singh’s Adjutant in the 1971 war, said: “He inspired fierce loyalty and courage; the officers and men ready to unhesitatingly carry out the most hazardous tasks. His command style was very personal, he knew each tank commander and was always in full control of the regiment, leaving the other tasks of maintaining rear links to higher HQs to me. His battlefield intuition was outstanding and he knew this was the moment he had trained for all his life.”

In fact, such was Gen Hanut Singh’s influence on his team that later when I was Col. GS to Bali Takhar in a major exercise, ‘Shiv Shakti’ in 1998-99, he was almost identical in his leadership style. Even Lt Gen. Ajai Singh, was similarly influenced, as I discovered while serving as a young General Staff Officer-3 on his staff.

Also read: 5 heroes of 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War who led India to decisive win over Pakistan

Hanut’s professionalism

Gen. Hanut Singh was different from the very beginning. His distinguished, chivalrous and proud lineage from the Jasol Rathore Rajputs spurred him to join the Indian Army. His father, Lt Col Arjun Singh, had commanded the Kachhawa Horse, so it was natural for Hanut to join the Poona Horse, a very distinguished cavalry regiment, in 1952.

Lt Gen. Surrinder Singh mentions Hanut in his book Fakhr-e- Hind – The Story of the Poona Horse. He describes him as: “A tall, lean and ascetic figure, uncompromising in his beliefs and convictions, yet gentle and considerate to his juniors and subordinates… he was an extremely dedicated professional. A man of sterling character, combined with a forceful personality, he had no time for fools, a fact that was soon apparent to those in this category.”

In his book, Leadership in the Indian Army: Biographies of Twelve Soldiers, Maj. Gen. V.K. Singh writes about how Gen Hanut Singh modelled himself after the “German General Staff”, particularly their total dedication to the profession of arms, and “their unmatched expertise in the art of war”.

Gen. Hanut Singh’s work, first as an instructor and later as commandant at Armoured Corps Centre and School at Ahmednagar, has had far-reaching pay-offs through the tank warfighting manuals he wrote. Of course, he was influenced by Western thoughts and equipment like the Centurion Tanks. I did not find him too enthused about the Russian T-72 Tanks, when he visited my regiment (7th Cavalry) at the Babina field firing ranges. Among the triad of firepower, protection and mobility, protection of the Centurion tanks, as seen in the 1971 war, influenced him greatly.

Also read: General K Sundarji, soldier of the mind & still the most talked-about chief since Manekshaw

A bold commander, a balanced leader

Gen. Hanut Singh’s Adjutant in 1971 and later Lt Gen Takhar says, “Hanut had familiarised himself with capabilities of his command, he would task them accordingly, always maintaining control from vantage points. Once a battle was joined, he would quickly move up to the encounter area and orchestrate the battle to overwhelm the enemy with superior strength and massive firepower at the ‘Schwerpunkt’ or the point of main impact, as the Germans would call it.”

Surprisingly, those who served under Hanut in 2 Corps during Operation Brasstacks, found the general more focussed on ‘balance’ than on momentum as advocated by Gen. Krishnaswamy Sundarji. One can ascribe two reasons for that. One, of course, was his experience of 1971, where Lt Gen. K.K. Singh, then GOC 1 Corps was always apprehensive of the Pak Armoured Division cutting off his rear and reaching the Samba-Jammu road and this weighed heavily on his mind, thus impeding the speed of 1 Corp’s advance into the Shakargarh bulge.

The second reason was that the Indian Army had not fully graduated to the operational level of warfare, because the T-72 tanks and ICV-BMP’s were still being absorbed and operational commanders were still learning about them. I also suspect that Gen. Hanut Singh, a seasoned war leader, was very much a grounded soldier who was of the firm conviction that his formations would deliver what he thought was realistically possible and not what was based on grandiose schemes for which the Indian Army was not ready. Maybe he was right, for Gen. Sundarji’s plans were not put to the test, and during ‘Operation Pawan’, Gen. Hanut Singh’s apprehensions were proved right.

Also read: How I captured and saved India’s first prisoner of war in 1971

A considerate senior but a difficult subordinate

All those who have served with and known Gen. Hanut Singh, swear by his consideration and compassion for those below him, though this is not to be confused for professional laxity. He demanded the highest levels of commitment and competence from his team, but had broad shoulders to take errors or shortcomings in his stride. But he had no time for niceties and even less time for seniors who were not professional and lacked gravitas. This often resulted in very abrupt behaviour, even towards his bosses. For Gen. Hanut Singh, the profession of arms was too serious a business to be entrusted to incompetent generals. 

Of course, this quality earned him many detractors, who did play a part in denying him the appointment as Army commander when the time came.

There are many theories on what happened. Gen. Hanut Singh’s admirers blame this on the internal rivalries within the Armoured Corps and the Indian Army. Suffices to say that he was not found fit for the rank of Army Commander and a junior was promoted. He took this stoically in his stride and stepped aside to concentrate on higher self-evolution and prayers at his ashram at Dehradun.

Also read: Why 1971 Battle of Khulna’s outcome made me respect Pakistan Army Brigadier Muhammad Hayat

A role model

It’s a fact that when we are young, there are many role models, but they fade away as we grow and put issues in perspective. Most turn out to be men of straw, wedded to expediency; but here was a different role model — a man of steel, full of gravitas who was cherished by his admirers, long after he died on 10 April 2015. So, what was different in Gen. Hanut Singh?

He was professionally a league apart, miles ahead of his colleagues. He had no personal demands and lead a spartan life. He gave his subordinates space for self-development and growth — no doubt that his team in Poona Horse produced senior generals in large numbers. He was truly a remarkable man and an outstanding military leader. I would rank him amongst one of the top military leaders of the Indian Army, who made a difference.

The author is a former Army commander and lieutenant governor. Views are personal


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  1. Persons like Lt. Gen. Hanut Singh will come to this world only once in a lifetime. Great and outstanding person, Commander, War Strategist and benevolent person. Chivalry, Compassion towards his soldiers, and team work used to be his Strategy. Without his input, we would not have won the 1971 war. Great person. God’s gift to our nation.

  2. I don’t get it. All that has been established here is that he commanded the unit well, as a Lt Col, in battle. That does not not necessarily qualify a man to be COAS in his time., or does it?

    • What qualifies a man to be a COAS or any service chief? Seniority? Playing the “political game”?

      Where does single minded pursuit of the profession of arms and warfighting, competence in the actual field of battle, and ability to transform one’s service in truly strategic and cultural terms (Something Sundarji tried but ultimately failed at) rank?

      The profile establishes a lot more than Gen Hanut’s ” coup d’oeil” (a priceless trait for a military commander you will agree) as Poona Horse’s Commandant in the Battle of Basantar/Barapind. Note his sterling work at Ahmednagar on training and tactics and the courage of conviction to stand up to the flamboyant Sundarji on Brasstacks.

      Not a bad CV for the top job, some would say.

  3. The Political dispensation in the Subcontinent demands ‘Patwaris’ and not the frontline Generals. Strong Army Commanders not in t. hier interest. ‘Hujoor Ka istakbal buland ho’ psyche is what expected here. That is precisely the reason we are having Patwaris going on top and not the Bold professional Soldiers like Gen Gamut Singh.

  4. It is common in every field. But this kind of person live by their own terms as long as in the game. He become Lt. Gen at least.

  5. Undoubtedly a General among Generals, he did have his quirks. Therefore, notwithstanding his outstanding valour and generalship, it was , and will remain that quirky personalities leading huge armies in democracies where governments dictate strategies are not, actually, the front runners as far as Governments are concerned. Another case in point is Lt Gen PS Bhagat of the Corps of Engineers. A Victoria Cross awardee and the GOC-in-C who raised Northern Command after the ‘71 war. He too was denied the Chief’s chair and sidelined to the DVC.

  6. What a travesty that this excellent profile on Gen “Hunty” with its larger implications for the state of the Indian military has not garnered a single comment while mediocre articles on military hardware or some operation get scores of comments.

    Articles such as these focus on the real challenge for all militaries, especially Indian – of a Few Good Men. There are simply too few people of both the character and intellectual caliber to be successful operational military commanders, that create both culture and systemic excellence as well as show individual flair and leadership. Indian Army arguable has had two or three in its entire history – Generals Sagat Singh, Zoru Bakshi and Hanut Singh.

    One wished the author would have focused more on the reported skirmish that happened between then COAS Gen Sundarji – a brilliant, but overhyped and operationally “weak” general responsible for his share of debacles, and Gen “Hunty” during Brasstacks.

    Sundarji – who cherished merit and was not insecure like the majority of Indian military leaders – had rehabilitated the brilliant but acerbic “Hunty” into the Strike Corps job but the latter was in no mood to indulge the COAS in his military fantasy of cutting Pakistan into two. Not only were there operational constraints that Sundarji was being cavalier about, if successful how would the Indian Army have fared as an occupation force (See US in Iraq)? Luckily Rajiv Gandhi too saw sense and pulled the plug on what could have been a major misadventure.

    Shedding more light on this episode would have illustrated the contrast between the conceptual and operational levels of war which can be the difference between masterstroke and disaster and something most stategic commentators and keyboard warriros alike fail to understand.

    • -Firstly thank you for appreciating the value of the Military in a Nation’s Affairs. We incl our defence journalists are too caught up in the Superficial & outer form , rather than substance‼️the critical factor will be leadership , both Operational & cutting edge.
      – I concur with your observation that a more detailed analysis of their respective styles would have been valuable , I hav alluded to it but this was written overnight to meet a deadline .Though the jury is still out , I personally would hav put greater stress on momentum ,, specially on the open Desert Flank . Regards

    • Sir,
      I used always wonder about operation brass tacks,now only got the thing,yes at that time we were too young and general sundarji was a sort of hero who had the guts to attack.

  7. I served with then Major General Hanut Singh at his Division HQ in 1982. Later after he and I were out of the Army, we met often: more often at his residence. He had a a sign in his living room for the benifit of visitors. It read, “यहां केवल प्रभु चर्चा करें, अन्यथा मौन धारण करें । He had no time for idle gossip. My information is that he was cleared for promotion to Army Commander but he turned down his promotion. He had barely six months or so before superannuation. In the interest of the service he stepped aside to allow a full tenure to the next man in line.

    • Col Vijay , thank you for sharing ,, 2 comments:
      – He was overlooked for promotion to Army Cdr,, this is factually correct , he took it in his stride.
      – when I visited him at his ashram while Commanding 1Corps , I was told the same ,but such was his love for the army that we discussed the Ops of 1Corps over a roughly drawn sketch of the Shakargarh Bulge for over an hour , with a resolve to meet again 🙏

    • A great remark ” यहां केवल प्रभु चर्चा करें, अन्यथा मौन धारण करें । ” and the General knew that in the final scheme of things – this is all that matters !

  8. A wonderful elaboration of military leadership, in present day their is a vacuum of such personalities. Our military history must include the such personalities for future generations.

  9. Chamachagiri bahut karnapadata Indian army me tab age badsakta real hero udar ka udari rahajata hi unko kuch nai milta

  10. A commentary filled with soul that brings back the man in flesh and blood.
    But the bitter truth that men of straw and feet of clay now crowd the top begs consideration- Why ?

    • A good observation. Pl read the chapter on Military Leadership in my recently edited book “ Military Strategy for India in the 21st Century”.

  11. No comparisons today, a breed of men who did their job quietly and professionally. It is said that soldiers don’t die, they fade away.

  12. A great man.
    The more one reads about him,the more one wants to know about his life.
    May more army officers and jawans who served under this great man share their experiences so we can all be inspired and maybe some of us will then choose to follow in his footsteps and make the nation proud

  13. Excellent notes on our legendary Gen Hanut singh…thankyou very much for the sharing .
    Jai hind ki sena

  14. When U r Lt. General..U r proud n a nationalist..anyone in that post has d caliber to be Army Chief.. in our country Cast State People in Govt matters. Many are eliminated becoz not caliber n professiional history matters to people in government. Mera admi. Mera state, meri jaati..this is one of the.prominent factor which diminishes n clips d wings of the most deserving.. it’s sad.. but will keep happening ..yet I m optimistic that a day will.come when only knowledge, talent n result will matter..

  15. I have served with Gen Hanut Singh in 17 and 1 armd div s and also in 2 corps. for about 6 years as his PA and known him closely. Whatever writer has written are true facts. I appreciate the writer and has great regards for his thoughts to highlight what was gen Hanut . I salute the writer for bringing out the facts

  16. Since 1997 no one from the Armoured Corps has become army chief. Thereby hangs a legacy, paradoxically involving an infantry officer who loved – perhaps too much – the armoured corps and mechanized forces. After independence till 1983, only two from the Armoured Corps were chiefs – Generals Rajendrasinghji and Chaudhary. The third armoured corps chief, Gen Vaidya, came by superceding an infantry officer. It was Vaidya’s successor, Gen Sunderji, considered the father of mechanized warfare, who changed the face of the army. An infantry officer, Sunderji became the first non-armoured corps officer to command an armoured division. His pre-occupation with the armoured- cum-mechanized structure of warfare saw an unprecedented six his eight PSOs from the armoured corps. From 1983 to 1997 the Indian army saw four armoured corps officers as chiefs – Gens Vaidya, VN Sharma, BC Joshi and Roychowdhary, with only one artillery officer intervening – Gen Rodrigues. If you include Sunderji it becomes five. But post 1997, till date, not a single armoured corps officer has become chief. The closest was Lt Gen Bakshi, who was superceded by the present chief. The revenge of the infantry will continue. In fact the rumour is that infantry will ensure that only they will be chiefs for another 20 years. Whether this is good only time will tell. But the army is an organism and it needs variety in its DNA to keep it resilient, robust and vibrant as well as a repository of knowledge and experience of all types of military warfare. Hanut Singh was a victim of the Infantry vs Other Arms internal turf war.

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