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.
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.
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.
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.
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