The Great Hanut, RIP

The death yesterday of the greatest armoured tactician and battlefield commander the country has ever produced, Lt Gen Hanut Singh, is a personal loss to those who served under him and the few civilians privileged to have known him. I was permitted to spend a few days with him in the last month or so of his last Command — the Armoured Warfare School and Centre, Ahmednagar in 1992 (if I remember right). Unwilling to meet civilians, he was persuaded to meet with me by his close cousin and fellow cavalry officer, Jaswant Singh (ex-Central India Horse) of the BJP and the then leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

Not sure what Jaswant told Hanut about me, but within minutes of reaching my room in the Officer’s Mess, I was summoned for a meeting by the Commandant.The very tall, very thin, almost gaunt looking General with bushy mustachios curling at the ends greeted me with the easy courtliness he was known for. Ere I had settled down in the chair, the General then on duty — it being a week day — and hence in full fig, shot me a question, which I immediately realized was a “trick question” in that my answer would decide the sort of relationship I’d have with him. “Who’s the best armoured tactical commander in history?” he asked, like a headmaster testing a student whose alleged promise was suspect. I took my time answering but when I said “Herman Balck”, suddenly the atmosphere lightened and a twinkle came to Hanut’s eyes and he responded “I think so too”. It was smooth sailing thereafter, with great deal of time spent discussing with him the future of mobile warfare with armoured forces, and the many practical problems in marshaling and overseeing actions of large armrd and mech formations on the battlefield.

Hanut had, perhaps, in mind his tenure as GOC, II Corps in the 1987 Operation Brasstacks that, as subsequently revealed, had a secret thrust (Op Trident) of transiting from a war exercise into a full-scale operation for ingress deep into Pakistan to catch the Pakistan Army by surprise, except Sundarji’s surprise also surprised Hanut. He reportedly protested not being told about this sub-surface plan and the difficulties in virtually turning his Strike Corps around and sustaining a hard push westwards. Hanut was careful to skirt around Brasstacks in our interactions. I remember, in this respect, talking when in Pakistan a decade back to Gen. Khalid Arif, the de facto Pak Army Chief in the late 1980s, who countered the Indian concentration, albeit for a war exercise, by amassing his forces as a precautionary measure — including Army Reserve South — in the chicken neck area north of Gurdaspur to cut Kashmir off from the rest of India if the massed Indian armour aggressed on the southern Rajasthan front. Arif was confident Sundarji and Rajiv Gandhi’s govt wouldn’t risk having J&K thus severed. The only slight doubts Arif hinted at by indirection was about the uncertainty attending on how Hanut would maneuver his forces once they broke through the Pak defensive line. In the larger picture, Arif calculated right; India did lose its nerve.

One can see why Hanut empathized with Balck, who like him, believed in leading from the front — Hanut’s Basantar river crossing and maneuvers in the Shakargarh salient in 1971 and Balck’s heading the lead unit of the 1st Panzer Div in Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps across the Meuse River and the breakthrough to capture Sedan in 1942. Both Hanut and Balck ended their careers by being relegated to minor commands — to Ahmednagar and Panzer Group in Hungary respectively, their remarkable operational experience and competence under-valued by the armies they served.

I remember too the fierce loyalty he inspired among those who had fought under him, from the lowest to the highest. Such as the lead JCO instructor at Armrd School, who was instructed by Hanut to run me around on tanks so I could experience what it is like inside the closed, claustrophobia-inducing, mobile steel cans travelling at high spds over uneven ground — back-breaking and senses-numbing!, who recounted his hair-raising experience as Hanut’s tank driver in 17 (Poona) Horse’s lead tank as it led the armrd column across the minefield on the Basantar, and swore how every army unit would follow the “Colonel sahib” — as he called the General — anywhere w/o hesitation or doubt. Hanut’s chief of staff at the Centre, Brig Shergill, again a veteran of the Shakargarh op, recounted in greater detail Hanut’s on-battlefield tactics and instructions that awestruck juniors would w/o hesitation implement and his magical feel for the battlefield and, more notoriously, his differences with his armrd bgde comdr Arun Vaidya (later Army Chief) who advised caution, which Hanut expressly disregarded with a withering “Keep off my back!” warning to Vaidya issued over the bravo link. That Vaidya was awarded a Bar to his MVC for this action that he opposed, led to Hanut’s initially rejecting the award of MVC for himself. It was only after the Army brass all but got down on their knees and begged him to accept the gallantry award that he relented but, his fealty to the truth meant he never ever wore the MVC decoration! In fact, Hanut’s official portrait at the armrd school and Centre, if I recall, doesn’t have the MVC on his chest.

But great commanders are rarely appreciated by their peers. Hanut was scorned and reviled by lesser, even near incompetent, cohort of big-talking cavalry generals, as the “chaplain General” — because of the religious rituals he followed by going into his “meditation bunker” even during mil ops, venerating “Mataji”– an avatar he believed of the Goddess Durga. But these rituals never hampered his work or his duties, but nonetheless were something he was pilloried for. The General explained his devotion simply as seeking divine guidance.

It was a pity Rajiv’s defence minister K.C. Pant, whom I was close to,
didn’t have the gumption to over-rule the army brass arrayed against Hanut’s deserved elevation to army command and later, perhaps, even COAS, fearful that his cleaning of the Service’s Augean stables that would inevitably have followed, would have shown up the rot that had set in in the Indian Army, and would otherwise set a bad precedent!

The last time I met Hanut was in 1994 when, as adviser, defence expenditure, (10th) Finance Commission, India,chaired by Pant, I visited IAF’s South-Western Air Cmd HQrs then at Jodhpur, and took the time one evening to visit the General at his ashram he had built some ways outside the city. We talked about the state of the army and, even more animatedly, again about armrd warfare history. I recalled for him the haunting statement he had left me with from the Ahmednagar episode: “There’s no armrd commander in the army”, he had declared, “who can visualize a battlefield beyond the regimental level” [which statement I used in my 2002 (revised edition in 2005) tome — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, to argue, among other things, that the impressive wherewithal notwithstanding, the three Indian Strike Corps and pivot corps couldn’t successfully prosecute Cold Start]. He gently guided me away from that topic but his assessment has left me wondering about what will happen in a straight-out armrd war on the western front.

The General attained samadhi in Haridwar, going the way he wanted to. His missed army command and perhaps subsequent COAS-ship, will however remain the great what ifs in the army’s and the Indian military’s history.

Great having known you, General Sahib, and a final, most respectful, salaam. RIP.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Great Power imperatives, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Great Hanut, RIP

  1. Shivraj Singh says:

    Wonderful ! Great that a person like you would come up with this beautiful obit. Thanks.

  2. Vivek Shrimali says:

    Beautiful recollection of your personal interactions with the Great Commander and a Noble Soul

    Loved reading, re-reading it and shared it 👍


    • Thank you. Hanut was indeed a very great man.

      • Kr. Fateh Singh Jasol, IAS says:

        Thank you for a beautiful tribute to one for whom it was always so difficult to find the right words of praise and admiration. I have unabashedly admitted in my own circles that Hanut was the only one in my own life whom I hero-worshiped and envied both as a soldier and a sadhak. I spent my life as a professional civil servant but never in my 37 years of service met any, in service or outside, that stood as tall or had the combination of courage, integrity, morality, character and professionalism that were Hanut’s hallmarks. Such an extraordinary person, and yet so humble, and such civility and courtesy towards all! As news of his passing filtered in through family circles, I looked for some coverage on him on the news channels because my own relatives attending on him were too preoccupied to be troubled at this time. I was saddened by what it said of us as a people that the passing of this extraordinary soldier merited no mention on the very same channels which cried themselves hoarse on many defence issues, more to survive the rigors of 24×7 reporting than by any concern for the soldier. Else, this is one soldier who deserved not to be neglected or ignored, no matter that he himself preferred to be left alone to live and do his work, with the motto “Ekla chalo re” on the standard of the Centurion tank of his life. Thanks to his former colleagues in uniform, there is some reasonably good material on him on the internet but it says something of the man again that pictures of him are as rare as the MVC voluntarily missing from his uniform. I hope in some way his memory will be preserved, for the things he stood for and represented are so worth preserving. Meanwhile, I hope it is alright if, as his first cousin, I take it upon myself to speak for the family (a lifelong celibate, he had none of his own) to thank you for your eloquent and respectful tribute. You are right in wondering about what might have been if he had not been bypassed for army command and a possible future as COAS. His cousin Jaswant had advised him to file an appeal against the decision, which he adamantly refused to do. It offended his soldier’s sense of dignity and self-respect, izzat and iquabal to extend a supplicating hand before any but his Maker. Stoically maintaining that “It is the army’s loss, not mine,” he served out his remaining time honorably and impeccably as ever. When the end came, he looked the Great Reaper in the eye and, without blinking, passed Him by to be with his God.

      • @Kunwar Fateh Singhji — Thank you for the extended Family’s perspective on the Man. General Hanut may not have had his just rewards when in the service but the impact he had on the army and armymen is undeniable. That my personal appreciation of the General has created such a groundswell reflects his influence and reach.

  3. Guru says:

    A very nice obit!!! Really touched. Like you have aptly mentioned, one wonders if the Strike Corps can live up-to the expectations. Lets fervently hope that Commanders like Gen Hanut are reborn. May his soul RIP.

  4. Maj Gen RPRC Naidu says:

    As a junior officer I had the privilege of serving with then Maj Hanut Singh. He was our Brigade Major of 66 Infantry Brigade in 1965. His outstanding qualities as an upright and professionally outstanding officer were so obvious. His meditation and prayers were a part of his routine and his fearlessness was so patent. In later years even when he was in the Military Operations Directorate in a senior rank, his orders were for his juniors not to disturb him in his prayers unless there is a war.

    An officer of his convictions and professional competence is rare to come across.

    Ram Naidu

  5. Shurveer Deora says:

    Dear Mr Karnad
    How you pen your words for this Noble soul shows how you stand apart from the ordinary. Appreciate your effort.

  6. Satish Vaidya says:

    Dear Mr Karnad,
    A beautiful write-up that puts a great life (soldier and Sadhak) in right perspective. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to serve with General Hanut, but feel privileged to have read this tribute.
    I am sharing this

  7. Thank you, Mr. Karnad, for writing this heartfelt obituary. I did not know about Lt. Gen. Hanut Singh until I read your obituary. I am astounded that such an individual served in our defence forces, and, sadly, not surprised that he was not elevated to the top position in the army.
    When I see the current crop of our service chiefs, the thought often crosses my head that these photogenic, handsome men with their Close Up smiles should perhaps feel more at home as middle-aged models for glossy magazines than as soldiers. And, I feel uncomfortable contrasting them with the likes of a Gen. Kayani, who, despite not having even a fourth of what his national adversary has, looked mean and itching for a fight.

  8. Gautam Sen says:

    Dear Bharat:
    What you and Kr. Fateh Singh Jasol, IAS have written sums up Hanut. I was in 36 Div during the operations of Shakargarh. I saw Hanut all through the operations from 3rd December to 17 December 1971. The 1st Horse(Skinners) was with the 36 Div and in every combined discussion under K K Singh, it was a pleasure to hear Hanut, a great soldier, humanist and voracious reader. In sum a soldier and a monk rolled into one.
    Gautam Sen(Pune)

  9. Kr Digvijay Singh Jodha says:

    Dear Mr. Karnad,
    Thanks and appreciate your efforts in penning the details of great indian soldier and divine soul, who has been person of great value to organisation he served. I had the privilege to meet him in person beacuse of our common divine faith, and find no words to express the aura of peace he radiated. Within minutes of meeting him I found him so close that I never felt I was interacting with a great general of the Indian Army. He was kind to offer me his advice on various topics and divine service.

    He was not only a great soldier, but a great soul that I have ever met … As rightly said ” he never lost but not giving him his dues was great loss to army”. Pray to MAA BAWAJI to provide this great son of hers the bliss he deserved.

    Hearfelt gratitude to you again for getting to where our biased, vocal, media never can get to. Miss his presence more than ever …Salute to the great soul and father figure in my life…

  10. D P Bose says:

    Heroes perform their duties and beyond, silently and without expecting any reward. That is what happened to this great warrior son of India.

  11. Dharwar Achar says:

    In spite of the periodic squables, cheap in-fightings prevailing at the highest levels, the Indian Army is still the best army in the world for the reason that great Generals like Hanut Singh have sacrificed so much even in the face of adversity, for the sake of the country’s honour, which has come first, always and every time. True sons of the soil.

  12. sujit kumar parasar says:

    Indian army is the Pride of India because of great and true patriot soldiers, such as Hanut. All safron clad are not Saints but many men in uniform are saintly without being true soldiers. Hanut was both. I thank you for the truthful complimentary..RIP

  13. Pingback: Lt Gen Hanut Sigh,PVSM,Mvc | rwac48's Blog

  14. Vv painoli says:

    All that has been written about this outstanding Armoured Corps officer who journeyed his career with the great Indian Army Formations during 50s and 80s with his and his Regiment’s Izzat and Iqbal intact , has limited readers and followers in the world over today . Words like soldiery, regiments, pride, izzat and Iqbal are strange and funny emotions in today’s Bania and Dukandaar oriented and dominated world . So I say RIP Gen Hanut , Rommel , Tarapore, Harbaksh and thousands of Tank Drivers , Gunners , Commanders and so many other history makers like them .

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