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The Legend of Zoru

By Claude Arpi
June 14, 2018 09:05 IST
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Claude Arpi salutes Lieutenant General Zorawar Chand Bakshi, India's most decorated general, who passed into the ages recently.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Last month, India lost its most decorated general.

Lieutenant General Zorawar Chand Bakshi -- known as Zoru to Indian Army officers and his friends -- passed away at the age of 97.

Very few noticed. There were no tweets from the prime minister or the defence minister.

General Bakshi was born in 1921 in Gulyana town, Rawalpindi district, in today's Pakistan. Like several soldiers of his generation, he served in the British army; in this, he followed the footsteps of his father, Bahadur Bakshi Lal Chand Lau.

During World War II, Zoru fought with the Baloch regiment against the Japanese in Burma; he covered himself with glory and his name was mentioned in dispatches for conducting successful ambushes against the enemy.

Following the Partition of India, the family moved to India, and after briefly serving in the Punjab Boundary Force, a military force set up to restore peace on the Punjab border, he was commissioned into the 5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force).

During the 1947-1948 operations in Kashmir, he was already noticed as a great soldier; he was awarded the Vir Chakra.

Later, he would fight two more wars against Pakistan and be awarded more decorations, including the Mahavir Chakra.


It is because of the military mission he undertook to Tibet in 1949 that I got to know General Bakshi. At the end of the 1990s, while working on my book The Fate of Tibet, I had a burning question: Why did India not militarily intervene in Tibet in 1950?

I was told by one of his colleagues from the Burma World War II days, "Why don't you meet Zoru Bakshi? He went there."

Not only did he go to Lhasa, but he was awarded the MacGregor Memorial Medal, a decoration instituted in 1888 in memory of Sir Charles MacGregor, the founder of India's original secret service, the Khufiya Bureau, for his visit to Tibet.

This most prestigious decoration is given to army personnel for exceptional feats of reconnaissance.

General Bakshi was the first recipient (only 15 have received it so far).

Here is Zoru's Tibetan adventure:

In the summer of 1949, the Government of India, though not ready to get involved in a full-fledged military operation in Tibet, was still studying different options.

But in order to have a proper assessment Delhi decided to send someone to survey the eventual routes.

The information thus collected could be used to send troops and ammunition in the event of a 'political' decision to defend Tibet.

The officer was also asked to check on the military preparedness of the Tibetan army.

After some tussle with Army HQ, which was keen to send its own military intelligence officer (one Lieutenant Govil), the ministry of external affairs (and probably Jawaharlal Nehru himself as a minister), Major Zorawar Chand Bakshi was selected.

The reason why Lieutenant Govil was not sent was probably a note from Lieutenant General Nathu Singh, the Eastern Command commander who was in favour of an armed intervention in Tibet: '(China'] recent activities, their declared policy towards liberation of Tibet, clearly indicate the writing on the wall. The Communist menace is gradually spreading towards the very borders of India,' General Nathu Singh wrote.

But Nehru believed in non-violence.

General Nathu Singh's independence of mind and his desire to send its own man (Lieutenant Govil) to scout Tibet, prompted the MEA to select someone who would directly report to the ministry.

On September 3, 1949, Hareshwar Dayal, the political officer still thought that a 'party' would be sent for the purpose: 'This party should be as UNOBTRUSIVE as possible and should go as TREKKERS or as officers visiting Gyantse escorts.' Dayal did not want the 'party' to have an armed escort.

The fact that this covert mission took place under the direction of K P S Menon, the foreign secretary, is proof that in the summer of 1949, the Government of India was still keeping all its options open.

General Bakshi, who was a man of a few words, explained to me: "My mission was very simple. It was to see the routes in these areas. In the army, we always prepare for eventualities. The army does not decide to go anywhere, but should we be asked to go anywhere, we must know where the routes are. In fact, the army does not make any recommendation at all (that we should go for war or not). Nothing like we should go to Tibet."

On his return, Zoru made his recommendations: 'Nothing was impossible, after all (the legendary British explorer Francis) Younghusband had done it 45 years earlier under much more compelling conditions. But it was a "political" choice.'

One of the questions the then Major Bakshi had to study was: Should India send arms and ammunition to Tibet?

On July 4, 1949, K P S Menon, the foreign secretary, had emphasised the need for the Indian mission to continue to supply arms and ammunition supply to Lhasa.

Menon also suggested finding out 'other ways' to 'give our moral support to Tibet' and the strengthening of India's northern frontiers.

Nehru himself wrote: 'We should certainly try to maintain and continue our friendly relations with the Tibetan government and give them such aid as we have been giving them in the past.'

One year later, when the Chinese troops crossed the Yangtze and invaded the Land of Snows, Nehru's determination would disappear, but this is another story.

It is more than a decade after meeting General Bakshi, that I came across his report, a fascinating document.

The young major first looked at the 'strength, composition and location' of the Tibetan army: 'The Tibetan army is about 8,000 strong. There are approximately 10 battalions in it.'

Major Bakshi explained that these battalions do not have a fixed strength, though 'normally' battalions have approximately 900 strong soldiers; further the battalions have 'no fixed scale of weapons and equipment.' They are equipped with rifles, brens and sten guns and a few 2-inches mortars.

The report confirmed that some of the Tibetan soldiers and officers had been trained in firing by Indian Army instructors.

Major Bakshi also mentioned the state of training and discipline: 'I have had a few opportunities of seeing the men of Kusung and Trapchi Regiments on parade in Lhasa. The standard of drill, with and without arms, is very poor.'

'I have no hesitation in saying that an IA (Indian Army) recruit, after two weeks training, is much smarter than the soldiers of the Tibetan Body Guard Regiment.'

'The Tibetan soldier,' he added, 'shows no pride in being a soldier. The standard of turnout and discipline is shocking. The soldier does not seem to wash himself and his clothes.'

But Delhi was not ready to get involved in a conflict on the Tibetan plateau.

The rest is history, a few months later India abandoned a weak and unprepared Tibet to its fate.

It would then become clear for other 'non-aligned' nations that India was not in a position to play the high-moral role she pretended to play in world affairs.

It remains sad that India did not pay official homage to one of its greater soldiers.

Readers who want to know more about The Indian Presence in Tibet, 1947 to 1962, please click here.

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