New Delhi, Nov. 10: A former army commander of Pakistan gifted to India a symbol the country wears with pride — its national emblem. Habibullah Khan Khattak was then the second-in-command of the Bihar regiment.
Claiming to be the Indian Army’s oldest family, the Bihar regiment last week celebrated its 61st raising day in the traditional style of armed forces — a reunion over cocktails in the Delhi cantonment and speeches in memory of its martyrs.
The regimental system in the army is a leftover of the Raj. The defence establishment still panders to it, indeed pampers it, in the belief that it promotes an esprit de corps among the infantry that is so crucial in battle.
The colonel commandant of the Bihar regiment — its pater familias, so to speak — Lieutenant-General Onkar Singh Lohchab, told his men at the reunion that the regimental history was being compiled and updated.
Lohchab is the director-general of military intelligence, the key man at army headquarters whose job it is to keep an eagle eye on all that goes on in Pakistan. The lieutenant-general also recounted the valour of the ‘Biharis’, recalling how its battalions had performed in almost every major operation in the army’s history.
In the process of updating the regimental history, serving and current officers from some 18 battalions of the regiment — that make it one of the army’s largest with nearly 20,000 men — stumbled across nuggets from its past that hold important lessons for the present.
The first — and this is played down by the army — is the story of the rebellious soldier. One of the ‘Biharis’ was the first to raise the battle cry against the British. Sepoy Mangal Pandey, a hero of the 1857 revolt that is described variously by historians as the “first war of Indian Independence” or “Sepoy mutiny”, was from the Bengal Native Infantry that mostly comprised Biharis and was the forerunner of the Bihar regiment.
The second is the story of Habibullah Khan Khattak.
Back in 1941, Khattak was a “native” officer in the Indian Army, a young captain, who was asked to do duty as second-in-command of the Bihar regiment under the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.R.H. Tweed.
Tweed chose for the regiment an insignia that had the words “THE BIHAR REGT” in the centre with “ASOKA SHER SHAH” in a semi-circle below. This was used as a badge that soldiers and officers pinned to their caps.
When army headquarters asked Tweed to create an emblem for the regiment, he chose one that depicted two Bihar rivers. The officers and men did not like it but the headquarters approved of it. On a visit to the Calcutta Museum, Khattak chanced upon the Ashoka Lions from Sarnath and found it suitable for the regiment because of its historical association with Bihar.
His proposal to the headquarters was not accepted at first but Khattak was a resourceful officer. His father, a Pathan aristocrat, was personally acquainted with General Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army. The emblem was adopted by the regiment after some coaxing.
Months later, then British Governor of Bihar Sir Thomas Rutherford requested the army that the government of Bihar be permitted to use the symbol as its emblem. The Bihar government’s emblem at the time was “A Fish in a Bowl”.
The army was proud that its discovery should be in such demand and readily acceded to the request. Subsequently, after the transfer of power in 1947, the government of India adopted Khattak’s find. To this day, the crest of the Bihar regiment is “The Ashoka Lions of Sarnath on top of the tomb of the mausoleum of Sher Shah Suri at Sasaram”.
After Partition, Khattak migrated to Pakistan where he rose to be a lieutenant-general and commander of its army. He led Pakistani army units to war. The battles killed Indian and Pakistani soldiers, including some from his Bihar regiment.
The Pakistani who chose India’s national emblem died in 1997.