Monday, May 18, 2015

Manimugdha S Sharma - WWII veteran's widow gets back lost George Cross // Army widow to get back George Cross stolen in 2002

BHAPRAL VILLAGE, Bilaspur ( HP): The number 13 seems to have stuck to 82-year-old Brahmi Devi of this quiet little village in Himachal Pradesh. At 13, she had received from the Viceroy a George Cross on behalf of her dead husband. Thirteen years ago, she lost her most prized possession to a group of "crafty people with selfish intentions". Thirteen years later, on Monday, she got it back. And it was perhaps a co-incidence that the handover ceremony started at 1300 hours.

TOI undertook the nine-hour journey from Delhi with the representatives of the British High Commission as they took the set of medals belonging to Naik Kirpa Ram of Frontier Force Rifles of the old Indian Army to their rightful owner. And all of us were left wondering what it must have been like to undertake such a journey back in 1946 by a 13-year-old widow who had never gone out of her village and who had to cover the distance in a military jeep, accompanied by British and Indian officers of her husband's regiment.

"She must have been astonished to come out of her tiny village to the big city that was New Delhi. I really wonder how she must have felt at seeing the Viceroy's palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the Viceroy himself with all the pomp and show around him," said Barrister Ian Mayes (QC), Brahmi Devi's lawyer in the Queen's Bench Division, High Court of Justice. It was a special day for him, too, as he was going to meet his client for the first time. And he met her in front of 500 people on Monday.

Though the two didn't know each other's languages, the emotions were spontaneous—Brahmi hugged Ian when she was told who he was. And that's how the ceremony began, with a hug. The people around her called it a symbol of friendship and goodwill between Indian and British people. But for Brahmi, he was the man who had returned her husband's most important memory.

British deputy high commissioner David Lelliott highlighted the importance of the ceremony and thanked everyone who contributed to the return of the medals in some way. Ian acknowledged the role played by Himachal Pradesh Police, Indian High Commission, especially the Indian deputy high commissioner to the UK, New Scotland Yard, and the British High Commission, especially defence adviser Brigadier Brian McCall. He even thanked TOI and Sunday Express, UK, for coverage.

After all the speeches were over, it was the time to handover the medals. Brigadier McCall did the honours with a fine, short speech, and Brahmi Devi, for the second time in nearly 70 years, received the George Cross from a British officer. "That's called destiny, you see," remarked someone in the audience.

She thanked everyone for the "imaandari" with which her case was fought and her medals restored. "I'm very happy with my lawyer, and with Bartaniya (Britain) for this honest job. These medals represent my husband's honour and bravery and my last link with him. I've treasured them all my life. And I shall treasure them as long as I live," she said.

Ian, though, was very worried as he hadn't heard from her in two years. "I was very worried that we may not find her alive to return the medals. God, I'm so relieved that she is seeing this in her lifetime," Ian said. Brahmi, though, wasn't worried at all. "She would drive me mad at times, asking about the medals. Yet she never gave up. She would often say, 'I won't die before getting my medals back.' I can't really explain how much joy she's experiencing. She may not show it, but today is the happiest day of her life," said Sushant Thakur, her nephew.

Brahmi wants to keep the medals safe in a bank before making up her mind about placing them in some museum. But on Monday, nobody wanted to bother her too much with future plans. Lelliott summed it up very well: "It's your day, today, ma'am. You deserve it."

Army widow to get back George Cross stolen in 2002
NEW DELHI: History has repeated itself for octogenarian Brahmi Devi. As the former Allied nations are commemorating 70 years of VE (Victory over Europe) Day—the day when the Second World War in Europe officially ended—this war widow in Bhapral village, Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh, is getting ready to receive her dead husband's George Cross for the second time in nearly 70 years.

In 1946, Devi's husband, Naik Kirpa Ram, was posthumously awarded the medal for an act of gallantry on September 12, 1945, just ten days after the surrender of the Empire of Japan. He was with the 8th battalion, 13th Frontier Force Rifles of the Indian Army (now Frontier Force Regiment, Pakistan Army) and had returned to India after serving in the Burma theatre. The battalion was in Bangalore when during a field firing exercise a rifle grenade misfired and fell within eight yards of the 28-year-old soldier's section. Ram asked everyone to take cover and rushed forward to try and throw the grenade away. But it exploded in his hands, fatally wounding him.

Devi, who spent just one day with her husband, became a widow at 12. The following year, she was brought to New Delhi in a jeep for the investiture ceremony where the Viceroy, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell, presented her the George Cross, then the highest peacetime gallantry award in the whole of the British Empire. That was 69 years ago.

Devi never remarried. She had no children either. The only thing dear to her was her husband's medal set. She kept them safe for over 50 years until 2002 when the George Cross and four other medals were stolen. It isn't clear if the medals were stolen or she was tricked into signing them away—she is illiterate—to somebody else, but Devi lodged an FIR of theft. The medals weren't found.

In 2009, the medals surfaced in Britain. An Indian collector, Ashok Nath, had bought the medal set for Rs 3,50,000 from a curio shop in Delhi and wanted to auction them off through Bonhams. The George Cross was valued at over 100,000 pounds or roughly Rs 1 crore. The Indian High Commission protested and the British government stopped the auction after Himachal Pradesh Police lodged a fresh FIR. A custody battle ensued.

Devi refused to accept any amount, however high, for the medals. She just wanted them back. Then British lawyer Ian Mayes (QC) fought the case for Devi without any money in the Queen's Bench Division, High Court of Justice. He managed to convince Nath to give up his claim against payment of 12,000 pounds to foot his legal costs. The court ruled in Devi's favour in June, 2013. The medal set was kept in the custody of London Metropolitan Police till the time the money was raised and paid to Nath.

"I went to Britain in March and collected the medal and brought it back to India. We would have loved to bring her over to Delhi and formally present her the medal. But considering her advanced age, we decided against it. We will go to her village and hand it over to her on May 11. Her husband gave up his life to save others; she gave her whole life to her husband's memory and family. This medal rightfully belongs to her," said Brigadier Brian McCall, the British defence adviser in India.

The estimated value of the entire medal set is over 250,000 pounds or roughly Rs 2.5 crore. Naturally, there are fears about the safety of the medals once they are returned. "It's heartening to know about the return of the George Cross. But we need to figure out a way so that the medals remain safe," said Squadron Leader Rana Chhina of the United Service Institution of India (USI). McCall echoed Rana's feelings: "We do appreciate the concerns. USI is perhaps the right authority to keep the medals safe. But it's Devi's call entirely."