BANGALORE: Elizabethville, Katanga
5 December 1961, 1.12 pm.
Two bullets had pierced his neck. The blood was seeping down and soaking his shirt. Right ahead he could see the gendarmerie running away. Some of his brave and gutsy Gorkhas were still giving chase.
He did not resist when an immense weariness enveloped him. He had lost too much blood. His task had been achieved and he was at peace. Closing his eyes, Capt Gurbachan Singh Salaria of 3/1 Gorkha Rifles, dropped his rifle and fell, drifting into unconsciousness from which he would never awaken.
Many years earlier, when Salaria had joined the Gorkha Rifles, he had been told that his regiment’s motto was: It is better to die than to be a coward: Kafar hunu bhanda marnu ramro.
Salaria had lived up to the motto. Salaria fancied himself a palmist. Before the Congo deployment in February 1961, he had visited Chotta Shimla for some work and run into an excise officer, who used to read people’s palms.
Reading Salaria’s hand, the officer told him that there was a star on his mount of Jupiter, which would bring him great fame. Salaria took the prediction very seriously and would often point it out to fellow officers in lighter moments.
Maj Gen RP Singh recalls Salaria showing him his own right hand. He pointed out the star on his mount of Jupiter. ‘Wait and see, this star will take me to great heights,’ he said. Singh had leaned over to feel the mount, but only out of politeness. ‘I just shrugged it off as I never took his knowledge of palmistry seriously,’ the general recounts.
‘I did not know that his day of reckoning and attaining fame was just a few days away. Or that he would never know of this fame since it would come when he was in his heavenly abode,’ he says quietly.
Gurbachan Singh Salaria was born on 29 November 1935 in a village called Janwal, near Shakargarh, now in Pakistan. The second of five children, he was a favourite of his grandmother, who would tie a black thread around his waist to keep the evil eye away from him.
Gurbachan’s father Munshi Ram was in the Armoured Corps of the British Indian Army and would move from one Army cantonment to another, coming home only on annual or casual leave.
When he did come home, it was celebration time. Friends and family would drop in to listen to his awe-inspiring tales of faraway places where soldiers performed great acts of bravery. Little Gurbachan and his siblings would listen to their father in rapt attention. Quite possibly this is how Gurbachan was inspired to be courageous.
Gurbachan would go to school regularly, but was always more occupied with games and outdoor activities rather than studying. He was a good kabaddi player, and continued to be good at sports even after he cleared the entrance to King George’s Royal Military College (KGRMC), Bangalore. Though he was initially rejected in the physical exam because his chest was found to be an inch less than the stipulated measurements, he was given a month to try again. He took the challenge head on, drinking one litre of goat’s milk every day and exercising passionately.
When he went back for his medical, he had managed to increase his chest by two-and-a-half inches and was immediately admitted. He joined the college in August 1946 as a cadet. In 1947, he was transferred to KGRMC Jullundur, which was closer to his village.
When he was in his second year, Gurbachan and a friend were once bullied and insulted by another cadet. Gurbachan’s self-respect took a blow but he challenged the bully to a boxing match the next day. He boxed with such fury that the bully was knocked out and had to apologise. The operation in Congo was very reminiscent of this incident; where Gurbachan took on a much bigger and better equipped enemy fighting force just because he wanted to teach them a lesson in war ethics.
Gurbachan went on to the National Defence Academy and then the Indian Military Academy. He joined 2/3 Gorkha Rifles in July 1954 where he was nicknamed Khan Saheb by his commanding officer because of his cropped hair cut and upturned moustache.
In March 1960, he received orders, transferring him to 3/1 Gorkha Rifles. And that was where General R P Singh, who was then the battalion adjutant, met him. General Singh found Salaria to be a simple man, spartan and very careful with money, unlike other young officers, many of whom had extravagant tastes. In fact, Salaria once told him, he recalled, that he was sending money home to finance the education of his younger brother Sukhdev, at college in Jammu.
Sukhdev is now 75 and lives in Pathankot. He is bedridden and has lost his sense of balance, but he remembers fondly how, when he and Gurbachan were little boys - Gurbachan was older by two years - they would go swimming in the small stream that ran across their village.
‘We had no worries then; we would splash around in the stream. What beautiful days they were. Now Gurbachan is gone and I can’t walk, but whenever I think of him that is the first memory that streams into my head,’ says the old man, sinking back into silence. He has more memories to recount but his strength fails him.
Author Rachna Bisht Rawat speaks
I have an intellectual connect with Bangalore. It is where some of my most mentally stimulating friends live. I was fortunate enough to spend three years here. I was an Army wife who had taken a long break from journalism when Bangalore gave me a chance to come back to it again. It was here that I won a fellowship that took me on my first trip abroad. I don’t think I would have gotten down to writing a book if Bangalore hadn’t happened to me. Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria PVC has a Bangalore connect too. He studied at King George’s Royal Military College in 1946. Capt Salaria lost his life in a UN mission. The most ironic thing about a soldier dying in a UN peacekeeping mission is that his sacrifice quickly fades from public memory since he dies in a foreign land, fighting for a foreign country. Salaria was a brave man, he died fighting another man’s battle. Not many people remember him but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a hero. The Brave has stories about men whose deaths are not to be mourned, but celebrated.