The Nehrus and my family have been acquainted from the days when Motilal Nehru was a leading advocate of the Allahabad High Court and my grandfather Sheikh Mohammed Habibullah served in government as Collector-he always carried with him the nomenclature ‘Dipti (Deputy from Deputy Collector) Sahib’, and finally Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University (1938-’41).
My father Maj Gen Enaith Habibullah had told me of how he and his two brothers, who were to leave for school at Clifton College, Bristol in 1920, were taken to meet Jawaharlal Nehru, an upcoming member of the Allahabad Court Bar and aspiring politician who had returned from England in 1912 from school at Harrow followed in 1907 by Trinity College, Cambridge and the Inns of Court School of Law (Inner Temple) in the UK, to seek his advice on how to prepare and what to expect in pursuing their education in what were then distant climes.
My father, whom we, his children and his friends called Bubbles, remembered Jawaharlal advising him and his two brothers to expect nothing extraordinary, except a gnawing loneliness.
Bubbles was briefly on the Viceroy’s staff on his return from a posting in London. But as is known the Indian Army was the institution worst hit by Partition.
No less than 45% of the British Indian Army became the Pakistan army, with only two Muslim officers of the rank of Colonel staying with the Indian army, and thereby hangs a tale.
Years later, recounting his own friendship with Brig Osman, martyred while fighting the Pakistani invaders in Nowshera in the then state of Jammu and Kashmir in ’48, Bubbles told me that upon Partition Muslim officers in the then British Indian army were given the option to stay in India or opt for Pakistan.
But were they to opt to stay in India they would have to leave the army.
To a man like my father, to whom India was homeland but the Indian army was home, this choice was unacceptable. Taking advantage of his acquaintance with Nehru, Bubbles waited on the PM together with Osman, then like him a colonel in the Indian army, objecting to the advisory of the Defence Ministry. The advisory was rescinded.
Although Osman too soon after died fighting Pakistan, Bubbles went on to a productive career in the Indian army together with a host of Muslim officers who were to follow Osman and him. Panditji as Prime Minister was to become the inspiration in the contribution that my parents aspired to make in the building of India.
Principal amongst these contributions was surely the building of the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakvasla, today a suburb of Pune city, once proud capital of the Peshwas, but then a simple village with a military encampment located some distance from the city, of which my father, by then Major General, was founder Commandant.
In December 1954 the NDA relocated under the command of my father from Premnagar in Dehra Dun where it was until then situated, and where my father was from 1953 as its last Commandant, to its 7000 acre sprawl in Khadakvasla.
A flagship project of the Nehru government, the building of the NDA in its spectacular location on the shores of the Khadakvasla Lake, the world’s first triservice academy, was of great personal interest to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was present at its inaugural passing out parade in January 1955, as immortalised in a much displayed photograph of the parade, and was a frequent visitor, whither he sometimes escorted his friend Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last British Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten.
My mother later recounted the informality of the two during these visits with Edwina standing up in the audience as Panditji was otherwise engrossed to call out, “Jawahar, you’re going to be late for your next appointment”. Mountbatten himself made an official visit accompanied by Edwina.
Displayed in the museum of the Academy, in a Hall named after my father, hangs a 1956 picture of Panditji, mounted on a horse, pointing into the distance, as my father looks on with a proud smile from his adjoining mount.
It is one of the very few equestrian photographs of Panditji, who, my father told me, was in fact a consummate horseman, in full riding gear breeches, gloves, riding shoes et al-except that it is not a solar hat, the riding helmet of the time, but a Gandhi topi that is perched on his head.
Once complete, the Academy was to become the destination to every eminent head of state or national leader visiting India like Khrushchev and Bulganin. Amongst them were the conqueror of Hitler’s Berlin, Russia’s Marshal Zhukov, Saudi Arabia’s Shah Saud and the Shah of Iran with Queen Sorayya, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, Malaya’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rehman, whose son was to train there as cadet, Nigeria’s President Abu Bakr Tafawa Balewa and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie. The principal building is the Sudan Block built with finances from the government of the Sudan. This stature as destination was to continue after my father left with the visit of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1960.
My father had adorned the Academy with exotic trees and majestic statues. Pride of place in the forecourt of the Sudan Block was a gracefully sculpted statue of Arjuna’s Guru, the legendary Dronacharya, knelling with bow in full stretch.
“Who is that?” asked PM as he drove up to inspect the Sudan Block. “Dronacharya of course,” said Bubbles, “role model for excellence in battle to the cadets.”
“What?” cried the PM, “Do you not remember Ekalavya? I will not have this statue here.” And so no longer does Dronacharya kneel, arrow pointing into the distance, before the NDA’s main building.
I myself, studying in boarding school at the time, was home on holiday only on one of Panditji’s visits, but I remember every moment.
In the summer of 1956 what is today the Commandant’s house, the last construction in the Academy, was yet to be built. Bubbles housed his family in a former barracks the deep veranda of which, my mother Hamida’s dextrous housekeeping had made into a dramatic panorama.
Located on a hill descending into the Khadakvasla Lake, it commanded an incomparable view of Shivaji’s lowering fortress of Sinhgarh, across sparkling waters, a brooding fastness which was said to have been seized in 1670 by Shivaji’s general Tanaji Balusare from its Mughal commander Uday Bhan, who had been surprised by the numerically inferior Marathas forcing their way up the precipitous walls guided by iguanas, in a battle immortalised in Bhushan’s Marathi ballad.
These barracks is where Jawaharlal had stayed while we shifted to the adjoining guest barracks.
On the morning that PM was to take the ride that was photographed as described above, he emerged in full riding gear from his veranda, demanding from me, the only one in his sight, “Where is General Sahib?”
I, a diminutive 10 year old, prancing about the lawn in my pyjamas before our barracks with wooden sword in imitation thrust and parry, froze. Then realising who was before me, I fled without uttering a word into my room.
My mother told me later that Panditji then strode right into my parents’ bedroom, where she was still lounging in bed while Bubbles readied to accompany the PM, who repeated his question, quite oblivious of my mother’s disarray.
“But Panditji”, she cried-she always addressed him by that name” It’s only 6 o’clock. You were to leave only at 6.30”.
“Yes! Yes! But I’m ready and we can leave immediately if the General agrees.” My mother also told me that when she later in the day spoke to Panditji about having been embarrassed having been unsuitably dressed when he strode into the bedroom he told her “Don’t worry Hamida (her first name, which he always addressed her by), I wasn’t looking!”
And that was my first and only personal encounter with the great Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. But we have a host of photographs of Panditji with my little sister Chinky, the artist Rummana Hussain, with whom Panditji at the insistence of my mother is always seen smiling.
Yet I was to see Panditji many times thereafter. He was Chief Guest at a Doon School Founder’s Day, where I was a student. My father, well after his retirement was to be a leading participant and organiser of the annual Army Horse Show, which right through the ‘60s was held before the majestic backdrop of Delhi’s Lal Qila, a symbol of India’s freedom.
These were often attended by Panditji, and my father, a leading horseman of the subcontinent of his time, often receiving prizes he won from the PM’s hands. The relationship remained lively and sustained by a regular correspondence on issues of concern.
I still have in my possession a sheaf of letters exchanged between my father and Panditji on all matters of concern, ranging from difficult relations with Pakistan to encouraging polo competitions.
My father remains the longest serving Commandant of the NDA, having opted to stay on to complete the work in the Academy, voluntarily forgoing command of a Division, necessary if he were to be promoted.
At PM’s personal intervention he was appointed Director of the Heavy Engineering Corporation in Ranchi in 1961, another flagship public sector initiative set up in 1958 in partnership with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.
Heavy Engineering Corporation Ltd. is today one of the leading suppliers of capital equipment in India for steel, mining, railways, power, defence, space research, nuclear and strategic sectors. It also executes turn-key projects from concept-to-commissioning.
My father retired in ’64 to set up a stud farm for breeding racehorses in Sewania Gond, on the outskirts of Bhopal. It was there that we heard the announcement of the passing away of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. It was the end of an era but the dawning of a new age for India.