A quiz question on the 70th Anniversary of Indian Independence: Nehru was the first person to raise the Indian flag on Independence Day on the 15th August 1947. But who was the second?
I learnt the answer while studying Hindi in the town of Landaur, north India, in 1996.
At the recommendation of a local shopkeeper, I skipped Hindi classes one day to meet a man named Brigadier Hukam Singh Yadav, who I had been told had a wealth of knowledge about regional and national history.
On a brisk morning in November 1996, I picked my way along a path leading out of Landaur to a small cottage belonging to the Brigadier. It was nestled in a forest of oak and pine. Yadav greeted me warmly, “Come in! I’ve actually heard about you. We must talk.”
Yadav told me about his life. Born in Agra in 1921, he entered the Indian Military Academy at the age of 18. By the age of 21 he was already a Captain. And in 1942 he became the first Indian to be appointed Instructor-in-Gunnery.
When, in 1943, Yadav was stationed in Burma, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten visited to inspect some troops. “I want this man to be my liaison officer,” Mountbatten had said, pointing to Yadav.
Yadav’s career took off. He subsequently worked as Aide De Camp (ADC) for Lieutenant-General Montagu Stopford, Commander of the British XXXIII Corps. Then in 1947 he moved to Delhi: Mountbatten had become Viceroy of India and he wanted Yadav as his ADC.
I had not known any of this in advance. “What was it like being ADC for the Viceroy of India?” I asked breathlessly.
Yadav grinned: “It was amazing”. He told me a series of stories about Mountbatten. “The thing is, he was a very kind man,” Yadav concluded. “I will give an example…”
“Mountbatten was supposed to raise the Indian flag on Independence Day. But he got caught up in the crowd. So in the heat of the moment, he leaned over to me and said ‘Yadav, I’m not going to be able to raise the flag. You need to do it.’ I was the second person to raise the flag in Independent India.”
Yadav then started up from his chair, “Look Craig, there’s something else. I’ve…I’ve got to show you something.”
He disappeared for a moment and came back with a plastic bag.
Yadav spoke excitedly, “It was August 15th, the day of Independence. I was with Mountbatten. During the celebrations, Mountbatten suddenly jumped out of the car. He ran around the vehicle and tore off the gold British crown on the front of the car. He then turned to me and said, ‘Well, we definitely won’t be needing this any more, will we? Why don’t you take the crown!?’
Yadav reached into his bag and pulled out a giant gold crown. “Indian Independence,” he said, “Right here in my hand!”
Yadav died in 2006. In addition to his military and diplomatic career, he was an accomplished historian, novelist and campaigner. Perhaps most notably, he was Chairman of the All India Ex-servicemen Action Committee. In this role, he launched a campaign for a minimum military pension that is reckoned to have benefited over 6 million Indian pensioners.
On the 15th August 2017, I will be thinking of Brigadier Hukam Singh Yadav, his stories, and his life.