No military commander in independent India, except one, has received a state funeral. But so overwhelmed was a nascent nation at the supreme courage and sacrifice of Brigadier Mohammad Usman 66 years ago that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his cabinet colleagues turned up at the funeral of the hero—the “highest ranking military commander till date” to lay down his life in the battlefield—who was laid to rest with full state honours on the premises of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi.
Two memorials, one at Jamia Millia Islamia, the other at Naushera, stand as silent reminders of the man today—as the nation prepares to observe his one hundredth birth anniversary.
Brig Usman leading a parade in Multan
It was 5.45 pm on July 3, 1948. Jhangar near Naushera (Jammu). The sun was about to set and the brigadier, having offered his evening prayers, was holding the routine, daily meeting with his staff officers at his command post—actually, a makeshift structure rigged with the help of a few tents. A sudden burst of shelling sent them all scurrying for cover behind a rock formation.
The brigadier sized up the situation and saw the enemy’s field guns to be too well-entrenched. Spotting an enemy observation post sited on an elevation, he shouted instructions for his field guns to engage the fortification while he himself attempted a dash, presumably in an effort to alert others. But as he stepped out, a shell from a 25-pounder landed almost next to him—its splinters killing him on the spot. Usman died 12 days short of his 36th birthday.
Hailing from a modest, middle-class family in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Usman had steel in his spine. At the tender age of 12, they still remember of him, he had jumped into a well to rescue a drowning child. He had a stammering problem in childhood, but overcame the handicap by sheer willpower. One of the ten Indian boys to secure admission to the Royal Military Academy (RMA) at Sandhurst, England, in 1932—the last batch of Indians to do so—the feat made no less remarkable by that distinction. Usman was commissioned in the storied Baluch Regiment at the age of 23 and saw action in Afghanistan and Burma during the World War. He rose quickly to the rank of brigadier, drawing attention to himself by his firm and fair handling of the precarious communal situation at Multan. During the splintering of the army in the wake of Partition, Usman was offered the promise of out-of-turn promotions and the prospect of becoming the army chief in Pakistan. A senior Muslim officer at the time, everyone expected him to grab the offer.
Brig Usman with Nehru
But the brigadier surprised everyone by opting to stick with India. Neither Mohammed Ali Jinnah nor Liaquat Ali Khan could convince him to have a change of heart.
Of Usman’s heroics, former vice-chief of the army staff, Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha, then General Staff Officer to General Cariappa, recalls: “I accompanied General Cariappa to Naushera. He went round the defences and then told Brigadier Usman that Kot overlooked our defences and must be secured. Two days later, Usman mounted a successful attack against that feature. He named it Operation Kipper, the General’s nickname. A week later, over 10,000 infiltrators attacked Naushera. With Kot held by us, our boys inflicted a crushing defeat on the enemy, who retreated leaving over 900 dead. This was the biggest battle of the Kashmir war. Usman became a national hero.”
The defence of Naushera, against overwhelming odds and numbers, made him a living legend. Naushera ka Sher. The Pakistanis announced a prize of Rs 50,000 for his head, an astronomical sum in 1948. But even as congratulatory messages poured in, the brigadier remained unaffected and continued to sleep on a mat laid on the floor. He had taken a vow that he would not use a cot till he recaptured Jhangar, from where he had to withdraw earlier in the face of a fierce onslaught by the infiltrators. Jhangar was of strategic importance, located at the junction of roads coming from Mirpur and Kotli. But more compelling was his fierce pride in his men and determination to restore their honour.
His memorial in Jamia Millia Islamia. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
On March 15, 1948, the brigadier signed an order to the “Comrades of 50 (I) Para Brigade”. It read: “Time’s come for the capture of Jhangar. It is not an easy task, but I’ve complete faith in you all to do your best to recapture the lost ground and retrieve the honour of our arms—we must not falter, we must not fail. Forward friends, fearless we go to Jhangar. India expects everyone to do his duty. Jai Hind.” Three days later, his troops recaptured Jhangar.
The legend grew. It would have grown larger still. Had the Lion of Naushera survived the July of 1948, could he have ended his career as India’s first Muslim army chief?
The article on Brigadier Mohammad Usman and his exploits made inspirational reading (A Lion, To The Last, Jul 9). He is a true hero, and the present letter writer is proud to be his grandson. Growing up with his stories, I have tried to collect bits on every episode of his illustrious life. Incidentally, the person in the picture with PM Nehru, to my observation, is not Brig Usman, but Brig Guffran, his younger brother, who later was defence secretary to president Rajendra Prasad. I thank Outlook for remembering him.
Mir Ferozuddin, Lucknow
What an incredibly brave man! May his tribe increase!
I salute the brigadier whose heroics allowed India to capture Jhangar. It’s because of sentinels like him that we have been able to defend our borders. Now, the situation is alarming, as the army has become an epitome of corruption.
Keshav Kumar, Pune
The Naushera sector had seen many battles between India and Pakistan. The terrain is advantageous to Pakistan in terms of troop mobilisation and logistics. Brig Usman had failed to defend Jhangar earlier; he vowed to recapture it. Till then, he didn’t sleep on a cot, but on the floor instead. In the battle of Naushera, where Brig Usman had his revenge, enemy casualty was about 2,000 (dead and wounded), not 900, as reported. Brig Usman’s outfit lost only about 60 men.
B. Venuraja Gopal Rao, Warangal
Brig Usman made India proud, and in the annals of Indian military history his exploits will remain undimmed. May his 100th birthday be celebrated with full ceremony.
May we strive to protect our motherland, and cherish the supreme sacrifice of Brig Usman and countless others.
India should publish more stories of sacrifices like Brig Usman’s in the international media. It would serve to show everyone what India has sacrificed to keep Kashmir within the folds of democracy and genuine pluralism.
Varun Shekhar, Toronto
Every reader of Outlook would be grateful to the editorial team for publishing this article. I shamefully admit that till I read this, I didn’t even know the name of Brig Usman. We tend to remember very few of our heroes—maybe that of Maj Somnath Sharma, the first Param Vir Chakra winner; Flt Off Nirmaljit Sekhon, the first iaf pvc winner. Or maybe the policeman Tukaram Omble, who won the Ashok Chakra for action in the 26/11 attacks.
Gaurab Banerjee, Calcutta
The brave deeds of soldiers like Brig Usman continue to serve as a beacon to us amidst the dark deeds of corrupt politicians. What a pity we lost him at the young age of 36. But he’ll remain in our memory.
R.K. Singh, Gurgaon
An exemplary Indian, an excellent soldier, a martyr for his motherland. I salute Brig Usman. Let him be a shining example for us to follow.
Ashutosh Kaul, Toronto
I’ll appreciate your publishing more stories on our unsung heroes like Brig Usman. The young must know the cost of the freedom they enjoy.
Ashu Alec, Indore
Why can’t we have a Muslim as our army chief? Brig Usman had no problem remaining loyal to religion and country.
Shyamal Barua, Calcutta
Am privileged to have known his younger brother Brigadier Ghufran whom I always called Ghufran Mama! He was constantly by our side when my father died!
India should publish more of this information officially, and at the level of international diplomacy and media. It would show what India has sacrificed to keep Kashmir within India's democratic, pluralistic, secular system, and away from the Islamists, Pakistanis and Pakistani military. RIght now, all we read in the international media is some insipid rubbish about 'disputed province' , "India and Pakistan have fought 4 wars over.. etc. How many Indians know about Brig Usman or the many others who have laid down their lives?
The whole nation is grateful, but this is a surprise. I had an idea that Generals lost their lives in wars. I am reading about the Second World War. I must say, that the Indian Army fights really well. I think, it goes like this: the smallest unit is headed by a Second Leutenant. this unit has to fight physically. The bigger the formation, the less chances of the leader fighting.
Salute the Brig whose heroics allowed india to capture Jhangar. He was a true soldier !!! It is because of soldiers like him that India guards its boundaries . The present situation is alarming , Indian Army has become epitome of corruption.
Salute to brave Usman for laying down his life in a supreme sacrifice for the country. May we strive to protect and cherish what he and countless others upheld by paying with their lives.
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