Image: © Joseph Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures
By Col N.C. Cariappa
This article which I write on General Kodandera Subayya Thimayya, is a personal account that stretches back to 1926 when I was five years old till the date of his demise in December 1965. In 1925, my father Codanda Madaiah Cariappa was then stationed at Sivasamudram (near Mysore, Karnataka) and was in charge of the Hydro Electric Station, the first in Asia at that time. My mother did a lot of welfare work, which included looking after the families of the colony and starting of a cooperative store for the welfare of the families. Sivasamudram became internationally well known for its hydro electric power station, the waterfalls, and also for its Mahaseer fishing. In this connection, VVIPs like the Viceroy of India Lord Irwin, Field Marshal Lord Birdwood and a host of other dignitaries made their visit to ‘Siva’, and my parents entertained them all.
General Thimayya or Timmy, also more familiarly known by us as Dubbu, were old family friends. When he visited us, he used to come roaring into the colony, in his Ford car, with a couple of piglets strapped to the carrier of his car. In the evenings, he would drive my younger sister Bolly, my younger brother Bunny and myself at great speed and go around a huge tree located near Sivasamudram’s famous landmark, twin waterfalls. On Christmas Day in 1926, there was a big party at the local club and we all left for the party including Dubbu. At the party, when everybody were enjoying themselves, one of the persons got up to sing. However his voice sounded a little better than a fog horn. Dubbu, in his enthusiasm to silence the singer, threw a potato at him which landed straight in his open mouth. There were roars of laughter amongst the revellers.
In 1926, after his commission as an officer in the Indian Army, he was posted to the Highland Light Infantry, then based at Bangalore. As the champion athlete of his Regiment, his fellow British officers wanted him to be a member of the Bangalore Club. However the recommendation of the British Officers were turned down by the Club’s Committee, as at that time, no Indian could be a member. In protest, his fellow British Officers all resigned en-bloc from the club. In 1935, he married my elder sister Nina, who had returned to India after her education in France. In May 1935, his battalion was located at Quetta (present-day Pakistan) which suffered a devastating earthquake and Nina helped in comforting the homeless refugees of the earthquake. She was awarded the KAISER-I-HIND medal for her social work at the tender age of nineteen, the youngest to do so.
In 1941, I served as a Sepoy in the Regiment of Artillery at Muttra (today known as Mathura), a short distance from Agra. In 1942, I was selected for an Officers’ Commission and did my training at the Royal Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun and was then later commissioned into the 19th Hyderabad Regimental Centre at Agra. Dubbu’s younger brother Freddy (later killed in action in Jammu & Kashmir), a very great friend of mine, was also posted to Agra. We young officers were billeted in a huge house which had a large drawing cum dining room surrounded by four large bed rooms and bathrooms. Freddy and I stayed in one of those rooms and we had local servants who polished our shoes, saw to the upkeep of our uniforms and the washing of our linen. However the food in the officers’ mess was insipid and we were getting fed up of eating it all the time. We young officers decided to have a party. There were ten of us. On a Saturday night, we went to the mess, nibbled at the food, said goodnight to Colonel Campbell who was surprised at our sudden departure. Our civilian bearers were told that they had to lay out a sumptuous meal of biryani, chicken, parotas, veggies and dancing girls (for which Agra was famous) for all of us, including the musicians as well. All of us, including the lovely dancing girls who were from Jaisalmer, the musicians, food and drink, and our bearers to act as servers, were having one whale of a time when at about 11 o’clock at night, Colonel Campbell and the Second-in-Command, Major Thimayya appeared.
Everything came to a standstill. The girls stopped singing and shaking their hips. The musicians were paralysed and we were frozen and thought to ourselves, “Now we have had it.” Women were strictly forbidden to enter any Army bachelor quarters. Colonel Campbell asked as to why we were so silent, but there was not a single peep from any of us. He turned around to Dubbu and said, “Don’t you think we should join them?” and Dubbu, ever ready for fun, agreed whole heartedly. We were so relieved and all of us had a blast that night, with the Colonel and the Major joining in, shaking their legs or dancing with the beautiful girls. The party got over at 2 o’clock in the morning, with Colonel Campbell and Dubbu having to stagger home, but not before we put them both in a tonga. The next time Dubbu and I met was in Rangoon, when he was on his way to Singapore to represent the Indian Army for the surrender of the Japanese. He was then a Brigadier with a DSO and a Mention-in-Despatches. From the surrender at Singapore, he went on to Manila, where he received the keys to the city. Later on, he was to command the 268th Indian Infantry Brigade as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan after the Second World War.
Dubbu was called back to India in 1947, as the partition of India was in progress, and was promoted to the rank of Major General. I too landed in India from Burma, whilst the partition riots were in full ferocity. I had to report to Army HQ in New Delhi for my posting orders, and was told that I was to report to Dubbu as his ADC in Jalandhar. Upon reaching Jalandhar, I stayed at the Officers Mess and waited for four days to report for duty. I was getting impatient doing nothing, and was longing to report back to my unit. On the fifth day, I received a message ordering me to report to Major General Thimayya at his residence immediately. A truck was waiting to collect me and I quickly hopped in and reported to the General. I saluted him and said, “Captain Cariappa reporting for duty as ADC Sir!” He then asked, “Who sent you as my ADC?” I replied, “Sir, I did not want to be an ADC. I am too senior for the job, and I should be with my battalion at this time with all the disturbances going in due to the massive flow of refugees from Pakistan and those also moving in great hordes from India.” He then told me that I had to be his ADC for the moment and until he found a suitable replacement, I had to stay put. The official interview ended and then we sat down and chatted about our home affairs. During my stay as his ADC, nobody at the Divisional Headquarters knew we were related. It was always “Yes Sir” and “No Sir” with Dubbu and at my farewell party (after finding my replacement) where everyone knew the rest of my family, they were surprised to know that we were related.
Dubbu had two responsibilities. He was the GOC 4th Infantry Division and also of the Punjab Boundary Force, and he maintained direct, personal contact with his counterpart in Pakistan. He made frequent official visits of the border areas and led huge Muslim refugee columns to Pakistan and did the same with Indian refugee columns, by having them follow his vehicle along the route. He was tremendously popular and well respected on both sides, but that still did not stop the carnage between the citizens of India and Pakistan. The route was lined by the most ghastly sights and the stench of rotting human flesh in the thousands was unbearable. After completing that task in true ‘Thimayya’ fashion, he was posted as the Commandant of the Indian Military Academy and then later on as Quarter Master General (QMG) at Army HQ in New Delhi. In that post, he sorted out the ‘Baniya System’ that was prevalent in all units whereby the local contractor supplied all wants of the men in the matter of food, drink, cigarettes and civilian clothing. He stopped all contractors and units were made to run their own canteens with profits going to the unit itself. Today, it has become a very big organisation called the Canteen Department and is headed by a Major General, with all canteen items sold at a very cheap rate, the profits going to all units every year, some of which is used to finance officers, jawans and families who are in need of financial assistance and medical treatment.
In 1953, the United Nations appointed him as the Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea to solve the problem of the North and South Korean POWs. He was awarded the Padma Vibushan for his services rendered during his UN tenure, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and took over as the GOC Western Command and later on as the GOC Southern Command. After his retirement from the Indian Army, he was appointed as Commander of UN Forces in Cyprus (UNFICYP) in July 1964. His old regiment, the Highland Light Infantry, was under his command and the young officers of the regiment were surprised when he went around mentioning the names of the soldiers he knew, as many of them were the sons of soldiers who had served with him early on in his army career. During his tenure as Commander of UNFICYP, he was called on by President Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and was told that he would be reinstated into the Indian Army and would be appointed as Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. Unfortunately, he passed away before it could come into effect. Back in 1947, he was recommended by Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the then Governor General and by Prime Minister Nehru to take over as the Army Chief, but Defence Minister Gopalaswamy Iyengar opposed it, as he said that Dubbu was very young (in his early forties) and his talent would be wasted if he had to retire after doing his tenure as Army Chief. On his death at Cyprus, the regiment that did the Honour Guard and sounded the last post was the Highland Light Infantry, the regiment that he first served in. The Government of Cyprus, named a road after him in their nation and published a stamp in his name.
The late Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, PVSM, VC (Retd.) who served under Dubbu in several military operations and as his staff officer later on, had this to say about Dubbu, “I had an exceptional opportunity to study General Thimayya not only as a soldier on the battlefield in Jammu & Kashmir, but also during peace time as his Principal Staff Officer, when he was Army Commander, Western Command. I was able to see him both as a military leader as well as a man. In his official dealings, he would not let his personal interests or prejudices weigh with him. Yet whether in office or outside, he was always relaxed, jovial, friendly and freely exuding goodwill and bonhomie. People were generally fond of him as a man. He was fond of the nicer things of life and was often seen enjoying himself in five-star hotels and restaurants in the metropolis of Delhi. He once told me, when he was COAS in Delhi, that one morning Panditji (Prime Minister Nehru) sent for him in his office, and obviously tutored by Intelligence Staff, suggested that he should not be seen at public places late at nights as it created a bad impression. To this he humorously replied, ‘Panditji isn’t that better than planning a coup in the middle of the night?’ Panditji, I believe, laughed it off – such was his confidence in the General’s integrity.”
Dubbu’s death was a great loss to our country and his achievements are sadly not lauded by our countrymen. Our people have not realised what an outstanding soldier and diplomat he was. A person who was loved by his soldiers and greatly respected in international circles. He always set a very high example of courage and steadfastness under the most dangerous conditions in the battlefield and that is why he was so loved and respected by all ranks under his command. He was undoubtedly a born leader of men, if there was one. He instantly won the confidence of his subordinates through his forthrightness, practical approach to problems and an even handed attitude to both his seniors and juniors alike. He had the knack of getting the best out of those who served under him and soon established his relationship with them as their hero. His greatest quality as a military leader was that he never sought credit for himself, but always gave it is to his subordinates, and that is why they were ready to do their best for him. His human relationship was the epitome of his popularity and general acceptance among the public. He was by nature generous and forgiving and he never thought ill of any one, nor was any one inimically inclined towards him, barring one or two of his contemporaries who were victims of professional jealously. As the old saying goes and is still very much valid, “A prophet has no value in his own country.”