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Forgotten tales of valour and courage: NNRC in Korea and Lt Gen KS Thimayya

Author: Col (Dr) Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: July 18, 2020
URL:   https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/forgotten-tales-of-valour-and-courage-nnrc-in-korea-and-lt-gen-ks-thimayya/articleshow/77035785.cms?s=09&from=mdr

There were three elements to India’s largely unknown role in the Korean War 1950-1953. This is the second in a continuing series on that conflict. For the earlier story on the 60th Para, click here (https://bit.ly/2DW0PHS)

India became a member of the United Nations when the organization was founded on October 24th, 1945. Established to ensure world peace—among other goals— after a ruinous World War, the UN has had a mixed track record. One of its successes, however, was the bringing of the Korean War to a close. India played a unique role in bringing the conflict to a speedy conclusion by advocating against a policy being debated at the UN which could have led to the war’s prolongation or escalation. That war was also the first commitment to a UN assignment by an independent India and the Indian Army. This contribution and the men who made it a success are still celebrated as heroes for their commitment and courage.

The Korean War began on 25th June 1950 and would rage for three long years between the Western alliance—led by the USA under a UN resolution called the UN Command—and a Socialist alliance of North Korea and China (known as the Korean People's Army (KPA) and the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV)) supported by the Soviet Union. The two sides reached a military stalemate by the middle of 1953 and had agreed on the terms of a ceasefire. In truth, the war would have come to an end in 1952 if the peace talks held at Panmunjom on October 25, 1951 could have reached a decision on the question of prisoner swaps. This was a contentious topic, and one where India finally found the solution—a solution accepted nearly unanimously by the UN, allowing for the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953. India's efforts to find a compromise failed more often than not, increasing tensions between India and the United States, and even South Korea. The US had reasons to suspect Indian neutrality as we were among the first countries to recognize China diplomatically, even advocating for their seat at the UN in 1950.

A major issue that defied agreement was how to deal with a large number of Korean and Chinese prisoners—about two hundred thousand of them—held by the UN Command. Many prisoners refused to return to their original countries. There were also a few similar UN prisoners, mostly Americans, held by the Korean People's Army (KPA) and the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV))

The Armistice agreement stipulated that a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (the NNRC) would be established with two countries from each bloc, and headed by India—underscoring our nation’s reputation as a neutral country. Thus the NNRC had Czechoslovakia and Poland from the Eastern Bloc, and Sweden and Switzerland from the West. India was also tasked with providing a brigade of soldiers to provide security for the prisoner exchange.

The NNRC decided the fate of the remaining 20,000 POWs —and their repatriation—also called the Big Switch. It followed Operation Little Switch in April-May of 1952, which saw the exchange of wounded and sick soldiers held by both sides. The solution included handing over these prisoners to the NNRC headed by India. A full Indian contingent of nearly 6000 called Custodian Force of India (CFI) were to take over physical custody of these prisoners; this was our nation's initiation into peacemaking and conflict resolution.

Led by General Thimayya as Chairman, and Ambassador B.N. Chakravarty, IFS, as the Alternate Chairman, the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) was a task that many did not think Indians would be able to handle or deliver, because of its layered complexities and intrigue.

The Indian government had made sure to send their best medical unit 6oth Para Field Ambulance earlier ( https://bit.ly/2CrHWfn) and now, in sending Maj General KS Thimayya—later to be the COAS— they displayed the same intent.

The force behind the NNRC Kodandera Subayya Thimayya was one of three brothers born to a rich coffee planter of Cheppudira clan in Madikeri in the district of Kodagu. He joined Bishop Cotton School in Bangalore before enrolling at the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College (RIMC) in Dehradun; he was one of six Indian cadets later chosen to attend the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst along with Gen PN Thapar who would later succeed him as the Chief in 1961 and be made a scapegoat for failures in 1962. Gen Thimayyai's brothers too joined the Army and his elder brother Ponnappa later joined the INA inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose and his younger brother died in the first war in Kashmir

Thimayya graduated from Sandhurst in 1926 and received a commission into the British Indian Army, going on to become the first Indian to command an Infantry brigade: the 268th Indian Infantry Brigade—part of the post-World War II British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. He received the British Distinguished Service Order for his service for the British military during World War II.

General Thimayya was also chosen to lead the counter offensive in Kashmir and headed the Jammu Kashmir force from April 1948. The J&K force was split as Srinagar and Jammu Division Gen Thimayya headed the Srinagar Div in May 1948.  Immediately he set about recapturing territories lost to the marauders with his daring and dynamic brigade commanders - Brig LP Sen of 161 brigade in Uri Sector, Brig Atal of Para Brigade tasked to recapture Zojila and Harbaksh Singh in command of 163 in Handwara - Kupwara. They were on a recapturing spree when Nehru decided to unilaterally declare suspension of operations as the case was referred to the UN much to the protestations of the army brass. Fortunately Pakistan didn't comply with the UN resolution allowing the re - commencement of operations. This window of opportunity saw the consolidation of Ladakh with the capture of Zojila Dras and Kargil. Leh a weakly held garrison was saved by the sheer audacity and courage of Thimayya and Air Cmde Mehar Singh who landed in a Dakota together for the first time in Leh paving the way for beefing up troops that saved Leh from enemy hands. In another audacious move for capture of Zojila tanks of 7 Cavalry was used in a direct firing role which completely destroyed the enemy morale leading to its capture. Thus Ladakh was saved in the nick of time by November 1948 before winter set in .Seeing the change in pace and tempo of operations Pakistan quickly agreed to the terms of the UN resolution calling for a ceasefire before it lost all other territories held by them. The rest is history but what stood out is the sheer character and audacity which made him a national hero for saving Kashmir.

Another anecdote that revolves around him is the detention of a senior politician's son after he and some goons passed lewd remarks and even tried to molest the wife of an Army officer of 5 JAT in Amritsar in 1959. With the personal involvement of none less than that of the CM Of Punjab the ripples of this action went up to Parliament. General Thimayya was summoned for an explanation and his response that silenced the opposition was "If we cannot defend the honour of our women, how can you expect us to defend the honour of our country?"
His ability to project India's honor was on full display during his handling of the NNRC in Korea.

The NNRC through CFI was responsible for gathering non-repatriated prisoners into camps; that included nearly 170,000 prisoners held by UN forces who didn't want to return to either China or North Korea.

In the face of Chinese demands for the forceful repatriation of their soldiers, the UN and the CFI worked hard to explain to each prisoner their rights and privileges; they could then choose to go home or remain with the side that captured them.

This called for compassion, fairness, and neutrality on the part of the Indian Custodian Force, who rendered yeoman service during the entire span of their mission from September 1953 to March 1954. On several occasions, intricate situations were resolved only because of the patience and tact of Lieutenant General KS Thimayya and Major General SPP Thorat. They proved their mettle, earning well-deserved praise for their command and for India.

It was an unenviable task; in the end only less than 100 who wished not be repatriated to either country came back to India once the NNRC and CFO concluded their operations. A few Koreans chose to resettle in India, while others were repatriated to Brazil.

General Thimayya is not only an Indian military hero he is also a hero of the Korean War. It has been 66 years since the end of the Korean war but even till day he is remembered by Koreans with gratitude and affection. He was awarded a Padma Bhushan in 1954 for his service in Korea.

General Thimayya went on to become the COAS from 1957-196L After his retirement the UN again requested for his service in 1964 to command UN troops operating on Cyprus in keeping with his reputation of impartiality displayed in Korea. He would however die of a massive heart attack on December 18, 1965 at the age of 59.

- Col ( Dr) Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay, Shaurya Chakra, PhD is a Research Fellow, with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. His twitter id is @dpkpillay12.

 

 
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