Free Press Journal

Treasure Best Held Close To Chest


Sunanda K Datta-Ray

The controversy over the medals and other military memorabilia of an Indian hero of the Second World War raises the entire question of how to handle lost antiques and artifacts. There is no doubt in the case of Squadron Leader Karun Krishna “Jumbo” Majumdar, who was known as the Father of the Indian Air Force, that the Indian Government should step in and acquire his trophies. But this may not always be appropriate.

 I could understand the late Inder Kumar Gujral refusing, when he was prime minister, to hustle the British to return the Koh-i-noor.  “India’s wealth does not depend on the Koh-i-noor,” he told reporters badgering him to take up the matter with Queen Elizabeth II who visited India in October 1997. According to Gujral, India had several Koh-i-noors in its treasury that were just as valuable as the fabled diamond. He could have added that so many treasures were looted from this country by successive invaders that asking for their return would be a never-ending – and futile  — list.

 Some have disappeared altogether. The jewelled upright chair that visitors to the treasury in Teheran are shown could hardly have been Shah Jehan’s peacock throne though it is called that. Others have passed to third parties. Istanbul’s Topkapi Museum has an authentic Mughal masnad, but the Ottoman sultan of the day received it as a gift from Nadir Shah.

Symbols of personal achievement are a different matter. They deserve to be in the possession of the recipients or their heirs but in a manner that makes them accessible to all. Perhaps this is asking for too much, given the cunning and dishonesty of many people here. I am thinking of the curious fate of the gold medal given to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 when he became the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize. It disappeared from Santiniketan, the university Tagore set up in the Bengal countryside, in 2004, together with 47 other pieces of memorabilia.  The Central Bureau of Investigation started an investigation five days later. The investigation was closed after three years, reopened 12 months later and closed again in 2010. I can’t be alone in sensing something fishy about this mysterious sequence that makes me wonder sometimes whether our most prized treasures are not safer in the custody of foreigners.

 Jumbo Majumdar, grandson of W.C. Bonnerjee, first president of the Indian National Congress, was not the only Indian hero of the skies. Another ace pilot, Hardit Singh Malik, survived the First World War to join the Indian Civil Service and serve independent India as a distinguished diplomat. The Flying Sikh, as he was called, recalled an occasion when he escaped unscathed even though four German fighters attacked his plane and around 400 bullets hit it. “This was a miracle.”

 Laddie (Indra Lal Roy) was the most heroic of the First World War pilots. Great-uncle of NDTV’s Prannoy Roy, Laddie joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and achieved 10 “kills” before the Germans shot him down over France when he was only 19. He was the only Indian to receive a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross. His main adversary among the Axis forces was the famous German fighter pilot, Baron Manfred von Richtofen, known as the “Red Baron”. Col J.K. Dutt, who has researched Laddie’s life, discovered that in chivalrous acknowledgement of his bravery, the Red Baron had a wreath dropped on the spot where Laddie fell. German troops collected and buried his remains near Arras in France, where the grave carries inscriptions in English and Bengali, the latter reading Maha birer samadhi; sambhram karo, sparsha koro na. (A valiant warrior’s grave; respect it, do not touch it).

 I don’t know what happened to Laddie’s medals, but a postage stamp and a road in Kolkata honour his memory. Majumdar deserves no less. He was the only Indian to win the DFC not once, but twice for bravery in Burma and Europe during World War II. He was also the only Indian to be awarded the Bar to his DFC, the citation for the Bar saying, “His skill and courage have always been outstanding … Before the advance northwards in France, he completed exceptionally valuable photographic reconnaissances of the Seine bridges, in the face of heavy ground defences.”

 The London Gazette of November 10, 1942, noted: “Early this year this officer commanded the squadron during its activities in Burma. He led two unescorted attacks on enemy airfields in Thailand and attacks in support of the army in Tennasserim; he also completed valuable reconnaissances during the retirement from Rangoon to the Prome positions”.

 After the Second World War ended, Majumdar joined the Indian Air Force and would, by all accounts, have risen to the top if he hadn’t been killed during an aerobatic sortie in Lyallpur in 1945. His flying skill wasn’t at fault; the Hawker Hurricane he was flying was. It came apart and crashed. “Majumdar died as he wanted to live, carefree, daring and at the controls doing what he wanted to, flying to his heart’s content,” wrote an admirer.

 His wife, their four year-old daughter, Anjali (married to retired Commander Noel Lobo of the Indian Navy) and two year-old son, Shailen (Bambi) were then in the Lyallpur circuit house. But recently, Bambi put up his father’s relics for auction at Sotheby’s Upper Grosvenor Gallery in London. Asked why he was selling this treasure trove, Bambi told journalists he wanted to avoid future “conflict” among his children and grandchildren. The money may have been an added attraction. The collection (Lot 583) was valued at between £20,000 and £30,000. It included Majumdar’s two DFCs, the Bar, India General Service medal, and log books, identity tags, miniatures, brooches, epaulettes, diary and extensive photocopies and recorded documentation of a dazzling career. However, the best offer didn’t match the reserve price and the auction was cancelled.

 Now, surely, is the time for the IAF to step in. The abortive auction has presented it with an unexpected opportunity to redeem the past, save a national treasure and honour an Indian hero.  Even the top price of £30,000 – under Rs 30 lakhs – is a fraction of the Rs 1.5 crore Vijay Mallya paid for Tipu Sultan’s sword. The sale’s cancellation is India’s opportunity and the IAF should make Shailen Majumdar a fair offer. His sister, Anjali Lobo, also has a moral right to their father’s legacy though she has made it clear she doesn’t think money should change hands and that her father’s memory would be best served by donating the treasures to the IAF. The country’s is the strongest claim of all. The heroic Jumbo Majumdar’s entire collection deserves to be displayed at Delhi’s IAF Museum.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray