The hill town of Chamba in Uttarakhand shuts down every April for two days. As a fair comes up in the midst of the green peaks, villagers from all around Tehri Garhwal district start pouring in. Food stalls and small shops do brisk business, while the region remembers a local hero who survives only in its memory.

Gabar Singh Negi was 19 when he died. A young rifleman in the 2/39th Garhwal Rifles regiment of the British Indian Army, he was killed in action in the First World War. But not before he displayed uncommon valour.

When the commander of his party died, a young Negi assumed command and carried on with the rest in the strategic Battle of Neuve Chapelle. The heroism earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration.

That gallantry is still remembered by the Indian armed forces every April during the Chamba fair. Soldiers from Garhwal Regiment march in an hour-long parade in the main town square of Chamba, where a bust of Negi was installed on December 15, 1925. There used to be a gun salute and recruitment drive during the carnival too, but those were discontinued at different times.

“The parade is the highlight of the mela, and the main chowk is packed with people,” said Sharad Pundir, a resident of Chamba. “It really is a sight and makes me feel proud of the legacy this man has left.”

Anand Tiwari, whose home is a short distance from the memorial, says the town grew up on stories of Gabar Singh Negi. “Maybe the younger generation has little idea about him, but most seniors who come here do so to honour this great man.”

Before the revelry begins, the elders pay their respects to Negi by offering flowers and lighting a diya. The carnival is on April 20 and April 21.

A khukri belonging to Gabar Singh Negi.
A khukri belonging to Gabar Singh Negi.

Negi was born in the village of Manjaur near Chamba on April 21, 1895. His parents died when he was still young, leaving him with the charge of his two younger brothers. He quit his studies and did menial jobs until he found work in the palace at Pratap Nagar of the king of Tehri, Pratap Shah.

In 1913, while still a teenager, he married Saturi Devi, and soon after they adopted Ram Chandra Singh, the son of his second brother Jai Singh, who died at an early age. His journey with the British Indian Army began around the same time.

Gabar Singh Negi travelled to Lansdowne and was inducted as a rifleman in the 2/39th regiment. Lansdowne is still the main recruitment centre for the Garhwal Rifles.

“Those days it was prestigious for the youth of Garhwal to join the British Army as part of the Garhwal Regiment,” said Negi’s grandson, Kamal Singh Negi, who was in the 5 Garhwal regiment. His son currently serves in the 10 Garhwal regiment, continuing a long, proud family tradition.

A few months after First World War broke out in July 1914, Gabar Singh Negi set sail for France to join the efforts of the British at the Western Front. By this time, the British had achieved some success in Ypres and Givenchy. But they wanted to make a mark with a big operation on the Western Front.

Negi’s regiment was stationed before Neuve Chapelle in France and ordered to take back control of the village from the Germans.

On March 9-10, 1915, the attacking British party, half of them Indians, moved forward on the village. It is today called the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Many British soliders were lost, but the British Army was successfully in taking up a defensive position.

The family shrine at Kamal Singh Negi's home.
The family shrine at Kamal Singh Negi's home.

The efforts of Negi stood out in the battle, as he led the troops on after his senior was killed by the Germans. Lt Col DH Drake-Brockman, who led the 2/39th Garhwal Rifles, wrote in his book, The Royal Garhwal Rifles in the Great War:

“It was in one of these parties bombing up the trench to the left, whose commander had been killed, that one of the party, Rifleman Gobar Sing Negi, had the initiative to assume command and carry on bombing and rounding up prisoners and working up the trench. This action also drove others of the enemy into the hands of the British unit on our left. A machine gun detachment was thus captured. He, gallant fellow, was unfortunately killed later on, but I am glad to say he was awarded the Victoria Cross for this great gallantry that day.”  

By the time the Garhwal Regiment was ordered to sail back in November 1915, they had lost 14 British officers, 15 Garhwali officers and 405 other ranks. Over 1,200 injured were injured.

A memorial to them was unveiled at Neuve Chapelle on October 7, 1927. Negi’s name is inscribed as “VC Gobar Sing Negi” – the VC signalling his posthumous Victoria Cross. He was one of 28 Indians and only the second from the regiment to receive the decoration.

His wife Saturidevi proudly wore the medal on her sari every year at the mela until her death in 1982, recalls Kamal Singh. The medal was then donated to the Garhwal Regiment. While the original is locked away in a vault, a replica can be seen below Negi’s picture in the Darwan Singh Sanghralaya at the Garhwal Rifles Regiment Centre in Lansdowne.

As new soldiers join the Garhwal regiment, they are told Negi’s story in the regimental history classes at Lansdowne. “The boys identify with him, since they join at the same age that Gabar Singh Negi did,” said an active Indian Army officer, requesting anonymity.

In Chamba, too, the story is remembered with pride, particularly during the April fair. “Each time one of my friends joins the Indian Army, I hope he achieves the glory that Gabar Singh Negi did,” said Pundir.