UK court restores George Cross to Indian widow



London: A British court has clinched a settlement for an 81-year-old Indian widow in a long-running dispute over the ownership of a precious gallantry medal awarded to her late husband, a World War II soldier in the British Indian Army.

The High Court of London, in an order on June 5, approved a pre-trial settlement that the George Cross posthumously awarded to Naik Kirpa Ram is the property of his wife Brahmi Devi.

A campaign is now underway among the Indian community in Britain to raise 12,000 ponds as costs to be paid to the current owner, retired Indian Army officer and medal collector Ashok Nath.

"The medal and the medal group remain in custody of the Metropolitan Police until payment to the claimant (Nath) of the said sum of 12,000 ponds," the court order reads. Justice Stuart-Smith endorsed the "exceptional and honourable settlement" of what has been described as a highly complex dispute.

A deadline of December 31, 2013, has been set to pay the 12,000 ponds due to Nath, following which the medal will be returned to Brahmi Devi who intends for its subsequent placement in a public collection in India.

The medal, one of the few Indian George Crosses, was awarded to Naik Kirpa Ram - of the 8th Battalion, 13th Frontier Force Rifles, British Indian Army? on September 12, 1945, for his act of gallantry in saving the lives of his fellow soldiers at the cost of his own.

During a field firing exercise at a rest camp at Thondebavi, Bangalore, a rifle grenade misfired and fell yards from his section. He rushed forward, shouted at his section to take cover, and attempted to throw the grenade a safe distance away. However, it exploded in his hands and his fatal self-sacrifice meant that only two men of his section were slightly wounded. His widow, Brahmi Devi, then aged just 13 had been married just days before her new husband left for the battlefield. In 1946, she travelled from her small village of Bhapral in Bilaspur district, Himachal Pradesh, to Delhi to receive the medal in his honour from the then Viceroy of India, Field Marshal Lord Wavell.

Brahmi Devi's only cherished memory of her late husband was then reported stolen from a trunk in her home in Bhapral back in 2007 and after years of knocking on doors of the Indian police and Himachal courts, it appeared on the auction circuit through auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb in London in 2009 with an anticipated market value of around 100,000 ponds.

While Nath had acquired the medal in good faith for a reported sum of 4,000 ponds, the Indian High Commission in London intervened to stop the sale on the grounds that it had most likely either been stolen or obtained by means of trickery prior to being sold.

Since then the George Cross, along with Naik Kirpa Ram's other medals, has been held by the Art and Antiquities Unit of Scotland Yard.

"When I heard about the case and saw Brahmi Devi's photographs, I was so moved. She reminded me of my own grandmother and I immediately decided to take on the case 'pro bono'," said Vijay Sharma of London-based Arlingtons Sharmas Solicitors, the law firm behind the final outcome in favour of the long-suffering Army widow.

"I do not want money. I am a widow and the medal is special to me because it is the last memory of my husband," she said, in one of her witness statements.

PTI