When Corporal Kirpa Ram ran screaming from a ditch for his men to take cover while he scrambled towards an unexploded grenade, he did so for the noblest reasons. Moments after he picked up the device, it detonated and killed him instantly but his actions shielded his men from a blast which would have otherwise left many of them dead.
The incident, which happened in a training exercise in November 1945 while Cpl Ram was serving in the British Indian Army near Goa, left his superiors deeply impressed. He was awarded a posthumous George Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery in peacetime, along with a citation that eulogised his "fine spirit of sacrifice and devotion to duty".
Some 65 years later, the medal symbolising the courage of Cpl Ram has become embroiled in allegations of conduct of a somewhat less distinguished nature which have put his military honour at the heart of an international dispute involving the Indian government, Scotland Yard, an eminent Mayfair auction house and the dead hero's 78-year-old widow.
Brahmi Devi, who was just 13 when her husband was killed, had the medal withdrawn from a sale of military memorabilia in London last December after she rejected claims that she had "gifted" the solid silver cross to a family friend, insisting instead it had been stolen in 2002 from a trunk containing Cpl Ram's possessions.
A subsequent campaign to repatriate the accolade, awarded in the dying days of the British Raj, has become a cause célèbre in India with representations being made by the Indian High Commission to the Foreign Office in London and detectives from the Yard's art and antiques unit being brought in.
Efforts to disentangle the disputed ownership of George Cross number 15634 reached a new stage this week when British officers were sent a DVD purporting to show a meeting where Mrs Devi surrendered the medal, worth an estimated £20,000, to a local man, who then sold it to a Delhi-based militaria dealer, together with affidavits supposedly signed by the widow.
Mrs Devi, who received the decoration on behalf of her husband in 1946 from the Viceroy of India, Field Marshall Lord Wavell, and is known her community as "Victorian" due to a mistaken belief among villagers that Cpl Ram received a Victoria Cross, has fervently denied all claims that she willingly sold the medal.
Last year Ms Devi, who never remarried after the death of Cpl Ram, instead looking after his parents in Bilaspur, India, said: "My soul will not rest till I get the medal back. Do you think any Indian woman could part with the medal that is the last remembrance of her husband?
"I had kept the medal for 56 years. In all these years, whenever I used to travel out of my village I used to bury it deep in the ground. The loss of the medal is as bad as the loss of my husband. My husband will not pardon me if I sell off the medal. Is this the way society treats their heroes who sacrificed their lives for others?"
The medal was offered to a prominent London auction house specialising in militaria, Dix Noonan Webb, by an Indian collector understood to have bought it from the Delhi dealer. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the collector or the auction house.
The company was this week still displaying on its website the affidavits allegedly signed by Mrs Devi using her thumbprint, in which she states: "I am unable to keep this medal now properly ... I have gifted this medal with my sweet will and without any pressure."
The statements, whose authenticity is disputed by Mrs Devi, are dated April 2000 – two years before she claims the medal was stolen in a burglary. Dix Noonan Webb declined to comment on the investigation when contacted by The Independent. In a statement on its website, the company's managing director Nimrod Dix said: "We take very seriously any claims in respect of stolen property and we are making strenuous investigations to clarify rightful ownership of the property prior to any sale."
The delicate task of picking a path through the claim and counter-claim in the case in Britain has been left to Yard officers, who are understood to be investigating whether the DVD supposedly showing the transaction is genuine. Indian police this week insisted the footage was inconclusive.
Given that the case has attracted the attention of chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, the region where Mrs Devi lives, as well as India's foreign ministry and much of the Indian media, the Yard was yesterday tight-lipped about the progress of its inquiries. A spokesman said: "We can confirm we are currently investigating the title dispute of a George Cross medal. We are not prepared to discuss the matter further."
Naik Kirpa Ram's citation
"At thondebhavi on 12 November 1945, Naik [Corporal] Kirpa Ram was commanding a section on a field-firing exercise. He was lying close to a Sepoy [Indian soldier] who was firing grenades from a discharger-cup, the remainder of his section being in position beside him.
"The third grenade to be fired fell short and landed only about 8 yards in front of the section position. Naik Kirpa Ram saw at a glance that if it exploded there, many of his section would be killed or wounded. Without a moment's hesitation he leapt up and dashed forward shouting as he did so to the men of his section, 'Get back and take cover.' He picked up the grenade, but before he could throw it into a place where it could cause no damage, it exploded. The main force of the explosion was taken by his body, and he died of wounds shortly afterwards. As a result of his act only two men of his section were slightly wounded. Naik Kirpa Ram, knowing full well the possible consequences, risked his life to save those of the men under his command. His fine spirit of sacrifice and devotion to duty will ever be remembered in his regiment and will be a constant source of inspiration to all ranks."