India's last holder of Victoria Cross is living on £1-a-month pension

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The Independent Online

The revelation that India's only surviving recipient of the Victoria Cross is receiving a paltry state pension of just £1 a month has led to a campaign to give his service more appropriate recognition.

Honorary Captain Umrao Singh, 85, is one of only 14 surviving holders of the Victoria Cross, including Private Johnson Beharry, who received the medal from the Queen last week for service in Iraq.

The news that he receives only 80 rupees a month from the Indian government has been greeted with outrage.

Describing the VC as "perhaps the world's best known award for gallantry in the face of the enemy", the Hindustan Times grouped Capt Singh together with recipients of post-independence Indian awards for bravery who are also receiving paltry pensions, asking: "Don't these brave men deserve a better expression of gratitude from a nation whose honour they have so heroically defended?"

Like all other living holders of the VC, Capt Singh also receives a £1,300 annual pension from Britain.

The VC, the highest military distinction available in Britain and the Commonwealth, is awarded for outstanding valour in time of war. But even by those standards, Capt Singh is the stuff that legends are made of.

He won his VC while serving in Burma during the Second World War. Capt Singh managed to hold an advanced gun position against four assaults by Japanese troops.

When he ran out of ammunition, although he had already been wounded by two grenades, Capt Singh took hold of the cleaning rod from the barrel of his gun and fought the Japanese hand-to-hand with it.

Eyewitnesses saw him kill three armed Japanese soldiers in this fashion, before he was knocked out. When he was finally discovered, severely wounded and barely recognisable, the bodies of 10 Japanese soldiers were lying around him. Capt Singh had managed to defend the gun and it was put back into action later that same day.

In more recent times, Capt Singh famously attempted to cross the road in London while wearing his Victoria Cross, after attending a reunion for holders of the medal in London's Hyde Park. He caused a traffic jam. The then defence secretary, Michael Heseltine, is said to have recognised the medal and jumped out of his car to say: "VC first, sir."

Many winners of the VC during the Second World War were soldiers from the colonies. Although Mahatma Gandhi called on his followers to refuse to participate in the British war effort, thousands of Indian soldiers served and died, in Europe as well as in Asia.

Three years ago, at a ceremony to open memorial gates for soldiers from the colonies in London, Capt Singh astonished onlookers by rising from his wheelchair at the age of 82 to stand for the Queen.

You could be forgiven for wondering how such a gesture would be received in India, given that Capt Singh won his VC while fighting for the British at a time when Gandhi was opposing the war effort.

Other, more violent, independence figures like Subhash Chandra Bose - considered a hero by many in India today - were actually fighting alongside the Japanese against the British. But the army is still a revered institution in India, and there are few heroes left of the calibre of Capt Singh.

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