In his autobiography, as V.K. Singh rises higher in rank, a sense of victimhood emerges
Two distinct personae emerge from General V.K.Singh’s autobiography: a heroic soldier and a downcast victim. For the better part of the book the heroic figure prevails, but as Singh climbs higher in the military hierarchy a sense of victimhood and malaise dominates. The engaging narrative in martial prose of an army career by one who clearly cherished every aspect of it, culminates in pious matriculate outpourings about a job only half done and a new beginning to “get the system back on the rails” via a people’s movement.
Not surprisingly, Singh’s disgruntlement appears to have been sparked mainly by the unseemly controversy over his birth date. Without going into the convolutions of the case, for the purpose of this review it suffices to say that Singh goes to lengths to establish that a diabolical plot to facilitate a particular ‘line of succession’ to the office of chief of army staff lay at the heart of the matter. He feels let down and persecuted not only by the military bureaucracy, his immediate predecessors in office, the Defence Ministry and Defence Minister, but by the system at large.
Singh’s victimhood leads him to recount airy gossip like “This bureaucrat [in the Prime Minister’s Office] had also been dropping hints that the age issue had been raked up by one of the former chiefs at the behest of the wife of a very important politician”, reflecting his confused state of mind. The Adarsh housing scam, Sukhna land grab, Tatra trucks purchase and various shady arms deals all involved the same people, he shrieks, who “had their knives out for him”. His special ire is reserved for the civil service. Acknowledging his Minister, A. K. Antony, to be a good and accomplished man, Singh says “he too was a victim, unable to break free of the shackles of babudom”.
As head of the eastern command and later as army chief, Singh saw the recommendations of a comprehensive study for ‘transformation’ of the army, and proposals for reform of procurement procedures and the recruitment system stymied and stone-walled by an inert and insensitive bureaucracy. Determined to address the chronic and potentially debilitating shortages of weaponry and munitions, in his first year as chief he was able to utilize the entire defence budget for the first time ever. In the following year however, the bureaucracy struck back to ensure that seventy percent of the budget remained unused! Singh claims, somewhat simplistically, that the defence budget is deliberately not spent so that it can be ’re-appropriated’ for populist schemes of political leaders. Contrarily, he asserts that procurement and acquisitions make the armed forces a cash cow for successive governments and lie at the centre of the all-pervading atmosphere of corruption.
Singh views the bulk of the higher echelons of the army as being in cahoots with the corrupt nexus. Softened by the good life and obsessed with manipulating the system for personal gain, senior officers are “letting down our men”. A recurring refrain is the valour and selflessness of the common soldier who invariably pays the price for evil machinations at higher levels. The more interesting parts of the book under review relate to Singh’s experiences in the field among his ‘men’, before his embitterment began.
Born into the martial Tomar clan of Rajasthan, it was natural that Singh should join the armed forces. Every family of his native village, Bapora, had links with the Rajput regiment and its precursor, Skinner’s Horse. Singh’s father and five uncles served in the regiment and his maternal grandfather was in 2 Rajput, the battalion into which Singh himself was commissioned. He describes taking over as Commanding Officer of 2 Rajput as “the most emotional moment of my life; the CO’s baton being handed over to me”.
Singh’s enjoyment of operational situations is evident. He relishes the uncomplicated physicality of life in the field, nurturing ‘unit tartib’ (esprit de corps) and paltan ka izzat (battalion pride). At Naushera on the Kashmir frontline where 2 Rajput was stationed, news of a new CO taking over soon reached the Pakistanis, who were “as usual, up to their nonsense” firing aimlessly across the border. Using an innovative blend of restraint coupled with retaliation to create maximum effect, Singh ensured “no major incident in my remaining two years in Naushera”.
Singh’s exploits as a brash young officer in the Bangladesh operations, initially providing covert support to Mukti Bahini liberation fighters and later in direct combat, are the stuff of fiction. As a callow army scout charting the route for “the mad rush into East Pakistan”, he unwittingly became “the Indian army lieutenant who liberated Comilla”. He vividly describes the victorious entry into Chittagong and surrender of nine thousand Pakistani troops, who confided that “if we had officers like yours” no one could vanquish us.
Singh’s account of the lack of clarity surrounding the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka and utter confusion in its ground operations would be comical had the cost in terms of lives, material and national prestige not been so enormous. His perceptive observations on the Blue Star, Brasstacks and Trident Operations underscore idiosyncratic decision-making by mercurial and self-serving brass.
Singh excelled at the many courses and training programmes he attended, including tough commando exercises in the United States. “The army was determined to train and drill me till I dropped”, he says, and he learnt to fight for what’s right and never to succumb. Apart from a rare hiccup like a tiff with his brigade commander that occasioned a bad report in his record, his progression to the top was unruffled and not unexpected.
As the archetypal army man — except for a physiological aversion to alcohol — Singh was committed to the armed forces above everything else. The disillusionment and disenchantment that mark the finale of his outstanding career are all the more disturbing, therefore, for the conviction and zeal that characterised the preceding years. Questions arise on the cause of the denouement and whether there are lessons therein for the future of the armed forces.