General conduct

General V.K. Singh is an officer of high repute. I have interacted with him when he was a major general in Kashmir and have great regard for him. Documentary evidence of his date of birth fully supports his claim. Year after year the annual List issued by the military secretary’s office for nearly three decades and more and readily available to all officers, unlike the adjutant-general’s Branch Record, showed the wrong date.

No attempt to correct the date was made when he was a junior officer. Had this been done in the early years, the issue could have been easily resolved between the two branches by Army Headquarter.

When it was raised after his attaining very senior rank, it got linked with the succession plan of the top leadership of the Army. Today the issue boils down to whether Gen. Singh as Chief will have a two- or three-year tenure.
In 1947, a committee of three senior secretaries in the Government of India — R.N. Banerjee, Vishnu Sahay and H.M. Patel — recommended that as in other ministries, the defence secretary should have a status higher than the three Service Chiefs, who were only departmental heads. In 1947-48, we still had British Service Chiefs. They took up the matter with Lord Louis Mountbatten, saying it was ridiculous to equate Service Chiefs with department heads. Being key players in ensuring national security, in all democracies they have the right of direct access to the Prime Minister or the head of the government. At the instance of Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru decided that the Chiefs would have a status higher than the defence secretary. This continues to be so even now. In view of the exalted position of a Chief, a public controversy involving him is most unfortunate. For the first time, a Chief has filed a statutory complaint on a personal matter. This is being examined by the defence secretary and his staff to obtain the decision of the minister. This lowers the dignity of the high office, which must take precedence over personal interest.
We have had many eminent generals who have been Army Chiefs. Gen. Cariappa, the seniormost Indian officer, was expected to become the first Indian Chief in 1949. A hitch arose. He was perceived as being too friendly with officers of the undivided Indian Army serving in Pakistan. In early 1948, he attended the Lahore Horse Show at the invitation of Gen. Iftikar Ahmed. In those days a passport was not required for travel to Pakistan, nor was prior government approval. Gen. Raza, the adjutant-general of the Pakistan Army who had served under Cariappa for many years in the Rajput Regiment, came to Delhi in 1947 for a meeting on division of assets. He stayed with Cariappa. Col. Nasar Ali Khan was a havildar clerk in the early Thirties, working under Cariappa, then the adjutant of the Rajput Regimental Centre. He later became an officer and, in 1947, was the military adviser in the Pakistan high commission. He often met Cariappa. Gen. Rajendrasinhji Jadeja, the next senior officer, had a distinguished war record in North Africa. As Southern Army Commander, he conducted the Hyderabad operations. He was the brother of the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. As Chancellor, Chamber of Princes, the latter had worked closely with Sardar Patel to integrate the Princely States with the Indian Union. There were rumours that Rajendrasinhji would be made Chief. He is reported to have met Nehru and told him that he would resign if appointed Chief by superseding Cariappa. That would set a wrong precedent and may lead to politicising the Army. Rajendrasinhji set a shining example. After Cariappa completed his term, he succeeded him. Cariappa was the right man at the right time. A strong disciplinarian with a high sense of values, he held the Army together at a critical time when all combat units had undergone a surgical operation in the wake of Partition and units were being commanded by Indian officers with only seven years’ service. He had led the Army successfully during the one-year war in Kashmir.
Gen. Thimayya was a charismatic leader, a true soldiers’ general. During the Second World War, he was the only Indian to command a brigade in battle. His combat record in command of a division in Kashmir was outstanding, particularly during the Battle of Zoji-la. As chairman of the Neutral Nation Commission in Korea, he had won international acclaim and added lustre to the office of the Army Chief. He fell out with defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon on a matter of principle and tendered his resignation. That shook the country. Nehru appealed to his patriotism and assured him he would resolve his problem with Krishna Menon. Gen. Thimayya withdrew his resignation. The next day Nehru castigated him in Parliament for immaturity. Despite that, he continued to serve as a lame duck Army Chief for the rest of his tenure. This did immense harm to his reputation, and to the Army. The bureaucratic stranglehold over the Army increased and the Army got increasingly marginalised in decision-making. This contributed to the humiliating debacle of 1962.
J.N. Chaudhri and Sam Manekshaw were brilliant generals who successfully led the Army in the 1965 and 1971 wars respectively. They had established personal equations with the then Prime Ministers, working directly with them during the wars. In my own case, after commanding the Western Army, I was posted to Delhi as vice-chief and officially told to understudy the Chief as I would be taking over from him shortly on his retirement. I was suddenly told one day that the government had decided to supersede me and appoint Gen. Vaidya as the Chief. I resigned. There was a furore in Parliament and in the press. Venkatraman, the then defence minister, told the press, “Both Gen. Sinha and Gen. Vaidya are good generals but the government has chosen to appoint Gen. Vaidya as Chief.” He sent the defence PRO, Brig. Ram Mohan Rao, currently editor-in-chief of ANI, to me, desiring that I speak to the media. I told the press that “I do not question the decision of the government. I accept it. I have decided to fade away from the Army. Gen. Vaidya is a good friend of mine and an able general. I am confident that the Army will flourish under his leadership.” I never thought of exercising the option of submitting a statutory complaint or going to court.
I have recounted the above vignettes in the earnest hope that the present unseemly controversy be given an instant burial. The dignity of the high office of the Chief must not be compromised.

The author, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir.

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