The general who kicked the hornets’ nest
New Delhi: It was sometime in the early 1990s. A close boxing match degenerated into an ugly brawl between soldiers from two units of the Indian Army at a military base in Uttar Pradesh. When an inquiry was ordered into the brawl, the commanding officer of the 2nd battalion, Rajput Regiment, stepped in and accepted full responsibility for the incident.
That brawl perhaps resulted in the officer failing in his first attempt at winning promotion from colonel to brigadier, which he eventually couldn’t be denied.
The officer was V.K. Singh, who demits office on Thursday as Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) after a 42-year military career that has climaxed in controversy following a bruising fight with the civilian government that has left the image of both the million-strong army as an institution and the political establishment badly scarred.
42-year career: Gen. V.K. Singh. Subhav Shukla/PTI
The first commando to become CoAS will be remembered as the first serving army chief to drag the government to court—an act that cast an unprecedented cloud of mistrust over relations between the Army Headquarters and the civilian authority in a country that prides itself as the world’s biggest democracy.
As he prepares to end his 26-month term at the helm of the world’s second largest army, opinion about the 62-year-old general’s legacy is divided. Some people who know Singh say he is an upright officer who had a clear agenda—of “cleansing” the institution of the army—when he started his term, but lost his focus towards the end of it, beginning with the row over his year of birth.
“Gen. V.K. Singh started on a good note with an agenda to improve the internal health of the army, but his personal issues got mixed up with the institution’s,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a defence analyst and former director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based strategic affairs think tank.
Yet, Singh has raised some serious institutional issues such as the state of the military hardware and civilian-military relations, which will have a “spillover effect” for a few years, Bhaskar said.
With army chief V.K. Singh retiring on Thursday, see what former officers have to say about the controversial general
“He could have achieved more by remaining focused” on the agenda Singh set out for himself, said Rumel Dahiya, a retired army brigadier who has interacted with the outgoing army chief many times.
“He could have been discreet and should not have gone to the media. Had I been the chief, I would not have gone to court against the government,” Dahiya said.
Singh approached the Supreme Court on 16 January, seeking his date of birth to be established as 10 May 1951, and not 10 May 1950, which had been fixed by the government after it consulted the attorney general. Singh, who claimed his date of birth had been misrecorded when he entered the National Defence Academy more than four decades ago, moved the court after failing to resolve the matter with the government.
To be sure, Singh isn’t the first armed forces chief to have an acrimonious row with the government. In 1998, Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked as chief of naval staff after he refused to accept a cabinet order appointing the deputy chief of naval staff and made his opposition to the appointment public.
But before Singh, no army chief had ever taken the government to court, whatever the differences. Singh had to eventually withdraw his petition after the Supreme Court refused to step into the row, observing that he had accepted 10 May 1950 as his date of birth on other occasions.
“What I was doing was for organizational integrity…what I was doing as far as my age was concerned was something for the organization,” Singh said in an interview to state-run All India Radio. “I would like to be remembered as somebody who tried to change things, whether it was transformation or the mindset in the army, or whether it was bringing in probity, integrity…all these things.”
He dropped a bombshell in an interview with The Hindu published in March in which he claimed he had been offered a Rs 14 crore bribe by a lobbyist to clear the purchase of sub-standard trucks for the army and that he had informed defence minister A.K. Antony about the offer. Then came the leak of a confidential letter Singh wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the lack of India’s military preparedness; the general likened the leak to an act of treason.
His critics, including some former army chiefs who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his own actions diluted the dignity of his office.
“We are not television actors,” said one former army chief, in a reference to Singh’s appearances on various channels.
Singh, an alumnus of Birla Public School in Pilani, is a third-generation officer of the Rajput Regiment, and was commissioned in 1970. His father retired as a colonel and his grandfather fought in World War I, according to a website set up by his supporters. He went on to command the same battalion in 1991-94.
He is the one of first Indian military officers to graduate from the US Army Rangers Course at Fort Benning—known as one of the most physically gruelling military courses. Singh saw action in the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971 and Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka in 1987.
“His reputation is very good, he always impressed with his professionalism; he was always known to be good with his subordinates, he was known as a soldier or jawan’s general,” said Rahul Bhosale, a retired brigadier.
Singh, who commanded the 2 Strike Corps and the Eastern Army and has been honoured with the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal and the Yudh Seva Medal for his services to the nation, however, has one crucial gap in his military resume: unlike other army chiefs, he never served in a senior position in the Army Headquarters in New Delhi prior to becoming CoAS. This deprived him of the experience of dealing with the intricacies and intrigues associated with the bureaucracy and politics.
Whatever be the public perception, his family has stood by him as he took on the government.
“He is the first chief who has confronted the government,” said colonel (retired) Ravinder Katoch, father-in-law of Singh’s daughter Mrinalini. “It is quite justified that he went to court for his rights…he is very popular, upright, intelligent and a very straightforward officer. We are proud of him.”
The government hasn’t stinted on protocol as Singh prepares to bow out after a tenure that upset the civilian-military balance, said a former general.
“The army chief is getting all the ceremonial farewells that are due to him—from the defence minister, from the supreme commander of the armed forces, that is the President of India,” said Shankar Prasad, a retired lieutenant general. “All this goes to the credit of the government that despite all that has happened, they are giving him a befitting farewell; they (the government) have maintained the dignity, honour and the respect of the office of the Chief of Army Staff.”
On his post-retirement plans, Singh, the father of two daughters who plays all troop games as well as tennis, badminton and golf, according to his official biography, has kept his cards close to his chest. There’s speculation of course that after hanging up his military boots, he may join politics. Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare has issued him a public invitation to join his team.
“I actually haven’t thought of anything. I haven’t had time to think of what am I going to do after 31st,” Singh said in an interview to NDTV news channel on 28 May. “Like they say, in this journey of thousand steps, the first step will start only on first of June.”
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