29 Years
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Should have seen it coming

Monday, December 23, 2013
By Carol Andrade

There were allegedly “three acceptances” during his 42-year career which culminated in his becoming Chief of Army Staff (COAS), when General V K Singh was made to confront the fact that somehow, his date of birth had been changed from 1951 to 1950. This resulted in him retiring from the Indian Army on May 31, 2012, a whole year earlier than he should have.

In the course of his long and illustrious career with a Rajput regiment, as a third-generation fauji he imbibed all the rich traditions and pride in what is supposed to be the last bastion of an institution free from political interference and the machinations of bureaucrats. He had an eventful innings dotted with milestones and achievements of both academic and professional significance. Personally, as a happily married man with two daughters, he flourished. Towards the end, however, he knew that the Indian Army was far from the unblemished organization with its hitherto simple adherence to ideals of honour and valour. Against the background of a corrupt country, the services too have begun to exhibit signs of the pervading degeneration of standards that greed brings in its wake. The really worrying aspect of this development is that corruption seems entrenched at the upper levels and has not really trickled down to the common soldier who looks up to his immediate commanding officer for inspiration and guidance.

This means the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are still pretty good organizations. The question is, led by men infected by the venality of the bureaucrat and the politician, how long will this state of things continue? This is the (thankfully) back of the book issue thrown up by the author. And because it is at the back, there is much to enjoy, be charmed, educated and informed by Singh’s first foray into writing, starting aptly with an autobiography.

The jury is still out on Singh himself. At the start of what looks set to become an active political career as a core member of Team Anna, he is a very visible figure at rallies and other political events. Given the nature of the political beast, it is inevitable that what sympathy there could be for him as being on the receiving end of “babu mischief”, is diluted. There are many who think that for a man to whom politics was anathema while in the force, he has taken to the medium as a duck to water.

But the book itself is a valuable means of gaining an insight into the contemporary Indian Army, still a fine institution in spite of being periodically hamstrung by the wrong doing of the department that is meant to administer it, ably assisted by the enemy within. As everyone knows, the money is sanctioned, it even goes out for the Services, and plenty of it is siphoned off sadly by middlemen who were themselves at one time serving officers and who now operate as middlemen. The Augusta Westland helicopter scandal, trial for which is currently on in an Italian court, and in which two cousins of a former Indian Air Force chief S P Tyagi, is making headlines. Tyagi is already on record saying he is “shocked” at reports that his cousins took money, which might have been believed except that the middle man says he met the IAF chief himself six times in the course of the negotiations.

Singh himself has recounted in the newspapers how he was directly approached by a lieutenant general who offered him Rs 14 crore to push through the purchase of 600 Tatra trucks. Procurement for the services is serious business involving thousands of crores of rupees and it would seem that a lot of people are being invited to the party.

All except the defence minister himself, for Singh makes it a point several times to mention A K Anthony’s impeccable reputation for honesty, underscoring, however, that he tends to be easily alarmed by projected consequences of the straight and simple way of doing things. And then Singh draws a telling parallel to with the character of permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, assistant and bête noir of Cabinet minister Jim Hacker in the much-loved “Yes Minister” series that took television by storm in the 1980s. There is one difference however, in that Appleby did everything for the “service”, while our own bureaucrats are rather less dedicated.

The book’s readability cannot be faulted and the chapters on various tours of duty specially in the northeast and during the Bangladesh War are vividly captured, as is the inner life of serving officers and their men. Young people in particular might actually be inspired to join once they learn that in spite of everything, the Indian Army still creates that feeling of family sadly absent in all other branches of government service and is practice ally absent in the IAS, the IFS and the IPS. To a large extent, you are insulated from the slings and arrows of civilian life, though times may actually be rough.

  • Courage and Conviction:
    An Autobiography
    By General V K Singh with Kunal Verma.
    Published by Aleph
    363 pages. Price Rs 595.
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