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The general's tragedy

columns Updated: May 26, 2012 22:48 IST
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If you're interested in Greek tragedy - or the Shakespearean version, for that matter - you've probably already identified the incredible similarity between Army Chief General VK Singh, on the one hand, and Oedipus and Agamemnon or Coriolanus and Lear, on the other. Each of the last four gentlemen was the cause of his own fall.

It wasn't circumstances or malevolent outsiders who destroyed them but something they couldn't resist. Their own character. Their irresistible and uncontrolled belief in themselves. Or, to use a term beloved of literary critics, their hubris.

In a very real sense this is what makes their story tragic. It wasn't fate that undermined them. It wasn't events that demolished them. It wasn't opponents who crippled them. Although all three may have played a part. No, in the end, it was themselves. It's as simple as that.

Now let's look at Gen Singh in this light. I have no doubt that he was born in 1951. All the records say so. I can, therefore, sense the anguish he felt when the army refused to formally accept this. It made his life a living lie.

The key question is how far should he have taken the struggle to correct this. No doubt events conspired to ensure that his early attempts were unsuccessful. Then, fate or bad luck determined that assurances the error had been corrected turned out to be false. And, later still, the siren lure of promotion undermined his own will.

But, so far, the story is simply human. We all suffer similar slings of ill-fortune or self-inflicted error. Where the Gen Singh saga takes on 'grander' tragic dimensions is when his belief in the righteousness or indisputability of his cause starts to determine a course of action against wiser counsel and sagacious restraint. At that point he becomes a driven soul, inexorably propelled by his own character - something he, sadly, cannot control.

I would say this happened when he decided to take the government to court. This is when he went against the first principle of all armies, that orders are obeyed without demur. This is when he forgot that, even if majors and colonels have gone to court, the Army Chief is unique. He is not only head of the army but also personifies it. And this is when, as a result, he put his own interests ahead of the officers and soldiers he commands.

Was the General aware of what he was doing? Of course. He's an intelligent man. But he was so convinced of his own cause, so incapable of resisting the urge to pursue it, or, to put it differently, so powerfully propelled by his own demons, he could not control himself.

He just did what he had to do. He could not have done anything else. His tragedy was foretold. It was inevitable. The course of action he embarked upon was determined by the sort of man he is.

This is also, I believe, the explanation for all that the Gen Singh has said and done after the Supreme Court verdict went against him. It explains why he cannot resist quarrelling with the outcome and keeps, cleverly but obviously, targeting the government or fellow officers.

It also explains his urge to keep speaking, no doubt in the hope he can justify himself but, for many, with the opposite result.

So how will this end? Greek tragedies end badly. So do Shakespeare's. The 'hero' destroys himself. The tragedy lies in the fact he cannot stop himself. Let's hope the Army Chief's story ends differently.

(Views expressed by the author are personal)