The first army chief to take the government to court when they changed his age, General VK Singh now speaks out in his autobiography ‘Courage and Conviction’ on the age row, corruption in high places and a ring side view on the conflicts he participated in since the ’71 war. Excerpts:
By the end of May 1984, the situation in Punjab was becoming extremely tense. In May 1984, Indira Gandhi called for a conference at her residence. It was attended by the Chief of army staff (COAS), General Arun Shridhar Vaidya, the DGMO, General CM Somanna, and the Western Army Commander who had come down from Chandimandir, Lieutenant General Krishnaswamy Sundarji.
Indira Gandhi had discussed the situation within the Golden Temple, and asked the Western Army Commander if the entire group of militants could be flushed out. General Sundarji had responded positively, reportedly saying that if there was a requirement to clear the Golden Temple, he would have it cleared in no time.
Sundarji’s belligerent stance put the COAS in an awkward situation. As the chief, with General Somanna by his side, began to explain the reasoning behind this advice, Indira Gandhi impatiently cut him short and asked him why he was anticipating problems when the army commander on the ground was confident of resolving the issue.
General Sundarji always looked to be a man in a tremendous hurry, and it was felt that he was too willing to do things without getting into the details of the matter.
This set the ball rolling for what was to be one of India’s darkest chapters —Operation Blue Star. Indira Gandhi also unwittingly created a situation where Army headquarters now had to play a secondary role to Western Command in planning the operation.
The moment General Sundarji pulled the carpet from under the COAS’s feet, military logic had been compromised and each subsequent decision was guided by political rather than operational logic.
A file photo of Army brass including the then Army chief General Arun Sridhar Vaidya (extreme right) after Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. (HT photo)
Towards the end of 1986, India had begun its preparations for Exercise Brasstacks. The war game was one of the largest ever to have been planned, involving thousands of troops and armour...
Lieutenant General RN Mahajan from the Kumaon Regiment had taken over from Somanna. General K Sundarji was elevated to the top job.
Mahajan finished briefing the chief, stating categorically that there was nothing discernible which suggested any problems. Sundarji, however, was not convinced. ‘Look at their (Pakistan’s) 10 Corps again,’ he insisted, ‘why is it moving troops to the north?’
This Pakistani formation was based around Murree and movement to the north would particularly impact the border in Jammu and Kashmir.
We re-examined every piece of information from every possible angle. …there was nothing that suggested even the slightest deviation to the Pakistani position that could be viewed suspiciously.
It almost seemed as if he was now second-guessing himself and in the process losing his nerve. He then issued an order that stunned the DGMO and everybody else in the room, ‘Move one of Army HQ’s reserves opposite the 10 Corps area.’
..(a) call came from Pakistan’s DGMO on the hotline to his Indian counterpart. The Pakistani general said that there were other (troop) movements that did not fit into the overall profile.
With war hysteria building up all around, hundreds of thousands of people evacuated the area. War seemed imminent, with both the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers issuing threats to each other.
War in Sri Lanka
…the LTTE, President Jayewardene, working with the Indian diplomat corps in Colombo, succeeded in selling to Rajiv Gandhi an agreement that could never have worked. The third person in this chain was General Sundarji, the army chief, who, in my opinion, had demonstrated time and again that the more complex and dangerous the situation on the ground, the greater the chance of the army charging in with bluster and bravado.
Within the first month, we had demonstrated to ourselves and also to the LTTE that we had no clear-cut objectives, and were just rushing from one location to the other.
A file photo of the mechanised infantry section of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in action against the LTTE in Sri Lanka. (HT photo)
Gen JJ Singh’s fixed the line of succession
With the benefit of hindsight, some facts are clear.
General JJ Singh had taken over as the COAS in 2004 and his own tenure was to run till the end of September 2007. It is now an established fact that he had, within months of taking charge, initiated the ‘look down policy’ that would give a clear idea as to what the line of succession would, or could be.
At this stage, it was probably brought to JJ’s notice that if the COAS could truncate my tenure as the chief to a two-year period, then the path could be cleared for the officer of his choice, and perhaps the choice of other in the government, to take over in 2012.
While all the others had to be ‘fixed’ in their brigadier to major general boards, or by other delaying tactics that allowed the designated favourite to overtake them, in the overall scheme of things it was probably an imperative that I become the chief, but only for a limited period.
PMO official and the Tatra scam
But the bigger shock was yet to come. Having first looked at BEML and the Tatra truck while looking at procurements as part of the Transformation Study, I asked for more information, especially as an order for approximately 700 additional vehicles were awaiting Army HQ’s nod.
This just wasn’t making any sense. We were continuing to pay BEML almost four times what the vehicles were costing them. What was even more amazing was the fact that the chairman and managing director of BEML had been at the helm for 12 years, and his networking skills had plugged him into a lot of ‘helpful’ friends.
There were murmurings that the relatives of a senior bureaucrat at the PMO had been given plots in the BEML housing society and the son of a top official at the Planning commission had been living in the BEML guest rooms for more than a year.
‘Don’t ask too many questions, sir,’ I was advised by those in the know of the procurement business. ‘The trail goes right up to a very high official in the PMO.’ Read more