Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Book Review: “Leadership in the Indian Army - Biographies of Twelve Soldiers” by Major General V. K. Singh



Before I start, let me clarify that Major General V. K. Singh, the author of this wonderful book, is not the recently retired Indian Chief of Army Staff General V. K. Singh. Maj. Gen V. K. Singh has written a few other books about the Indian army and one about India’s intelligence agency, titled - India’s External Intelligence – Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – which I had reviewed earlier on this blog, with mixed feelings I should add.

Twelve soldiers, each of them a legend in India, are represented in this collection. The author tells us in his preface that these men ‘represent a cross-section of the Indian army. Of the 12, nine are from the Infantry, one each from the Cavalry, Engineers and Signals. There are three Chiefs (Cariappa, Thimayya and Manekshaw); four army Commanders (Nathu Singh, Thorat, Bhagat and Sinha); three Corps Commanders (Sagat, Bakshi and Hanut Singh); one Head of Army (Batra); and one Brigade Commander (Usman). If one were to go by valour, there were seven who were decorated for gallantry. There was one VC (Bhagat); there MVCs (Bakshi, Hanut and Usman); Thimayya and Thorat); one VrC (Bakshi); and one MC (Manekshaw).’ Interesting, all the twelve soldiers were born before India’s independence and all except one of them (Hanut Singh) joined the Indian army before India became independent. I wonder why V. K. Singh didn’t include a few younger soldiers born after the departure of the British, who do not have the colonial shadow hanging over them? Maybe V. K. Singh did not want to talk about serving officers. However, if V. K. Singh could have covered a few not-so-high ranking individuals like Subedar Major Bana Singh who have performed exceptional feats of valour, this book would have been enriched all the more by such an inclusion.


When I started reading this book, I settled in for what I assumed would be a very dry account of the professional lives of twelve soldiers. Instead, I was treated to riveting stories of twelve brave men and their families, the narration full of anecdotes and jokes. More importantly, these biographies serve as markers for India’s military history from the time of the Second World War till the time of Operation Brass Tacks in the mid-80s. Some of the tales that come out of this book are part of India’s military lore and well-known to every aficionado of Indian military history: The first C-in-C of independent India’s army, Cariappa was a pucca sahib who could barely speak Hindi. A strict disciplinarian who always went by the rules, Cariappa retired at the age of 53, like many other senior officers who succeeded him such as Lt. Gen. Nathu Singh who retired at the age of 51 and Gen. Thimayya and Lt. Gen. Thorat who both retired at 55. V. K. Singh asks the very valid question as to why these experienced officers were allowed to retire so early at a time when independent India had requested many British officers to stay on due to a lack of experienced officers in the army. It was Cariappa who supported the proposal that limited the tenure of the Chief of Army Staff and Army Commanders to four years. The author laments time and again that if such a ridiculous rule hadn’t been implemented, India would not have suffered the infamy of its 1962 defeat against China. In a similar vein, the impact of VK Krishna Menon on the Indian defence forces, in particular the army, is mentioned more than once as V. K. Singh sketches the careers of his chosen soldiers. When Thimayya retired in May 1961, Thorat was bypassed though he was the better candidate and the pliable Thapar was made the Army Chief. It was when Thapar was in charge, with Lt. General Brij Mohan Kaul was the Chief of General Staff, that the 1962 debacle took place. An experienced Army Chief (such as Thimayya or Thorat) and his Commanders could have restrained Nehru and Krishna Menon from following their very short-sighted ‘forward policy’ and getting embroiled in a war against China for which they had refused to prepare despite countless warnings.

Practically all the battles in which the Indian army has been involved in since 1947 until Operation Brass Tacks (the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka are not covered) are described in good detail. I particularly liked the description of how Zojila was captured by Thimayya and Kot by Brigadier Mohammad Usman during the 1948 Kashmir War. In addition, we also get to know of many minor military actions and other incidents one normally wouldn’t hear of. We are told that just after partition, 3 Para Baluch, which became part of the Pakistani army, fired 3-inch mortars on a refugee camp of Hindus and Sikhs. On a different note, we learn that Lt. Gen. Nathu Singh put down two army mutinies in Allahabad and Jhansi shortly after India’s independence. Apparently during the 1965 war with Pakistan, the Chinese served India an ultimatum, asking them to vacate their posts at Nathu La and Jalep La. Since Nathu La and Jalep La were only observation posts, the army was ordered to withdraw to its main defences at Lungthu. Lt. Gen Sagat Singh ignored his orders and refused to vacate Nathu La though Jalep La was vacated. India continues to hold Nathu La. Jalep La is held by the Chinese. On yet another note, we read that in May 1972, India launched at attack against Pakistan in an enclave called Thako Chak (in the Chicken’s Neck) which turned out to be disastrous and expensive for India (in terms of casualties). Then there are titbits which aren’t very relevant, but are interesting none the less, such as that Gen. Thimayya’s elder brother was an INA officer taken prisoner by the British at Rangoon.

The most salacious stories in my opinion come courtesy Sam Manekshaw. Apparently Sam used to make disparaging comments about politicians, which landed him in trouble while he was the commandant of the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington. ‘Based on information gathered by informers who were sent by Kaul (Lt. General Brij Mohan Kaul) for this purpose, Army HQ ordered a Court of Inquiry. There were three charges against Sam. The first was that he was disloyal to the country since he displayed pictures of British Viceroys, Governor Generals etc. in his office. The second was that Sam had failed to take action against an instructor who remarked that Indians lacked a sense of perspective and tended to build up personalities out of proportion (the personality here being the Maratha leader Shivaji). The third was that Sam had said he did not want any instructor at the college whose wife looked liked an Ayah!’ I shall not dwell on these charges or their outcome since I am sure you can read this book and find out, but only remind you that these gentlemen belonged to a different era and subscribed to values that were on a much higher plane than those of average men and women.

We know that some Muslim soldiers (such as Mohammad Usman) opted to stay on in India rather than join the Pakistani army. However, I had no idea that any Hindu or Sikh soldier could have opted for Pakistan. Therefore, when I heard that one Teja Singh Aulakh opted for the Pakistani army since his village Narowal went to Pakistan, I was a bit surprised. Later we are told that when Teja Singh Aulakh found that his family members had crossed over to India at Dera Baba Nanak, he opted for the Indian army. V. K. Singh does not tell us if any Hindu or Sikh soldier opted for Pakistan and stuck with such a decision.

Throughout the book, we get to hear how such and such a solider got on or did not get on with politicians. Lt. Gen. Apparently Nathu Singh did not get along with Nehru. Manekshaw got on famously with Indira Gandhi, once even complimenting her on her hairdo. When Indira Gandhi returned from Simla after signing a peace treaty with Bhutto, Sam Manekshaw reportedly told her, ‘Bhutto has made a monkey out of you.’ The Indian army has always stayed out of politics, but politicians have not reciprocated. We are told that Lt. Gen. PS Bhagat was so popular that he could not be superseded and Indira Gandhi had to resort to subterfuge to get him out of the way. She gave Bhagat’s predecessor Bewoor a year’s extension and thereby prevented Bhagat from becoming the Army Chief. Similarly Lt. Gen S.K.Sinha was superseded and Arun Vaidya was made the Army Chief in July 1983.

A majority of the twelve soldiers covered in this book saw action during the Second World War. Some of them like Thimayya served in Korea, Cyprus and Congo as part of UN peacekeeping forces. V. K. Singh does not stop his biographies at retirement. We are given names of children and even grandchildren. Some soldiers took on onerous commitments after leaving the army and performed very well. Many served as ambassadors, such as Lt. Gen. Sinha who served as India’s ambassador to Nepal. After Lt. Gen P. S. Bhagat was made Chairman of the Damodar Valley Corporation in In July 1974, he turned it around. From 45 MW in August 1974, the production rose to 700 MW by October 1974. During the ten months that Bhagat ran the Damodar Valley Corporation, production increased twenty fold. After retirement, Cariappa, Thorat and Sinha stood for Lok-Sabha elections and all of them lost. Cariappa stood as an independent candidate from north-east Bombay, Thorat as a Congress Party candidate from Kolhapur and Sinha as an independent candidate from Patna. V. K. Singh suggests that Sinha would have won, had it not been for vote rigging.

V. K. Singh doesn’t desist from getting really personal. We are told that ‘Sagat was a soldier, but like everybody else, he had his foibles. One of these was his proclivity for affaires de coeur. A burly six-foot-two, he was a handsome man in his prime and women found him irresistible.

At times I found myself disagreeing with VK Singh’s logic. Just after independence, when tribal raiders from Pakistan were threatening Kahsmir, Nathu Singh proposed to Nehru that India should attack Lahore, which would pressurise Pakistan into vacating Kashmir. Nehru (rightly in my opinion) berated Nathu Singh for such a plan. VK Singh says that in 1965 such a plan was approved by Lal Bahadur Shastri and an attack towards Lahore had saved Kashmir from Pakistani aggression. All well, but then 1948 wasn’t 1965. If just after independence India had attacked Lahore, India would have been pilloried in the court of international opinion, if not elsewhere.

V. K. Singh’s style of description is not only endowed with old world charm, it also comes with the values of those days built in. For example, we are told that ‘Sam is a Parsi and was born on 3 April 1914 in Amritsar. The Parsis are a very small community, found mostly on the western coast of India, especially Bombay and certain areas of Gujarat.’ Good going, I want to say but when V. K. Singh says that ‘Though small in number, the Parsis are a very progressive community, with 100 per cent literacy,’ I do want to ask what correlation could exist between the size of a community and its progressiveness. Similarly when we are told that ‘though a devout Muslim, Usman was a staunch nationalist and apparently had no problem in remaining loyal to his religion as well as his country’, I wanted to ask V. K. Singh if he believed devout Muslims would normally find it difficult to be nationalistic. When I read that during the 1971 war, Sagat tasked the Hunter aircraft, operating from Kumbhigram airfield, to constantly bomb Maulvi Bazar with napalm, I was shocked. A quick bit of fact checking revealed that the use of napalm is not banned per se, but only its use on civilians. More importantly, both India and Pakistan seem to have used it extensively during the 1965 and 1971 wars.

As I have said before, we are talking of a different era with different values.

For the sake of future readers, I am setting out below the names of the twelve soldiers whose biographies find place in this collection:

1. Field Marshall K. M. Cariappa, OBE
2. Lieutenant General Thakur Nathu Singh
3. General K. S. Thimayya, DSO
4. Lieutenant General S. P. P. Thorat, KC, DSO
5. Brigadier Mohammad Usman, MVC
6. Field Marshall S.H. F.J.Manekshaw, MC
7. Lieutenant General R. N. Batra, PVSM, OBE
8. Lieutenant General P. S. Bhagat, PVSM, VC
9. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, PVSM
10. Lieutenant General Z. C. Bakshi, PVSM, MVC
11. Lieutenant General S.K. Sinha, PVSM
12. Lieutenant General Hanut Singh, PVSM, MVC

This book is a "must read" for every Indian army fan.

2 comments:

Amritorupa Kanjilal said...

I'm not a huge army fan or anything, but this book still seemed to be the type I'd want to read, full of thrilling stories that make you feel proud to be an indian.
Great review Vinod!

Winnowed said...

Amrita, thank you for your kind words.