An autobiography of Gen. VK Singh

Date: 26/11/2013

Courage and Conviction -- An autobiography of Gen. VK Singh. Book review by MG Devasahayam.

NOV, 26
Courage and Conviction -- An autobiography of Gen. VK Singh. Book review by MG Devasahayam.

Book Review: COURAGE AND CONVICTION – An Autobiography

Details of the Book:
Author: General VK SINGH (with KUNAL VERMA)
Publisher: ALEPH BOOK COMPANY (New Delhi, India)
Year: 2013
ISBN: 978-93-82277-57-6
No. of Pages: 396 (including photographs)
Price: Rs. 595

The ethos of the Book and the man on whom this autobiography is written can be found between what two soldiers turned Nobel laureates-Ernest Hemmingway (WW I) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (WW II) have written and quoted in the Book (beginning and end):

Hemmingway wrote in ‘A Farewell to Arms’:

“Few men for the right cause brave the disrespect of their fellowmen, censor of their colleagues and ignorance of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields out painfully to change.” (Robert F Kennedy - The day of Affirmation Speech)

As a rustic boy from Bapora in Bhiwani District, Haryana, General VK Singh PVSM, AVSM, YSM, ADC had grown up listening to the village elders “secure in the knowledge that not one of them, individually or collectively, would ever bend before the wind.” The Book is the testament of how he lived up to his rugged legacy and Hemmingway’s ‘one essential vital quality’! This he has done despite horrid Goebbelesian onslaught on his honour, patriotism and integrity. I should know because as the first Commissioner of the newly created Bhiwani District (1972) I had met him as a fledgling Rajput Regiment 2nd Lieutenant and decades later known him as the Chief of world’s third largest Army.

VK Singh had a troubled childhood with his mother suffering from cancer. His schooling was at Birla Public School in Pilani where in the NCC he had an interesting experience that he narrates: “I was initially in the Naval wing, before being shifted to the Army and then yet again to the Air Force before leaving the school.” Though he was ‘infatuated’ with the Indian Air Force and wanted join it, at his father’s (an Army Officer) insistence he opted for the Army.

Barely out of NDA, VK Singh came face-to-face with the Date of Birth issue which he describes thus: “It then transpired that in the original UPSC form, my year of birth had been filled in as 1950. Other supporting data and the certificate sent by the school independently had correctly listed it as 1951…...The various papers were then forwarded to the UPSC who accepted the documents and the explanation and cleared me to join NDA. The matter having been resolved, I embarked on the journey to join the Academy almost a week later than rest of the batch because of this snafu”….Indeed this belief turned out to be misplaced….As the author reached the pinnacle of his career this ‘resolved’ matter was dug out, severely distorted with lies and skullduggery and turned into a ‘brahmastra’ by corrupt and powerful vested interests with near-total support from mainstream media leading to head-on confrontation between him as Army Chief and the Government.

The book is the story of a conscientious soldier written in a flowing language by filmmaker and author Kunal Verma, who has penned ‘The Long Road to Siachen’ and the ‘Northeast Trilogy’. It is easy to read. Kunal, a Doon School-Madras Christian College product is son of Major General Ashok Kalyan Verma, former Colonel Commandant of Rajput Regiment. Kunal has used his considerable knowledge and insight into Army’s structure, functioning and culture to narrate General’s own story in a flawless and seamless manner. While reading about VK Singh’s days in the battalion, my mind went back to mine (17th Battalion, The Madras Regiment) in the watery valleys of Assam, desert sands of Rajasthan, forbidding Rann of Kutch and the hostile jungles of Nagaland.

The Book contains revelations and revealing information on several momentous events and episodes relating to Army’s operations in the last over four decades:

v Bangladesh War that liberated former East Bengal from Pakistan
v The mess that was ‘Operation Blue Star’ and the sycophantic shenanigans of Lt Gen K Sundarji who later became Chief of the Army Staff

v The perspective on Operation Meghdoot, the code name given for the 1987 operations to occupy Siachen.
v Operation Brasstacks and Operation Trident that are classic examples of how a war can be engineered by misinterpreting pieces of intelligence inputs without proper in depth analysis
v IPKF operation in Sri Lanka wherein the Indian Army that went to protect the Tamils ended up fighting the Tamils. This is an unmitigated disaster of India’s Foreign Policy which persists till today!
v ‘Operation Parakram’ that brought to light the effect of critical shortages in equipment considered vital for fighting war

General VK Singh was the first commando to become India’s Army Chief and the best at that. At the Young Officers Course in Mhow he was awarded the Commando Dagger and the coveted Sam Manekshaw Trophy. He topped the Ranger Combat Leadership Course of the US Army considered the ‘toughest in the world’! ‘Commandos’ are defined as ‘a small fighting force specially trained for making quick destructive raids against enemy-held areas.’ All-pervading corruption and resource-loot being India’s worst enemies, VK Singh started his four-star career by daring them. Within weeks he took on the then Union Home Minister and declined to let loose the Army on the jungles of central/east India.

It is with this episode that General VK Singh opens his Autobiography with the narration of his first encounter as Army Chief with Palaniappan Chidambaram, then Union Home Minister. The prologue titled ‘The Moment of Truth’ gives an account of this encounter…. “Without beating about the bush, Chidambaram came straight to the point: “General, you know the Naxal problem is a major national issue. So why do you oppose the deployment of Army in Naxal areas?”…..Realising that a half baked answer would open the door general had responded: “I am fully aware of the situation on ground, Minister. It is a socio-economic and governance issue and needs to be addressed accordingly. At the same time this is not a secessionist movement and it would not be correct to use the army, against own people”.

The Autobiography is silent about the fallout of this encounter. The fact is that daring Chidambaram directly and PMO indirectly, and speaking up for the oppressed, VK Singh had thrown down the gauntlet! In retaliation he faced the combined assault India's political, bureaucratic, corporate and media establishment that “looks like a mobile cocktail party, gliding, champagne glasses in hand, in and out of each other’s drawing rooms, television studios, boardrooms and award ceremonies like actors in an elaborate charade,” to quote a leading investigative journalist! The brahmastraused was a contrived controversy as to whether VK Singh was born in 1950 or 1951-something statutory documents like birth and matriculation certificates-both recording 1951-had long established!

The Book needs to be read to understand about the various controversies that surrounded VK Singh while in service and after that. Though he has dealt with them-‘line of succession’, ‘age controversy’, ‘Technical Services Division’ (TSD), ‘TATRA Loot’, ‘bribe offer’, ‘leaked top secret letter to PM’, ‘concocted coup story’ and North East Trilogy-it is all in sober language without rancour and there is no hype as many would expect.

While the General has come down heavily on the PMO, he has dealt with Defence Minister AK Antony with velvet gloves. Writing about TATRA and BEML General implies that the corruption 'trail goes right up to a very high official in the PMO.' He has also fortified the common perception of collusive understanding among political parties while sharing defence procurement loot. After the BEML-TATRA scandal broke out a senior opposition leader told him off record,‘General saab, lapetna tha to aapne Tatra kyon pakra? Isme hum halla machayenge to hum bhi phaste hain.’[General, if you had to catch them, why Tatra? If we back you, we’ll also get exposed]. A ‘Raksha Mantri’ who has presided over such rot for over seven long years, in the process causing incalculable harm to defence preparedness and civil-military relationship, goes unscathed. This is something amiss!

On retirement a General was supposed to fade away into golf-cum-party circuits. But not so for VK Singh. He had unfinished tasks to complete…. “After a month’s break, I felt my job as a citizen of this country was only half-done. I had long discussions with colleagues and others who over time had become friends. They all more or less said the same thing – go out into the countryside and see what is happening. A former soldier/bureaucrat, whose relentless fight against corruption has thrown up a new word ‘kleptocracy’, said to me, ‘You have seen the rot that has set in on defence matters. Grassroots, man, get down to the grassroots,’ he emphasized, ‘only then can you expose the rascals who are today in power and are relentlessly eating up this country.”

VK Singh perceives his unfinished task is to “create a movement to bring in democracy as envisaged by greats like Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan. Something that starts at the grassroots levels, something that starts in the villages, something in which a common man has a role to play. Today he doesn’t have, he gives his vote and then for 5 years he can get kicked around. Now surely that is not democracy…..” One wishes strength to his shoulders.

General signs off the Book not as a hard-boiled soldier, but as a deeply concerned citizen: “When I sat down to write the autobiography I was acutely conscious of the fact that my story could probably match that of any other officer in the Indian Army….At the end of the day, I didn’t want anything more from the state. I have got much more from the country and the Army than anyone can hope to get in a lifetime. As I rose through the ranks, I tried very hard not to forget how every decision would impact the men in the trenches. To stand up for what you consider to be your duty towards your country is our ultimate dharma. Towards that end, I hope my story and the words I have written serves a purpose.”

Then he raises a query and finds an answer: “Are mere words enough to serve any purpose? Here I seek assurance from the famous clarion of the Russian rebel writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “It is infinitely difficult to begin when mere words must move a great block of matter. But there is no other way if none of the material strength is on your side. And a shout in the mountains has been known to cause an avalanche.” (The Oak and the Calf)

The big question is-will these words cause an avalanche? Yes, it would provided the whole truth is told. As of now the Book reflects the view expressed on behalf of the just retiring Pakistan Army Chief, General Parvez Kayani when asked whether he would write a Book: "He will not, because one cannot write the whole truth."

But Alexander Solzhenitsyn has a different take. In his 1970 acceptance speech as he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature he quoted the famous Russian proverb, "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world." With this statement Solzhenitsyn, victim of totalitarian evil, had not suddenly out-powered the Soviets with some self-generated ‘truth.’ Rather, out-powered, out-numbered, and out-gunned, he as one single person seized and wielded truth as a sword that could not be resisted, crying out, "Grant, O Lord, that I may not break as I strike."

This could as well be the sword and the clarion of General VK Singh in a democratic state run on totalitarian means! As for complete Truth, one has to await a sequel to this well-edited and handsome Book produced by Aleph Book Company and David Davidar, its irresistible publisher. Hope this happens soon.

A must read for every soldier past, present and future and all civilians who feel for the nation and not just feed off it!