Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Lesson for Posterity

Everything to do with the former Chief of Army Staff General VK Singh has all along been taking on larger than life dimensions. Sections of the media, have in the most cynical of manner, relentlessly hounded the man, first, while still in Service and then in his post retirement avatar. 

The absurdity of the coup story, the leaking of the letter to the PM, the deployment of non existent off-air interceptors, the so-called Kashmir coup, the setting up of the TSD are all instances of unscrupulous media reporting which has hacked away at the very core of the Armed Forces. In all this, the only people who could have initiated an enquiry to stop the nonsense (other than Rahul Gandhi) were the Government of India. Unfortunately, the GOI instead chose to sink its head in the sand, giving rise to a feeling that the Government was indeed hand in glove with the people behind the various news stories.

If one was expecting acrimony, a blame game and mudslinging on the age issue or the controversies fabricated by vested interests to tarnish the image of the former Chief, it was not to be. The autobiography on the contrary is an illustrative narrative of some of the crucial events and the way they had been handled to give a few significant lessons for posterity. For those who are strangers to the working and the ethos of the Armed Forces, especially the Indian Army, it gives a realistic insight into the workings of the system and the reason why the institution excels the way it does in most of the challenging situations. The overall sense of the book clearly brings out the reasons for the much talked about civil military discord. 

The book is the story of a straight talking soldier who right from the very start has stood firm in the belief that no matter what the odds, stick to the truth and eventually you shall prevail. The book, written with Kunal Verma, a filmmaker and the author of The Long Road to Siachen and the Northeast Trilogy, is a fascinating read that is shorn of any hyperbole or chest thumping. Verma, himself the son a Rajput Regiment officer, combines superbly with the former Chief and has brought to us the General’s own story in his own voice, and the narration makes for one of the most seamless books that I have read in the recent past.

Most importantly, there is a sincerity and simplicity in the narration that leaves you with little or no doubt that the author is telling his side of the story at last, amazingly without any rancor or bitterness. For those of us who have also followed the drum, every statement in the book rings not just true, but it is also a merciless mirror that looks at events minus any fabrication at a cover up. It is as VK saw it through the various stages in his life, and it is in that, the real crux of the book lies – it helps understand not just the man, but also what he stood for - His beliefs, his convictions – something which shook the UPA government and the babudom to its very core. 

The very first page of the book, the prologue titled ‘The Moment of Truth’ gives an account of the General’s meeting with Mr P Chidambaram, the Union Home Minister. His ability to firmly suggest to the minister against the deployment of the Army in the Naxal areas displays the metal that the General is made of, his conviction and his ability to stand by it in the larger interests of the country.

The perspective on Operation Meghdoot, the code name given for the 1987 operations to occupy Siachen provides a bird’s eye view into the planning process that goes into military operations. The significance of the account lies in the fact, General VK Singh was then the GSO 2 MO3 of the Military Operations Directorate, the apex planning body for military operations of the Indian Army. The strategic importance of Siachen, the Chinese angle and how the vacation of heights would have an effect on our future deployment and thus escalate troop level in the area has been explained crystal clear. The ‘jugad’ ways of the Army to overcome practical on ground difficulties corroborates why the Indian Army does not believe in the word ‘impossible’ in the dictionary. The importance of secrecy and how Top Secret information is handled at that level makes one realize the seriousness and the importance attached to classified information. Compare this with the way the Army Chief’s letter to the Prime Minister and Batia Committee report had been leaked to the press!! The lack of practical experience of the bureaucracy in matters military displayed during the procurement process of the ‘Over the Snow Vehicle’ (OSW) for Siachen operations emphasizes the need for professional bureaucracy as had been brought out time and again by various intellectuals, professionals and study groups including the yet to be implemented Kargil Committee Report headed by Late K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India’s strategic affairs community. 

The account of ‘Operation Blue Star’ the military operation launched in June 1984 to flush out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his fellow militants from the Golden Temple complex  brings out how some of the basic tenets of handling and employing military had been violated. Having viewed the operation as an insider in the capacity of a Q Staff Officer at the Jalandhar based Corps Headquarters I believe the General has downplayed some of the repercussions and chaos that the violation of some of the basic principles created down the line. The use of Army as an offensive weapon against our own people, the Prime Minister of the country going over the head of the Army Chief and ordering the operation based on the advice of Lt Gen K Sundarji, a subordinate officer, the pitfalls of basing military decisions on political rather than operational logic, the need for the military chief to exhibit moral courage to provide unbiased military advice and stick to one’s convictions, the importance of deliberating through the operation to decide on a course of action rather than basing plans on hunches, the pitfalls of breaking formations, ignoring jurisdiction and local on ground knowledge of military formations, employing adhoc combinations of units and formations to undertake operations have been explained at great length. The timing of the operation ignoring the moon phase and on the anniversary day of Guru Arjan’s martyrdom is intriguing raising questions on the rationale for the urgency ignoring loss of human lives both military and civil as well as Sikh sentiments.

The description of Operation Brasstacks and Operation Trident is a classic example of how a war can be engineered by misinterpreting pieces of intelligence inputs without proper in depth analysis. For the majority of our countrymen who are not very aware of the Defence Services and their functioning this part of the book also gives a glimpse of the logic behind the moves of offensive and defensive formations of countries on either side of the border and their implications.

The Indian Prime Minister signed the Indo – Sri Lanka accord 1987 with the Sri Lankan President to end the war between LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army thereby absolving Prabhakaran, the LTTE Chief of any accountability in the entire game.    The Indian Army which went to protect the Tamils ended up fighting the LTTE. These foreign policy blunders have come out very clearly in the book.  The imprudence of rushing the Indian Army to Sri Lanka without a clear cut role, failure to translate the envisaged role into specific military tasks, rushing into the island nation without a full assessment including thinking through the entire operation with all its military implications have come out explicitly in the book. The way Army units were rushed around aimlessly and the fortitude of the Indian military to withstand such mess – ups and yet give its best has a story of its own to tell the readers.      

The mobilization for ‘Operation Parakram’ brought to light the effect of critical shortages in equipment considered vital for war fighting. It was a missed opportunity. The book also highlights the case of mine fuses not fitting the mines resulting in mine accidents - a clear case of lack of quality control and accountability. The lack of interest shown in the procurement of mine – shoes from a Jalandhar based shoe manufacturer, the official supplier of mine – shoes to the US Army also has its own untold logic!!  

Typical of the Army, the then Brigadier VK Singh commanding the Samba Brigade being told to conduct his daughter’s engagement ceremony after attending an ‘important conference and discussion’ and the way he as the GOC of the Victor Force handling counter insurgency operations in the valley had to offload his baggage after checking in at the airport for proceeding on leave have a message to convey. The Indian Army takes it profession much too seriously for Indian standards!!

A glimpse of the bureaucracy’s inefficient and slow motion acts has been reflected in the way the sanction for the officer to attend the Rangers Course in US was delayed till about a few hours before the departure of the flight. Foreign courses in as far as the Indian Army is concerned are not foreign jaunts. These are professional courses where   individual officers will have to compete with other nationals and come up to their standards. This requires preparations. Obviously to the babus the delay doesn’t seem to matter. He further goes on to say that things had not changed when he went to attend a course at the US Army’s War College years later. I am told even today the situation is no different. 

The delinking of the military authorities from the chain of reporting of Principal Director of Defence Estates (PDDE), the authority controlling military lands, the 300 pending complaints with the PDDE for 20 years, and the way the bungalows in Ambala Cantonment have been acquired by powerful politicians or local businessmen provides a pointer to the corrupt land mafia eating away military assets.

One major flaw in the book - General VK Singh’s heart seems to have overtaken him when he describes AK Antony the Defence Minister as a ‘good human being’ and a ‘highly accomplished person’. As the Defence Minister, could he not figure out that the age issue, the story of the Chief creating the Technical Support Division (TSD) on his own without the approval of the Government and employing it for snooping on the political leaders, the fiction of the General VK Singh leaking his own Top Secret letter, the tale of the military coup etc. have been fabricated by vested interests to tarnish the image of the Chief for definite purpose? 

Did he not have the authority or the power to investigate the age issue and the other innuendoes and settle the issue and come out in the open to clarify matters? Why was he silent when the whole lot of Parliamentarians wanted the Chief to resign? Is this the way an honest minister is expected to function? What happened to his loyalty to his Chief, his subordinate? Would he as the Defence Minister of the country stand by his Chief when things go wrong? -  Definitely not the leadership material which can cope with the needs of the Defence Services.

In any case what has he done to the give a direction to the Army? Has he done something about the much talked about ‘National Defence Strategy’ or the ‘Rules of Engagement’? What has he done to reign in the bureaucracy who went berserk blocking every issue pertaining to Military Veterans even after the highest court of the land had ruled in their favour without any regard to their age or the time and finances involved in going through litigation? Under his leadership have we not repeatedly hit the snake in the snake and ladder game that he played with procurement of military hardware? Why is the bureaucracy doing the procurement of weapons despite repeated corruption charges and delays? Does he not realize that a properly constituted professional body besides being transparent will be able handle procurement much better? Are these the signs of an honest minister? Why has he allowed the bureaucracy to sit on the promotion board proceedings of officers at their will, a strategy employed to alter the fate and promotion prospects of individual officers? Could he not lay down a specific time limit? The country does not need a good human being as its Defence Minister but someone who is truthful, loyal to the organisation and the troops besides produce results that is expected of a Defence Minister. 

The book covers a variety of other very interesting issues which every Indian ought to understand. Issues such as the Transformation Study conducted by him, the functioning of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the purchase of TATRA trucks from BMEL, the fate of procurement list when a Joint Secretary (Acquisitions) is posted out without relief, the question of officer shortage and the way the Defence Secretary reacted to the Army’s proposal for handling the shortage etc. are significant amongst them.    

Overall a wonderful book which every citizen who wishes to know something about the military needs to go through.

A note :

The link for article titled ‘A Lesson for Posterity’ by Brigadier V Mahalingam (Retired) and published in Times of India Blog is given below.

The article is essentially a review of the book titled ‘Courage and Conviction authored by General VK Singh, the former Chief of the Army Staff and Kunal Verma. The author of the above article has tried to highlight the important parts of the article which holds a number of lessons for posterity.

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