Wednesday, August 1, 2012

General J.J. Singh plays it safe in his memoirs

By Ghazala Wahab

General Joginder Jaswant Singh has been bit of an oddity in the Indian military. While most Indian soldiers, irrespective of rank and service have been chary of the media, treating it as a necessary evil to be endured when completely unavoidable, Gen. JJ Singh, affectionately called Gen. JJ, has always courted the media fearlessly and with great enthusiasm.

As Chief of Army Staff (COAS) [and before that, as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C), Western Command], he seemed to believe that publicity was publicity — it was neither good nor bad. This is the reason that when even ordinary officers went into spasms of anxiety at the whiff of a ‘negative’ report, Gen. Singh remained unflappable. He had a penchant for issuing statements at the drop of the hat and making headlines every alternate day. That led the grand old man of Indian journalism Khushwant Singh, to write that if he didn’t stop talking, he’d end up being a source of more ‘Sardar’ jokes. So rattled was the government of the day (used to mute chiefs), by his garrulousness, that apparently, he was asked to talk less with the media.

Gen. Singh might have tried to curb his instincts. But how do you hide a flamboyant personality? When he wasn’t speaking to the press, he was being photographed at glamorous events like polo tournaments, with Page 3 regulars. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say he fashioned himself as something of a star. Someone who’d walk into a room and immediately draw attention to himself, whether intentionally or unintentionally. But there was never any doubt that he wanted to be projected in a certain way. Within a couple of weeks of taking over as COAS, this correspondent was granted an interview with the General and his wife, becoming the first guest of the first couple in the Army House. Not only did they speak extensively about themselves, about Gen. Singh’s achievements, his war wound (in Kashmir), about adopting children and so on — post interview, his office even supplied family photographs for the story. It appeared in the March 2005 issue of FORCE. He was a refreshing change from his predecessor, who did away with even the traditional Army Day press conferences during his tenure. But then, there is something called too much of a good thing. Some would say Gen. JJ Singh spoke enough for his successors too — they all remained squeamish about the media. Except Gen. V.K. Singh, who went ballistic towards the end of his tenure.

Gen. Singh is currently the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh. For someone as irrepressible as him, it was only to be expected that he’d write his memoirs and present them with the same panache he presented himself. His autobiography A Soldier’s General, published by Harper Collins, has already been released three-times over. It was released in Delhi on June 9, by the Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh; in Mumbai on June 23, by the Governor of Maharashtra K. Sankaranarayanan; and in London on June 25, by a British member of parliament Paul Uppal and the Shaheed Nanak Singh Foundation.

Talking to the press at one of the release functions, Gen. JJ Singh said that his book was simply a narration of his life, of events as he saw them. “There is nothing controversial in my book,” he insisted with a broad smile. Weeks before the book was released, one of his former aides cautioned that one should not expect too much from the book. “It is light-reading,” he said, suggesting it would neither be contemporary history nor a quick guide to national security.

Indeed, the autobiography is an accurate reflection of Gen. Singh’s personality, putting him not only at the centre of the book but at the centre of every event in it. In that respect, both the book and the author have been extremely faithful to one another. It’s another matter that Khushwant Singh, whose advice Gen. Singh sought before embarking on this literary journey — recently wrote that he’d advised the former chief not to praise himself too much. People get put-off by that, he’d said. But the General obviously didn’t take that hint.

Gen. JJ has an explanation for that. Addressing guests at the book release function in London (a video of the speech has been uploaded on YouTube), he said that he laboured hard over the format of the book. He realised that if he was to tell his story, it would automatically read like self-praise. But there was to be no escape. “Maybe, this is the reason why so many army chiefs do not write their autobiography,” he told the audience.

If so many Indian military chiefs have desisted from writing their autobiographies, then the reason has to be more than just reluctance to praise oneself. To my mind, there are three reasons why an autobiography should be written. One, the author is such a brilliant writer that he/she has the capability of turning even the mundane into a work of literature. Two, the author’s life has been unusually eventful, he/she has been witness to history in the making and has something useful to say. Three, the author has had a very close/personal association with the powerful and the rich (mainly the former) to enable him/her to write a kiss-and-tell tale. These three conditions eliminate the need for putting oneself at the centre of the book, even if it is an autobiography because one would write as a spectator, seeing things as they happened.

While reading Gen Singh’s autobiography, I wondered if it is really difficult not to succumb to the temptation of writing things like ‘I did this’. And ‘I told so and so that...’ The immediate reference that occurred to me, was of his predecessor four times removed, Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury, COAS from November 1994 to September 1997. His autobiography, called Officially at Peace, was published by the Penguin imprint Viking, in 2002. The book starts with Gen. Roychowdhury becoming the chief. He divides chapters on the basis of issues as he saw them. And not in a chronologically linear manner. Critical of the political leadership (he worked with four prime ministers starting with Narasimha Rao and finishing with I.K. Gujral) — which he always found indifferent to national security issues, Gen. Roychowdhury appears in the book primarily as a narrator. There are hardly any personal details, because he assumed readers wouldn’t really be interested. His autobiography reads like contemporary history, putting in perspective the Indian Army’s state in the mid-Nineties, its roles across theatres, state of war-preparedness (or lack of it) and the blanket blindness over nuclear issues. He narrates in great detail his meetings with various ministers, politicians and bureaucrats at various levels. His recounting of his first meeting with the minister of state for defence (whom he does not name) upon becoming the chief and his subsequent meeting with finance minister Manmohan Singh, pleading for more funds for army modernization, are both funny and eye-opening. Ironically, Gen. Roychowdhury is not a highly decorated officer. Like Gen. K Sundarji, he only has a Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM) to his name. But this is not a review of his book.

Gen. JJ seems to have been hemmed-in by two self-imposed restrictions. First, he starts with the conviction that his has been an unusually remarkable life. For him, the fact that he is a third generation military officer and the first Sikh to become the chief, itself makes for an interesting story. Hence, this narration takes care of the first section, without any attempts at giving a perspective to the prevailing circumstances then. Or insights into the politico-social conditions. Or why being the first Army chief of Sikh descent, was a big deal. While Operation Blue Star finds no mention, the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage is dismissed in a paragraph — saying no violence took place in Jammu where he was posted.

Given that his grandfather was a sepoy in the British Indian Army (deployed in France during World War I) and his father was commissioned in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps before Independence, a more thoughtful narration could have added so much more depth to the book. His grandfather was injured in France and returned home because of his debility. Did it ever cross his mind whose war he was fighting, or for what reason? How did the growing pitch of the freedom struggle affect him? Were he and/or the people in his village, aware of it or not? Did he have any patriotic dilemma regarding loyalties? His father joined the service in 1943, at a time when the freedom struggle had reached a crescendo. What were his reasons for the choice he made? The idea is not to judge them for their choices. But to understand a narrative different from what one reads in history books.

Later on, the partition of the Indian military in 1947, after which his father came to the Indian Army, deserved more than platitudes like: ‘It was a time of great stress for my parents... The effect was traumatic as well as tragic in many cases, particularly for those soldiers and their families who happened to suddenly find themselves living in the wrong country.’ Taking the easy way out, he fills his narration by quoting from different sources, often fictional. For example, to give the readers a sense of India’s Partition, he quotes from Khushwant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan’. Or to establish that his ancestors probably (he is not certain) were Aryans, he quotes from a glossary on tribes and castes of Punjab and the Frontier provinces. To think that he had such rich ready-made material at home, (both his parents and his wife’s parents migrated from what became Pakistan) — borrowing narrative is nothing but intellectual laziness.

The second restriction is his choice of not writing anything ‘controversial’. As a result, he says nothing at all in his book. This is a huge let-down, considering he served in important positions during crucial times. During the Kargil conflict, he was Additional Director General of Military Operations (ADGMO). During Operation Parakram (when India nearly went to war with Pakistan on two occasions) he was Commander 1 Corps, one of the Indian Army’s strike corps. He subsequently went on to command the Indian Army’s prestigious Western Command, before becoming Army Chief. Yet, he writes about all these events quoting from press reports. As if he wasn’t privy to anything himself. His chapter on becoming Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (CSC) takes the cake. To describe India’s nuclear weapons’ capabilities across domains, he quotes from Wikipedia!

All this begs two questions. Who exactly did he write this book for? Is it for young soldiers, scholars of defence, general readers or merely for his extended family? Because there is nothing in the book, that is not already available in the public domain. Even details about incidents like the time he was shot near the Line of Control (LOC), or was nearly ambushed in Baramullah, frequently appeared in the media when he was the chief. Even I have written about these incidents way back in 2005!

Perhaps, nobody told Gen. JJ that writing a book isn’t like making a statement to the press. Unlike a media report, a book has a shelf life, hopefully longer than the life of the author. A book remains a reference point for the future; even those who didn’t know you learn about you through your book. Hence, I believe an autobiography should be very carefully thought through. Not only in terms of what you reveal in it but also what kind of image you convey through it. ‘Controversial’ is hardly the adjective one would use for an autobiography — it can be candid or cagey.

This raises the second question. What exactly is the purpose of this book? It is true that to some extent that the very act of writing an autobiography, smacks of self-aggrandisement. But surely it is up to the author to determine how high he wants to raise the bar. Whether he wants to gloss over crucial issues or take them head on. Instead of filling up the chapter on Kargil (during which he was the ADGMO) with press reports, he could have pointed out weaknesses in the Indian side, that led to the conflict. He could have discussed if it was a politico-military disconnect, that led to a severe loss of lives in the early days. Is it possible that Mumbai’s 26/11 happened because very few lessons were learnt from Kargil?

What feathers would Gen. JJ Singh have ruffled, if he had addressed allegations of human rights violations against the Indian Army? Instead of dismissing them by saying that ‘no violations occurred during my tenure.’ After all, the fact that violations have happened, is not a state secret. On the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), he says we should be open to the idea of incorporating humane modifications in it. But he stops short of suggesting what these could be.

And where he does dwell upon the much-bandied concept of the iron fist and the velvet glove, he draws parallels between the Indian Army’s operations in Kashmir and the United States/ North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is he by any chance suggesting that Kashmir is our Afghanistan? Is the Indian Army, God forbid, an occupation force in Kashmir?

His penchant for drawing parallels, leads him to draw one between himself and Pakistan’s Army Chief and subsequently its President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The chapter Musharraf and I is the most embarrassing one in the book. The sad part is, it was completely avoidable — both Gen. JJ Singh and his tenure as chief, had nothing to do with Musharraf at all. The two didn’t even meet. Comparisons can never be fair. I would have been horrified if somebody was to compare me with anyone in the world. And here, Gen. JJ sets himself up for a comparison, concluding that he was a better chief. Musharraf’s tenure as Pakistan Army chief will be judged by his army. His tenure as President of that country (during which, in addition to getting Major Non-Nato Ally status for his country, he got the US to give nearly USD 20 billion as aid) would be judged by his country. Forget Gen. JJ, Musharraf in his autobiography does not refer to any Indian military officer; he only talks of the heads of the state. Even if Gen. Singh believed there were favourable grounds for comparison, this alone should have dissuaded him.

The only place where Gen. JJ Singh sparkles and goes beyond his chosen circle of comfort, is writing about Arunachal Pradesh, where he is currently Governor. Perhaps, it is his fondness for the place and its people. Or simply nostalgia (he served here as a young officer). But he writes about his tenure there with affection and sincerity. Had he marshalled this sentiment throughout the book, it would certainly have been a collector’s item.

A Soldier’s General: An Autobiography

General J.J. Singh

HarperCollins, Pg 356, Rs 799

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