General J.J. Singh plays it safe in his memoirs
Force Magazine - National Security and Aerospace Newsmagazine

Too General By Far

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

Ghazala Wahab
General J.J. Singh has been a bit of an oddity in the Indian military. While most Indian military men, irrespective of rank and service have been chary of the media, treating them as a necessary evil which must be endured when completely unavoidable, Gen. Singh has always courted media fearlessly and with great enthusiasm.

A Soldiers General - An Autobiography As chief of army staff (and before that as GOC-in-C, Western Command), he seemed to believe that publicity was publicity, it was neither good nor bad. This is the reason that even when ordinary officers went into spasms of anxiety at the whiff of a ‘negative’ report, Gen. Singh remained unflappable. His penchant for issuing statements at the drop of the hat and making headlines every alternate day led the grand old man of Indian journalism and the father-figure of most Sikhs aspiring for intellectual pursuits, Khushwant Singh, to write that if he does not stop talking he will end up being a source of more ‘sardar’ jokes. And apparently, so rattled was the government of the day (used to mute chiefs) during his tenure that he was advised to talk less with the media.

Maybe Gen. Singh tried to curb his instincts, but how do you hide a flamboyant personality. When he didn’t speak to the press, he was photographed at glamorous events, like a polo tournament, with Page 3 regulars. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that he fashioned himself as something of a star, someone who would walk in 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 they spoke extensively about themselves, about Gen. Singh’s achievements, war wound (in Kashmir), adopting children and so on, post interview, his office supplied family photographs to be carried as part of the profile which 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. Perhaps, Gen. JJ spoke enough for his successors too, who remained squeamish about the media, except Gen. V.K. Singh, who went ballistic towards the end of his tenure.

For a person as irrepressible as Gen. JJ, who is currently the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, it was only to be expected that he would write his memoirs and present them to the world with the same panache as 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 Air Arjan Singh, in Mumbai on June 23 by the Governor of Maharashtra K. Sankaranarayanan and in London on June 25 by Shaheed Nanak Singh Foundation and British Member of Parliament, Paul Uppal.

Talking to the press at one of the release functions, Gen. JJ 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 had said, suggesting that it is neither 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 that takes place in the book. 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. JJ sought before embarking on this literary journey (and whom he gratefully acknowledges in his book), recently wrote in his weekly column that he had advised the former chief not to praise himself too much in the book as people get put-off by that, but the General did not heed it.

Gen. JJ has an explanation for that. Addressing the guests at the book release function in London (a video of the speech has been uploaded on Youtube), he said that he laboured over the format of the book, and realised that if he has to tell his story it will automatically read like self-praise, but there was 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 mundane into a work of literature with periodic insights, clever turn of phrase and engaging narration. Two, the author’s life has been unusually eventful, he/she has been witness to history in 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 then one writes as a spectator who has seen things as they happened.

Having heard Gen. JJ’s comments on Youtube, while reading his autobiography, I wondered if it is really difficult not to succumb to the temptation of writing, ‘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, who was the 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 the chapters on the basis of issues as he saw them and not in a chronologically linear manner. Critical of the political leadership which (he worked with four prime ministers starting with Narasimha Rao and finishing with I.K. Gujral) 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 that the readers wouldn’t really be interested. His autobiography reads like contemporary history, putting in perspective 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 modernisation are both funny and eye-opening. Ironically, Gen. Roychowdhury is not a highly decorated officer. Like Gen. Sundarji, he only has a PVSM to his name. But this is not a review of his book.

Gen. JJ seems to have been hemmed-in in his efforts 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 the 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 political-social conditions or why being the first Sikh chief 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 than a linear narration would have added so much depth to the book. His grandfather was injured in France and returned home because of his debility. Didn’t it ever, even subsequently cross his mind whose war he was fighting or for what reason? How did the growing pitch of the freedom struggle affect him? Was he aware of it or not? Were 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 the 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 other than what one reads in history books on modern India.

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 from quoting from different sources and often fictional. For example, to give the readers a sense of the 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 readymade 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 does not say anything at all in his book. Whether he was wrongly advised or it was his own decision, this is a huge let-down in the book considering he served in important positions during crucial times. During the Kargil conflict he was the additional director general military operations, during Operation Parakram (when India nearly went to war with Pakistan on two occasions) he was commander 1 Corps, one of Indian Army’s strike corps and he subsequently went on to command Indian Army’s prestigious Western Command before becoming the chief. Yet, he writes about all these events, quoting from press reports as if he was not privy to anything himself. His chapter on becoming Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee takes the cake. To describe India’s nuclear weapons’ capabilities across domains he quotes from Wikipedia!

All this begs two questions. Who exactly has he written this book for? Is it for the young soldiers, scholars of defence, general readers or merely for his extended family? Because there is nothing in the book which is not already available in public domain. Even a few personal incidents like when he was shot near the Line of Control 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, somebody should have advised Gen. JJ that writing a book is not akin to 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 future; even those who didn’t know you learn about you through your book. Hence, I believe an autobiography should be extremely thought through, not only in terms of what all you can reveal in it but also what kind of image you are conveying through it for future generations to remember you by. ‘Controversial’ is hardly the adjective one would use for an autobiography, which can be candid or cagey.

This raises the second question: What exactly is the purpose of the book? It is true that to some extent, the very act of writing an autobiography smack 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 the crucial issues or take them head on. Instead of filling the chapter on the Kargil conflict (during which he was the ADGMO) by press reports, he could have used this opportunity to point out the weaknesses on the Indian side that led to the conflict. Or whether political-military disconnect led to the severe loss of lives in the early days. Could it be that very few lessons were learnt from Kargil that 26/11 happened in Mumbai?

What feathers could Gen. JJ have ruffled if he had decided to address the allegations of human rights violations against the Indian Army instead of dismissing it by saying that ‘no violations occurred during my tenure.’ After all, that violations have happened is not a state secret. On Armed Forces Special Powers Act, though he says that we should be open to the idea of incorporating some humane modifications in it, he stops short of suggesting what these could be.

And where he does dwell upon the much-bandied concept of iron fist and the velvet glove, he draws parallel between Indian Army’s operations in Kashmir and the US/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 Army Chief and subsequently President, Gen. Musharraf. The chapter Musharraf and I is the most embarrassing one in the book. The sad part is, it was completely avoidable as Gen. JJ or 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 even refer to any Indian military officer; he only talks of the heads of the state. Even if Gen. JJ believed there were favourable grounds for comparison, this alone should have dissuaded him.

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

A Soldier’s General: An Autobiography
General J.J. Singh
HarperCollins, Pg 356, Rs 799


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