When China launched massive offensives along the Himalayan border in 1962, General Bikram Singh was studying at the Punjab Public School in Nabha. Though the front was far away, he and his friends will not forget those days of air raid sirens and the rush to take shelter in nearby bunkers. There were blackout drills and freedom songs. Everyone was keen to bear arms against the enemy. That childhood experience, in part, led to him joining the Army 10 years later.
Commissioned into the Sikh Light Infantry Regiment on March 31, 1972, he commanded an infantry battalion in the northeast and one on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. During the Kargil war, he, as official spokesperson, was the face of the Army. Subsequently, he was deputy force commander of the UN Blue Helmets in Congo, commanded the Kolkata-based Eastern Army Command and took over as Chief of the Army Staff on May 31, 2012. Singh is the first chief from among officers who joined post-1971, the year in which India fought its last war.
Indisputably, Singh has rare military talent and the rare ability to empathise. Friends say he has a special brand of humour which could even be self-deprecating. Colleagues know little about his private life, other than that he played cricket and is a bookworm. A big fan of poetry, his favourite is Sir Muhammad Iqbal aka Allama Iqbal. These days Singh's reading list is mostly on China, yet, in this interview with THE WEEK, he was extremely guarded on questions specific to that neighbour.
Sources in the Army Headquarters say that, unlike what has been widely reported, Singh has not scrapped the idea of raising a new strike corps of about 40,000 soldiers. In fact, Singh confirmed the proposal to THE WEEK.
The strike corps, according to reliable sources, is aimed at dissuading China from adventurism in Arunachal Pradesh. “We have plans in place to ensure the country's territorial integrity is never again violated the way it was during the 1962 war,” said a senior staff officer. “1962 will not be repeated, never.” Asked about it, Singh would only confirm the existence of plans.
During the interview, an aide informed him about the death of an officer in Ladakh. Singh asked his wife, Bubbles Kaur, to get ready to visit the bereaved family. The interview had to be concluded shortly. Excerpts:
You are the first post-1971 war officer to lead the Army. It is seen by many as a generational shift in the Army. What does this mean for you?
While the major security challenges of contemporary times have essentially been in the sub-conventional war fighting domain, the Indian Army possesses great experience and the required prowess to win wars for the country in both conventional and sub-conventional arenas. I can assure you that there will be no drawbacks due to any 'generational shift'. The Indian Army's leadership is highly competent, adroit and astute to handle various challenges.
You have been visiting various commands and have met officers and soldiers. What are the major issues that you are conveying to them?
[I tell them] We need to get back to basics with regard to management of our units. It needs to be remembered that the most precious resource of the Indian Army is the soldier, who is at the heart and soul of our combat power. We need to ensure that he remains fully motivated, geared and primed to execute his assigned tasks with josh and élan, both individually and as part of his sub-unit.
The Army is pitching for its own air wing. What is the rationale for demanding air capability for the Army?The Army, as part of the overall plans for capability development, has envisaged integral aviation. The induction of attack helicopters and tactical lift capability into army aviation is an inescapable operational necessity. It will enable us to operate effectively in all types of terrains and maintain the necessary tempo of operations. All major armies of the world have integral aviation resources. I am convinced that given the wisdom of our leadership, these resources will ultimately get transferred to the Army in the overall interest of national security.
Is the Indian Army failing on the modernisation front?Modernisation is a complex and dynamic process impacted by operational changes, emerging technologies and budgetary support. Every defence plan earmarks a substantial component of its capital budget for modernisation. I am conscious of the fact that the Army's modernisation plan has not progressed as desired. There has been slippage in capital procurement. Various bottlenecks in the existing procurement procedure are being streamlined. Modernisation cannot also be complete without India acquiring indigenous capability. The role of DRDO in this regard is paramount. We need to develop a research and development base which is comparable to the best in the world.
Despite joint military exercises and growing relationship with India, the Chinese army's border transgressions have not reduced. Why is the Army unable to stop border transgressions?
There are a few areas along the border where India and China have different perceptions of Line of Actual Control (LAC). Both sides patrol up to their respective perceptions of LAC. Due to perceived differences in the alignment of LAC, some minor incidents of local nature do occur, which are resolved amicably through the established mechanisms of hot lines, flag meetings and border personnel meetings.
The Army has a plan to raise an additional mountain strike corps to defend the border with China. What is the progress on the proposal?
Based on the threat perception, the Indian Army has identified its requirements and formulated its long-term perspective plan (LTPP) for development of capabilities and force structures. LTPP for the 12th Plan has recently been approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security. [The progress on capability development is reviewed periodically.]
Focus of the Army over the last five years has been to progressively increase our capabilities through enhancement of force levels, upgradation of technology, induction of force multipliers as also modernisation and improvement of infrastructure.
Raising of two infantry divisions sanctioned in the 11th Plan was completed by me when I was Eastern Army Commander. These formations are today operationally effective. Our proposal [to raise the new mountain strike corps] is undergoing the process of vetting and validation. There have been some observations that are being looked into by us. The proposal is being resubmitted and I am confident that it will soon get approved.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony has expressed concern about the deteriorating relationship between soldiers and officers in the Army.
It is true that as in the case of a large organisation, some aberrations do arise. It remains the focus of the Army to identify the causative factors for such aberrations and institute measures to obviate them.
My talks to officers at various stations have essentially been focused on highlighting the causative factors for the aberrations and urging all unit and formation commanders to create conducive climate in their units and formation, besides ensuring strict adherence to unit routine that enables all ranks to intermingle during various parades. It is extremely important for healthy interpersonal relations that officers and men rub shoulders during training and games parades.
What is your view of the India's internal security threats?The situation in J&K and the northeast has improved owing to the relentless operations carried out by the security forces. Multi-pronged initiatives, as part of our national strategy, have strengthened the hands of civil administration. We need to remain vigilant and continue with our intelligence-based surgical operations while scrupulously upholding the law of the land and with utmost respect for human rights. We need to keep all enablers in place, especially when there are still around 400 terrorists in the state [J&K] and intelligence reports allude to higher level of infiltration.
You are reputedly a bookworm. What are you reading currently?
These days, the only time I get to read is while I am travelling. I am reading India-China Nuclear Crossroads by Lora Saalman.
The Indian Army hopes to have a strike corps based in the northeast soon. The proposed corps will have its own mountain artillery, combat engineers, anti-aircraft guns and radio equipment. It will provide India with strategic capabilities that were missed badly in the 1962 war.
After 1962, India's policy was not to build any offensive formations in the eastern sector, fearing it might provoke Beijing. The sanctioning of a strike corps, therefore, indicates a new assertiveness.
The proposal for the corps was submitted by the Army in 2007. On May 14, 2009, the cabinet committee on security approved the plan. The finance ministry, however, felt that the cost involved—about 065,000 crore—was too high, and sent the file back to the ministry of defence. There were also questions whether this step would end up being more provocative than effective.
Contrary to what has been widely reported, Gen. Bikram Singh has not given up on the plan. He told THE WEEK that the proposal was very much on the cards and would be cleared soon.