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Army chief designate Bikram Singh has fought many a battle, but the toughest challenge awaits him

By Syed Nazakat

Mid-November 2002. Brigadier Bikram Singh, commander of the 1 Sector Rashtriya Rifles, was overseeing counter insurgency operations from his small office in Anantnag, Kashmir. He was aggressively pushing his troops deeper into villages in south Kashmir to hunt down militants, mostly Afghans and Pakistanis, who had hideouts in the district.

Insurgency was at its decisive point in Kashmir. Though the Army and the police had managed to secure the district headquarters, the villages were entrenched with militants and ambushes were common. In an attack on March 1, 2001, Bikram was seriously wounded, and a colonel and a rifleman were killed on the spot. Two civilians and a foreign militant were also killed in the encounter. As soon as the wounds healed, Bikram was back in action. When this reporter called on him at his Anantnag office, the brigadier looked calm and was welcoming. The situation, he said, was a “very tough one”.

Ten years and many more tough battles later, Lt-General Bikram Singh is all set to become the Army chief. On May 31, when he takes over from General V.K. Singh, it will mark a generational shift, as he will be the first post-1971 war officer to lead the Army.

Commissioned into the Sikh Light Infantry Regiment on March 31, 1972, Bikram commanded an infantry battalion in the northeast and one on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. He was a colonel when the Kargil war happened, and was the face of the Army as he briefed the media on the battle. Later, he commanded the troops at RR Sector in south Kashmir.

He earned a steady stream of plum assignments, and became the commander of the Eastern Command in 2010. “He has an excellent ability to look at complex situations and go from planning to implementation,” said Brigadier (retd) Gurmeet Kawal, a colleague who served with him in the Northern Command. Gurmeet was Bikram’s classmate in Punjab Public School in Patiala and in the Indian Military Academy.

Youngest and the only male among five siblings, Bikram is a bookworm, and holds two postgraduate degrees. He earned the reputation of an innovator in combat situations in his early days and excelled in irregular warfare and counter insurgency operations. His colleagues know little about his private life, other than that he likes ghazals, played cricket and hates spotlight. An officer who served under his command in the northeast said he had always kept a low profile.

Major-General (retd) G.D. Bakshi, who commanded a brigade in Kishtwar, Jammu, when Bikram was in Anantnag, said Bikram’s strength was his long combat experience. “He has worked extensively in the field, held important assignments at the headquarters and has served abroad under the UN flag. He has been in active military zone for a long time,” said Bakshi. “The nature of warfare is changing and it is good for the Army to have someone as the leader who is an expert in irregular warfare.”

Bikram has served under officers like Generals V.P. Malik, N.C. Vij and J.J. Singh. “There are a lot of young colonels who never get noticed,” said Vij, under whom Bikram served at the headquarters during the Kargil war. “But he was hard to ignore. He was meticulous and always ready with details.”

Bikram will inherit a deeply divided Army, which is hit by a number of controversies and troubles brewing within the ranks. General V.K. Singh’s fight over his date of birth, his shocking allegation that people within the Army plotted against him and the public spat that followed have made him lose the trust of a section of the government. Perhaps, that is why the government announced the name of the next Army chief about three months before the incumbent’s retirement, instead of the usual two months.

That, however, did not save the Army any trouble. As soon Bikram emerged as a frontrunner for the post, stories started popping up about his daughter-in-law being a Pakistani and a little-known NGO in Kashmir accused him of being involved in a fake encounter in Anantnag in 2001. It has sought a reinvestigation and exhumation of the body for a DNA test. A court has issued notices to the state government and the defence ministry to file their objections to the writ petition, which could be heard later this month.

The timing and the relentlessness of the attack are stunning. A group of retired defence officers and bureaucrats, led by Admiral (retd) Laxminarayan Ramdas, has challenged Bikram Singh’s appointment. In a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court, it alleged that he was not fit to hold the office as there were allegations of him being involved in a fake encounter and his alleged low level of command over his troops who committed molestation and rape while he was posted in Congo on a UN peace-keeping mission. A more serious charge in the PIL is that, in 2005, General J.J. Singh prepared a succession list in such a way as to facilitate Bikram Singh’s rise to the top post in 2012.

“It is unfortunate that some people have started a campaign against the new Army chief,” said Bakshi, who had staunchly defended V.K. Singh’s move to take on the government. “We supported V.K. Singh because we believed that he was right. We fought for the integrity of the institution. Now we should not make the whole issue a personal one. It will only harm the institution.”

Bikram Singh has his job cut out. Modernisation and operational preparedness of the Army will be his biggest challenges. “Our state of unpreparedness is stretched across the chain of command. Sadly, this is the same as Kargil operation when General V.P. Malik said the Army would fight with what it had. He should focus on these two issues,” said Vij.

The arms lobby will pose another challenge to the new Army chief. Many in the defence ministry believe that the lobby has been behind the controversies that tarnished the Army and the ministry. General V.K. Singh’s actions against the land scams and Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s tough anti-corruption stand have apparently antagonised the middlemen, foreign governments and arms manufacturers.

The problem is that it is former military officers or those who have contacts with them or the defence ministry who constitute the arms lobby. Almost all weapon vendors are represented in India by a local agent or consultant. Given their influence and clout, it will be a challenge for the new chief to procure modern and sophisticated weapons for the Army, keeping the deals clean.

Bikram Singh these days travels frequently from Kolkata to Delhi, where he familiarises himself with the working of the Army chief’s office. He has met Antony and V.K. Singh, and has been briefed on the weapons procurement and the ongoing military engagements with different countries. In his characteristic style, he avoids attention and the spotlight. When a colleague called to congratulate him on his being designated as the Army chief, he said: “It is too early. Congratulate when I become the chief.”

(April 22, 2012, THE WEEK,)

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