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MAJOR GENERAL V.K SINGH | 29 JANUARY, 2017

The COAS Controversy: Lessons From History


NEW DELHI: In recent months, the Army India’s armed forces have been rocked by several controversies. Of these, the most notable were the arrest of a former Chief of the Indian Air Force and the appointment of the new Army Chief.

Both events have caused some consternation, if not anguish, in serving as well as retired servicemen.

There has been a spate of articles and letters to editors of various newspapers and journals by veterans, expressing their dismay and concern. In this article, I will deal only with the second controversy, which concerns the appointment of the COAS, Gen Bipin Rawat, superseding Lt Generals Bakshi and Hariz, who were senior to him.

This was only the third instance of supersession for the appointment of the COAS (Chief of Army Staff) since Independence, the earlier ones being in the cases involving Sant Singh and Kalwant Singh in 1957 and of SK Sinha in 1983.

Of course, there were instances of the senior most person being denied the post by the simple stratagem of giving an extension to the serving incumbent or a junior contender, ensuring that the senior most person retires before the appointment falls vacant. This is the method adopted to sideline Nathu Singh in 1953 and Prem Bhagat in 1974, without resorting to supersession.

As is well known, General KM Cariappa was the first Indian to command the Indian Army. On January 15, 1949, Cariappa succeeded General Roy Bucher, as Chief of Army Staff and Commander-in-Chief, Indian Army. (The designation Commander-in-Chief was discontinued, from April 1, 1955). At that time, Cariappa was the senior most Indian officer.

However, very few people know that Cariappa was the third choice to become the Army Chief. Had it not been for the magnanimity and esprit de corps displayed by his juniors – Nathu Singh and Maharaj Rajendra Sinhji – Cariappa would not have become the C-in-C.

When India became independent, on August 15, 1947, Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck was appointed the Supreme Commander, and General Sir Rob Lockhart became C-in-C Indian Army. On the request of the Government of India, several British officers agreed to serve, for another few years, in critical appointments.

On January 1, 1948, General Sir Roy Bucher had taken over as C-in-C Indian Army. His one year engagement was to expire in January 1949, and the Government decided that he should be replaced by an Indian. At that time, the three senior most officers were Cariappa, Rajendra Sinhji, and Nathu Singh. All three were lieutenant generals, and Army Commanders. Rajendra Sinhji was a year junior, but six months older than Cariappa. Nathu Singh was two and a half years junior, in service as well as age. Being senior, Cariappa should have been the natural choice for the appointment of C-in-C, but this was not so.

The first choice for the post of C-in-C was Nathu Singh. Sardar Baldev Singh, the Defence Minister in the Interim Government in 1946, had informed Nathu Singh, who was then just a brigadier, serving as Director Personnel Services in Meerut that he had been selected to be the first Indian C-in-C after Independence.

At a tea party held at his house, Baldev Singh conveyed this to Nathu Singh, in the presence of several other leaders, including the premiers of Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. He followed it up with a letter, on 22 November, 1946, addressed to Nathu Singh:

Your letter of 21st November has reached me. You have been selected and earmarked to be the First C-in-C of India, with Command over the three Defence Services. This decision has been arrived at, after the Muslim League joined the 'Interim Government', and with the consent of all the Political Parties comprising the Government. It is on the recommendation of the present C-in-C, and with the approval of the Governor General, the Viceroy, and may be the HMG. The approval of the officers senior to you does not arise.


Baldev Singh also made it clear that after the 'Transfer of Power', the C-in-C would be working under the Ministry of Defence. Nathu Singh is said to have declined the offer, since he felt that Cariappa was senior, and the appointment should rightfully go to him.

In 1948, the most serious contender was Rajendra Sinhji, who came from a princely family of Gujarat. He had an impressive war record, and had won the DSO. The reason for some people not favouring Cariappa for the coveted appointment was that he was considered too strong and outspoken, apart from being 'anglicised'. There was also some criticism of his fraternising with Pakistani officers. Whenever he visited Pakistan, he stayed with his erstwhile colleagues, and they did the same when they visited India. This naturally raised hackles in certain quarters, and led some people to even doubt his nationalism.

Fortunately, Cariappa's merit and seniority along with the support of his colleagues won the day. Rajendra Sinhji also declined the offer, in deference to Cariappa, who assumed the coveted appointment on January 15,1949. After almost 200 years of British rule, an Indian had finally assumed command of the Indian Army, and to mark this historic occasion, January 15 became the official Army Day, in India.

Cariappa retired after exactly four years, on January 14,1953. At that time, the three Army Commanders were Rajendra Sinhji, Nathu Singh, and SM Shrinagesh.

Rajendra Sinhji should have retired three months earlier, but was given an extension, probably in order to enable him to succeed Cariappa. Due to a new rule, promulgated in 1950, officers retired after four years in command, and when Cariappa retired, he was only 53 years old.

In fact, Rajendra Sinhji, though a year junior, was six months older than Cariappa. Nathu Singh was junior to Rajendra Sinhji by a year and half, but almost three years younger in age. Eventually, Rajendra Sinhji was appointed the next C-in-C.

Nathu Singh retired on February 1, 1953, exactly 15 days after Cariappa retired as C-in-C of the Indian Army. He did not grudge the promotion of Rajendra Sinhji, who succeeded Cariappa because of the extension given to him. But he did feel that the denial of an extension to him was unjust. If he had been allowed to serve, he would have automatically succeeded Rajendra Sinhji, when the latter retired, in March 1955.

The first supersession in the appointment of the COAS occurred in 1957, when KS Thimayya was appointed to the post. The COAS, General SM Shrinagesh, was due to retire in May 1957 and there were several contenders for the post. Sant Singh and Kalwant Singh were from the same Sandhurst batch, having passed out on January 29, 1925.

The other two were KS Thimayya and PN Thapar, who had also passed out from Sandhurst together, on February 4,1926. Thimayya had been placed 15th in order of merit, while Thapar was 18th. Hence, he was technically senior to Thapar.

However, the most important factor was Thimayya's impressive war record - he had won the DSO, was the only Indian to have commanded a brigade in WW II and had proved his worth during the J&K operations in 1947-48, as the captor of Zojila and the savior of Ladakh. The others did not have any notable achievement to their credit. As expected, Thimayya was selected for the top job in the Army, and on May 8, 1957, he was promoted to General, and took over as the COAS. He superseded Sant Singh, who resigned, as well as Kalwant Singh, who decided to continue.

When Thimayya became Army Chief, he was only 51 years old. It is interesting to reflect on the turn of events, if the Government had decided to give the job to Kalwant Singh or Sant Singh, both of whom were senior to Thimayya.

Perhaps Thimayya would have had to wait for two or three years, before he was promoted to the rank of General. The maximum tenure of the Chief and Army Commanders was four years, though Rajendra Sinhji was the Chief for just two years and four months, while Shrinagesh had exactly two years. Hence, Thimayya would have risen to the appointment of Chief in May 1961, if not earlier. In the event, Thimayya as well as Thorat, who was the Army Commander in Eastern Command, retired in May 1961, because of the four year rule. If they had not retired in 1961, would the 1962 conflict still have gone the way it did?

Though it was not a case of supersession, the denial of the post of COAS to Lt Gen PS Bhagat, VC, in 1974 had created ripples in the Army.

The Army Chief, General GG Bewoor, was due to retire on April 11,1974. (At that time, the retirement age for the Chief was 58 and 56 for Lieutenant Generals). Since Bhagat was to reach the age of 56 only on October 13, 1974, he was almost certain to become the next Chief, being senior most.

But the bureaucrats in the Defence Ministry had other ideas. Having dealt with an intractable Chief like Sam Manekshaw for four years, they did not want another strong Chief on their hands. However, by now Bhagat had become immensely popular, and his supersession would have had wide ranging repercussions. So another ploy was thought of.

Due the extension granted to Manekshaw, Bewoor's tenure had been reduced, and he had been Chief just for a year and half. To compensate him, it was decided that he should be given a year's extension. This would ensure that Bhagat would retire, as a Lt Gen, without technically being superseded. In July 1974, Bhagat accepted the appointment of Chairman, Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC). He did not resign, and proceeded on his new assignment as a serving officer. He died soon after, on May 23, 1975.

The second and most well known instance of supersession occurred in 1983, when Arun Vaidya was appointed COAS, superseding Lt Gen SK Sinha.

In January 1983, Sinha was posted to Delhi, as Vice Chief of Army Staff. Since there were just six months left for the COAS, Gen Krishna Rao to retire, and Sinha was the senior Army Commander, it was assumed that he would be the next Chief, and his move to Delhi only served to reinforce this impression.

After he took over as Vice Chief, Krishna Rao indicated that since Sinha would be taking over from him in a few months time, all other Principal Staff Officers should work through him, so that he was kept fully in the picture. During the next five months, Sinha and Krishna Rao worked closely, and everyone took it for granted that Sinha would step into Rao's shoes when he retired.

On May 29, 1983, Krishna Rao informed Sinha that the Government had decided that Arun Vaidya, who was GOC-in-C Eastern Command, would be the next Army Chief.

Sinha was taken aback, and told Krishna Rao that he would be putting in his papers soon. Rao tried to dissuade him, but Sinha had made up his mind. He returned to his office, and after dictating a letter of congratulations to Vaidya, wrote out his application for premature retirement, which he handed over to the Military Secretary the same day.

The announcement of Vaidya's appointment as Army Chief was made on the radio in the afternoon, but it was only next morning that the newspapers carried the story. Most of the papers had it on the front page, and along with the news of Vaidya's appointment, also gave the news that Sinha had resigned.

Though Parliament was not in session, some MPs button-holed R. Venkataraman, the Defence Minister, in the Central Hall, and questioned him on the reasons for Sinha's supersession. When questioned by the Press, he refused to comment on his supersession, and said that as a disciplined soldier, he had accepted the decision of the Government.

The Press asked him if he felt that appointments in the Army were being made based on political considerations, and whether it was his family's proximity to Jaya Prakash Narayan which had been responsible for his supersession. Sinha declined to be drawn into a controversy, and requested the Press to keep politics away from the Army.

Next morning, Sinha's statement in the meeting with the Press was prominently reported in all newspapers. His stating that he had chosen to fade out of the Army, accepting the decision of the Government to supersede him, and his reference to Arun Vaidya as a dear friend and a competent General won him many admirers. It created a wave of sympathy for him, in the Army as well as among civilians, most of whom felt that he had been unfairly treated.

A few days later, there was a joint statement in the Press, by six prominent MPs, which included Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram, L.K. Advani, H.N. Bahuguna, George Fernandez and Dharam Vir Sinha. They severely criticised the Government for its interference in the professionalism of the Army for short term political gains, and praised the dignified reaction of Sinha, at his supersession. They demanded a debate in Parliament, on the subject, in the forthcoming session.

When the House met, the members tried to raise the issue. However, in the Lok Sabha, the Speaker did not permit a discussion on grounds of security. In the Rajya Sabha also, the Chairman disallowed a debate, leading to angry exchanges between the treasury benches and the Opposition, some of whom quoted the instance of Thimayya's resignation, and the debate in Parliament that followed.

As would be apparent from the instances quoted above, supersession in the appointment of the Army Chief is not a new phenomenon, but rare. In the last seventy years, there have been just three instances. There have been a few cases where deserving candidates were denied the post by subterfuge, through extensions of tenure. In a democracy, where the armed forces are under political control, this is unavoidable and should not cause consternation.

(Major General VK Singh is retired from the Indian Army)

(Writers note:The above instances have been taken from my book titled Leadership In The Indian Army - Biographies of Twelve Soldiers, published by Sage, New Delhi, in 2005)

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