Ascent of a General
(A profile feature on India’s 26th Army Chief)
- By Gp Capt Tarun Kumar Singha VSM & Bar
Chief Public Relations Officer (Defence), Kolkata
General Dalbir Singh PVSM UYSM AVSM VSM ADC has taken over as the 26th Chief of Army Staff in New Delhi, today (July 31, 2014).
His elevation to the coveted post is an inspiring saga of a young village boy's aspirations who wanted to be an army officer one day. By sheer hard work, resolve and dedication he not only succeeded in becoming an army officer, but also its topmost General, this day.
The story of his life is what dreams are made of; dreams that millions of youth see, but few realise. The story of the ascent of India's new Army Chief will most certainly inspire the youth who can now believe in themselves and their dreams, and with efforts, realise them too.
For the records, he is the third Army Chief after and Gen S.H.F.J. Manekshaw (later conferred the Field Marshal's rank) and Gen G.G. Bewoor, who were either commissioned into or were associated with the Brigade of Gorkhas.
Gen Dalbir Singh was commissioned on June 1974 into 4/5 GR (FF), more easily understood as the 4th Battalion of the 5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) for those not too familiar with such military nomenclatures.
It was a conscious choice I made as I wanted to join only the infantry,” says Gen Dalbir of his choice to seek out the Gorkha Regiment, whose soldiers are inarguably among the finest in the world, also much-feared and renowned for their bravery.
With a lean and muscular frame at six-feet, the new Army Chief literally and figuratively stands tall not just in the army but also is the revered patriarch for the Gorkha troops as their senior-most serving General. By virtue of the same, he holds the twin ceremonial appointments of 'Colonel of the Regiment' 5 GR (FF) since April 19, 2011, and as 'President Gorkha Brigade' since January 1, 2014.
However, traditionally an Army Chief also becomes 'Honorary Colonel' of several other 'Arms' and 'Regiments' of the Indian Army by age-old customs.
Born to be a warrior
General Dalbir Singh was born in Bishan village in Haryana's Jhajjar district on December 28, 1954. Although essentially an agrarian village like so many others in the region, large numbers of able-bodied men from these predominantly Jat villages, who inherit a martial ancestry and legacy, also choose to serve in the army.
His father and uncles followed their father and uncles into joining the army, mostly serving in cavalry and infantry units. Joining the army only seemed a natural choice for young Dalbir.
It may seem an odious inference but the coincidence is nearly hard to miss. Hailing from a nearby town – Kurukshetra -- made famous in the Indian epic Mahabharata for its warring generals and an enduring battle, it seems as if ordained that a warrior would one day emerge from around here to be bequeathed as a modern-day General for the Indian Army.
Early life, humble beginnings
In a script that belies belief, the boy who would one day be a General and Chief of the Indian Army in the 21st century had a far more humble beginnings than many would ever imagine. Dalbir began his schooling in the village primary school that had just about two brick-laid rooms to speak for any modicum of a school. The rooms were also the exclusive preserve of the senior classes, he recalls. Others including him had an earthier and shaded space beneath the trees.
Life in a village for a young boy then was much the same as is perhaps even today, in most rural settings. Nearly every village lad lends a helping hand in tilling or attending to the fields in their spare time or when the harvest season so demanded.
Young Dalbir too would also help his family members in his own way. This would nurture a deep sense of respect for the motherland that bore them their daily bread. It also instilled a great deal of pride in the young lad who was destined for a far bigger role in future, to protect this very land and its frontiers from external aggressions and threats, someday.
A cadet's life beckons at school
In 1961, the Government of India set out to establish Sainik Schools, a residential Public School for boys in several states that would serve as feeder schools to various officers training establishments such as the National Defence Academy (NDA) among others.
Sainik School, Chittorgarh (SSC) in Rajasthan was also among them. Gen Dalbir's granduncle was an equestrian instructor in the school, who suggested that he studied there. Thus began a journey of a life in uniform for Cadet Dalbir Singh on January 15, 1965, now almost half a century.
Suhag, incidentally is indeed his surname and although not averse to being addressed as such, it may only be prudent to address the General by his duly listed name -- Dalbir Singh -- to rule out any speculation on the correctness or lack of it, in so far as addressing him on record is concerned.
The flight from his village Bishan to his eventual alma mater at Chittorgarh would greatly shape his future to be an officer in the army. The process of transforming him with all-round abilities, conviction, courage and a steely resolve would be set forth here under the tutelage of some of the finest teachers of those times.
Those who taught him are today, understandably, a proud lot. Among them, Shri K.S. Kang who is in his 90s, exclaimed he felt “18 again” on hearing the news that a protégé of his is set to be the Army Chief. Shri Kang had a 10-year stint as an instructor at Indian Military Academy (IMA) before joining SSC in its formative years. His experiences would prove invaluable.
Shri H.S. Rathi, a national-awardee teacher who retired in 1996, describes Cdt Dalbir as a “very sincere, hard-working and obedient student,” and also makes a special mention of his sporting excellence. “He was also very good in sports and was a gifted basketball player,” he recalls.
Of his academic performance, Gen Dalbir's former English teacher, Shri J.N. Bhargava, says: “He managed his studies very well,” alluding to his excellent all-round attributes. “He was humility personified, a man of determination, of speed and tenacity of purpose and would do any job assigned to him most obediently” outlining his personality that set him apart from the others at school.
Leadership at Kumbha House
By the time he was in 9th class, Gen Dalbir was nearly as tall as he is today. He would also pick up riding early in school that would put him in good stead later in life. Much of his leadership traits began to surface as a House Captain of Kumbha House, one of the nine houses named after valiant Rajput warrior-princes of the region.
In the school journal report of 1971-72, Kumbha House Captain, Suresh Kumar Inani who took charge after Gen Dalbir left for NDA, wrote: “Having won the highest points ever received by any Champion House in the history of this Sainik School, the Kumbhaites are justly proud of this collective achievement,” summing up the stellar leadership of Dalbir that helped Kumbha House practically sweep all competitive trophies that year.
NDA, IMA – a bigger canvas
The 'Honour Roll' at the cadets’ mess of the school lists Cdt Dalbir Singh (Roll No-382) as the 82nd overall, and among the 12 cadets who joined 44th NDA course on July 20, 1970.
NDA only proved to be an extension of the school-like canvas, albeit at a wider and a more competitive level. Taking off from where he left at school in outdoor and other activities, he would go on to be a champion athlete and a sportsman par excellence. His riding skills would eventually lead him to be the President, Riding and Polo Club in NDA.
In June 1974, 2/Lt Dalbir Singh would finally realise his dreams to be an officer, a feat his veteran father, grandfather, uncles and granduncles and other family members would be proud of. As mentioned earlier, he was granted one of his choices of an infantry regiment and commissioned into 4/5 GR (FF), which was then the youngest battalion of 5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) having been raised on January 1, 1963.
Life in the army
To be commissioned in an outfit that had proven their mettle in the eastern theatre during the Indo-Pak War of 1971, was both a matter of honour and challenge. The unit had earned two coveted Maha Vir Chakras (MVC) and a few other medals for gallantry. It was never going to be easy measuring up to the reputation of the battalion and its valiant soldiers.
No challenge was however, insurmountable for this ambitious officer. Soon he endeared himself to his troops and earned their respect with his sincerity, involvement and abilities, always leading by example. His turn to show his deep attachments with his battalion would soon come and he would not fail them.
As a Major, he was an instructor at IMA when his battalion had moved to Sri Lanka for 'Op Pawan'. In a major operation at Jaffna, only two days after the unit had landed there, Commanding Officer (CO), Lt Col Inder Bal Singh Bawa and several others including officers and soldiers were killed in action. He recalls the onerous task of conveying the sad news to the parents of Col Bawa, who lived near Dehradun.
Upon learning of the tragic news that had befallen his unit, he wasted no time in asking Army HQ to revert him back to his battalion, which was granted. Within 24 hours, he was back in his unit and assumed charge as a Company Commander. He remained with the unit till they were finally withdrawn after two years. His arrival would immensely boost the morale of his troops that had earlier suffered several casualties.
As time went by, he rose in rank and also distinguished himself. Besides undergoing various career-defining service courses, he added a few 'Masters' degrees to his qualifications including one for 'Management Studies' from Osmania University, and another on 'Strategic Studies' from Chennai University.
Among the prominent service courses he attended in India, include: 'Long Defence Management Course' at College of Defence Management, Secunderabad (1997-98), and the 'National Defence College' Course at New Delhi (2006), which incidentally, is also an M.Phil (Strategic Studies).
The courses attended abroad include an 'Executive Course' at APCSS (Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies), Hawaii (USA) in 2005, and 'Senior Mission Leaders Course' held by UN Peace Keeping Centre, Nairobi (Kenya) and also participated in an UN Exercise in Accra (Ghana) in May 2007, and PAM seminar in Jakarta in 2008.
As he grew in the army's chain of command in a distinguished career spanning four decades, he also held several critical 'Command' and 'Staff' appointments. All this while, he would also serve in active counter-insurgency (CI) and proxy war environments, both in the North-East and Jammu & Kashmir as well.
He raised and commanded a 'Rashtriya Rifles Battalion' in Nagaland, and later an 'Infantry Brigade' deeply committed in intense CI-operations in the Kashmir valley, for which he was awarded a Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) for distinguished service of a high order.
He would also go on to command with great distinction a 'Mountain Division' in the Kargil-Drass sector, deployed on the 'Line of Control' in a high altitude area that earned him an Ati Vishist Seva Medal (AVSM) for distinguished service of a very high order.
He also served under the Cabinet Secretariat as an Inspector General, Special Frontier Force. On promotion, he was appointed General Officer Commanding (GOC) of a Corps, looking after the dual responsibility of CI operations in the North-Eastern States in addition to the conventional operational role along the Indo-China border.
He would then be conferred an Uttam Yudh Seva Medal (UYSM).
Subsequently, he was appointed Eastern Army Commander from June 16, 2012 to December 31, 2013, and later to the post of Vice Chief of the Army Staff (VCOAS) on January 1, 2014.
The General Officer would also be honoured with the Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM), the highest military decoration for services of exceptionally high order to the nation
Having served in Army HQ in two prior assignments as a Director, and later as a Deputy Director General in the 'General Service and Staff Duties' (GS&SD) Directorate, he was well acquainted with the working environs in the highest echelons of the Services HQ.
With seven months tenure as VCOAS behind him, he is aware of everything that he needs to know, which augurs well for the army in every respect.
A family man to the core, and when they met
He was a strapping, young handsome Captain posted as an instructor at the Army School of Mechanical Transport, Bangalore. He was also a bachelor and had come to Delhi on leave during the 1982 Asian Games. A friend of his would go on to suggest he consider a suitable proposal, the daughter of a retired Naval officer who were a well-established family in the Capital. He would agree and having met briefly his bride-to-be, would ask his parents to go ahead with the customary formalities. They would later be married traditionally in New Delhi on February 7, 1984.
Decades on, an interesting anecdote still evokes much laughter in the household that took place in the bride's place. The girls in the house had mistakenly assumed that the senior friend of then Capt Dalbir who had come home to broach the subject of marriage, to be the suitor himself.
Much to her disenchantment, the visitor looked much older with grey hair-burns et al. Needless to say, the erudite Namita, a Political Science graduate from Delhi University, for whom the proposal was being considered was in tears.
But soon she and her siblings would realise their folly and breathe a sigh of relief. But the suspense remained for a while. It was only when the tall, handsome officer dropped by eventually, his mannerisms and gentlemanly bearing would altogether leave her gushing and blushing, and her siblings impressed.
The couple would raise a family with daughters Pallavi, Priya and son, Sahil. With son-in-law Nishant now married to their eldest daughter Pallavi, the family picture is indeed a happy frame.
Family life in the armed forces has its own share of trials and tribulations. In the army, perhaps more so because of the frequent transfers. As Gen Dalbir rose through the hierarchy, his responsibilities also grew manifold. His profile is indicative of the hard areas he spent, where families were not permitted. This is when Mrs Namita Suhag would do well to take charge of managing her family and children when her husband was away.
Yet, it was not her immediate family alone that she would have to take care of. The families of soldiers living separated, remained her concern too. “They are my family members too. I would visit them as often as I could and resolve some of their problems in whatever way possible,” says Mrs Suhag, in keeping with one of the finest welfare traditions of our army, where officers and their families invariably adopt the culture, language and customs of their troops.
Coming from a Services background it may have been relatively easy for Mrs Suhag to don the role of a caring matriarch of sorts. Today, when she assumes the mantle as President, Army Wives Welfare Association by virtue of being the 'First Lady' of the Indian Army, the larger army family can look forward to her benevolence, understanding and affection in a much grander way. This would include the welfare of 'Veer Naris' who remain integral to the army.
In a way, it is not too difficult to see the attachment of the Army's 'First Family' with the Armed Forces. It is a well known fact that Gen Dalbir's family has past ties with the army, which includes a younger brother who is a serving Colonel with the Gorkha Regiment. Besides, his two sisters are also married to army officers.
In the case of Mrs Suhag whose father once served in the Navy, all her three brothers also served as officers in the armed forces. Her eldest brother has since retired from the army. Of the two others who chose to join the Indian Navy, one has since retired while the other is still serving. Her sister is also married to an army officer, son of retired Col Hoshiar Singh, a Param Vir Chakra awardee.
It is indeed an astounding record of sorts and comes as a little surprise that one officer from the family would work his way up to be the Army Chief. If ever there was a family who have given so many members in the service of nation in the armed forces, one needn't look beyond theirs.
A home full of warmth and of strong ties
Despite them being rooted to earthy moorings, one would invariably find the Suhag household a den of warmth. With interiors and decor also most tastefully done up, the creative and artistic leanings of the lady of the house is clearly evident. More than anything else, the family members make it a point that visitors to their house go back with more than just pleasant memories.
Both, the General and his wife are also fond of music. It is, however, of the older times and includes ghazals and songs from the times when they were a young couple. Time permitting, they also indulge themselves by watching a film together. Although he couldn't recall the name of the movie that he last saw, he was certain Sonam Kapoor starred in it. One can't fault the General for not remembering much of its screenplay though.
If possible, I would love to learn Bharatnatyam and other Indian classical dances,” says Mrs Suhag, clearly wanting to catch up with her interests and hobbies that she could not find time earlier. Although willing to give it a try, she knows in her present role, she would be even busier with welfare-related pursuits.
In recent years, the family did go through testing times. But that ordeal only made the family bond much stronger and resolute. The family had firm belief that they would overcome, and with prayers and wishes of family and friends, they did ever so wonderfully. Well wishers of the family and old friends who have known them for decades believed that insinuations would never stick. Today, they all stand vindicated and wish the new Army Chief and his family happy tidings.
The obedient one who is allowed to disobey
Surrounded by faithful guards and soldiers, it is unfathomable even to assume that anyone can ever disobey a General. In the Suhag household, however, there is someone who is allowed to have his way. Not just by the General's volition but in his own right and playful way. Yes, 'Juno' is his name and he is a four-year old Golden Retriever brought home as a gift to the family by daughter, Pallavi.
Clearly, Juno goes about his ways around the house with abandon until he sees his 'Master' come home, which is when he gets excited. At other times, he would quietly sit near his Master, gently seeking his attention and affection. “He helps me unwind completely,” says the General as he fondly pats Juno, who is forever ready to obey his commands.
The General recalls an offer by a specialist dog-trainer who once told him that he would train Juno to obey orders without blinking. The affable General declined his offer politely, saying, “I would much rather have him disobey me when everyone else around only obey my orders.”