‘Making of a General: A Himalayan Echo’ is a valuable reference piece on the Northeast

Many Indians do not know much about the Northeast with its earlier seven and now eight states after the inclusion of Sikkim

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Jan 16, 2021
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Many Indians do not know much about the Northeast with its earlier seven and now eight states after the inclusion of Sikkim. Imphal, the capital of Manipur, was the seat of the Meitei Kingdom, Kangleipak, extending beyond present Manipur, whose army gave the British stiff resistance and was the last of the princely states to come under British rule in 1891. Steeped in arts, culture, and sports, one of Manipur’s traditional Meitei games, Sagol Kangjei, was modified by the British in the 1850s as polo. Witnessing a few matches of Sagol Kangjei fascinated the British enough for them to institute polo which became known worldwide as a sport of the adventurous and elite. 

What is also worth knowing is that in the 1830s when the British sent missionaries of all denominations of Christianity into India’s vast northeastern region for the conversion of tribal communities was only the Meiteis of Manipur and the Ahoms of Assam who effectively resisted the conversion and maintained their religion as Vaishnav Hindus, elaborately following Vaishnav rituals and thereby developing culturally too.

Lt. Gen. Konsam (Dr.) Himalay Singh (retd)  was the first brigadier and the first major general from Manipur and the first Lt. Gen. from the Northeast in the Indian Army He served in all parts of India’s land borders, including in some of the toughest terrains and operations - the Kargil war. He spent years near the Line of Control with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control with China and the Siachen Glacier.  

Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla virtually released Lt Gen Singh's  book Making of a General-A Himalayan Echo (Konark Publishers) at Durbar Hall, Raj Bhavan, Imphal, on January 8. One of the comments in media was: “The book elegantly summons the essence and imperatives of superior command of one of the most formidable forces in the world.” Hearing about this book was a pleasant surprise for this writer, who has known the author since the late 1980s when he was a young captain, posted to Imphal, where this writer was posted as India's Defence Ministry spokesperson. 

For Himalay, Imphal was a posting to his home state, where he is usually addressed traditionally as Komsan Himalay by family and friends. But in the armed forces circle, he became and remains popularly known as ‘KH’.

Although Gen. Singh is modest enough to admit in his book that as a child he was physically weak, shy, and scared of heights, he not only became an accomplished mountaineer, but also a military leader who at various levels of commanding troops dealt effectively with the enemy and other challenging situations. Beginning his life in a village, it was with his simple, yet forward and determined approach that he got selected to become an officer and a good leader. But considering that one of his superiors expressed to him that “boss management” was not his strong point, means that his rising to the rank of a Lt. Gen. can be attributed to mainly his competence and as such creditability.

Despite belonging to a tradition-bound community, Himalay's family happily accepted his wife, Mangala, a Maharashtrian, who in turn bonded very well with his family. She is a doctor, who served in the army, Assam Rifles and later also in the parliament’s clinic.

This book is valuable because in each of the chapters titled - The Foundation, Unfolding of the Challenges, World’s Highest and Coldest Battlefield, Soldiering on: Towards Ethical Officership and Nation First, the author has made many insightful observations on various aspects of operations, administration, training and leadership, mostly along with sound suggestions/recommendations.

In the chapter, World’s Highest and Coldest Battlefield, Siachen, where the author commanded a battalion, and which during that tenure was also pitched into the Kargil confrontation in 1999, some vital aspects are highlighted. One is about the severity of terrain and climatic conditions, combined with the lack of intelligence about Pakistan’s Army’s intentions and movements in Kargil, which made the confrontation very costly in terms of casualties for the Indian Army.

Another aspect was of how difficult or complex a task it is to administer to the needs of the army deployed in such challenging terrain and weather. And yet another aspect is of how sometimes, shoddy staff work or negative attitude of a staff officer denies a unit and its personnel the tributes or acknowledgments they genuinely deserve.  

An ironic fact about the Indian Army, whose soldiers were acknowledged worldwide in two great World Wars as being out of the best in the world, have for seven decades since Independence been fighting with the deficiency or absence of some of the other weapon or equipment and almost always winning owing to sheer courage and often with a higher cost of casualties.

In the chapter Soldiering On: Towards Ethical Officership, he has highlighted how the Indian Army is yet to have a near-ideal assault rifle, despite India’s over forty ordnance factories. Often the Indian Army’s military and even non-military enemies – terrorists - have had more sophisticated or superior weapons. There have been instances of the central armed police forces being equipped with better weapons. KH in his book raised this issue. The blame for this cannot always be put on the politico-bureaucratic establishment. The Armed Forces top leadership has to share some such blames.

When Gen. Singh was commanding a corps in Jammu and Kashmir, former Defence Minister, late Manohar Parrikar visiting his formation asked before leaving if there was any requirement pending, Gen KH Singh responded by requesting for fast- track supply of good boots for his troops. The Army Chief accompanying Parrikar was most taken aback. On a spot check of the troops present there, it turned out that over 90 percent were wearing privately purchased boots as the ordnance issued ones were of poor quality.

In the last chapter Nation First is packed with many insights and analyses of important, complex and far-reaching issues related to the security and well-being of the northeastern region. The author’s in-depth knowledge of the region and his observations on aspects of ethnicity and demography, particularly related to Manipur and Nagaland is noteworthy.

After Gen. Singh’s retirement from service in 2017, his experience and expertise have been made good use of. After a two-year stint as head of the State Public Service Commission, he is a member of the State Consultative Committee on the Naga talks and also a visiting faculty of Department of National Security Studies in the Central University of Manipur, Imphal.

This book is a good reference piece, which should be read by armed forces, central police, and intelligence officers, scholars, analysts and particularly, bureaucrats and politicians related to national security and the Northeast.  

(Making of a General: A Himalayan Echo By Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh, Publisher Konark, Pages: 217 (in hardcover), Price: Rs. 800).

(The author is a former spokesperson, Indian Army and Ministry of Defence) 

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