Lieutenant general V K “Tubby” Nayar (Retd) is among a rare breed of military officers. Despite being outspoken with his seniors in service and wearing his inability to suffer fools gladly on his sleeve, he made it to the top ranks of the Indian Army which in recent years has, unfortunately, begun to resemble other government services where flattery and sycophancy earn good “Çonfidential Reports” and ensure career dividends.
Originally a Signals officer, Nayar, after persistent pestering of his bosses, managed a transfer to his desired regiment — the elite Maratha Light Infantry (MLI), securing a billet with 2 Para (3rd battalion, MLI, converted to paratroop infantry). 2 Para was dropped over Tangail in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, less than six months after Tubby, to his eternal regret, had handed over command.
But thereafter Nayar missed nothing, being in on the anti-Sikh riots in the capital when, as additional director-general, military operations, he pleaded futilely with then chief of the army staff, general Arun Vaidya, to appoint him the general officer commanding Delhi area in order quickly to show force and deter the rioters; Operation Bluestar; and, the 1987 Operation Brasstacks. As the Western Army commander, he was tasked by army chief general K Sundarji to write and conduct the massive exercise, without being made aware that Brasstacks was to be a cover for an armoured thrust into Pakistan — Operation Trident, which II Corps was supposed to execute after peeling off from Brasstacks. It was a complicated deception manoeuvre to facilitate Trident, except it was so bungled by Sundarji that the commander of II Corps, the estimable Lt Gen Hanut Singh, was surprised by this new plan requiring his large formation to wheel around mid-exercise and rush pell-mell into battle on the hoary Rahim Yar Khan axis — something he was entirely unprepared for! Nor did the Western Air Command have any hint of war, with its head, air marshal M M Singh, confessing to Nayar that his fleet of Jaguars was low on droppable ordnance!
It helps that as a memoirist he has a sharp memory and can recall details of conversations and incidents from 40-50 years ago involving his colleagues and seniors. While he has nothing but praise for the men and officers he commanded, his unvarnished take on his seniors is refreshing for its withering honesty. The late General Arun Vaidya is described as lacking in “moral courage” and General K Sundarji is dismissed as “big talking and blustery”— more show than substance who, Tubby fears, set a bad example for junior officers to emulate. And he reveals the self-aggrandizing tendencies routinely realised by IAS officers at senior levels of government. There was P K Kaul, for instance, who as defence secretary opposed the establishment of the National Security Guard (NSG) as redundant to the need, as the finance secretary rejected it on the basis of paucity of financial resources, but as the cabinet secretary approved the NSG because it would be controlled by him!
The biggest impression Nayar made, however, was as general officer commanding 10 Division in Manipur and Nagaland where his commonsensical approach, sense of fairness, and respect for the tribal folks and their traditions won him respect of the people and leverage with the underground leaders. On one occasion when prime minister Indira Gandhi was to make a public address and the intelligence bureau and state police had warned they couldn’t guarantee her safety, Nayar approached Zuevo Sema heading the “Naga National Army” to sanitise the area! In fact, Nayar’s impact on the northeastern states was such he was appointed governor of Manipur, and given additional charge of Nagaland, after his retirement. But true to his record and reputation, he resigned, unwilling to do the dirty political work of the Congress party-led central and state governments.
Nayar’s memoirs, moreover, engagingly evoke the camaraderie, and sense of honour and duty that still drive the Indian Army.