From Dr Hamid Hussain
Many folks asked me about recent news item about conflict between two senior Indian army officers. It was simply personality clash & nothing significant. However, pedigree of both officers and some interesting historical facts were too tempting for the story teller like me.
Clash of Two Jats
Recently, conflict between General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of South- Western Command (Sapta Shakti) of Indian army Lieutenant General Alok Singh Kler and his Chief of Staff (COS) Lieutenant General Kamal Kumar Repswal became public. Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General M. M. Naravane ordered a Court of Inquiry (COI) and Respwal was posted out as COS of Eastern Command. The nature of conflict is not clear, but some suggest that it relates to command decisions and administrative matters. There is no evidence that there was any financial irregularity or moral lapse.
Lieutenant General Alok Singh Kler and Lieutenant General Kamal Kumar RepswalAlok and Kamal are both very good officers and respected by peers. Both have excelled professionally, and both carry an extra chip on shoulder due to strong family connection with armed forces. Alok is a Sikh Jat from a village near Ludhiana. He comes from an illustrious military family with several generations service in armed forces. His grand-father Honorary Captain Chajja Singh was from 3rd Skinner’s Horse. He fought in France and Iraq during First World War and later transferred to Signals. His father Lieutenant General Gurdev Singh Kler was from 18th Cavalry and fought 1965 Indo-Pakistan war with his regiment. Later, he commanded 56th Brigade in Nagaland, an armored brigade and armored Division, served as Director General Military Training (DGMT) and commanded Armored Corps Center in Ahmednagar.
Proud father with two sons on his side, 1981;
Pilot Officer Jasjit Singh, Major General Gurdev Singh and Cadet Alok Singh (1)
Alok’s uncle Shamsher Singh joined Signals but retired early in his career due to health reasons and another uncle M.S. Kler served with Gorkhas. Major General Hardev ‘Harry’ Singh Kler (1924-2016) was also his uncle. He attended Gordon College in Rawalpindi. He was from Signals Corps but during his career served as GSO-2 of Northern Scouts, Brigade Major of 82nd &104th Infantry Brigades and GSO-1 of 19th Division under Major General Rawind Singh Grewal (3 Mahratta Light Infantry). He was also a paratrooper. He commanded 95th Brigade of 101st Communication Zone Area commanded by Major General Gubux Singh Dillon in 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Dillon was evacuated when his jeep hit a mine, but Harry had minor injuries to his knees. GOC of 2nd Mountain Division Major General G. S. Nagra took over command of 101st Communication Zone. At Kamalpur post, Harry’s brigade was held for three weeks by a company of 31 Baloch Regiment with some paramilitary elements commanded by Captain Ahsan Malik. After surrender, Harry drove from Bakhshiganj to meet Ahsan and examine defenses of the post. Indian army chief General Sam Manekshaw had sent a congratulatory message to Captain Ahsan for his defiant stance and instructed formation commanders to treat prisoners of Kamalpur post with respect and kindness due to brave soldiers. Harry is famous for his encounter with Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Ahmad of 31 Baloch Regiment of Pakistan army. In Jamalpur in East Pakistan, Harry surrounded Sultan’s troops and sent him a message for surrender. Sultan replied that “Hope this finds you in high spirits. Thanks for the letter. We here in Jamalpur are waiting for the fight to commence. It has not started yet. So, let us not talk but start it. Forty sorties, I point out, are inadequate. Please ask for many more. Hoping to find you with a sten in your hand next time instead of the pen, you seem to have so much mastery over. I’m most sincerely. Commander Jamalpur fortress”. Sultan also sent a bullet with the letter. Sultan tried to break out and in the ensuing firefight over 200 Pakistani soldiers were killed and wounded.
Harry and Nagra were first to enter Dacca and negotiated surrender conditions with Pakistani Commander Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi. Harry was wearing maroon turban and had wings therefore Niazi thought he was commander of the paratroopers dropped at Tangail. Niazi asked him about his regiment and when Harry told him that he was from Corps of Signals, Niazi replied that in our army we did not give brigade commands to Signals officers. Harry was promoted Major General and given command of 10th Division in Chamb area of Kashmir. Harry was a flamboyant officer with good taste. He constructed a beautiful division guest house overlooking Tawi river probably not following administrative rules. Harry’s successor probably thinking that he might be blamed for actions of his predecessor, informed XVI Corps Commander Lieutenant General (later General & Indian army COAS) KV Krishna Rao (2 Mahar Regiment). Rao initiated the inquiry and Harry along with some of his staff officers was court-martialed and sent home. Later, he was able to get back his rank. He moved to United States and died in 2016 in California due to complications from his leg amputation. Harry’s son Davinder Jeet “Deejay” Singh Kler was Flight Lieutenant during 1971 war and retired as Wing Commander.
Brigadier Hardev Singh Kler with his son Flight Lieutenant D. J. Kler, 1971
Alok’s brother Air Marshal Jasjit Singh ‘Cherry’ Kler is a helicopter pilot. He is from 126th Course and commissioned in 1980. He had 700 hours under his belt during Siachen operation. He served as Commandant of No 127 Helicopter unit, Deputy Commandant of Air Force Academy, Director General of Flight Inspection & Safety, Senior Air Staff Officer of Eastern Command and Commandant of National Defence Academy (NDA).
Air Marshal Jasjit Singh Kler
Alok’s another brother Captain Harvind Singh served with 18th Cavalry but left army early. (2) His father in law is a decorated war veteran Brigadier Narindar Singh Sandhu (1932-2018). Sandhu was an armored Corps officer (3rd Cavalry & 65th Armored Regiment) but later transferred to infantry. He commanded 10th Dogra Regiment and won Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) in 1971 Indo-Pakistan war.
Alok was commissioned in June 1982 and joined 68th Armored Regiment. He was a rising star destined for higher ranks. He attended staff course at Wellington, German combat course and Bangladesh National Defence College. He commanded the armored division that his father had commanded and served as DGMT; a post that his father held. He commanded Ambala based II ‘Kharga’ Corps and served as Chief of Staff of Army Training Command (ARTRAC). In September 2019, he was appointed GOC-in-C of Jaipur based South-Western Command.
He has a strong personality and some personal decisions of life gives insight. He kept traditional Sikh hair and used turban but later in life shaved his hair. He is also very keen on fitness and made headlines when he bicycled from Delhi to Jaipur; a 270 kilometers distance to take command of his new post. He is also more focused on combat readiness and shuns pageantry. He issued orders for more practical and simple approaches and avoidance of red carpets. This may have rattled many who like old rituals.
Kamal is a Jat from Rajasthan and comes from a military family. His father Lieutenant Colonel Jagan Singh Repswal was from Punjab Regiment. He got emergency commission in 1964 and after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war got permanent commission. Later he transferred to Army Supply Corps (ASC). Kamal’s brother Lieutenant General Basant Kumar Repswal is from ASC and Commandant of ASC School in Bangalore. Basant had won Gold Medal at National Defence Academy (NDA). Kamal’s two sons also joined the army; Major Abhimanyu is serving with armored corps and Major Abhishek with Engineers. Kamal’s brother-in-law Lieutenant Colonel Yogendra Singh is in technical arm and specializes in construction of air strips.
Lieutenant Colonel Jagan Singh Repswal
Kamal was the best cadet at academy and won coveted sword of honor. He was commissioned in Corps of Engineers in December 1984. He held several important positions during his career. He served as Chief Engineer of Andaman and Nicobar Joint Command, Deputy Director General at Engineer-in-Chief office, Chief Engineer of Northern Command and Chief of Staff (COS) of Jodhpur based Corps. He is professionally sound and has a strong personality. He is not hesitant to express his opinion when interacting with superiors.
Alok issued a new year directive in 2020 to his subordinate officers but probably forgot to read it himself. His directive stated that ‘commanders at all levels must ensure that they lead a happy team, which is well bonded, maintains excellent bonhomie and looks out for each other”. He also suggested that preparation for battle needs encouragement of professional dissent”. (3)
Alok is retiring at the end of March 2021 and will fade away from the scene. However, Kamal still has sometime in the army. This creates dilemma for COAS. Kamal expects command of a Corps as next crowning moment of his career. If he is appointed Corps Commander, some may think that it will send a wrong signal to others that confronting your superior is not a career ending adventure. On the other hand, if he is not given the posting, he may appeal to the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT). Indian army officers have the option to appeal to AFT against a promotion or posting decision taken by COAS.
In my view, this issue was not handled properly. Kamal aired his complaints to COAS in September 2020 in the presence of Alok. This should have been a red flag suggesting break of working relationship between Commander and his COS. Postings are norm in the army and Kamal should have been transferred to another command where his career is not affected while inquiry is conducted about his complaints. This would have avoided this unpleasant situation. Recent reports suggest that both officers have withdrawn complaints against each-other and COI headed by Lieutenant General Iqroop Singh Ghuman has concluded its work. Indian army higher command structure is such that Corps Commanders, GOC-in-Chief of Army Command and Chiefs of Staff of Corps and Army Commands are of same Lieutenant General rank. Superiors and subordinates holding the same rank means potential for friction is inbuilt in the system.
It is unfortunate that two fine officers are caught up in this controversy due to strong personalities. No evidence has emerged so far that suggest any financial irregularity of moral lapse. Armies are large bureaucracies and the nature of function of armed forces requires a certain degree of conformity and very little room for individual initiative especially if it goes against the norms. There is friction among officers due to professional competition and jealousy or genuine difference of opinion. Usually junior officers curb their enthusiasm to safeguard career prospects and rarely confront seniors. This environment creates expectation of senior officers that juniors will simply follow the orders and not rock the boat. They are also fearful that if they allow professional dissent, it may open the flood gate where everybody will start giving their pearls of wisdom paralyzing his command. Officer expressing dissent needs to remember that it has limitations and it cannot be allowed to interfere with administrative decisions that are prerogative of commander. A good commander allows expression of opinion as well as professional dissent while at the same time keeps firm control of the ship.
Acknowledgements: Author thanks many for their valuable input and corrections. All errors and omissions as well as conclusions are author’s sole responsibility.
- Hindustan Times, 31 July 2017
- Hindustan Times, 31 July 2017
- Hindustan Times, 16 August 2020