Lt Gen GS Sangha retired as the Chief of Staff Western Command on July 31. A fourth generation soldier, he tells Man Aman Singh Chhina the experiences he has had in his career ranging from counter insurgency operations, taking on the Chinese as GOC of a Division and Corps Commander and leading the fight against Covid pandemic. Excerpts from an interview
You have commanded an Rashtriya Rifles (RR) Battalion in Jammu and Kashmir followed by a Brigade and were BGS (Operations) in 15 Corps HQs in Srinagar. What sort of experiences did you have in those tenures and what is your appreciation of the ground situation?
I commanded a battalion in Pattan in the Valley from end of 2002 to mid-2005. I had had Counter Insurgency (CI) experience earlier as I had been deployed in Nagaland and also some limited CI operations in Punjab militancy in early 1990s. My Rashtriya Rifles battalion had under its area of operation a 22-km stretch of highway, which led to Uri and beyond. The neighbouring RR battalion was being commanded by the now Army Chief, Gen MM Naravane. When I saw his welcome DO letter to me, I noticed that it had five unit citations given by the COAS, Army Commander and Governor. I wondered why my battalion did not have any unit citation and made it a target to get one before my tenure was over. My team was motivated enough and thereafter for 14 years the unit, 29 RR, kept winning citations.
The situation in the Valley keeps changing. There are times when things become relatively peaceful but then incidents trigger some intensity and things go bad again. Kashmiris want peace and progress and they used to point out in interactions that the children of their leaders were settled abroad. But some sections got instigated from across the border and they were forced to rally around in protests under the threat of harm to them.
You commanded a Division deployed in North Sikkim and a Corps deployed on the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh in 2018. What were your experiences against the Chinese PLA?
The area in North Sikkim is nearly as tough as Siachen altitude-wise except that there is less of snow. As far as the PLA activities go, they always want to keep creeping ahead and keep creating controversies, which they can exploit in long run. Chinese respect strength. Once they see that you are not a pushover, then they do not go beyond a point. Later, when I commanded 4 Corps, which was again on the LAC in the Tawan area, we remained polite but firm and did not let them change the status quo on the ground.
They would come with sole aim of gathering evidence that they had been frequenting that place. They would litter the area and mark boulders and take pictures of the area. We would re-paint the boulders with Indian slogans. Sometimes it was very clear that if they do not report with pictures, they will get sacked. It was evident from their actions. I gave orders that if they click pictures, Indian faces must appear in them. Don’t let them take pictures where there is no Indian face or Indian flag. Because 10 or 20 years later they can produce this evidence. They have been known to do that. They think long term. They have people who serve in those areas in repeated tenures. So they have that advantage of institutionalised memory.
Were there incidents between the two sides like the present ones?
There used to be pushing and pulling at times and we had identified the characters (Chinese) who, whenever they came with a patrol, would behave like that. So we used to be prepared accordingly. There was a very interesting case in Yangtse. We have an advantage over them there and we could see when they were coming and by the number of vehicles we could know how many of them were there. I decided that we have to have moral ascendancy over them and issued orders that as and when the Chinese approached, our troops would pop up to confront them five at a time. The Chinese did not know how many of our troops were there and they started asking our officers upfront how many people did we have there. Our simple answer used to be, ‘enough’.
In another incident, in 2018 when I was Corps Commander, a senior colonel of the PLA (equivalent to Indian Army Brigadier) attempted to enter our area with a sizeable number of troops to take pictures. He tried every trick to get upto a certain point. He came with 400 people. However, we were well placed in 4 Corps. We also put those many across. When they could not push us back, they started interacting. The senior officer came down to pleading and confessed that he was going to get sacked if we do not let him take pictures. ‘I am a very high profile officer. All I want to do is take one picture I will not take any of my men along’, he pleaded.
Our CO told him very clearly that we have to maintain status quo and any issue should be taken up with higher headquarters or in border peace meetings. Then we saw him pull out bottle of wine and two glasses and offered one to the CO. Obviously he (the CO) did not take as he was was on duty. That fellow (Chinese) drank the whole bottle, became emotional and again pleaded. So I told my CO to tell the Chinese Lt Colonel accompanying him that his senior was behaving irrationally and if anything happens he will be responsible. Eventually they went back.
You spoke of maintaining moral ascendancy over the Chinese. Can you give an example?
There was one post where the Chinese had around 100 troops and every morning they would petform martial arts. There was a Punjab Regiment battalion of ours there, so I told them that they too should perform their martial arts such as ‘Gatka’ with swords etc. A Madras Regiment battalion would do Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial art of Kerala. And Gorkhas would do Khukri Dance. That is how you would play mind games with them.
How did the Western Command prepare for the Covid pandemic of such magnitude, especially for force preservation?
When it started happening, the first thought from the Chief and Army Commander downwards was that we must preserve our force so that we are available for any contingency. Since we are an organized body of troops, it does not take us long to operate new measures and implement them. We also knew that at some point we may be called for assistance to civil government and we prepared for that. We isolated our boys. We put in place lockdown and within each unit we made red, green and orange zones. It was good planning and very stringent implementation of evolving procedures by being one step ahead. That helped us keep a control over it. It was not an individual achievement but a collective effort.
Did you have any military background before joining the Army?
We are from a village called Jandu Singha near Jalandhar and there is a great soldiering tradition in that village and, of course, the entire Punjab. My great grandfather was a Havildar in Army as was my grandfather. My father were four brothers and three were in the Army with two of them being officers and one a soldier. We are three brothers and all of us joined the Army. We are married to Army officers’ daughters. We have been a through and through an Army family. My elder brother was Colonel of the Regiment of Rajputana Rifles and I was the Colonel of Regiment of Grenadiers. Our father retired as a Lt Colonel in 1986. Incidentally, my elder brother Lt Gen IS Singha has acted as the DGMO in a new television series on Army named ‘Avrodh’.
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