Lt General S K Sinha (retired), the only lieutenant general to be denied the post of Army chief despite his seniority, passed away at the Army Research and Referral Hospital on Thursday. The former Vice-Chief of Army Staff, who also served as Governor of Assam and Jammu & Kashmir and ambassador to Nepal, was 90.
Sinha was born on January 7, 1926, in Patna. His father was the first Indian Inspector General of Police of Bihar. After graduating with honours from Patna University in 1943, Sinha joined the Army and was declared best cadet at the training school in Belgaum. He saw active service during World War II in Indonesia and Burma, where he was the Adjutant of the Prisoners of War camp housing men from Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.
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At the time of Independence, Sinha — then a Major — was the only Indian officer posted with the Military Operations branch and saw the Partition from close quarters. Yahya Khan, who later became President of Pakistan, and Sam Manekshaw, India’s first Field Marshal, were also posted there soon. He interacted closely with leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. When Nehru offered him a chance to join the newly formed Indian Foreign Service, Sinha refused as he wanted a career in soldiering.
Sinha served on the staff of General Cariappa when he was overseeing the 1948 Kashmir war as Western Army commander. He narrated the famous anecdote about Cariappa’s poor Hindi. While addressing soldiers at Naushera in February 1948, the General, wanting to convey that India was now a free country, said, “50 Para Brigade ke officeran, Sardaran, Jawanon. Is waqt mulk muft, aap muft, hum muft hain.”
When the ceasefire started in Kashmir on January 1, 1949, Sinha, though still a Major, was appointed secretary of the Indian delegation for a conference convened by the UN to delineate the ceasefire line. Sinha later regretted that they never thought of delineating the line beyond NJ9842, thereby sowing the seeds of what is now the Siachen dispute.
Sinha was an avid writer and penned many articles. In an article written in the 1960s, he called on the Indian Army to discard British traditions such as dinner nights, post-dinner toast, fine china cutlery, and replace them with Indian meals, paan and traditional Indian silver cutlery. This, he argued, was to make the image of the Army more Indian. On the other hand, Sinha had a flair for British etiquette, writing and figures of speech. He authored nine books, including his memoirs, A Soldier Recalls.
Climbing the ladder of promotions, Sinha became the seniormost General and was to replace General K V Krishna Rao as the Army chief in 1983. But the then Defence Minister R Venkataraman and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose General A S Vaidya, two months junior to Sinha, citing Sinha’s lack of active service in operations during the three wars. The real reason, many believed, was the government’s discomfort with Sinha’s penchant to stand up for soldiers’ rights, pay, perks and status. Sinha resigned.
He later contested the 1984 Lok Sabha election from Patna as an opposition-supported Independent candidate but lost in the Rajiv Gandhi wave.
Sinha remained in public life and was appointed Indian High Commissioner to Nepal by the V P Singh government in 1990. In 1997, Sinha was appointed Governor of Assam and steered the state which was battling the ULFA insurgency. He also served as J&K Governor from 2003 to 2008, during a period when normalcy was returning to Kashmir. But his relationship with the then CM, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, deteriorated to the extent that they were not on talking terms. That was the last public office held by Sinha.
Sinha is survived by his wife Premini, son Y K Sinha, an IFS officer who is currently Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, and three daughters.