Bapora in Haryana, where Gen. V.K. Singh was born and grew up, is a martial village which has sent its men to the armies of rulers in Delhi for the past 700 years. Rrishi Raote visits Bapora and listens in on stories about the General as a young boy and why “the government is wary of him”
There’s something impossibly, incredibly romantic about Bapora, the village — the enormous village, one should say, of over 20,000 inhabitants — where the present Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Vijay Kumar Singh, was born, spent his childhood, and still has a home.
It might be Bapora’s location, on the far side of the town of Bhiwani in Haryana (famed for its prize-winning boxers), on the fringe of the Thar Desert. It could be the dusty lanes that wind past big old houses, including havelis, some of them now abandoned and sunk a foot or more below the surface. It could be Bapora’s age, which is approaching 700 years. It could be the legends that surround its foundation, studded with sadhus and Rajput kings. It could be Totawala Baba, an ash-covered sadhu who has just begun his rigorous summer schedule of tapasya at the big Shiv Mandir near the government school.
It could be the tang of steel in the air, owed not just to the presence of hundreds of retired servicemen here (and generations of soldiers before them) but also to the historical memory of the locally famous Mulla-Nawab Ladai, when stolen taxes (carried, the elders say, on three camels and two horses) led a nearby nawab to wage bloody war against Bapora in the 16th century. He lost.
It could be the sharp eyes and military bearing of so many tall old men here — few young men can find, or seem to want, work here — who nevertheless have a calm and stately way of speaking, walking, sitting. They are the retired faujis. It might be the haunting emptiness of the lanes (where are the thousands of people?), lanes along which one might see a boy on a slim racing horse, making it rear back on its hind legs in the classic martial pose while dogs yap at its heels.
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It is easy to see why this village would send generations of men to the army, whether that army was Mughal, British Indian or Indian. The Rajputs say they are descended from the rajas Tungpal and Anangpal I (he built the fort of Lal Kot near Delhi), who were Tomars like many of the villagers today, who are Tanwars. Gen Singh, too, is a Tanwar, and the son and grandson of soldiers. Prithviraj Chauhan was Anangpal’s descendant. Chauhan is also a common local Rajput surname. So the villagers have soldiery in their blood. The Rajputs may once have owned most of the land hereabouts (now the Brahmin villagers own a sizeable share), but the land was not, at least until the advent of the Gujrani Minor canal in 1954, well-watered. However, Bapora was close enough to Delhi to fall, since the Turkish advent, within the core area of the sultanate and thus to provide soldiers for imperial, rather than local, armies.
Pride, tradition and the shortage of other local work opportunities continue to send Bapora’s Rajputs year after year to the Army’s recruitment camps (called bharti, enrollment) in neighbouring towns or states. Many who are enrolled enter the Rajput Regiment, as did Gen. Singh. The next bharti is coming up on May 8.
“Thirty or 40 go every time,” says 30-something Satpal Singh Tomar, who has a small new pharmacy around the corner from Gen. Singh’s ancestral home. “About 20,000 people show up for 200 vacancies. Two or three from Bapora get in.” This suggests that the Bapora candidates’ success rate, while not stunning, is better than average.
Seated outside the pharmacy is elderly Arjun Singh, a distant relative of the General, who served in the Border Security Force and retired as head constable in 1978. “He has been innocent from his youth,” he says. “He doesn’t do sifarish,” or nepotism, to increase the uptake of Bapora youth into the Army.
He shows the way to the General’s house. It is a single-storey, pink-painted structure with a verandah, with a big padlock on the gate. Until a short while ago the General’s mother was in residence, he says, but she fell ill and her son took her to Delhi for treatment.
The General was in Bapora recently on a working visit. He helicoptered in to launch a free medical camp, organised by the Army on March 27 at a local private school. This is more or less the extent of direct benefit to the area, barring one visit the Army chief made with Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda which resulted in some funds for development, and a veterinary clinic that is now coming up. “We hoped for more,” says Satpal Singh, even with pride, “but there is nothing.” A wishlist is quickly rattled off, from more funds to roads to village improvements to support for ex-servicemen and war widows to proper maintenance at the giant water works outside the village that was set up in 1969 with World Bank funds to provide clean water to 184 villages (but now serves just a handful).
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At a paras or meeting-place in the centre of the village is a group of elders playing cards in the shade. Harpal Singh, in a worn safari suit, was a paltan (regiment) mate of the General. “There is no shaitangi [mischief] in him,” he says firmly. “He is not looking to build a home, or buy land, or collect wealth.”
“That is why the government is wary of him,” continues Rajpal Singh, who served in the Jat Regiment. His colonel, he says, was the General’s batchmate. He offers an example of the General’s honesty: he refused to allow the adulteration of official petrol with kerosene by an Army driver.
“After studying [at the National Defence Academy] he joined my regiment as a second lieutenant,” says Harpal Singh. “He is about three years younger than me.” He says he remembers that the young officer “used to carry a weight of 50 kg on his back and go with the soldiers”. Like Rajpal SIngh, he reiterates: “General Sahib has two daughters, lives in a government house and does government service. He has a bit of land and both his brothers have jobs.” At the recent free medical camp, Harpal Singh got his teeth treated by the Army doctors.
“Not one local boy has been admitted to the Army because of the General,” he adds. “This does not make us sad. The name of our village grows.” The men nod in agreement.
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Gathered outside the house of Air Marshal (retd) Prithvi Singh — Bapora’s other military star — are the Air Marshal’s cousin Manphool Singh Chauhan, two ex-soldiers including Rambir Singh, and a few others. Prithvi Singh, who has an impressive 7,000 flying hours, now lives in Noida. The conversation turns to politics: specifically, the paralysis over the local panchayat. The village is dominated by Rajputs but there is a large Brahmin minority and a small Dalit minority. When the seat was reserved for Scheduled Castes, the upper castes refused to participate. A Dalit named Anup, who worked in one of the many brick kilns nearby, was declared elected unopposed. But the village has boycotted the panchayat and has taken its fight to court. One man was shot at for filing his papers. All development funds remain blocked, but the Rajputs refuse to yield. They are proud that “the village is united”.
Rambir Singh says, turning back to the topic of Gen Singh, “It has to be said that our General is not the kathputli [puppet] of the government, but is working for the nation.” The men say they held a dharna when the issue of the general’s retirement date hit the headlines.
A man carrying a sackful of straw fragments adds wryly, “Someone is an army chief and someone carries fodder. Everyone has his own work.”
As evening falls, a few more people emerge to walk and talk in the village. On his porch just up the lane from Gen Singh’s house is seated Capt (retd) Gugan Singh, a 90-year-old who served 37 years in the Army as a parachute commando and fought in Burma, Thailand and Malaysia during the Second World War. He looks a fit 75. He is the general’s uncle. He has a portentous childhood story to tell.
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“When he was 10 months old,” he says, “his mother saw him playing with a snake.” At this time the General’s father, who retired as a colonel, was posted in a hill station. His mother screamed for the orderly, who ran to get some officers. The officers called a sapera or snake-charmer. The snake charmer said this was very auspicious — “This will be a great man of Hindustan” — and refused to kill the snake. He said he would take it away and release it after 15 days, after which the orderly and the officers would die. So he did; and according to Gugan Singh, all three died of snakebite within a month.
Gugan Singh also tells with pride how the General topped every course he took, even the harsh US Rangers course. “He doesn’t get scared. He always took a forward posting. He is a tough man of Hindustan who can take on Pakistan and China.”
But when he comes to Bapora, this legendary warrior makes sure to meet friends and family. He has made five visits since becoming Army Chief, three private (and hence not in uniform). He leaves his guards in the house, although he cannot leave behind the government officials. When the chief minister was to visit with the General, the road outside the general’s house was paved within a few hours.
Gugan Singh, and most others, do not expect the General to retire to Bapora, although this is what the General said in an early interview as Army Chief. “Maybe he will sit in a temple,” says Gugan Singh, because on every official tour the General is said to visit the local pilgrimage sites. Rambir Singh says he is more likely to settle in Gurgaon, which is where his wife is from.
As we leave the village, Vicky’s Gim at the end of the road is just opening, and young men are stretching and picking up the weights. Another generation of Bapora’s men is preparing for the Army.