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Tales of an Officer and a Gentleman

Sreya Ray  |  New Delhi 

It is not easy writing a biography when your intensely private and modest subject refuses to spill the details about his life with the premise that doing one's duty efficiently is nothing noteworthy. So S Muthiah turns to other sources: colleagues and superiors in the Army, friends, family and, naturally, the wife, to painstakingly scrape together details on the life and times of Lieutenant General Inderjit Singh Gill. The reader does not get to know Inder, as he is referred to throughout this book, in an intimate, up close manner, but rather by peering over the shoulders of all that have known him.
Lt. Gen. Gill was truly a soldier's soldier, possessing bravery, tenacity and inviolable integrity in spades. Born in Bolton, England, to a Scottish mother and an Indian Sikh military doctor, he fought for the British Army during World War II, and then enlisted in the Indian Army post 1947. He began as a paratrooper,and continued to be known throughout his career as an expert in a remarkably difficult specialised regiment. While Muthiah has narrated, with a historian's eye for great detail, the good soldier's major military exploits, what is more interesting is how Inder operated and behaved as a leader and strategic task manager behind the front lines. He did not suffer fools, cowards or lazybones gladly, and would set an example by simply doing the impossible, whether it be a trek from point A to point D in the harshest terrain and conditions or living on meagre rations even as Army Commander.
There were times when Inder's loyalty to the country conflicted with his sympathy for the desires of the local people for independence or greater authority. Sikkim, where he served as General Officer Commanding in the erstwhile Indian protectorate, is one such example. There, he visited every part of the state, extended assistance wherever necessary, and became immensely popular with the locals and with the Chogyal, the sovereign leader. The Indian government's decision to oust the Chogyal and absorb Sikkim as part of India in 1975 saddened him.
A military man sees everything in black and white, in terms of victory, defeat, losses, gains, or promotions, family, etc. Such simple goals do not gel well with bureaucracy and politics which may shake up the sediment and water into a murky mess. While Inder enjoyed the respect of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for his consummate handling of the 1971 war (as the Director of Military Operations), he occasionally rubbed the Political Officer posted in Sikkim the wrong way. Unlike the then Chief of Army Staff, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Gill possessed little diplomatic skills, whether with military comrades, or politicians who reportedly demanded unreasonable accommodations or concessions. Outspoken is the word most often used in his performance appraisals, and not always in a favourable light.
Barely a month before he was to retire from the Army in 1979, Inder shot off a terse letter to the Times of India in response to their editorial on a civilian issue, criticising the media and politicians for fighting the cause of Indian immigrants in the UK when Indian citizens were suffering at the hands of their own police. This letter put him in a spot of bother, with angry MPs calling for his head. Inder got away with a reprimand for violating his impartial silence while in public service. After his retirement, Inder was freed of such shackles, and a delightful appendix lists most of his letters to the editor essaying his opinions on various national and defence issues.
The newfangled obsession with celebrities and their daily business, tattoos and wedding preparations, along with the recent battle among politicians for the Bharat Ratna, has led many to wonder who really deserves the limelight. Therefore, it is a refreshing departure to read about the life and times of a dedicated, principled officer and a gentleman, who shunned fame or media plaudits for his brilliant military career, and who many thought should have made it to the post of Army Chief. Lieutenant-General Gill is unfortunately no more, but that is no reason not to find his conduct and values worth emulating, as Muthiah as seen fit to announce.
S. Muthiah
Penguin Viking; 280 pages; Rs 495

First Published: Fri, February 22 2008. 00:00 IST