An error committed 40 years ago by a young boy while filing an application form to join the National Defence Academy (NDA) has snow-balled into a controversy that is unprecedented in independent India, pitching an army chief against a civilian government. As Gen VK Singh waits for his petition on the age-ruckus to come up in the apex court, his English teacher, BS Bhatnagar has an interesting tale to tell.
Forty years later and seated on a sofa in his Gurgaon flat, Bhatnagar, now 77, recalls helping the boys fill in their NDA application forms, and clearing their schoolboy doubts about what to fill in which column. These were, after all, 14-year-olds who hadn’t previously filled many — if even the one — official document.
Gen Singh, before joining NDA, was completing his higher secondary (10th standard) from the Birla Public School, Pilani, a boarding school, where Bhatnagar was one of the two English teachers. Singh was at Pilani when he filled his Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) application form, under the guidance of Bhatnagar.
Bhatnagar was, and still is, an admirer of the Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter ace Douglas Bader who lost both legs in the Battle of Britain. “Churchill praised the RAF and pointed out that ‘never had so many owed so much, to so few,’” remembers Bhatnagar. This was a story he would tell his students, as he carted UPSC application forms to Pilani. “This was 1965 and we were still hurting from the 1962 debacle at the hands of the Chinese. So I wanted as many of my boys to be in the services as possible.”
Naturally, Bhatnagar was partial to the Air Force. And so, during prep (boarding school term for ‘study hour’) he would tell aspiring Douglas Baders about the prestige of becoming fighter pilots.
“I was very young then. I had joined Pilani in 1960 and V.K’s batch was 1965... I was very keen that our boys join the services.” As a result, VK Singh’s first option from the three services was the Air Force.
Bhatnagar remembers the confusion that the young Gen Singh faced about his exact year of birth. “He knew his date clearly as May 10 but could not recall the exact year. After all he was born at a time when birth certificates and years were not easily available. In fact, many of my boys were confused so I would help the boys by filling in the details in pencil and they would over-write them in ink. V.K was confused about his year of birth, so we entered 1950,” he told DNA.
“The confusion was cleared when the casualties record (father’s service record) was obtained from the battalion and accordingly, his school leaving certificate stated his date of birth as 1951,” says Bhatnagar. The “casualties record” is a key document in the Indian Army since it records every major personal and professional detail of an officer’s career. Major Jagat Singh, father of the current army chief, was with the 14th battalion of the Rajput Regiment which clearly records the year of birth as 1951. This was more than adequate at that time to clear any confusion and set the record straight.
Incidentally, Bhatnagar quietly smiles as he lets you in on another secret. A few years later, Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh, the man the UPA government is determined to appoint as the next army chief, was also his student. Gen Singh was already in NDA and Bhatnagar had moved on to Punjab Public School, Nabha, where Lt. Gen Bikram Singh was a student preparing for NDA.
As far as “V K” is concerned, he was “determined to crack (the) NDA (entrance exam). When it was bed time (“lights out”, as far as boarding lingo goes), ‘VK’ would continue studying in his cubicle with a dimmed light.” Bhatnagar remembers Gen Singh clearly.
They’ve been in touch ever since. When Singh took over as the GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, Bhatnagar wrote him a letter of congratulations to which Gen Singh promptly replied. “He was quiet… but not reserved.” Bhatnagar says he was “good” in English, yes. A bright student, which was later confirmed. “He was always upright, honest, truthful and known for his perseverance.”