Newspaper obituary columns this morning brought the news of passing away of one of modern India's finest soldiers, retired Lt-Gen VK Nayar, known more popularly by his nickname Tubby. He was a paratrooper, an infantryman, a counter-insurgency specialist, an Army commander (he retired as GOC-in-C, Western Command) and, above all, a friend of the Northeast. He served a brief, but deeply unhappy, stint as governor of Manipur.
He was an old Northeast veteran. In early 1966, while India was still recovering from the 1965 war and Indira Gandhi was settling down as the new prime minister after Lal Bahadur Shastri's death, a new threat to national security emerged with the Mizo uprising. It had been simmering for some time, and found willing, jobless soldiers with the disbanding of a Mizo-dominated Assam Regiment battalion (2nd) in Kashmir in 1964 for insubordination and indiscipline. Laldenga led the rebellion that lasted two decades until a peace accord with Rajiv Gandhi brought him overground and he served as elected chief minister, 1986 on.
There was also the phenomenon, in 1959, of Mao Tam, peculiar to Mizoram. Wild bamboo flowers after many years and their sweetish base aren’t just a favourite food of rats, they are also a fertility enhancer. In a Mao Tam, the rat population grows phenomenally, as it happened now, wiping out stored grain, resulting in famine in a very poor and remote area. What is known as Mizoram now was just a district of Assam then, called Lushai Hills, and to say that the state government mishandled the situation would be an awful understatement. It was callous, insensitive and incompetent in its handling of the famine. Laldenga's rebels had first come together under the banner of Mizo National Famine Front. Later, one of the "F"s was dropped.
If interested in knowing greater details of that phase, do read late Nirmal Nibedon's second classic on the Northeast, Mizoram: The Dagger Brigade. The first was Nagaland: Night of the Guerrillas.
Anger, disaffection, Pakistani/Chinese arms through Burma and Chittagong Hill Tracts enabled Laldenga to organise an armed rebellion which surprised a country still recovering from a big war, death of a prime minister and serial, nationwide droughts. There was no army in Aizawl, just an Assam Rifles (paramilitary, as different from the Army's Assam Regiment) Garrison which was besieged and on the verge of being run over as his guerrillas took over the district treasury and unfurled their flag on it.
Indira Gandhi responded as only she would. While the Army planned its move, she sent the IAF, bombing Aizawl. It was the first and the last time IAF had been used to bomb our own people, and it was quite an angry and extensive bombing and strafing. There was no way she would let the Assam Rifles garrison be run over. The Mizos carry deep scars from that bombing even now.
But it bought the Army time. The first fighting column to move into Mizoram was from 5 Paras and it was led by a happy, somewhat rotund but hyper-energetic young major, Tubby Nayar.
That mission worked. But Tubby was to return as Major-General 15 years later to Northeast as GOC of 8 Mountain Division, which controlled Nagaland and Manipur, while both had raging insurgencies. Manipur then had multiple insurgencies, in fact, with Imphal Valley also in the grip of Meitei insurgent groups, notably Bisheshwar Singh’s "Peoples Liberation Army”, trained in Lhasa by the original carrier of that name. The oversized division was headquartered at Zakhama near Kohima and was, at one point, almost the size of a corps.
This is precisely when I was sent by Arun Shourie to cover the Northeast for The Indian Express. I met Gen Nayar on my first visit to Kohima. For the record, though, I must add that situation was so fluid in early 1981 that a fresh division had to be brought into Imphal (23rd, Ranchi) to divide up responsibilities with the 8th. But for 8 Mountain, this was home.
Tubby changed the mood with his very own firmness and largeness of heart. He was tough when his troops faced battle, but generous in the extreme with Nagas of all strata. The new emerging political class loved him as he could be about as informally boisterous as a Naga, which is saying a lot.
Of the many stories about him, I was personally witness to one. In the 1982 assembly elections, the state excise minister wrote a letter to him, on his official stationery, requesting if he could release 10,000 bottles of rum from the Army's canteen stores as campaigning had become very expensive now and he couldn't afford so much liquor at market prices. The general showed the letter to me, but didn't report it to anybody, and also swore me to keep it off-record. "Beta, these are such simple people," he told me. "We shouldn't judge them by our standards of hypocrisy”.
Of course, he called the minister home, gave him plenty to drink, and a sermon on the need to be careful.
He also hosted me, with my wife and baby daughter (one and a half years old then) at his Zakhama home as I made my farewell visits in 1983 to places which had given me so many front-page datelines. His parting gift to me was, as he said, what a Naga would give a fellow Naga, a formidable, traditional, dao (machete), with a grip covered with a patterned Naga weave. It still sits somewhere in my household.
He moved to Delhi very soon too, and rose in the hierarchy, reaching up to Western Army commander, and we stayed in contact all through. Post-retirement, he was appointed governor of Manipur but returned soon, bitterly disillusioned. He was too much of a gentleman, too straightforward and honourable for a place whose people he loved so much but which was so laden with intrigue and corruption to acquire the name “Moneypour".
Tubby never really recovered from that experience. He has written about this in detail in his autobiography, From Fatigues to Civvies, and honoured me by asking me to come and speak at the launch. He had also had me look at its earlier drafts. Pick it up now for for the story of a wonderful soldier, a paratrooper at heart, and a salt-of-the-earth Indian.
Read it also for some brilliant nuggets, like how did Operation Blue Star acquire its name. Apparently, Tubby, then Deputy Director-General Military Operations, was going home with a colleague after putting in place the final operational plans for clearing the Golden Temple. They were still searching for a code-name. The car passed an air-conditioner sales and repair shop. The signboard said, Bluestar air-conditioners. And what Mark Tully later described as Indira Gandhi's last battle, acquired its codename.