The legendary Lieutenant General Ajai Singh, PVSM, AVSM who passed away at the RR Hospital, Delhi Cantt on 17 April at the age of 88 years owing to multiple ailments, leaves behind several momentous achievements. A veteran of the 1965 and 1971 wars, he was undoubtedly an exceptionally bright officer who had been awarded the Sword of Honour when he passed out of the Indian Military Academy in June 1956 as part of the 17th regular Course and was commissioned into the Poona Horse which he subsequently commanded and whose Colonel of the Regiment he went on to be. Apart from an illustrious and distinguished career in the Army he was also the Governor of Assam from 2003 to 2008.
Born on 20 November 1934, he hailed from the Kunadi family of erstwhile Kotah State in Rajasthan. Writing in the Salute Magazine, he recalled spending early hours of the morning while growing up riding and wrote about how an unusual chill went through his spine when siting on a white horse named ‘Aibak’; a sensation which was difficult to express in words!! In retrospect, he felt that day, somewhere down in his being ‘a cavalier was born mating itself with the characteristics of a horse, symbolising speed, ferocity, courage, power and the desire for the dash to conquer and win.’ All that was needed was the fusion with the destructive power of a weapon.
These characteristics with the noise and resonance of cannon fire entered his blood at a young age but remained dormant. It was when he was commissioned and joined Poona Horse and mounted the tank for the first time, moved and fired it, that he experienced the same exhilaration when he rode Aibak and heard the cannon being fired at Kunadi Fort.
Educated in Mayo College, Ajmer he went on to join the Joint Services Wing at Clement Town, Dehradun, which was subsequently rechristened as the National Defence Academy and moved to Khadavasala, Pune.
General Ajai Singh is survived by his wife Mrs Krishna Ajai Singh, his son Sajai and daughter Shambhavi.
He served with Poona Horse in the Shakargarh Sector both 1965 during the ‘Battle of Phillora’ where he led his Centurion’s with distinction tearing into the Pakistani defences for which he was ‘Mentioned -in – Despatches’, and 1971 Operations. In the latter he was the Second in Command to Lieutenant Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Hanut Singh in the ‘Battle of Basantar’. When the C Squadron Commander Major (later Lieutenant General) Moti Dar was injured, he took over as the Squadron Commander and inducted them across the minefield which had not yet been cleared in a bold and audacious move which has gone down in the annals of military history.
about 0230 hours on 16 December 1971, reports indicated that the situation in the Bridge Head was getting desperate and the Engineers were still working on clearing the lane on the far bank of the Basantar. The situation in the Bridge Head was so critical and if tanks did not get across and link up with the assaulting Infantry Battalion, there might not have been a Bridge Head left to induct into. Considering the gravity of the situation, the Commandant Lieutenant Colonel Hanut Singh ordered ‘C’ Squadron to start leading the advance, irrespective of whether the mine field lane was cleared or not. He ordered that in case any tank blew up on a mine, the next tank was to bypass from the right and this was to be repeated till some tanks at least managed to get through.
The ‘Hand of Allah’ was with the Regiment that night because all tanks negotiated approximately 600 meters of the un-breached minefield, without any mishap. The very next day a jeep and an APC, which both deviated slightly from the tank tracks, were blown up by mines. At 0830 hours, a strong counter attack was launched by enemy tanks of 31 Cavalry. ‘C’ Squadron repelled the attack and destroyed eighteen enemy tanks.
After the 1965 War ended taking account of the outcome, it was evident, that long drawn-out vulnerabilities had been exposed especially in the field of antiquated equipment. While ceasefire negotiations were going on at Tashkent, the Army decided to make up their woeful deficiency of tanks. However, no country was willing to sell military equipment on account of the Super Power standoff wherein Pakistan was signatory of the CENTO. Through intensive diplomatic activity, USSR agreed to help by directing Czechoslovakia to sell tanks to India. It was then that he along with Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) KK Singh were ordered to board a plane to Czechoslovakia, to test the capability of the T-54.
An officer who was commissioned into Poona Horse when he was the Commandant remembers his command fondly and recalled how as a young officer who had still not done his Young Officers Course, he entrusted him with conducting a major tank trial and briefing the GOC of the Infantry Division on its progress and outcomes. There was no doubt that General Ajai not only delegated responsibility but had implicit faith and trust in his subordinate’s ability to deliver results. He said he was always extremely friendly off parade, played games with the troops on week days and golf with the officers on weekends and had an open house.
During the Bicentenary Celebrations in 2017, he summed up the time-honoured tradition of Regimental Spirit when he said; “We pledge to live to the Poona Horse spirit which is an intangible compendium of many qualities that defy description, but which infuse it in every Poona horseman and guides and sustains him both in peace and war.
After attending the Higher Command Course, he was posted General Staff Officer of 1 Armoured Division which resulted in his first contact and subsequent intimate association with General Sundarji, who was the Division Commander. This association turned into a professional bonding which lasted till he passed away.
He commanded the famous ‘Black Charger’ an Independent Armoured Brigade, at Ambala from 1980 to ’82 after which he was nominated to attend the Royal College of Defence Studies at London on return from which he went on to be the Brigadier General Staff of 1 Corps at Mathura when the Corps Commander was Lieutenant General VN Sharma and the Chief of Staff was Major General SF Rodrigues both of whom went on to be the Army Chiefs. It during this tenure when a major exercise was conducted to validate the operational concepts of the Armoured Division which had been equipped with the then state of the art T -72 tanks.
He was Additional Director General, Weapons and Equipment, at Army Headquarters, from the year 1985 to ’87 at the time of the induction of Bofors. He then went on to command the 31 Armoured Division at Jhansi from 1987 to 1989 and thereafter on promotion was the Director General, Mechanized Forces from 1989 to ’90 and then took over 4 Corps, at Tezpur, Assam from 1990 to ’92 where the formation was actively involved in Operation Rhino. Before retiring he was Director General, Combat Vehicles (DGCV), from 1992 to ’93, and on retirement was appointed as CCR&D, Defence Research & Development Organisation from 1993 to ’95.
The appointment of DGCV was created by General Sunderji to give the required impetus to the Arjun Project and the first DG was; Lieutenant General SPM Tripathi Thereafter, many other senior officers from the Armoured Corps tenanted this appointment; namely Generals Shankar Roy Chowdhary, NS Malik and General Ajai Singh.
Dr Arunachalam was very impressed with his commitment and dedication to the Project. He then requested MoD to requisition his services post -retirement as a member of DRDO. This was agreed to and coincided with the change of SA; Dr Arunachalam handing over to Dr Abdul Kalam. He had never met Dr Kalam, and it was on the day of their handing and taking over he assumed the appointment in DRDO.
The post of CCR&D (Land Systems); was created by Dr Kalam. This gave him the authority and jurisdiction to oversee the ARJUN Project. It was on account of this freedom and unqualified support given by Dr Kalam, that a 17 years old indigenous tank project was completed in a record time of six months.
I had the privilege to have been serving in my Regiment when he took over command of the White Tiger in Jhansi. He had a unique style and what stands out amongst many other things was his arriving in Babina soon after the PT Parade one morning and then observing the reaction of all units as we assembled in the main ground and he went around from unit to unit interacting with us and then addressed all ranks. As youngsters we thought it was all over but he had different plans and put us through a series of activities till late night. In that short period, he was able to gauge each unit and what stood out was the manner in which he engaged with everyone across the spectrum of rank and service. Thereafter all troops swore by him. Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Dilip N Desai said; “one comes across a person such as Gen Ajai Singh but rarely. Was fortunate to have been a CO when he commanded 31 Armoured Division. Large hearted, ready to experiment with new procedures, fun loving, open handed and helpful.”
Brigadier Ravi Malhotra who was the Colonel Administration in Jhansi remembers him fondly and states ‘that he was always ready to go an extra mile to help someone, to the extent that he was even willing to change the rules if he could do so’.
The last time I met General Ajai Singh was in November when he released ‘Armour 71’ a book which had been written by a team of authors including me, led by the President of the Cavalry Officers Association Lieutenant General Amit Sharma. He spoke of his experiences in battle and recounted the lessons learnt as far as mechanised operations were concerned and the need to get military strategy right. There was no doubt that his mind was still razor sharp and he held the gathering mesmerised with his illuminating remarks.
The Governor of Assam Gulab Chand Kataria on the passing away of Lieutenant General Ajai Singh said, “I am deeply hurt by the death of former Governor of Assam Lt General Ajai Singh who served the state with deep commitment. His death is a great loss. Assam was indeed fortunate to have had such a leader at its helm, who served the state with honour and distinction.”
Men like him are rare and he leaves behind a rich legacy. His contribution to the Army and the nation has been immense. Everyone who has interacted with him has no doubt an anecdote to relate. He had the unique ability of reaching out to people and his professional and personal qualities are hard to emulate. He was most approachable and always ready to help. A towering personality, he had an aura and a charisma which left a lasting and indelible impression.