Thursday, January 19, 2012

Army chief age row should be settled in an honourable way

19 Jan, 2012, 05.56AM IST, The writer has posted comments on this article TK Arun,ET Bureau
Even now, it is not too late to douse the controversy eating up the reputation, primarily, of defence minister AK Antony and the UPA government and, secondarily, of the Indian Army. The controversy over the date of birth of chief of army staff Gen V K Singh should be settled in an honourable fashion.

The General, apparently, is more interested in getting his age record straightened out and his name cleared than in how long he stays on as army chief. He has reportedly no problem stepping down when the government wants him to. But the common people do have a problem, for a matter of principle is involved. The matter of principle is straightforward: a plan to anoint a particular person as chief of the army staff besmirching the name of an honourable soldier should not succeed.

If a section of the army brass deliberately got Gen V K Singh's date of birth recorded as May 10, 1950, instead of May 10, 1951, the only reason would be to ensure that Gen Singh retired in time to allow a favoured person to succeed him as the army chief. If Gen Singh's year of birth is 1951, he would retire a year later, and so would the intended successor, leaving the coveted post of army chief to someone else.

The precise identity of the favoured successor and of the successor were Gen Singh to stay on till 2013 is immaterial. The choice of India's army chief should not be determined by a conspiracy. If the civilian government has to establish its authority over the armed forces fully and completely, it is in demonstrating and consolidating this principle, not by insisting it has the writ to determine when someone was born.

If it wants to, the government can ask Gen Singh to go tomorrow, after setting his age record straight; but then, it should follow through by appointing as his successor not the intended beneficiary of a probable conspiracy but someone else.

V K Singh was born in an army hospital. The army keeps records of births and deaths. Army records show that Singh was born on May 10, 1951. His matriculation certificate says he was born on that date. It is in an application form submitted to the National Defence Academy that the 1950 date appears.

The General's case is that the application form was filled by the staff of his school, who made an error. He sought to rectify this error time and again, after he joined the service. This application form was the basis for a wrong date entering his official records.

In a telling comment on the efficiency of administration in the Indian Army, two sets of records were maintained in the army as to his date of birth, one in the Military Secretary's branch and the other in the Adjutant General's office. The Adjutant General's office is supposed to be the official record keeper and the citations accompanying V K Singh's many medals carry the date of birth May 10, 1951.

The MS branch continued with the 1950 date.

This mattered little to anyone till his promotion came up in 2006 to corps commander. Since corps commanders are the guys in the running for the post of chief of the army staff, Singh's date of birth mattered for the line of succession that would be followed.

Singh was virtually coerced into accepting 1950 as the year of his birth by the MS branch. He was told that his promotion was at stake, if he did not accept that date. Gen Singh made a wishy-washy promise to accept whatever was in the organisation's larger interest. This was interpreted by the MS branch to show that he had accepted 1950 as the year of his birth. He got his promotion and subsequently rose to the position of the army chief.

The legal opinion submitted by the Attorney General's office hinged on conflating correction of a mistaken entry as to the date of birth with amending the date of birth. Since amendment is not allowed, the MS Office record had to be followed, the law officer reasoned.

For the same reason, and since Singh had committed to his superior, Gen Deepak Kapoor (subsequently indicted in the Adarsh Housing Scam), that he would accept 1950 as his year of birth, the defence ministry also plumped for 1950 as the year of birth.

These are technicalities that serve to obfuscate the real date when the man was born. The army hospital record and his matriculation certificate are the most authentic documents available on the subject, not some NDA application form. Gen Singh's age was incidental to his promotions, not conditional on them.

As the political leader he is, it was up to Antony to cut through self-defeating technicality and get to the facts underneath. He failed to do so, and even told Parliament that the General's date of birth was May 10, 1950. He is, in the process, colluding in the conspiracy to anoint a particular person as the next chief of army staff.

This, certainly, cannot be his intention. For, Antony is an honourable man (not necessarily in the sense in which another Antony famously used that phrase).

Antony seems to suffer from a morbid inability to wield his political authority. This will not do. It is not his job to keep saying yes to whatever his bureaucrats tell him. He should use his political judgment to sort out the mess that has built up over the General's age.

A sensible course would be to correct mistakes in army records - this is different from altering the records - on Singh's age, ask him to leave and appoint as the next army chief whoever would have succeeded Gen Singh had he stayed on till 2013 or any other competent officer other than the intended beneficiary of a probable conspiracy.

Wouldn't this be injustice to Gen Singh? He would be paying the price for allowing himself to be bamboozled into accepting a wrong date of birth to get his promotion. This is not so important in the larger scheme of things.

Failure on Antony's part to use his political authority at a juncture like this would harm him, his party, his government and our nation.
Army chief age row should be settled in an honourable way

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