Monday, February 6, 2012

A Matter of Honour

Avoidable row over Army Chief’s date of birth
by Lt-Gen Vijay Oberoi (retd)
The Tribune – 10-01-2012

TRUST the government in general and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in particular to disparage the armed forces’ image at the slightest pretext. In the last few years, this seems to have become a norm. The latest is the way a simple issue like the age of Gen V.K. Singh, the current Army Chief, has been made a highly controversial issue. It has been extensively debated in the media for nearly the entire tenure of the Chief, when it could easily have been sorted out as a matter of routine. Now, there is a sudden urgency to the issue as the MoD has peremptorily rejected the plea of the Chief, as requested by him through the medium of a statutory complaint and there is speculation that the Chief may take the issue to the Supreme Court.

A simple case of when a person was born has been unnecessarily dragged into the public gaze because there are vested interests wanting to bring the high office of the Army Chief to such absurd levels where the issue of when the current incumbent was born has become a subject of speculation by the media and various self-appointed analysts, do-gooders and those wanting to please the leadership to meet their personal ends. Some loyalists of the government have even opined that the Chief should resign! Why should he when the MoD, including the person who presides over it, is to blame for this state of affairs? If any resignation is needed, it should be the persons who have brought this simple issue to this sorry impasse!

The facts are simple and straightforward. There is ample documentary evidence that General Singh, the current Army Chief, was born on May 10, 1951. This includes his birth certificate issued by a military hospital; the date in his school leaving certificate; the date in the records of the UPSC; the records of the military academies from where he passed out — the NDA and the IMA — the records maintained by the personnel branch of the Army, Adjutant-General’s (AG’s) Branch; the records with the battalion to which he reported on commissioning; personal record entries in the numerous annual confidential reports (ACR’s) initiated every year and many more documents.

However, the MoD, for reasons best known to it, persists in ignoring all this evidence and thrusting a date one year earlier — May 10, 1950 — as the date of the birth of the Army Chief. Why? Many have commented that this is being done because the powers that be are more concerned with who the next Chief should be in their reckoning and not the facts of the case. This consistent, albeit moronic, stance of the MoD is not only wrong but is also designed to denigrate the image of the General and show him as a self-seeking individual who wants to remain in office for a few months more!

In this perverted milieu, neither the political leadership nor the bureaucrats of the MoD seem to be concerned with the highly adverse repercussions this whole episode is having on the honour, morale and wellbeing of an institution that continues to be the only one in the country that enjoys the continuing respect and confidence of the populace. It is also the only institution that is the ultimate guarantor of the security of the nation. Consequently, its honour and image need to be preserved at all costs, lest the country suffers on account of acts of omission and commission by a few individuals who seem to be more concerned about their personal interests and not the interests of the nation.

The question of the present Chief’s successor should never have been part of the correctness or otherwise of the case — the date of birth — as it is extraneous to the issue under consideration. The rules relating to the selection of a new Chief are very clear. A panel is drawn up of the four or five seniormost Army commanders or equivalent and the government then selects one. Of course, in the past, the government has been selecting the seniormost Army commander, but that is because the government chooses to adopt the easy and non-controversial option of seniority and not the one of merit, although in the past there have been at least two cases where the seniormost was not selected. Be that as it may, it should never have been the reason for ignoring the mass of documentary evidence that confirms the Chief’s date of birth as May 10, 1951. The government can, in any case, select whoever it wants as the next Chief from the panel. If there is a fear that the seniormost will then retire in the normal course, even this can be pre-empted by giving him an extension as was done in the case of General Bewoor a few decades back.

Many right-thinking persons in the country are wondering why the MoD has created this unseemly controversy when the documentary evidence is clear and incontrovertible. Having served for over 40 years in the Army and having held many appointments at Army Headquarters where dealing with the MoD was a frequent affair, I can venture to outline a few reasons. The foremost is that the MoD and, indeed, the hierarchy of the government want either pliable officers or yes-men to head the services or those who can be pressurised to do their bidding on account of extraneous reasons. Any elaboration is neither needed nor desirable.

An independent-thinking chief of a service, who is likely to take a firm stand when he disagrees with what the government wants, as in his military perception it will harm the military and/or the nation, is a big “no-no” for them. At the heart of such thinking are three aspects.
  • Firstly, the government has psyched itself to think that there is an ever-present danger of the military, especially the Army, as has happened in many neighbouring and Third World countries. This is despite the fact that no chief or any other officer of any service at any time since our Independence has shown even an inkling of such thinking. Such irrational thinking on the part of the government is not based on any facts or indicators, except the fear in the minds of the political leadership, which is periodically stoked by their so-called advisers for their own personal and obviously limited ends.
  • Secondly, the hierarchy is happy with the status quo and has little time for a dynamic person who points out faults/inconsistencies and, in bureaucratic parlance, “rocks the boat”! While many civilian officials demonstrate their loyalty by being yes-men/women, irrespective of the merits of each issue, as long as their own backs are covered and personal requirements, dubious or otherwise, are met, the training and make-up of military personnel preclude them from acting in this manner. On a number of issues the present Chief has asserted his independent views and hence the hierarchy perhaps feels that the sooner he disappears from the scene, the better for them! They seem to be least concerned with what is correct, what is legal and what is good for the nation and the Army.
  • Thirdly, such a hiatus is in consonance with the past actions of the government, where downgrading the military at every opportunity has now become a norm. This is apparently sought to be justified as strengthening “civil control”, but actually the concept seems to be least understood by our political leadership, irrespective of the party affiliations of the government in power at any particular time.

    Despite the technicalities advanced by the government, it is obvious that there has been little application of mind on this issue. This happens when bureaucratese supplants thinking and common sense! It is still not too late for the MoD to make amends so that faith in the correctness of the system is restored, at least to some degree.
    The writer is a former Vice-Chief of Army Staff.
    A Matter of Honour
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