No winner, losers all
Asian Age Feb 15 2012
Gen VK Singh became a victim of circumstances, some of his own making and some of others’. He failed to get the mistake rectified in time.
Hopefully, the Supreme Court verdict on the Army Chief’s date of birth ends an avoidable and unfortunate controversy that raged for nearly a year. The apex court has provided sugar-coated bitter pills for all stakeholders to swallow, with or without water. Depending on how one views it, the verdict is a “win-win” or “lose-lose” situation for all.
Gen. V.K. Singh is a man of integrity and honour. No one has questioned this, although he felt his honour and dignity were at stake. There is irrefutable evidence to support his claim about his age. Yet he became a victim of circumstances, some of his own making and some of others’. He failed to get the mistake in this regard rectified in time.
The staff at Army Headquarters should be faulted for maintaining different dates of his birth kept in two branches. Surprisingly, the Army worked on a succession plan for Army Chief, which is none of its business. No annual reports are written on Army commanders nor is an outgoing Chief required to recommend the name of his successor. This has been so since the Curzon-Kitchener dispute of 1905. The age controversy should have been resolved by the defence minister, A.K. Antony, discussing it with Gen. Singh. He should have done what the Supreme Court later did. The bureaucrats in the ministry of defence displayed arrogance of power, violating norms. A junior-level bureaucrat ordered the AG (adjutant-general), a staff officer of the Chief, to change the latter’s date of birth! This happened twice, and even when the case was sub judice. No wonder the apex court directed the ministry to withdraw its letter. The government at the apex level remained a mute spectator.
We have had a galaxy of distinguished Army Chiefs. Posterity remembers them for their contributions. Cariappa, for piloting the Army’s transformation from a colonial to a national Army during a period of great turmoil, and of vivisection of the Army due to Partition with young Indian officers lacking experience getting suddenly promoted to high ranks on the departure of senior British officers. Rajendra Sinhji, for his exemplary moral character in declining the appointment of Chief superseding Cariappa, as he felt that may lead to politicising the Army. Chaudhri and Manekshaw, for their contributions in the 1965 and 1971 wars. Raina, for keeping the Army apolitical during the Emergency. Unfortunately, despite all his good work, Gen. V.K. Singh will be remembered primarily for his DoB controversy.
Gen. Singh filled his application for joining the NDA in which inadvertently his year of birth was shown as 1950. He was commissioned in 1971. For reasons beyond his control, he got his matriculation certificate only a few years later, and then, presumably on that basis, got his date of birth corrected by the Organisation Directorate of AG branch. It appears that Organisation Directorate did not inform the MS (military secretary) branch. Changing the DoB on the basis of authentic documents for a captain is an issue of little consequence, except for the individual concerned. The AG branch erred in not informing the MS branch. Although year after year the Army List had been showing 1950 as his year of birth, it was only some 30 years later that Gen. Singh approached the MS branch to change the year. The latter turned down his request because, as per Defence Service Regulations, no change in DoB can be made after three years of service. Promotions are made in the Army on the basis of seniority and merit, and not age. With every promotion, the retirement age gets extended by two years. Gen. Singh being asked to give a written undertaking in 2006 and 2008 accepting 1950 as his year of birth, before promotion to major general and lieutenant general, was obviously mala fide. It is strange that he agreed to do so. On taking over as Chief, he took it up with the government. Instead of resolving the issue by talks with the defence minister and later accepting his correct date of birth but restricting his tenure as Chief till May 2012, the government gave him a cause to put up a statutory complaint and later seek justice in the Supreme Court. The apex court did what the defence minister should have done. The unprecedented showdown between a serving Chief and the government would have been avoided.
In the wake of this controversy, much dirty linen has been washed in public, tarnishing the Army’s image. There have also been other undesirable developments, like 20 Rajput MPs pleading with the Prime Minister for a Rajput Chief; a Grenadiers ex-servicemen’s association filed a PIL for a Rajput Regiment officer. This was rightly rejected by the Supreme Court. Personal and unbecoming allegations started floating around against the front-runner to succeed Gen. Singh. Maj. Gen. Handa filed a case before the Armed Forces Tribunal at Chandigarh against Gen. Singh for giving him an adverse report because, as deputy military secretary, he had not agreed to change his date of birth when he had applied for it in 2006. Handa maintains that this led to his being denied promotion to lieutenant general.
There have been two opinions about a serving Chief taking a public stand against the government. Lt. Gen. Bhagat, a Victoria Cross holder and a brilliant officer, was done down by giving an extension to the then Chief, Gen. Bewoor, leading to his retiring before the latter. It was not a case of supersession but of blatant manipulation. I happened to be perhaps the only senior Army commander superseded in over a century. This was on account of my views on dealing with Bhindranwale, accepting which could have avoided Operation Blue Star, and my father’s close personal and non-political relations with Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayan. Neither Bhagat nor I questioned the government’s decision or went to court. The other view is that the Chief, like any citizen, has the right to seek justice in court. This does not take into account the very high status he enjoys and its inevitable impact on the Army. A sharp division among both serving and retired Army officers surfaced during this controversy. Much of this has been due to the pent-up feelings of Army officers against the civilian bureaucracy, which has established a stranglehold in the MoD in the guise of supremacy of the civil over the military. Since 1947 they have persistently denied the military personnel their legitimate due, repeatedly lowering the protocol status of military officers vis-a-vis civil servants and increasingly marginalising them in the process of decision-making. In view of dangerous signs in the wake of this controversy, it is high time that the government took corrective measures. There is little chance of the Naresh Chandra Committee, headed by a former defence secretary, doing so. While retired Navy and Air Force Chiefs have been made members of the committee, a retired Army Chief seems to have been deliberately kept out.
The author, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and J&K
No winner, losers all: The Asian Age
Comment: The Indian Army has been become spineless with a fear it is only likely to win losing battles. Thanks to the supremacy of the bureaucracy!
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