Indian army chief, Gen VK Singh, taking over from his predecessor, Gen Deepak Kapoor. The controversy over Singh's birth date was further vexed by Kapoor, who put overt pressure on Singh to accept a birth date of 1950
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Sept 11
The growing tension between the army and the defence ministry (MoD) over when the army chief, General VK Singh, will retire could be heading for a sensational climax. Business Standard has learned from sources close to the army chief that he will definitely go to court if defence minister AK Antony turns down his official petition requesting that his birth date be recognised as 10th May 1951.
Driving Gen Singh’s decision to escalate the face-off is his annoyance at the defence minister’s statement to parliament on Sept 7th, in which Antony said that the army chief was “left with 8 months and 23 days of service as on date.” Given that Antony is still considering Gen Singh’s petition, the army chief sees this unvarnished answer as an indication that Antony will reject his appeal and humiliate him in the process.
“The chief feels he has been pushed into a corner; he has no choice but to fight for his military reputation. And he knows that his legal case is watertight,” says a close personal associate of the army chief, who is assisting him in this matter.
Antony’s statement to parliament has already proven nettlesome with a Rajya Sabha MP, Mohan Singh, challenging the defence minister for allegedly falsely stating in parliament that Gen Singh was promoted on the basis of a date of birth of 10th May 1950. The MoD acknowledges this challenge and says it is examining the matter.
This controversy stems from the army’s inability to detect or reconcile, for 35 years, that two key branches in army headquarters maintained conflicting dates of birth for Gen VK Singh. The Military Secretary’s Branch (MS Branch), which deals with postings and promotions, has 10th May 1950. The Adjutant General’s Branch (AG’s Branch), which is the record-keeping authority, has 10th May 1951. The MoD has ruled that the general was born in 1950; hence he will retire on 31st May 2012 after reaching the age of 62 that month. But the army chief has officially petitioned Antony that his birth year be considered 1951 on the basis of multiple documents that he submitted four decades ago (including his matriculation and birth certificates). If his plea is accepted Gen Singh would serve till 31st Mar 2013 when he completes three years as the chief.
In concluding that 1950 should be regarded as Gen Singh’s birth year, the MoD has argued that the army chief had himself accepted that date. Now Business Standard has accessed confidential documents that show that this acceptance was under pressure. The documents illustrate that Gen Singh was explicitly threatened by MS Branch to accept that he was born in 1950; and that the MoD had serious concerns over the MS Branch’s handling of this issue.
When Gen Singh was being evaluated for appointment as the commander of the eastern army in Kolkata, the MS Branch sent his documents to the MoD in 2007. On 14th Dec 07, the key MoD official dealing with promotions and postings of senior officers, Joint Secretary (G) Bimal Julka, wrote a secret letter --- number MoD ID No. 11(9)/2007-D(MS) --- to the Military Secretary, Lt Gen PR Gangadharan. Julka asked how the MS Branch had changed Gen VK Singh’s date of birth from 1951 to 1950. Echoing what Gen Singh says today, Julka demands to know, “It is seen… that the officer has all along indicated his date of birth as 10.5.1951. Hence, the basis for officer’s date of birth as 10.5.1950 may please be indicated.”
Julka’s question triggered a flurry of letters from the MS Branch to Gen Singh (then a lieutenant general commanding the prestigious 2 Corps), demanding an unequivocal written commitment that he was born in 1950. When Gen Singh demurred, the MS Branch issued a bald threat. In wireless signal number 388025/2008/MS(X) dated 24th Jan 08, MS Branch demanded an unconditional and immediate commitment to a 1950 birth year, adding, “If reply not recd (received) by 1000 hrs (hours) on 25 Jan 08 action deemed appropriate will be taken.”
Gen Singh believed that “action deemed appropriate” was an MS Branch threat to scuttle his candidature as eastern army commander. The same day he sent off his acceptance to MS Branch, but continued a testy correspondence, protesting this demand.
The MS Branch lost no time in triumphantly telling the MoD’s Julka that Singh had accepted 1950 as his birth year. But it was hardly possible for the MS Branch to hide its own faults. In letter number A/45751/Army Cdr/MS(X) dated 25 Jan 08, addressed to the MoD’s Bimal Julka, Lt Gen Gangadharan admitted that two birth dates existed “because of lack of coordination between the two branches (MS and AG’s) at that point in time…. The officer had also been mentioning 10 May 1951 in all his ACRs (Annual Confidential Records) but the MS Branch did not seek clarification/reconcile his date of birth.”
The MoD could see that Gen Singh’s acceptance of 1950 was half-hearted. In a confidential letter --- MoD ID No. 11(9)/2007-D(MS) dated 25 Jan 08 --- Bimal Julka wrote to the MS, “On perusal of the letter of Lt Gen VK Singh to MS dated 24 Jan 2008, it is evident that the doubts regarding his date of birth remain unanswered.” Julka demanded “a detailed enquiry into the matter to find out the correct date of birth of the officer immediately in consultation with AG’s Branch.”
The AG’s Branch responded on 30th Jan 08, stating that “the date of birth of IC-24173 Lt Gen VK Singh has always remained 10 May 1951. This has been corroborated in all of the documents on file of the officer in MP Directorate (which maintains officers’ records). Copies of the same have already been endorsed to MS Branch.”
But the enquiry demanded by the MoD was never completed, say sources close to Gen Singh. The army chief, Gen Deepak Kapoor, was not on good terms with Gen VK Singh, a relationship that practically broke down when Gen Singh, then in Kolkata, went after generals allegedly close to Gen Kapoor in the Sukhna land scam. And so the matter remains to be resolved to this day.