The argument against:
Maj Gen Nilendra Kumar (Retd)
Former Judge Advocate General of the Indian Army
The last few months have seen Army Chief V K Singh’s name in the media in a controversy relating to his age. The general is an outstanding soldier who is a renowned strategist and a brilliant practitioner of military craft. I have known him well for over four decades. I, however, differ with him and his well-wishers on a few counts.
The general has submitted a statutory complaint on the matter of his birth date. Army Act Section 27 affords a right to any military person who feels wronged by the decision of any superior to seek remedy from the central government. The remedy is available to all, from the junior-most soldiers to the senior-most commanders. There are a number of reasons that make the case of the army chief different.
General V K Singh joined the National Defence Academy in June 1966. Three years later he entered the Indian Military Academy and, after completing his training, was commissioned in the Infantry in June, 1970. The year 1950 was recorded as his year of birth when he filled out the UPSC admission form for the National Defence Academy. Sometime in 2006, an entry of 1951 in the matriculation certificate came to be reported. There are discrepancies in the documents held by the Adjutant General and Military Secretary Branches of the army headquarters.
The regulations enjoin that any discrepancy in the date of birth is to be reported within the first couple of years after entry into service. The claim is then examined and settled. In this case, the officer could have taken timely recourse to those provisions to get the actual date entered in his dossier.
While he was a major general and waiting to be cleared for elevation to a three-star general he gave a written assurance that he would abide by the 1950 year and not to stake any claim for the year to be reckoned as 1951. Having once forwarded such an undertaking and gained promotion to a higher rank, would it be open for him to demand that 1951 be accepted as the year of his birth?
There are numerous allegations and counter allegations. It has been asserted that V K Singh was pressured to submit an undertaking to avoid withholding the process of the entire selection board.
Some believe that the case was put on the fast track by engineering a query under the Right to Information Act enquiring about the dates of birth of all army commanders and above. Certain members of political parties are reported to have met the prime minister to plead the army chief’s case. The outcome is not known.
Army headquarters took the unusual course of seeking the opinion of three former Chief Justices. They ruled in favour of the army chief. Perhaps they were approached without the government’s concurrence. If so, such a precedent may have dangerous consequences. Any soldier, say, a person convicted by a court martial, may obtain and forward comments and recommendations of former judges or law officers to demand a reversal of valid and bonafide decisions.
The matter is being projected by a few as a civil-military conflict. This view appears to overlook the fact that the matter was handled by three successive military secretaries starting with General Richard Khare. If the army did not agree to accept 1951 as year of birth, would the fault lie with the ministry of defence?
A plea to treat 1950 as the army chief’s year of birth will be a setback for the army’s cleansing drive. Can a senior commander be allowed to use his headquarters to pursue his personal case against the higher authorities? Should a general be retained to serve as a chief if he has any complaint against the government?
The army chief has risen to the very top position in the army, which is administered by well-regulated orders and rules. It is ironic that having attained the senior-most position he has now chosen to project his grievances against the system.
A statutory complaint in the shape of an alternate remedy has to be first submitted before approaching a court of law seeking judicial remedy. Any delay in disposing of the complaint or an unfavourable decision may lead to the matter being taken to Armed Forces Tribunal and further acrimony.
The argument for:
Military Analyst and Former Army Officer
It would be naïve to believe that the controversy about when the Army Chief, General V K Singh, was born (and, therefore, when he should retire) is simply about a date of birth. Singh has provided his boss, Defence Minister A K Antony, cast-iron evidence to prove that he was born on May 10, 1951. This includes 15 categories of documents including his birth certificate from an army hospital; his matriculation certificate; four decades of service documents; promotion and medical records; and a range of civilian documents including his passport, PAN card; and driving and gun licences.
Nor is the argument sustainable that Singh should have changed his date of birth within two years of being commissioned, which is all that ministry of defence rules permit. The Army List of 1974-75, which is the key army document that records his date of birth as 1950, was only published four or five years after Singh became an officer. Besides, he insists he is not seeking to “correct” his date of birth. The Adjutant General’s Branch, the prime authority that maintains officers’ personal records, has always recorded the correct birth year of 1951. Singh demands only that his birth year be “reconciled” with this lawful authority.
Since the documentary record is so clear that Singh was born in 1951, why is this controversy snowballing into a corrosive civil-military face-off? The answer is that Antony has taken a position on this case and fears that withdrawal would result in a serious loss of political face. A weakened UPA wants to look decisive after a series of political mistakes: Telangana and the Jagan Mohan Reddy crisis in Andhra; the 2G scam; and the Anna Hazare anti-corruption agitation. Dizzy from opposition pummelling, the UPA fervently hopes (the same mistake that it made with Reddy and Hazare) that a resolute rebuff will cause Singh to back off. But, typically, the government misjudges the doggedness of its army chief.
Singh’s determination to defend his honour (he is indignant at being painted a liar) is fortified by the manipulative argument that the MoD has put out through media leaks. This insinuates that Singh has already been elevated to the pinnacle; by clinging on longer he is tarnishing the army’s image. But this is chicanery. Singh reached the top through merit, not government endowment; and the vast majority of his officers back him as he faces up to a capricious MoD that seeks to humiliate their chief.
India’s soldier community, both serving and retired, overwhelmingly believes that the military is ill used by the babus and dhoti-wallas, their mocking reference to the political-bureaucratic establishment. They believe that the government has misused the unexceptionable principle of civilian control to encroach on turf that is acknowledged worldwide, even in the most liberal democracies, as the preserve of the military. Many ask why their generals meekly accept even improper instructions from the civilian government (as in 1962). There is a wellspring of resentment at the way generations of generals have bartered away service interests in exchange for post-retirement office. In contrast there is admiration for V K Singh. He could have arranged a happy sinecure, perhaps in some Raj Bhavan, in exchange for a quiet exit. Instead, by insisting on his rights, he has embodied popular disenchantment against the MoD.
Most people would have preferred the chief to make his stand on something relating to equipment procurement or strategic planning, where the MoD has demonstrably failed its soldiers, sailors and airmen. That would have spared him barbs about self-interest. Nevertheless, it is in our democracy’s long-term interest to question the assumption that – just as Nehru tamed General Thimayya; and Vajpayee sacked Admiral Bhagwat – the government can ram any decision, howsoever perverse, down any military chief’s throat.
Legal advisors on both sides – the MoD’s as well as the army chief’s – insist (as lawyers are prone to doing!) that their client has an unshakable legal case. But both sides must realise that there will be no winners in a fight to the finish. The ball is in the MoD’s court; if Antony is as wise as is rumoured he will cut a deal with General V K Singh, salvaging the government’s long-term relationship with its widely-respected military.