Lt Gen Ravi Dastane is the latest in a seemingly unending line of senior officers going to court over promotions denied
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Apr 14
With India on track to get a new government next month, the army --- arguably the country’s most admired institution --- is mired in embarrassing uncertainty about who will succeed General Bikram Singh as army chief on July 31, 2014.
The last succession, when Gen VK Singh handed over command to Gen Bikram Singh on May 31, 2012, was mired in controversy and lawsuits. This time again the Supreme Court is hearing a petition by a senior officer, Lieutenant General Ravi Dastane, who cites an array of policy violations to allege that the army and ministry of defence (MoD) have denied him the right to be an army commander. If the apex court rules in his favour, Dastane will be in consideration to be the next army chief. He will be the senior-most army commander, although Lt Gen Dalbir Singh will still be the senior-most lieutenant general.
At fault is the army’s and MoD’s failure to create transparent promotion policies for its top-most appointments. The Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) --- the MoD’s departmental judicial tribunal --- in rejecting Dastane’s petition last September, embarrassingly noted that the absence of a clear promotion policy was repeatedly bringing aggrieved officers to court.
Dastane has pleaded before the Supreme Court that the army and MoD have reduced the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) --- the final authority on appointing top commanders --- to a rubber stamp, by placing before it a single name for each appointment. This violates an earlier Supreme Court judgment which had ruled in 2000 (Union of India versus Lt Gen Rajendra Singh Kadyan) that appointments should be on merit as well as eligibility, with the ACC choosing between at least two candidates for each appointment, rather than merely rubber-stamping the appointment of the senior-most eligible candidate.
The army and MoD told the AFT that they internally evaluated seven eligible officers who senior enough to be considered. The AFT judgment notes that “there was no Selection Committee constituted”, but the army chief and the MoD zeroed in on two candidates for two posts and sent the names to the ACC. The AFT concludes that the principle of merit was thus kept in mind.
Dastane is challenging this conclusion. In addition, he contends that the army illegally undermined the “discipline and vigilance ban” (DV ban) policy. His petition argues that, on May 31, 2012 --- the day army chief, General VK Singh, and western army commander, Lt Gen Shankar Ghosh, retired --- Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra and Dastane himself, the two senior-most lieutenant generals eligible to become army commanders, should have been recommended to fill their vacancies the same day. Lt Gen Dalbir Singh, while senior to both, was ineligible, having received a “show cause notice” from the army chief, General VK Singh, for a rogue intelligence operation. Dalbir, therefore, was under a DV Ban.
Inexplicably, the MoD moved to elevate only Chachra to army commander. It left the second vacancy unfilled, pending a decision on Dalbir’s DV Ban. The new chief, General Bikram Singh, quickly lifted the ban on June 8 and Dalbir was appointed army commander on June 15.
Dastane contends that this effectively “reserved” a vacancy for Dalbir Singh for 15 days, until his DV ban could be lifted. The AFT has rejected that contention, but the Supreme Court will examine it afresh.
The backdrop to this was bitter internal feuding between Gen VK Singh on the one hand; and his successor, Gen Bikram Singh and Lt Gen Dalbir Singh on the other. With Gen VK Singh trying to amend his date of birth and gain an additional year in office, he was targeting Bikram and Dalbir as beneficiaries of his early departure.
An army commander is a senior lieutenant general, appointed to head one of the army’s six geographical commands --- the western, northern, central, eastern, southern and southwestern commands. A seventh “functional command” is the Shimla-based Army Training Command (ARTRAC). In addition, army generals take turns, alternating with their navy and air force counterparts, to command the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) in Port Blair.
To be appointed army commander, a lieutenant general should have successfully commanded one of the army’s fourteen corps, and also have two years of service left before retirement at the age of 60. The ACC selects army commanders from a list of eligible names forwarded by army headquarters (AHQ), through the MoD.