By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Aug 16
An army officer corps already factionalised along the lines of regiments and arms, is now embarrassed by infighting amongst their chiefs. General Dalbir Singh, the current chief of army staff (COAS), has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court accusing a predecessor, General VK Singh, of attempting to scuttle his promotion with "mysterious design, mala fide intent and to arbitrarily punish" him for professionally invalid reasons. Making this allegation sensational is the fact that VK Singh is currently a union minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government.
The confrontation between Generals Singh and Singh is not new. Its roots lie in VK Singh’s tenure as army chief, when he battled the defence ministry, even dragging it to the Supreme Court in an attempt to have his date of birth amended by one year, thereby gaining an additional year as army chief. In an elaborate conspiracy theory created at that time, and filed as a separate writ petition in the apex court by a group suspected of links to VK Singh, it was alleged that a previous army chief, General JJ Singh, had “fixed” VK Singh’s date of birth incorrectly to have him retire a year early, so that he would be succeeded as army chief by an alleged JJ Singh protégé, General Bikram Singh.
Adding a communal dimension to this unsavoury wrangling, the writ petition painted this as a Sikh conspiracy, alleging the involvement of the then prime minister Manmohan Singh, other Sikh luminaries and even the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Both JJ Singh and Bikram Singh are Sikhs.
This battle to change his date of birth went badly for VK Singh. The Supreme Court dismissed his petition, as also the linked petition alleging a Sikh conspiracy to fashion a Sikh “line of succession”. However, VK Singh struck back. Before handing over the top job to Bikram Singh on June 1, 2012, VK Singh issued a “show cause notice” to Dalbir Singh, who he considered close to Bikram Singh, blaming him for a rogue intelligence operation by a unit under his command.
As army chief, Bikram Singh wasted no time clearing Dalbir Singh of that charge, making him eligible to take over one of the six field armies --- essential for becoming army chief. On June 15, 2012, fifteen days after Bikram Singh took over as chief, Dalbir Singh was appointed to command the eastern army.
This, however, was challenged by another senior general. Lieutenant General Ravi Dastane petitioned that, on May 31, 2012 --- the day VK Singh, and another army commander, Lt Gen Shankar Ghosh, retired, the top two eligible lieutenant generals --- Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra and Dastane himself --- should have been appointed army commanders. Dalbir Singh, while senior to both Chachra and Dastane, was ineligible because of his “show cause notice” issued by VK Singh.
However, while elevating Chachra to command the western army, the defence ministry left the second vacancy unfilled, pending a decision on Dalbir Singh’s “show cause notice”, which was dismissed on June 8. Dastane’s petition before the Supreme Court argues that it was improper to effectively “reserve” an army commander’s vacancy for Dalbir Singh till his case had been decided.
Dalbir Singh’s controversial affidavit to the Supreme Court this week relates to Dastane’s petition. He had submitted a similar petition in 2012 to the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), which rejected Dastane’s plea. Now, as earlier, Dalbir Singh argues that VK Singh unfairly targeted him, with “a motivated, biased, arbitrary and malicious intent”.
Amongst defence watchers, as also amongst the veteran community, there is consternation at the growing tendency of senior military officers to wash dirty linen in public and to litigate over adverse promotion decisions. The military’s steep promotion pyramid, in which only one officer out of a hundred makes it to the rank of lieutenant generals, ensures that many good officers are superseded simply because of a lack of vacancies in higher ranks. This was always the case; what has now changed dramatically is the readiness of superseded officers to represent against adverse promotion decisions, and even approach court.
This tendency is exacerbated by the example set by top generals. In 2010, when VK Singh took over as army chief, he announced that his foremost priority was to rebuild the army’s “internal health”. Ironically, he ended up deeply dividing the army. The fallout is being observed even today.
Fortunately, the political leadership, including the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government, has remained above the fray. After the United Progressive Alliance named Dalbir Singh as the next army chief in early 2014, the BJP accused it of “undue haste”. Yet, the BJP upheld his appointment after it formed the government, even though VK Singh, now a minister, exercised influence in the new power structure.