The controversy over the army chief's date of birth (D.O.B.) is bizarre and probably symptomatic of the degradation of value systems at the higher echelons of the army. It is definitely not a sudden development.
Officers of the rank of lieutenant general have gone to the civil courts on matters relating to promotions in the past. The only institution which had no need to do so was that of the army chief, because that was the end of the hierarchy and the ladder. But then there was the allure of post-retirement sinecure and many army chiefs were perceived to be bending backwards for it.
Eventually, by a seemingly capillary action, the malaise crept right to the top. The system had acquired such a culture of sleaze and conspiracy over the years that there was an attempt to even manipulate the duration and succession chain of the institution.
Gen VK Singh's decision to go to the Supreme Court is a manifestation of this. The case otherwise was so simple – or such a non-issue- that its resolution was more a matter of common sense than judicial intervention.
The case arose from a difference in the records of the Military Secretary's Branch and the Adjutant General's (AG's) Branch of the army. The latter is the usual record-keeper.
In Gen Singh's case, the ministry of defence decided that it will go by the Military Secretary's records – when common sense should have told it to do otherwise. In fact, the MoD has done so in at least one earlier case.
In a strikingly similar case, one Col Ramesh Chander Joshi (IC-16142) received his orders for retirement from the MS Branch (vide Letter No. 30004/Sep 96/Tech/MS Retirement w.e.f. 30 September 1996) based on the fact that his date of birth was listed as 22 September 1944.
However, the records with the Adjutant General's branch clearly indicated his date of birth as 25 November 1945. The officer communicated this anomaly to the MS Branch. In the absence of reply, on the last day of his retirement, i.e. 30 September 1996, the officer had no option but to send a signal directly to the army chief.
Promptly, on the same day, the officer received a message "This HQ letter No 30004/Sep/96/Tech/MS Retirement of 13 Sep 1996 regarding retirement of IC 16142 Col Ramesh Chander Joshi Engrs of E-in-c's Branch Army Hq w.e.f. from 30 Sep 96 is hereby cancelled. The claimed date of birth as 25 Nov 45 has been accepted by ministry of defence (MoD). Officer will continue in service till further orders."
As in the case of Gen Singh, the date of birth column in the UPSC form in respect of Col Joshi had been incorrectly filled and was corrected by the UPSC first and subsequently by the National Defence Academy (NDA) once his Senior Cambridge certificate arrived.
Col Joshi wonders: "If it has happened in my case why not in the case of Gen VK Singh?"
Most army officers are bewildered and question: where is the scope for controversy?
Various military secretaries who had dealt with the case, in keeping with their moral imperative, could have ‘corrected' their records within a matter of hours.
A simple acknowledgement of the mistake could have done much to establish fairplay, judgment and credibility on the part of the Military Secretary Branch. This acknowledgement would otherwise have made no difference to the date of birth of Gen Singh, as the Army List has no legal sanctity. An acknowledgement or acceptance of mistake was desired because it was repeated over more than 36 years. Every year, at the time of the general's Annual Confidential Records, his date of birth was mentioned as 10 May 1951.
There are scores of such cases in the Army List, wherein the date of birth, or IC number or name is wrongly entered. People have retired as lieutenant generals with wrong IC numbers in the Army List. If these military secretaries were 'men of honour' they should have accepted their 'omissions' and tried to clean up the functioning of the MS Branch.
The buzz among army insiders is that these gentlemen entered into a conspiracy with at least two army chiefs and subsequent powers that be in inflicting their mistake or omission (of not correcting the army chief's d.o.b.) and blackmailing Gen Singh by using the inaccurate and inconsequential document called the 'Army List' as tool.
Some 90 percent officers in the army retire without seeing the Army List. There is a popular saying in the army that only crooks and careerists see the Army List.
But what does one make of Gen Singh's alleged acceptance of his date of birth – an acceptance demanded by the MS Branch before he was made a corps commander?
Gen Singh's detractors are clutching the straw of 'acceptance' in their defence. An 'acceptance' of a date of birth cannot get one a driving licence or passport, let alone make an 'army chief'. An ‘acceptance' cannot be construed as 'self-declaration'. Any 'acceptance' cannot be in the absence of a 'demand' and, in Gen Singh's case, it was looked like intimidation or blackmail, which clearly indicates that the higher echelons are bereft of common decencies.
No civilised officer will use the kind of language that the concerned military secretaries used with an officer who was to be appointed the next army chief. Imagine the agony of the lower rung! Sample the non-civilised import of language used by the MS in respect of Gen Singh.
In a letter dated 21 June 2008, the military secretary wrote to Gen Singh, "we are constrained to maintain your official date of birth as 10 May 1950, and same may kindly be reflected in all your records and documents. The AG's branch is accordingly intimated to amend the records being maintained by them." (Note: this is nothing but megalomania, as the MS Branch has no authority over the AG's Branch in matters of personal particulars of an officer; in fact it is otherwise).
In another letter dated 21 January 2008, the MS said: "… we are constrained to maintain your official date of birth as 10 May 1950, and the same may kindly be reflected in all your records… Please acknowledge and confirm acceptance."
Then comes the threat. "Request fwd (forward) ack (acknowledgement) and confirm acceptance of date of birth as given in para 5 (five) of letter dated 21 January 2008… (.) If reply not received by 1000 hrs on 25 Jan 08 action deemed appropriate will be taken (.) (from MS to Gen Singh dated 24 Jan 2008).
No man of honour will digest such intimidation and blackmail. It is very much honourable to deal with dishonourable men and their vicious agendas from a position of relative advantage. This is exactly what the general has done. He has moved incrementally by first appealing to the good and moral sense of the powers that be. It is in this spirit that the legal opinion of four former and honourable Chief Justices of India was solicited.
A guilty man will not do that. A man with a chink in his armour will not go to the Supreme Court of India. Only an honourable man at the end of his career will put everything on the line. Those who, therefore, are insinuating that the general has taken this drastic step for an additional 10 months in office have simply lost their moral bearings. It took almost four months (more than the mandatory period) for the defence minister to give his verdict on the statutory complaint filed by his army chief.
And within these days, there were statements from the MoD that the defence minister was not bound by any time stipulation. From the manner of treatment of the statutory complaint, it is evident that the whole idea was to buy a few months so that the announcement of the new chief could be made as per a designed 'succession plan'.
If the defence minister takes four months to adjudicate on a statutory complaint of his army chief, one can imagine the plight of a jawan of the Indian army. Then there was planted propaganda that the general may tender his resignation, thus upsetting the ‘succession plan'. Some bureaucrats this author interacted with pompously boasted that the general would not even be allowed to resign, as he serves at the pleasure of the President.
Meanwhile, owing to the role played by certain responsible and patriotic segments of the media, the truth gained currency and the government realised that it was morally and legally very vulnerable. One of the senior ministers admitted in private that the issue was botched up and could have serious political repercussions.
Some ministers expressed their helplessness in deference to the fiat of a caucus of extra-constitutional authorities. It is the same story: all conspiracies and scams in recent times smack of a major influence of this extra-constitutional caucus.
The government initially resorted to threats. When that did not work, it sent various emissaries with allurements of post-retirement sinecures. When that was not bought, it sent mediators for a compromise. The moot question is compromise on what?
Concomitantly, there was an orchestrated media campaign to dissuade Gen Singh from going to court and make him resign. Now, a scare is being raised that the honourable Supreme Court will question the maintainability of his petition and ask Gen Singh to go to the Armed Forces Tribunal. In fact, for some reason, there is a feverish attempt to create an atmosphere in favour of the Armed Forces Tribunal route.
It is obvious that the issue about the date of birth of Gen Singh is not personal, but has reached this point by systemic influences. These internal and external influences need to be investigated. A conspiracy that seems designed to subvert the Indian army needs to be unravelled.
There are insinuations that politics, political funding, the arms lobby, business mafia and international players are impinging on the course of the crisis. It is quite evident from the bizarre, unprecedented term called 'succession plan' that has been given currency by the current dispensation.
Will someone please stand up to sort out this mess so that our army can serve our polity better?
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RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also Associate Editor, Indian Defence Review.