Distorting army chief's age flies in the face of law and logic

Sticking point in age row: Gen Singh’s successor was decided in 2006!

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | January 20, 2012


Gen VK Singh
Gen VK Singh

The age-row involving the army chief, General VK Singh, is as much about his age as about the perversion of logic and law and arrogance of power. But above all, it is about a simple fact that a few individuals run and control a highly disciplined institution like the Indian Army, no matter who says what to the contrary, and the helplessness of an individual to stand up for ethics and rights against the manipulating few.

Here a few disturbing facts that emerge from perusal of records relating to the ugly episode.

Point One. Absolutely nobody involved in resolution of the row – chiefs of AG (adjutant general) and MS (military secretary) branches, past COAS (chief of the army staff), attorney general and defence minister – is disputing General Singh’s claim that his correct date of birth is May 10, 1951.

And absolutely nobody is asserting that the date of birth being thrust on the General (for sundry reasons) – May 10, 1950 – is the correct one.

All they are saying is that the General may be right but the error will not be corrected (for sundry reasons).

The error is: at the time of applying for the NDA examination in 1965, the General’s date of birth was entered as May 10, 1950, instead of May 10, 1951.

At that time, he had not passed matriculation and when he did and produced matriculation certificate to correct his date of birth, it was corrected in the AG branch – which is the custodian of officers’ records. But the MS branch – which is responsible for change of names and date of birth – didn’t change its record.

Therefore, essentially it is a simple case of a failure of the MS branch to correct the records then and whenever the matter was raised subsequently. A change at the right time would have prevented the issue from snowballing into a major crisis now.

The real story, therefore, is actually about why the error wouldn’t be corrected, even by an astute politician like defence minister AK Antony.

Point Two. The General’s date of birth is extremely important because, believe it or not, that alone will determine who becomes the next army chief. This sounds illogical but that is a hard fact. Here is why.

If the General retires on dot, that is May 31, 2012, Lt Gen Bikram Singh will succeed him. But if the date of birth is corrected, the General will continue in office for one more year, that is, until May 31, 2013. In that case, Lt Gen Bikram Singh will retire on July 31, 2012.  Because by that date he would have attained the age of 60 (his date of birth is July 19, 1952) – an age at which a Lt Gen will reach the age of superannuation.  But, if the present chief retires on May 31, 2012, Lt Gen Singh will not only become the army chief, he will continue in office for the next two years. The age of retirement for the army chief is 62.

But if the present army chief continues till May 31, 2013, someone else, Lt Gen KT Parnaik, steps in.

See the significance of the date of birth.

But so what? Why should the line of succession be based on the date of birth and not merit? Why must Lt Gen Bikram Singh succeed General Singh?

That brings us to Point Three. Which is, the Cabinet Committee on Appointment (CCA) may “appoint” the army chief, but it is not necessarily the one which “decides” who becomes the chief.

What it means is this. The CCA may put its stamp of approval, but the line of succession has been “pre-decided” way back by General JJ Singh, who was the army chief between Jan 2005 and Sept 2007.

That is why the age-row erupted in 2006. General JJ Singh tried to fix General VK Singh’s date of birth firmly as May 10, 1950. This meant General VK Singh would retire in May 2012, as he would attain the supperannuation age of 62. The stage was set for Lt Gen Bikram Singh to take over.

By seeking a change in his date of birth, General VK Singh is upsetting the line of succession planned and fixed in 2006.

This fact is now being openly talked about and acknowledged in the army circles. Maj Gen (retd) GD Bakshi was bold enough to write it in the Outlook magazine (October 2011 issue). Here is what he wrote: “How did this whole unseemly controversy (over Gen VK Singh’s date of birth) begin? It dates back to 2006 when the then army chief, Gen JJ Singh, decided to set his line of succession two or three chiefs down as per his personal predilections. It was during this exercise that the disparity in records of Gen VK Singh’s DoB held with the military secretary’s (MS) branch and the AG’s branch came to light.”

What is the point in having the CCA? That is a point to ponder.

Point Four. General VK Singh has claimed, not only in his petition before the apex court but also in his internal communications to various authorities handling the issue, that he was “forced” to accept May 10, 1950 as his date of birth.

General Singh says he even had to give written undertakings on more than one occasion (in 2008 and 2009) “before” he was elevated to the post of army commander and army chief, respectively, to the MS branch. And he resented this because after such undertakings, he continued to seek closure of the issue. He wanted his date of birth to be May 10, 1951, in the official records. It was in this attempt that he approached Antony in December 2011. When Antony rejected it, he went to the court.

Point Five. What does this compromise, just before his promotion to the higher office twice, indicate? What does it say about the General’s moral fibre? And, to rephrase it, what does it say about the suitability (or competence) of the individual to occupy the highest office of the Indian Army?

Draw your own conclusions. But don’t forget, this also reflects how vulnerable an individual in the system is, even if that individual is about to command an impressive Indian Army.

Point Six. Internal documents and attorney general Vahanvati’s three opinions show, there is a rift and power-play between the AG and MS branches of the army, trapping everyone in the process. Nobody has ever attempted to discipline these branch heads playing mischief.

Since 2006, it was the MS branch which sought to ride roughshod over the AG branch and the army chief in insisting that the army chief accepts the wrong date of birth (May 10, 1950). The AG, silent until then, gets hyperactive only in early 2011. How?

It jumps to then army chief’s side and raises a fresh storm when everything seemed settled.

In response to a RTI question on the issue, the AG branch gives an amazing reply. After having said that there is no row and that the correct date of birth is May 10, 1951 (which is in variance with what MS branch says, in any case), it sends a second reply, an extraordinary step, to say: “However, there was an omission in one branch (that is MS) and as advised by legal advisor (defence) and ministry of law and justice necessary correction is being made to correct the omission.”

The AG branch, the documents show, has not only referred the matter, on its own and bypassing the laid-down procedure, for legal opinion, but proceeds to declare that the “omission” is being “rectified”. Another extraordinary proposition.

The AG branch doesn’t stop at that. It even seeks retired CJI Justice AS Verma’s opinion (which is in favour of General Singh).

When the matters comes to MS branch’s notice, all hell breaks loose and leads to General Singh approaching Antony.

Point Seven. Antony plays dumb and decides to go by attorney general Vahanwati’s opinion, which, in turn, repeats what the MS branch has been saying all along to cover up its mistake to correct the date of birth. Antony should have decided the matter then and there. It is a simple case, complicated only by the deviant behaviour of a few officials and subsequent stamp of approval to that by Vahanvati.

Vahanvati, in his opinion, cites instances and gaps in the army chief’s past attempts to correct his date of birth. He cites an army order of 1964 that says corrections can’t be made after a lapse of two years. He mentions the army chief’s several undertakings in 2008 and 2009, in writing, about accepting the date of birth to be May 10, 1950.

Vahanvati also says matriculation certificate can’t be the sole basis on which a change in the date of birth can be sought or permitted and that a change at this stage will disrupt the “line of succession”. The last part strengthens the contention made in Point Three – that it isn’t necessarily the CCA which “decides” who becomes the army chief!

And that, in our view, is the most shocking element of the sordid tale.

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