Monday, January 30, 2012
Army Chief Doth Protest Too Much
By Ashok Kapur
THE controversy was entirely avoidable; it has turned into an open discord. This affects the prestige and image of the world’s largest democracy. It can have an impact on the morale of arguably the world’s finest army. A serving Army Chief has dragged the government to the highest court over a service issue involving a simple matter of fact. There is no legal issue involved.
The facts are spread all over the media, and too well known by now. Undeniably, a man is the sole authoritative source of the date of his birth. Once he enters government service, his declaration of his DoB is the full and final proof. Sometimes, there may be uncertainty about the exactness of the date in individual cases. The rules are absolutely clear to avoid confusion and to enable the government to work out a proper career progression for its employees at entry-point.
The rule is uniform for all employees, civil and military. A responsibility is cast on every employee to settle the issue within two years of entering service, with proper proof. The rule has to be adhered to, irrespective of status or rank or service. In case of the armed forces, the responsibility cast to ensure compliance is even greater.
The reason for strict adherence to such a provision for the military is all the more compelling. For, unlike civilian employees, the rule is sacrosanct as the age of retirement varies with rank attained during service. If a soldier, for whatever reason is not particular about compliance with such a basic rule, he cannot be allowed to take advantage of his prolonged laxity, more so on the eve of retirement.
The government has been more than fair to the Chief, even indulgent. The crux of the controversy is a simple question of fact, and not of law. Under the Rules of Business, the controlling ministry ~ Defence ~ is fully competent to decide and settle the issue. Legally, the decision of the ministry is binding on the General and should have been accepted with good grace.
Still, the government has sought the opinion of the Attorney-General of India, the highest law officer of the land. This has been done even though no legal issues are involved. The law officer has upheld the stand taken by the ministry. Apparently, the General remains dissatisfied, if not openly defiant. Such conduct on the part of a serving soldier is almost unprecedented in the history of modern democracy.
The Defence Minister has quite properly made a statement in Parliament to spell out the government’s stand on the issue. This should have put a full stop to the entire episode. In a democracy, there can be no further argument as far as a government servant is concerned, no matter what his rank or status may be. To still persist in the face of such a stand would be less than respectful to the institution that, in the ultimate analysis, sustains democracy.
The General has reportedly sought the opinion of some retired Chief Justices of India to buttress his claim. Evidently, the General has been badly advised. A retired Chief Justice giving an opinion on an issue of fact, it must be said with respect, is an exercise of extra-constitutional authority. It is not legally binding on the government or, for that matter, a court of law. Paradoxically, it may further erode the credibility of the General.
Sections of the media are not able to resist the temptation to play up the controversy. They have even roped in a handful of former military chiefs. Some of them have supported the General’s case on the ground that he is a “fine soldier”. The issue is not about grant of a character certificate but the role of the armed forces in a democracy governed by the rule of law, and their subordination to the civilian executive. Once the administrative ministry has categorically ruled against the General, the drama must end.
Sir Winston Churchill had, at the height of World War II, cautioned against what he described as a ‘trade union of Generals’. This was his way of emphasizing that democracies must always be on guard against any tendency to play up such instances of open defiance of civil authority by soldiers, even in wartime. A prominent such voice in the current discord is that of a former Indian military chief, described somewhat inaccurately in the media as retired. Actually, he retired hurt. A character certificate by the likes of him has neither relevance nor value.
There is media talk of compromise with the General. After the statement of the Defence Minister in Parliament, any compromise with the General can only be at the cost of democracy and the rule of law. It will further undermine the rather tenuous hold of the civilian executive on the armed forces of the Union. In the USA, President Roosevelt had similarly put modern democracies on guard: “Never underestimate a soldier who overestimates himself.”
The General has approached the Supreme Court directly over the age issue. He appears to have been wrongly advised. Undeniably, any soldier like a citizen can approach the courts of law to seek a legal remedy. There may have been some justification to approach the highest court in the land had there been any violation of the General’s fundamental rights. There is evidently no such case.
The military is organized on a tight rank order and instant obedience. The lower ranks take their cue from seniors who lead and inspire them both during wartime and peace. Open defiance of the government does not set a good example before the ordinary soldier who does not know the fine intricacies of the civil-military equation in a functioning democracy. Such conduct undermines the military’s respect for the rule of law.
The entire episode is but a symptom of the malaise which runs deeper. The civil-military balance has been progressively, or shall we say regressively, tilted in favour of the military and against the civilians in the ministry. It has been happening over years, as if it was waiting to boil over sooner or later. The controlling ministry, like all ministries is manned by members of the highest civil service, arguably the most qualified professionals in the country.
The armed forces are organized as subordinate directorates, supposed to be accountable to the controlling ministry headed by the elected minister. The latter, in turn, is accountable to Parliament for the functioning of his ministry, including the directorates. The status and emoluments of senior civilians have been downgraded vis-à-vis their counterparts in the armed forces. The entire structure of the crucial ministry is skewed.
Once the status and authority of the permanent head of the ministry ~ Defence Secretary ~ is downgraded, the inevitable logical fallout was bound to occur. And it has. The authority of the Defence Minister was bound to be diluted. This is precisely being witnessed today. Even after the minister has made a categorical statement in Parliament, a serving General continues to defy him. The iron discipline, the hallmark of a professional military is bound to be eroded.
Much of this has been said before. But as someone put it, since no one listens, it must be said again. There are none so blind as those who would not see.
The writer is a retired IAS officer