Sunday, January 29, 2012

Army Chief’s birth date controversy

by Lt Gen Raj Kadyan (Retd)

          General VK Singh’s writ petition filed in Supreme Court on 16 January 2012 has been grabbing media headlines ever since. Date of birth is a personal issue. Essentially this should have remained a case between VK Singh as an individual and the Ministry of Defence. But the fact that he is heading one of the largest armies in the world has resulted in the issue snowballing into an unseemly national controversy.        
          That the two dates of birth remained unresolved between different branches of the Army for so many years is a poor reflection of the internal functioning of the Army Headquarters.   The Ministry of Defence too has handled the issue with poor diligence. They failed to realize the implications involved in it for the institution of the Army. Soon after becoming Army Chief on 1 April 2010, Singh is known to have sought reconciliation of the anomaly. There was enough time for the Ministry of Defence to discuss the issue with VK Singh and find a mutually acceptable solution. Keeping the sensitivity of office that Singh held, this should have been done discretely.  The middle ground did exist. The General has repeatedly stated that he is merely interested in defending his credibility and honour and not in an extension of his tenure. Anyone who has donned the uniform would understand that for a soldier honour is his most prized asset. The government could have shown grace by officially accepting 10 May 1951 as his date of birth while still asking him to retire on 31 May 2012, since that was the perceived date of his demitting office when he was appointed Army Chief.  However, no serious effort seems to have been made and the opportunity was lost.
          General Singh filed a statutory complaint in August 2011. Handling of the complaint again shows shoddiness in the functioning of the Defence Ministry. The complaint dealing with a date of birth is purely an administrative matter. It should have been disposed of administratively. Instead, the Ministry rejected the complaint after seeking and obtaining the advice of the Attorney General. Thus a purely administrative matter was given an unfortunate legal colour. It seems the Ministry was expecting, if not actually wanting, the matter to be taken to the court. In such cases the political leaders do not have time to get deeply involved; they go by the advice of the bureaucrats.  The bureaucracy’s antipathy towards the Defence Forces is well known and can be empirically proven. The bureaucracy rules the roost by misusing the civil supremacy principle. They apparently saw yet another opportunity to further compromise the Army. They therefore brought in the Attorney General thus maneuvering General Singh into a position where seeking legal intervention remained his only option. Whether right or wrong this perception is gaining ground and will be yet another unfortunate escalation in the known friction in Army-bureaucracy relations.
          The final outcome of the tangled issue will be known in due time and it is pointless speculating who will win. But it is easy to predict the loser; the Army as the most respected and admired institution would end up with a badly bruised image.  There still exists a possibility of resolving the issue out of court. NATIONAL INTEREST DEMANDS IT.

Lt Gen Raj Kadyan (Retd)
is former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

This article was published in Op Ed Page of Asian Age

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