Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chief Vs Mischief - a Question of Civil-Military Trust Deficit

By Karan Kharb
Suddenly, the media is on fire calling Gen VK Singh’s petition to the Supreme Court ‘unprecedented in the history of independent India’ as if it were also ‘awfully unlawful’ for him to seek justice through a constitutionally defined legal recourse at the country’s most honourable Supreme Court. Some have hinted at his ‘greed to hang on for a few months more’ by getting his date of birth changed from 10 May 1950 to 10 May 1951.  Of these two dates, the aggrieved General says, the former is wrong and the latter correct – a simple issue of an error that was settled long ago at the time of his admission to the National Defence Academy. It is genuine ambition, not greed, in every promising youngster to climb to the top of his career – government services or private.  Likewise for a youngster commissioned in the Defence Forces, there is no harm in his aspiring to reach the top. In fact, an earnest quest to excel is very much needed and rightly fuelled in young officers everywhere for better overall accomplishments and evolution of future leadership.  Once you reach the pinnacle of your ambition, your aspirations are largely fulfilled and a few months more or less in chair do not matter. In Gen VK Singh’s case, he was fully entitled to be where he is today irrespective of which of the two dates is taken as the basis of consideration for his promotion. Therefore, change or no change in the dates, his position remains unaffected. The question, however, is if there are two dates, which one is right and which one wrong? Only the right one must be kept, the ‘wrong’ must be removed from all records. Legally or ethically, is it ‘wrong’ to fight for what is ‘right’?
If ‘greed’ were his motive, the General had much more to gain from the post retirement sinecures like a gubernatorial or ambassadorial appointments reportedly offered to him in bargain for letting the matter lie.  That he could not be won over by such allurements only goes to prove that there is something more meets the eye in the vitiated atmosphere of Civil-Military trust deficit scenario between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Armed Forces.
Whatever the outcome of the legal battle, it raises some pertinent questions. The way a minor issue like an error in his date of birth has been allowed to snowball, it appears a deliberate mischief against the Army Chief. The promotion process in respect of army officers is very comprehensively defined.  No ‘undertaking’ is ever taken from any officer at the time of his Promotion Board. It appears weird that making a departure from its own established conventions the Army Headquarters proceeded to extract an ‘undertaking’ from VK Singh prior to granting him promotion. If there was an ambiguity about the correctness of the date in his records, a Court of Inquiry (C of I) should have been ordered to investigate what was wrong and the cause thereof. Why did the authorities hesitate to order a C of I? An obvious inference is that concerted efforts were in progress to suppress rather than reveal facts at that time. Two facts that the C of I could have revealed were: 1) that his correct date of birth is 10 May 1951 and not 1950; and 2) that the error was settled long ago, which rendered any document showing 1950 obsolete and irrelevant. But rather than uncovering the truth, the authorities chose to impose their choice on an upcoming meritorious officer by way of extracting an ‘undertaking’ from him before clearing his promotion. If not blatant and outright blackmail, what will you call it?
Some more questions also prop up alongside. Who will be held responsible if the Government loses the case? Will the Government be magnanimous to treat Gen Singh honourably if he wins the case or will a witch-hunt be unleashed to fix him somehow? May be the government will go slow for now for two reasons – one, the case being currently sub judice, the Government will be wary of the Supreme Court staying its hostile move against the General; two, any hasty action at a time when five states are going to assembly polls which are viewed as a precursor to the general elections due in 1914 will be politically inopportune for the Congress. The adversity does, however, offer an opportunity, ironically though, to the Government to rise above the narrow lanes of its maligned bureaucratic wheeling dealing and accept with magnanimity whatever judgement the Supreme Court gives. The verdict, even if against the Government (as appears likely), can be used as an opportunity to show the world that ‘rule of law’ has indeed arrived in India and the Government has the capacity not only to endure it but to nourish it at a time when public is crying hoarse for good governance and inner cleansing. Logically, the Ministry’s legal advisors who tendered legal advice and the bureaucrats who rejected the General’s plea will have to be sternly dealt with in a manner that becomes an example of fair, transparent and speedy dispensation at the highest level.  It is becoming increasingly expedient to introduce accountability in our bureaucratic functioning because rampant corruption has only encouraged inefficiency, sycophancy and destroyed governmental credibility.   
Sadly, bigger issues have remained buried under the debris of murk and mirth dwarfing an illustrious soldier by frustrating his efforts for an honourable resolution. In times like these, on-going civil-military acrimony can seriously harm our national interests from within as is clear from the long pending modernisation programmes, mass dissatisfaction in the Armed Forces against what is largely perceived as short shrift, step-motherly treatment by the 6th Pay Commission, repeated Government appeals against High Court/Supreme Court rulings favouring ex-servicemen, non-implementation of recommendations given by Parliamentary Committees on issues concerning soldiers and ex-soldiers are some indicators of a stubborn attitude that helps none but eats into the vitals of nation’s last resort – the Armed Forces.
At a time when India is aspiring for a higher global role the need is intimate cooperation, trust driven cohesion and integrated work culture between the MoD and the Service Headquarters of the Armed Forces.  This need becomes even more acute in view of the worsening security scenario across India’s western borders. China too will contest India’s quest for a global role as was evident from her objections to Indian naval ships at the South China Sea and her newfound interest in the Indian Ocean, even as her claim over Indian territories and military posturing across the Line of Actual Control continue unabated. The internal security environment too is worsening with militancy spreading to newer areas. When, if not now, will India wake up to realities?
It is high time the Government decided to effectively implement the pending integration of the Armed Forces with the MoD, which has been always staffed with officers shockingly bereft of basic concepts of national defence and elementary knowledge about military matters. No other developed or developing country in the world has such a slip-shod Defence Organisation as India’s Ministry of Defence. Nations that humble their armies are doomed to be humbled by adversaries within and without. India’s proud achievements on the industrial front notwithstanding, she will not be acknowledged as a ‘global power’ unless she wields a credible coercive military power. Soldiers’ demands for genuine welfare and better treatment are therefore not so much for their personal comforts but most crucial for the nation’s honour, safety and wellbeing.         
The writer is a Noida based military veteran and can be contacted on

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