Thursday, January 26, 2012
Of Matters Military: Chief Goes to Court
by Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM
TV shows, print media and the internet are flooded with assorted opinions and comments on the current controversy about the date of birth of the Chief. The debate has acquired diverse angles. Two aspects for which the Chief is being criticised deserve special mention. One, he is being accused of an act of impropriety – a serving Chief approaching the court for the redressal of his grievance. Two, he is being censured for questioning the decision taken by the Ministry of Defence and thereby defying the well-established concept of civilian supremacy. Both are highly sensitive and critical issues. It is a unique case and may set a precedence for the future. Without going into the merits of the Chief’s claims regarding his date of birth, the above aspects are discussed hereunder in an objective, dispassionate and candid manner.
Coming to the first issue, it is alleged that the Chief’s act has lowered the standing of the august appointment that he holds and brought a bad name to the noble institution. It is suggested that he should have resigned before challenging the Government that he serves. It is an untenable argument for the following reasons:-
* The Constitution of India empowers every citizen to seek justice from courts when he feels wronged. It is a right without any riders and discrimination whatsoever. By being the Chief, he does not forfeit this right. He is not a lesser citizen of this country. If ministers, governors and CVC can seek relief from the courts, why not a Chief?
* The Chief followed the correct procedure and exhausted all other avenues before approaching the court.
* Appealing against a government decision is not an act of defiance or indiscipline. The government itself has provided for exhaustive arbitration mechanism for officials who feel aggrieved. Central Administrative Tribunal, Armed Forces Tribunals and many other appellate authorities resolve disputes between the government and its employees. Senior functionaries regularly approach them and the government abides by their decisions. These are not construed to be anti-government steps.
* It is unfair to link a personal issue with the prestige of the appointment held or the institution. The Chief has repeatedly stated that it is a personal matter and does not affect the organisation in any way. When ministers and civilian leadership approach courts, their ministries or departments are never targeted. Why should there be a separate yardstick for the top brass of the services?
The second question is more sensitive and critical. Does going to the court on a personal issue amount to challenging civilian supremacy? It is a highly unjustified and perverted logic. The Chief has not questioned any operational directive or official instructions. On the contrary, he has reposed immense faith in the law of the land. He has simply asked the court to adjudicate in the matter and deliver a duly considered judicial decision. He has repeatedly reiterated that it is the prerogative of the government to appoint chiefs and he would abide by its decision. How does the question of threat to civilian supremacy arise?
Compared to the criticism of some veterans, the government deserves credit for highly mature and sagacious response. When questioned by media, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni stated, "Every human being has a right to seek justice if he feels he has been denied justice and in that sense it is (the) right of every Indian."Similarly, Defence Minister AK Anthony and the Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju have been very composed while commenting on the issue, albeit they are ‘sad and sorry’.
Finally, it needs to be stated that most of us have double standards – one for ourselves and the second one for others. It is so very easy to pontificate that a Chief should resign before fighting for his honor and dignity. Most critics of the Chief’s act would never think twice before bending backwards to safeguard their own career prospects.
One is reminded of an address by an Adjutant General (AG) to a Higher Command Course a few years ago. The AG spent a considerable part of his speech exhorting officers not to question organisational decisions by submitting non-statutory/statutory complaints or approaching courts. He said it was ‘unofficerlike’ to do that. During the customary cocktails after the lecture, a student officer reminded him that the AG too had obtained promotion after representations. Needless to say, the AG felt embarrassed and replied sheepishly, “You know my case was different. The Board had been very unfair to me.”
Appeal to the Supreme Court should be seen as a simple case of an officer seeking justice for the perceived wrong done to him. Nothing more should be read into it. It is neither an act of indiscipline nor a challenge to the civilian authority. Seeking redressal of grievances through officially established procedures cannot be construed to be an act of impropriety or insubordination.