There is no honour at the cost of the institution
The reason I put aside my hesitation to write on the Chief Of Army Staff, General V.K. Singh’s age issue is having served the army from 1976 to 1989 (when I sought pre-mature retirement), and having interacted with all army chiefs since General S.F. Rodrigues in 1990 as a journalist, I cannot pretend that this revered organisation does not mean much to me, especially when perceptions seem to have got the better of reality.
The reality was never in doubt and has not been contested. As asserted by him, the army chief was indeed born in 1951 and not 1950, and the defence ministry does not disagree with this. The age was and remains an internal matter of the army. When Major General V.K. Singh’s case for approval to corps commander came up before the Cabinet Committee on Appointments (CCA) headed by the Prime Minister in 2006, it sought clarification on his age from the defence ministry, which, in turn, approached the Army Headquarters. The officer had signed an undertaking that he accepted 10 May 1950 as his birth year. This was not a one-time incident. In 2008, when his case came up before the CCA for approval to army commander appointment, Lieutenant General V.K. Singh once again gave in writing that he would abide by 1950 as his year of birth. And General V.K. Singh was appointment 26th COAS on 31 March 2010 based on yet another (third) written commitment in 2010 that 1950 was his accepted birth year. With this, he was to retire on 31 May 2012, when he would officially be 62 years old. If anything, the officer’s integrity demanded that he abide by his commitment that had provided him the rare honour to head one of the finest armies in the world.
On his first day in office, he spoke about the need to resurrect army’s values and ethos, hinting at the alleged corruption charges against his predecessors, Generals Deepak Kapoor and N.C. Vij. On the professional front, he vouched to transform the army from a threat-based to a capability-based force. Here was a selfless army chief high on honour, integrity and commitment, I reckoned. My joy unfortunately was short-lived. The first surprise for me was when on assuming office he enrolled himself for a PhD course in Bhopal University. Would he have time for personal intellectual pursuits amidst the onerous task of transforming the army? Is he really committed to the army, I wondered? This was soon followed by a shock: he wanted the defence ministry to accept 1951 as his birth year. But what had the defence ministry to do with his real or unreal age? All it needed was his accepted age by the Army Headquarters for promotions, which General Singh had attested to on three occasions in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
This seemed the only interpretation until the army chief turned logic on his head by three well thought through moves. He made correction of his age a matter of personal integrity and honour, something he should have done in 2006; he sought and procured favourable opinion on his age from retired legal luminaries and even attempted to influence the Prime Minister through a petition moved by certain members of Parliament on what was an open and shut case; and in an unexpected development he moved the Supreme Court on January 16 — the day after the Army Day and four days after his traditional media interaction on January 12 where he denied having decided his next move — appearing a sacrificial lamb. His writ petition sought correction of his age and consequent relief benefits, implying that once his actual date was established he should get a year’s extension in office. Much in doublespeak, he told the media that he was willing to leave office when asked by the government. (As this piece was written before his application would come up for hearing on February 3, there is little doubt that the highest court cannot say that he was not born when he was born).
The government was caught off-guard by the army chief’s move to approach the court. It was heads you win tail I lose situation for the defence ministry. If it accepted 1951 as his age, it would be obliged to consider giving a year’s extension to the army chief. If it did not do so, it would appear the villain of the piece. The defence minister, A.K. Antony must take flak for this avoidable embarrassment. All it needed was for the reticent minister to publicly say that he had nothing to do with the army chief’s actual age. His keeping quiet for over a year led to rumours and mostly nonsensical discussions in the electronic media. A set of retired military officers, mostly from the army, pushed the theory that the conspiracy to unseat the army chief, a year before his due date, was hatched by his two predecessors and his likely successor. Is this not questioning the integrity of Generals J.J. Singh and Deepak Kapoor? The poor Lt General Bikram Singh has already been hanged before his appointment. How is the army chief’s honour more than of the three generals who in a zero-sum game stand dishonoured? How many have paused to consider that General V.K. Singh has managed to outsmart most. Had he gone to court in 2006 as a major general, it would have made scant news. What has made news is that he has dragged the office of the army chief to court.
Another convoluted argument doings rounds is that his courage will restore some balance to civil-military relations. If anything, this is a bizarre inference; the military has become weak rather than strong by the turn of events. While the government has many options to deal with the army chief, it is likely to exercise none, and would allow him to pass into oblivion when he should. Let alone the other two service chiefs, two of his Principal Staff Officers have told me that General Singh has no case to fight about. By proclaiming from roof top that it is a matter of honour, when actually it is a case of self-aggrandisement, the army chief’s appeal has assumed an emotive sheen, finding favour amongst old timers. Civil-military relations would have benefited if the chiefs of staff committee had approached the government to integrate the three service headquarters with the defence ministry. This would have ensured that cases like General V.K. Singh’s do not recur as the defence ministry would be responsible from an early stage to correct age anomalies and other service grievances.
The army chief’s case is unfortunately ill-advised and counter-productive; the ultimate sufferer is the Indian Army which he heads and has brought him this far. There is little gainsaying that modernisation of the army, the key to the sought transformation, has taken a hard beating. Would much work be happening in the three crucial field formations, western, northern and eastern army commands, where regional chiefs, whose fortunes appear uncertain, would be closely following the case? There are media reports that the western army commander, Lt General S.R. Ghosh due to retire on the same day as the army chief, has got his medical category upgraded to normal. He does not wish to miss the opportunity of becoming the next army chief on basis of seniority if the present one is fired for insubordination. He had earlier got his medical category downgraded to avail added pension benefits. So much for values and ethos in the army that the army chief had declared to restore!
To obfuscate matters, some army officers have even questioned the seniority over merit criteria followed by the government in senior military appointments. The argument sidestepped is what constitutes merit? In a country where military is not a part of the defence ministry, and within the military, especially the army, where unfortunately, lip-service is paid to directive style of command resulting in rampant sycophancy, there is little to distinguish between the nearly 40 Lt Generals who make it to the command stream. A deep selection from amongst them makes sense only if the government has an understanding of military matters, or it fears an army take-over, or if the Prime Minister has a personal preference. Cases in point are the elevation of Lt General B.M. Kaul, supersession of Lt General S.K. Sinha (though he did not go to court, he did resign, refusing to serve under his junior), and the military activism wrought by the closeness of General S. Sundarji with the Prime Minister. If the government was to select one COAS out of 40 on the subjective basis of merit, wouldn’t others resign or go to court?
The seniority principle was best illustrated when after the sudden demise of General B.C. Joshi, the government appointed General Shankar Roychowdhury as the COAS. I remember, the then Pakistani defence advisor, who had come to the Army House ostensibly to pay respects to the army chief’s body lying there, could not believe that the government would appoint the senior-most officer, who had not commanded a field army, as the successor. And this is what General V.K. Singh needs to recall and mull over. For the moment, he has succeeded in crafting an absolutely stunning fantasy.
Post script: In an unexpected development, the defence ministry on January 29, five days before General V. K. Singh’s case was listed for hearing in the Supreme Court, wrote to the Adjutant General (AG) to correct the army chief’s birth year to 1950 to bring it at par with the Military Secretary’s records. Not only was this unnecessary, it betrayed lack of understanding in the defence ministry about the military’s chain of command. Being a Principal Staff Officer to the COAS, the AG is required to put up the matter to the army chief and not correspond directly with the higher headquarters. The inevitable conclusion is the need for integration of the services headquarters with the defence ministry to ensure such howlers do not recur.