Jan 20, 2012

In Defence of the Army Chief

As someone who comes from an Army family and grew up with the Army all around, it is surely natural that I am following the Gen VK Singh age row with keen interest, and have decided to write about it today.

At the outset, let me say that I did not start with a bias in favor of Gen Singh. On the contrary, I was dismayed when I first heard about this controversy and its escalation. The Indian Army has a great record on the battlefield, and has never meddled in politics or government. Unlike many developing countries including our neighbors, we've never had rogue Generals acting on their own authority. We've never had any coups. Members of our armed forces have consistently been the most respected of all civil servants - smart & eloquent, dedicated & disciplined, deeply committed to national interest and performing their duty honestly, relatively free from corruption.

Given this extremely dignified history, the current situation is certainly not one we wished to see. If I had seen any evidence that indicated that Gen Singh was being dishonest, or trying to benefit personally using any unfair means - doing anything dishonorable - I would've been the first to condemn him. But that is not the case.

Let me lay down the facts, to the best of my knowledge.

Gen VK Singh was born in 1951. His birth certificate (authentic, issued by an Army Hospital) says so. His matriculation certificate - the de-facto 'final word' when it comes to settling issues of age - also says so. His passport, driving license... all documents including his Army ID card say so. So this issue is beyond doubt.

In one place, he made a mistake - his UPSC form. (In fact - it's not entirely clear if he made the mistake himself, or it was someone else.) Now, if there was any indication that this was deliberate, or done with the intention of gaining any unfair advantage, you could hold it against him - but that's not the case. He was eligible for admission to the NDA even with his actual DOB (candidates aged 15 were admitted to the NDA at the time). Claiming to be older put him at a disadvantage, if anything - because it would have advanced his retirement age (the current scenario). Some people who are saying he gained 'seniority' and his promotions were based on a 1950 birth - are simply talking thru their backsides. Seniority in the Army is measured as 'number of years in service' and NOT age.

Others are saying he should have got it corrected earlier. Well, he did all he could - he submitted the documents necessary in his first few months in service, got the record corrected in the AG's office - which is the primary record-keeper of the Army, and his ID card and all Army docs said 1951. Now, 36 years later - if the MS branch suddenly informed him that they never made the correction, how is that Gen Singh's fault? Anyway, this happened about 4 years back, and Gen Singh has been seeking a correction ever since.

A very important question is - how did the MS branch accept ever accept the 1950 DOB? Even if there was an error on the UPSC form, the supporting docs (birth, matric cert etc.) said 1951 and they're supposed to verify these things, aren't they? Clearly, whoever did (or did not do) this was careless. It was a tiny little 'typo' error someone made 40 years back. Correcting it now shouldn't be a big deal, right? I don't understand why the MoD refuses to do so. It shouldn't even be embarrassing - because the mistake was made by some underling 40 years back, and does not reflect on the current staff in charge of serious issues.

Another set is claiming that he'd submitted a 'written undertaking'. In this document, he had NOT explicitly accepted 1950 as some people seem to think - he'd just said he would abide by whatever decision was taken by the relevant authority, and he had done so under unfair pressure, and with a verbal assurance that the decision would go in his favor - which is the only right decision that could have been taken here. If he later found that the decision had been mala fide, and people had reneged on their verbal commitments, he surely has a right to protest.

On TV, I heard a bureaucrat - I think his name was KC Singh - say that Gen Singh was facing a 'heads I win, tails you lose' scenario. If the SC decides against him, he ends up looking like a complete idiot. If they find in his favor, "the Defence Ministry will sulk and not cooperate with him."

This last statement is alarming. The Defence Ministry are neither gods nor kings. They're civil servants in a democratic system. They are supposed to act professionally, not arbitrarily or based on their feelings. The law is supreme, and the SC's word is final. If MoD people are found to have made a mistake - they have to accept it, do the right thing and move on. If they stubbornly refuse to do so, simply because it is embarrassing - it goes against all principles of fairness, equality and accountability. I am not at all comfortable with the idea of entrusting such people with matters of national security.

Sure, Gen VK Singh does not emerge as a saint from all this. But I prefer an Army Chief who fights for what's right, rather than one who meekly surrenders to arrogant, incompetent, stubborn and/or malicious bureaucrats or politicians. According to the Bhagvad Gita - a soldier is bound by duty to fight for what's right, and one who shirks this responsibility is unworthy of his life.

If the grapevine is to be believed, a lot of people in the establishment want to get rid of Gen Singh because he is an honest man who likes to confront the corrupt. He has been responsible for unearthing some scams in the military, and the subsequent court martial of some very senior officers. The establishment want him out of the way, and they want someone more malleable to replace him. That's why they've gone out of their way to find a flimsy pretext, and stuck stubbornly to their stand. It will be a sad day for this country if they get away with it.

Jan 4, 2012

Free country?

While the issue is not new, this particular post was motivated by this article and the following discussion in TOI, and an earlier argument I had on a web forum about restrictions on nightlife in Bangalore.

The TOI article reported the views of the woman who was the HoD for women studies (whatever that encompasses), and who currently is the head of the committee against sexual harassment in the Bangalore University. Now, sexual harassment is touchy subject and anybody who is responsible for supporting the victims must be extraordinarily empathetic and trustworthy to be at all effective in their roles. This woman is pretty much the opposite. She feels that even a saree worn with a sleeveless blouse is an invitation to rape! She favors early curfews in women's hostels and a dress code for women students and even lecturers. Similar views were aired recently by the state minister for women and child welfare.  

I will not comment about how women should dress because it is a free country and it is none of my business. Here I am more interested in exploring why the majority of people in this country oppose women dressing in western clothes. Why do they oppose Valentine's day celebration, and any romantic or sexual relationships outside of marriage. Why, in Bangalore, they oppose the very existence of a nightlife.

Initially, I thought it was a class divide issue. The educated, urban elite have a different value system and make different lifestyle choices compared to the less well-off, and that causes social tensions. But when you hear senior university professors and ministers support this moral policing and blame victims, the class divide hypothesis fails. My own experience in discussions on praja.in - a forum of well-meaning, educated, affluent citizens who want to help solve problems such as traffic congestion - affirmed that the majority of people, even in the upper class, support moral policing.

This points to a much deeper root cause, independent of class or education. I suspect that in our country, we do not care much for individual liberty and freedom, nor do we believe that every individual deserves some respect.

Think about it. We've historically had a rigid caste system, which people have failed to get out of even after converting to other religions. Even in our modern, urban society, individuals are not free. Parents take all major decisions till children reach college, and continue to dominate the decision-making process through their children's education, early career and even marriage - till the children become parents themselves. They discourage any unconventional ideas, and 'protect' the child. Then we wonder why we - as a nation - don't produce our fair share of innovations and original thinking.

At work, even in private companies, senior positions are not seen as the ones with more 'responsibility', but the ones with more 'power'. Asking questions or arguing with anything is considered 'disrespectful'. In politics, we worship dynasties and film stars. We don't vote for the local candidate, we vote for a party and a 'leader' (a CM or PM candidate). This is also why most of us support a draconian Lokpal. We treat sacrifice and selflessness as greater virtues than personal ambition or material success. As a result, we are a hierarchical society with a herd mentality and little tolerance for individuals who question societal norms or dare to act unconventionally. In all of this, we seriously undermine the individual.

This is something very fundamental, and it will have to change if we want socio-economic development, equality, prosperity and a global superpower status in the future. Let each individual have genuine freedom to make life choices - within the constraints of the law, but no other. Let them live with the consequences - good or bad. Let us treat each individual with due respect for what he/she thinks and what he/she is. If one billion minds actually start working individually and freely, only then can we achieve our potential as a nation and maybe regain our pre-eminent position in the world.

Anna Hazare was right when he said that we need a second freedom struggle. But it has nothing to do with the Lokpal. It has to be fought in our minds.