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.

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