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23 January, 2012

Army chief’s final battle

BRP Bhaskar

India’s army chief, General VK Singh, who was a young paratroop commando in the 1971 war with Pakistan, is preparing for a battle on a different front at the fag end of his long and distinguished career. The battleground is the courtroom and the adversary his own government.

Singh has gone to court against the government’s decision that hr was born on May 10, 1950, the date mentioned in his application form for admission to the National Defence Academy, and not May 10, 1951, the date entered in the records of the army hospital where he was born and his school leaving certificate.

Singh, who was a teenaged schoolboy when he applied for the NDA course, says a member of the school staff who filled the form entered the wrong year. But some suspect the year was fudged to ensure eligibility.

The conflict in the records in the office of the Adjutant General, the army’s official records keeper, showing the year of birth as 1951, and those in the office of the Military Secretary, which handles postings and promotions, mentioning 1950, remained unresolved until last July, when the Defence Ministry, after consulting the Attorney General and the Law Ministry, decided to treat May 10, 1950 as Singh’s date of birth.

Aggrieved by the decision, he filed a statutory complaint with Defence Minister AK Antony, becoming the first service chief to invoke the Army Act provision in this regard. Antony upheld the ministry’s decision. Singh filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the decision, making him the first army chief to fight a legal battle against the state.

“It is an unhealthy precedent,” Minister of State for Defence MM Pallam Raju said last week. “It does not augur well either for the ministry or the forces.”

In the petition, Singh says the ministry’s decision is illegal and arbitrary and violates his fundamental rights. The court has to adjudicate the matter early as he is approaching the date of retirement. If it confirms the 1950 date, he has to hang his boots on May 31 this year. If it accepts the 1951 date, he can stay on for one more year.

Singh says the government’s refusal to accept his contention regarding date of birth affects his image before the public and the armed forces, and he is fighting for honour, not for tenure. He concedes that, regardless of the court’s finding, the government has the right to decide his tenure.

Going by the facts on record, Singh appears to have a good case but the honour plea is somewhat weak as he accepted the ministry’s determination of his birth date in 2008. He claims he did so on the orders of the then army chief.

There is more to the dispute than meets the eye. If Singh retires in May this year, Gen Bikram Singh, who heads the Eastern Command, will become the next army chief. If his tenure runs till 2013, Gen KT Parnaik of the Northern Command will be the successor as Bikram Singh would have retired by then. Should he leave without completing his tenure, Gen Shankar Ghosh of the Western Command, who is due to retire on the same day as him, will be in the reckoning.

The controversy has already damaged the Establishment’s image with interested parties floating stories alleging the succession issue and Singh’s principled stand on some scams involving civilian and military personnel influenced the government’s decision on the age issue.

Worse still, it has split the community of former defence personnel and possibly serving personnel too. Before Singh moved the apex court, an exservicemen’s association had filed a public interest petition pleading his case. The court dismissed it, saying it was not maintainable.

Four former Chief Justices of India have inflicted damage upon themselves by allowing the exservicemen’s association to drag them into the controversy. Infuriated by the association’s action in appending their opinion to its petition, Chief Justice SH Kapadia has asked the court’s registry not to accept any writ petitions in future if the opinions of former chief justices are annexed.

There are reports that the government is seeking an out-of-court settlement on the basis of its accepting Singh’s contention on age and his agreeing to forgo the additional year of service it will give him.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 23, 2012.

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