Wednesday, August 17th, 2022 19:06:01

Government’s Stand On Army Chief Age Row Legally Untenable

Updated: October 15, 2011 2:51 pm

It is most despicable and obnoxious to see that a serving Army Chief of eminence of Gen VK Singh is treated so contemptuously by our government. It is beyond comprehension. For, Gen Singh has an impeccable, distinguished service record following which he has risen to the highest rank and is reputed as a man of strong principles. It is not just Gen VK Singh alone, but the august office of Army Chief that has been dragged into a needless controversy. Never before in independent India has a serving Army Chief been embroiled in such an unsavoury controversy involving his personal integrity. No person of his stature will tolerate being indirectly called a liar on age issue and very rightly so.

While our government has just no compunction about granting repeated extensions to civil servants but sticks its neck out in denying Gen VK Singh even his normal tenure! And that too on very flimsy grounds not legally tenable on any score!! At a time when government’s reputation in combating corruption is already in tatters, it has not covered itself in glory by denying a thoroughly upright, dedicated and highly competent Army Chief of the calibre of Gen VK Singh.

He incidentally is also the first-trained commando to be Army Chief and is reputed to have taken head-on all corrupt and inefficient Armymen even during his normal tenure, leave alone the question of granting him a well-deserved extension, which most unfortunately has been reserved exclusively only for head-nodding civil servants. Even prior to becoming Army Chief, he had taken head-on senior corrupt Army officers from minting money illegally, many of whom are facing severe disciplinary actions. All this certainly cannot be brushed aside.

One may be hugely dismayed and overwhelmed to the hilt by the needless current controversy over the Army Chief’s age row. It, in the first place, could have been amicably settled by the government on grounds of pure merit by relying on matriculation certificate, which is the biggest age proof of any individual. If still the government is hell bent on kicking Gen VK Singh out ten months before his normal tenure is to end, then obviously it calls for no Solomon’s wisdom to come to the inevitable conclusion that a very powerful lobby is not happy with the way he has acted tough against corrupt officials. It is unabashedly pressurising the government to edge him out much before he completes his full tenure as he is not allowing even the slightest of corruption to occur anywhere and has cracked the whip on all corrupt and erring officials. Decency demands that the minimum the government should have done in this case is that Gen VK Singh should have been allowed to at least complete his normal tenure, leave alone extending his tenure, which he richly deserves also.

What one finds most deplorable in Gen VK Singh’s case is that new unheard and irrational precedents are being created arbitrarily, which hold no legal ground whatsoever. By relying exclusively on Military Secretary (MS) Branch for deciding the Army Chief’s age, the government has committed a Himalayan blunder. It seems it is only Adjutant General (AG) Branch alone, which is officially the final word in all legal matters and MS Branch is no one in this regard to be relied upon.

Two wrongs cannot make a right. Government cannot take the specious plea that as the MS Branch gravely erred in relying exclusively on the form filled by one of Gen Singh’s teacher BS Bhatnagar. Bhatnagar in quest of sending maximum number of students to the NDA, inadvertently erred in filling the UPSC form of Gen Singh with wrong date of birth as May 10, 1950, instead of May 10, 1951. Bhatnagar was gracious enough to later admit that it was solely his mistake. Gen Singh who then was a minor boy, had obediently signed the application form and cannot be blamed for it. The government does not get the birth right to ignore everything and capitalise on this grave error.

MS Branch is no one to rely upon in all legal matters and that too in a case affecting the entire career of a serving Army Chief and AG Branch cannot be slapped aside as it is responsible for handling all legal matters. Here the moot question is not of Gen VK Singh’s seeking 10-month extension as Army Chief, as is very wrongly being framed in a large section of media. Rather it is a question of propriety and principles over which Gen VK Singh has opted not to succumb for which one must laud him in no uncertain terms.

He is renowned for having tremendous courage of conviction and will be the last person to even seek one second extra of continuing as Army Chief when he is not entitled to it. His professional integrity is of the highest order and unquestionable, who strictly adheres to the motto ‘Service before Self’ in the real sense. This stands vindicated when we often hear him being labelled as ‘anti-corruption crusader’ and it certainly is not for nothing that he is so labelled. We all know very well that it was Gen VK Singh who while serving as Eastern Army Commander had insisted on awarding exemplary punishment to all accused including Generals in Sukna case. Corruption is rampant in all spheres today including Army and this all the more necessitates Gen Singh completing his full tenure in office.

Gen VK Singh’s legitimate claim of completing his full tenure has been accorded cold feet by the government till date without according any logical reason, which has only dented further the already sagging image of government. If still the government fails to see the clear writing on the wall, then obviously there is more to it than meets the eye and government’s own bona fide intentions will be questioned as many are already privately questioning.

It is well known how the government’s inept handling in PJ Thomas case who was government’s best bet to be the CVC was edged out because of adverse ruling of apex court. One hopes that in this case also the government will tread very cautiously. Instead of worrying only about who the next Army Chief will be whom government wants, it will proceed purely on grounds of merit and nothing else. Gen Singh has still not moved the court and has in maintaining with the highest traditions of the Army chosen to try all other options. But if the government still refuses to budge on this open-and-shut case, there will be no option left for Gen VK Singh, but to approach the court for which he just cannot be to blame and the government just cannot be exonerated for its inexplicable role in this entire matter by relying totally on extraneous considerations and overlooking totally the merits of the case, which like a dice is loaded fully in Gen VK Singh’s favour.

One has not even an iota of doubt that Gen VK Singh’s contention will be upheld lock, stock and barrel in all courts—ranging from lowest to highest at the first instance itself as it is an open-and-shut case. Three former Chief Justices of India including Justice JS Verma have stoutly upheld Gen VK Singh’s claim as legitimate and worthy of being fully endorsed. Even if one eminent jurist in not only India but anywhere in the world not affiliated to government in anyway says openly:

“Age as recorded in matriculation certificate has no relevance, age as recorded in the military hospital where born has no relevance, age as confirmed on police verification has no relevance. Age as recorded in father’s official records who was a Lieutenant Colonel in Army has no relevance. Age as recorded in all school certificates has no relevance, age as recorded in both identity cards issued by IMA, Dehradun and later by Army authorities concerned has no relevance. Age as recorded in one’s own official records where serving has no relevance, age as recorded by six promotion boards in Army to reach the rank of Lieutenant General has no relevance. Age as recorded by AG Branch officially responsible for handling all Army records pertaining to age and legal matters has no relevance. Age as recorded in voters card has no relevance, age as recorded in PAN card has no relevance. Age as recorded in passport has no relevance, age as recorded in driving licence has no relevance. And only age as erroneously filled by a teacher when Gen VK Singh was a minor in a UPSC application form even though the teacher concerned BS Bhatnagar was gracious enough to later admit that it was solely his fault and again on this very groundless basis alone was wrongly entered by MS Branch in its record, be considered the sole criteria, in deciding the Army Chief’s age.”

I will not only humbly submit but also slap myself at least hundred times if not thousand times but I am dead sure that such an eventuality will never arise. An eminent advocate of Supreme Court Daljeet Singh some time back rightly posed a question on a discussion show in a news channel and hammered home the driving point: “If Gen VK Singh’s headmaster had wrongly filled in 1952 as his date of birth, would the government still have accepted it? It is only age as contained in matriculation certificate, which serves as the biggest proof of age, which cannot be bulldozed by anything else.”

The government’s highly questionable act in relying wholly on MS Branch on the question of Gen VK Singh’s age, which is no one to comment on such legal matters and ignoring entirely the AG Branch, which is officially authorised in all legal matters of Army, has put it under a big scanner and many have lambasted it as it is bound to lower the image of Army, affect adversely the morale of all rank and file of Armymen as everyone knows that Gen VK Singh who has an upright image with impeccable service record is being coerced into being a sacrificial goat to be edged out much before his actual term which is completed on specious grounds having no legal authority. And it is just not legally tenable. Obviously, it is terrorists and Gen Kayani who must be having the last laugh in this regard as the highly revered august office of Army Chief is made the laughing stock in front of the entire world by our civilian government unlike what we see in Pakistan where Army reigns supreme and no civilian government can ever dare to kick out a serving Army Chief on such flimsy grounds! What to say about corrupt people both in Army and in inner circles of government who were feeling highly suffocated by the huge crackdown he had ordered on all illegal channels of minting money? They too must be certainly breathing easy now that the tenure of Gen VK Singh is being planned to be short circuited!

The government has utterly failed in doing its homework properly on such a sensitive, key issue. It itself has opened a can of worms and not done any good in salvaging its own already battered image in the eyes of the people for which it has a lot of explaining and self-introspection to do. By ignoring hard legal facts on the ground on this key issue of deciding Gen VK Singh’s age, it has only shot itself in the foot.

Let me put two pertinent questions straightaway: First, what is Gen VK Singh’s date of birth in matriculation certificate, which is universally accepted as the biggest authentic age proof of any individual? Obviously, it is May 10, 1951. Not stopping here, even in all his service records and in all service records of his father who retired as Lieutenant Colonel from the Army and even in the Military Hospital at Pune where he was born, his date of birth is officially recorded as May 10, 1951. Secondly, what is the date of birth in Gen VK Singh’s confidential reports, service records and AG Branch, which is the last word on all Army records and legal matters? Again, it is May 10, 1951. Where then is the problem in accepting May 10, 1951, as Gen VK Singh’s date of birth over which there is just no ambiguity as is wrongly being attempted by government in this regard by relying exclusively on irrelevant entries and ignoring all official records?

We must also understand and so must our government that both MS and AG Branch cannot be put in the same bracket as MS Branch is only concerned with postings, promotions, courses, deputation and retirement of all officers and has nothing to do with the personal and family details of an officer, which along with other official records is solely maintained by the AG Branch and is the last word on all such matters. So the government cannot just kick aside the proper official records of Gen VK Singh as maintained by AG Branch, which officially records his date of birth as May 10, 1951. Also, how can the government overlook that to attain the rank of Lieutenant General, Gen VK Singh had to undergo six promotion boards and in all of them his date of birth was shown by the MS Branch itself, which ignited this whole needless controversy as May 10, 1951?

Obviously, needless to say that later on vested elements in MS Branch stooped low in recording his date of birth as May 10, 1950 by mysteriously relying only on an entry filled by a teacher inadvertently in a UPSC application form for NDA and turning a Nelson’s eye to all other official entries recording May 10, 1951, as his date of birth, which is legally untenable and is most ridiculous, to say the least and smacks of a deep conspiracy hatched to adversely affect Gen VK Singh’s illustrious career by reducing his legitimate tenure as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) by ten months approximately, in order to benefit another senior Army officer at his expense (Gen VK Singh). MS Branch is guilty of violating all norms in Gen VK Singh’s case by overlooking so many factual details supporting his contention of May 10, 1951, as being his actual date of birth and not consulting AG Branch responsible for handling all such official records, which too has May 10, 1951, as his actual date of birth. More strangely, MS Branch in tenure of two former military secretaries preferred to deliberately rely on age entry as contained in UPSC application form for NDA while overlooking all the relevant entries in the official records, due to extraneous reasons.

To quote AK Antony, Defence Minister’s written reply to a question in Rajya Sabha on September 07, 2011: “Gen Singh’s date of birth has been maintained as May 10, 1950, at the time of his selection as Corps Commander in 2006 as well as his subsequent promotion as Army Commander in 2008 and Army Chief in 2010. Accordingly, he is left with 8 months and 23 days of service as on date will have to retire in May 2012.” This seems to be based on wrong interpretation on the part of MS Branch and ill advice rendered by officials concerned in Ministry of Defence. Antony’s remarks in Rajya Sabha are absolutely premature and highly objectionable, since the statutory complaint filed by Gen VK Singh is still being analysed in MoD. When Gen VK Singh was considered by the Promotion Board for Lt Gen, what was the DOB (Date of Birth) in the Master Data Sheet? To the best of knowledge in the public domain, it was May 10, 1951. Then why was the same not clarified in the Rajya Sabha by Antony? The government seems to have jumped the gun in haste in drawing an inane conclusion that Gen VK Singh will retire in May 2012. If the government has a semblance of propriety left in itself, then it should waste no time in coming clean on this open-and-shut case by admitting its goof-up of relying exclusively on MS Branch having no legal authority in such matters and not AG Branch, which is the final authority in Army in this regard.

Initially Law Ministry after verifying from various sources had confirmed May 10, 1951, as his correct DOB. Ministry of Defence (MoD) has gravely erred in relying exclusively on MS Branch’s entry in proposal for his appointments as Corps Commander, Army Commander and COAS, which is null and void in the eyes of law. It is only the records maintained by AG Branch, which is the sole legal custodian of all records, pertaining to age etc and even MoD cannot overrule its legality.

The Additional Director General (Public Information), who is a Major General, said: “The value of a matriculation certificate cannot be wished away. The Defence Ministry had arrived at its decision on the issue, on the basis of what it was told by the MS Branch that had no jurisdiction on such issues as per Regulations for the Army and the Charter given to each branch of Army Headquarters. The MS Branch has itself been ignoring the very same matriculation certificate.” He also went on to blame the MS Branch for not matching its records with the AG Branch of Army Headquarters.

When Gen VK Singh was considered for promotion to Lt Gen by Promotion Board, his DOB was May 10, 1951. But in proposal for appointment of Corps Commander, Army Commander and COAS, it was shown as May 10, 1950, by MS Branch intentionally (at the behest of two former Military Secretaries), which clearly depicts that there is more to it than meets the eye.

AG Branch, which is mandated to hold official records regarding age etc, had asked for correction in MS Branch records. Even Gen VK Singh himself cannot disown his age as contained in his matriculation certificate, which is the final age proof in all matters. Perhaps, the government is stretching things too far to new unknown abysmal level of absurdities.

One of the bewildering reasons spelt out by the government is that the acceptance of Gen VK Singh’s DOB as May 10, 1951, would upset the established chain of command in the Army. This specious plea is not convincing and not worth even entertaining as chain of command is not a formal policy for promotions as selection criteria is strictly based on merit and not strictly on seniority alone. This is borne by the fact of supersession of Lt Gen SK Sinha by Lt Gen AS Vaidya and Lt Gen PS Bhagat by Lt Gen TN Raina for COAS appointment respectively, despite both being junior in service. Hence, the contention of an existing chain of command and seniority-based selection does not stand scrutiny and is a deliberate myth created to mislead public opinion. There may be many such cases which are not in the public domain. The government must accept with a pinch of salt that it cannot turn a Nelson’s eye to the ground realities in Gen VK Singh’s case.

It would not be out of context to mention that in 2007, the then Lt Gen VK Singh had again asked AG Branch about his DOB, which confirmed it as May 10, 1951, as per official records. It seems that the conspiracy was hatched at the highest level in connivance with the then two Military Secretaries of MS Branch.

It is reliably learnt that the then COAS, Gen Deepak Kapoor had given a call to Lt Gen VK Singh, when he was to move as Army Commander that there were a lot of officers who were in waiting for promotion and his (Gen VK Singh’s) case had to be decided first, therefore he (Gen Deepak Kapoor) sought an undertaking from him (Lt Gen VK Singh) in writing that in organisational interest he should accept May 10, 1950, as his DOB. Gen Deepak Kapoor had also stated that Lt Gen VK Singh would be overlooked for appointment as Army Commander, if he did not give in writing his DOB as May 10, 1950. Lt Gen VK Singh under duress thus was compelled to give an undertaking accordingly in organisational interest, however he (Lt Gen VK Singh) had also mentioned that he sought justice or words to that affect.

The question arises whether it was appropriate to ask the then Lt Gen VK Singh to submit such an undertaking in writing. It was purely blackmailing by Gen Deepak Kapoor. Such an incident had never happened before in the history of Indian Army. Merely the then Lt Gen VK Singh’s giving in writing an undertaking that in the interest of organisation, he accepts May 10, 1950, as his DOB, does not in any manner obviate the truth of his DOB as May 10, 1951. It seems that for parochial reasons, the government is unduly interested in reducing the legitimate tenure of Gen VK Singh.

The statutory complaint filed by Gen VK Singh needs to be considered dispassionately and accepted purely on the merits, at the earliest, by MoD, in the supreme interest of the nation and the Army in particular. MoD should direct MS Branch to show May 10, 1951, as Gen VK Singh’s DOB, in consonance with those maintained legally by AG Branch.

It needs no rocket scientist to reach the simple logical conclusion that Gen VK Singh’s DOB is May 10, 1951. It is a clear open-and-shut case. It is a no-brainer that in all cases of deciding age, it is the matriculation certificate that holds final precedence over everything else. All those responsible for ignoring this and wrongly inserting Gen VK Singh’s DOB as May 10, 1950, owe an explanation to the nation. It is hoped that sane wisdom will prevail upon government in reaching the obvious conclusion that Gen VK Singh’s date of birth should be considered May 10, 1951 purely on grounds of merit.

In this background, one is constrained to say the unpalatable truth that the government is being disingenuous and is playing a “game of bluff” by overlooking all factual considerations in Gen VK Singh’s case and relying exclusively on extraneous considerations. This indisputably will not be able to withstand legal scrutiny in the first place much to the huge embarrassment of government already reeling grievously not only under Anna’s crusade but also under repeated terror attacks and will inescapably give a bodily blow to its already sagging reputation as the whole nation holds Gen VK Singh in the highest esteem. The government must realise the gravity of the situation and render justice in Gen VK Singh’s case as soon as possible and failure to do so will have perturbing and irretrievable implications from which the government cannot recuse itself.

It would not be out of context to quote Maroof Raja, who is a noted defence analyst and author of General and Governments in India and Pakistan, and who very eloquently wrote in the Hindustan Times dated September 16, 2011: “Apparently, this ‘age debate’ was first raked up in 2006, when General JJ Singh was the chief. Some say that JJ’s parochial agenda can’t be ruled out. It resurfaced again as an RTI question in 2010. The MoD now claims it has a letter from the Army’s Military Secretary’s (MS) branch, which (on the basis of a Union Public Service Commission application form for the National Defence Academy (NDA, submitted by a 15-year-old VK Singh) shows 1950 as his year of birth. The General says this was erroneously filled in by his school teacher, BS Bhatnagar. More importantly, a form filled by a minor is only acceptable if authenticated by a matriculation certificate, as per our laws. And his matriculation certificate says May 10, 1951. Also records show that 1951 is the date of birth that General VK Singh has filled, in every document, since joining the NDA in 1966.

Moreover, it’s not the MS but the Adjutant General’s (AG) branch that keeps these records. The MoD’s babus certainly know this. But despite the AG branch’s repeated claims that the General was born in 1951, his attempts to get the MS branch to accept 1951 as his date of birth were dismissed. So is there more than that meets the eye? Apparently at the heart of the controversy are three issues: 1) to limit the General’s tenure to two years 2) to ensure that his successor is the man the government wants, and 3) to drive home the supremacy of the MoD’s babus over the military. So the MoD insists its ‘succession plan’ would be upset if it accept Gen VK Singh’s claim that he was born in 1951.

This is a bizarre argument to get General Singh out of the way—as bizarre as the one given by Indira Gandhi to bypass a much-respected soldier-scholar, Lt Gen SK Sinha who was clearly slated to succeed Gen Krishna Rao. Instead, she appointed Gen AS Vaidya, claiming he was a war hero. But then, Gandhi had bypassed Lt Gen Prem Bhagat a Victoria Cross awardee (equal to our Param Veer Chakra), and the only true war hero who should have been chief by appointing an amenable Kashmiri, Gen TN Raina, as Army Chief instead. In both cases, the ‘line of succession’ was ignored.

History has shown that India’s politicians and mandarins have always been uncomfortable with a straight-talking Army Chief. And Gen VK Singh is regarded as an upright soldier who has been able to restore the Indian Army’s reputation after the battering it had received following the Adarsh Society and the Sukhna land scams, under Gen Deepak Kapoor. Ironically now, it is this man’s integrity that is being questioned. Could this stand-off lead Gen VK Singh to move the courts? If he does so, it would be a first by an Army Chief. And as his case is strong with former chief justices having backed his claim the outcome will clearly leave the government red-faced.

What Gen VK Singh is seeking from the government is no illegitimate favour or extension of tenure as most bureaucrats do in our nation at the highest level and which our government most happily in many cases grants them also without uttering a single word of dissent. All that he is seeking is completing his full legitimate tenure, which he is entirely within his legal rights to claim so and which most shockingly the government has held in abeyance.

By Sanjeev Sirohi

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