It's a paradox, to put it mildly, that next Sunday we celebrate Army Day with the mood embittered by a dispute between the government and the army chief over the latter's date of birth. Not just the content of this critical difference but also its handling by the government reveals the sad and sorry way our men in uniform are treated by the their civilian masters. No wonder the services hold politicians in such contempt.
Without going into the details of the matter - because I accept that, for some, they are disputed - I want to raise a few simple questions: should any government question its army chief's date of birth? Who better than he knows when he was born? And, in this particular case, why is the government unwilling to accept General VK Singh's stand that the date given on his UPSC application form was a mistake, committed when he was 14, by a teacher who filled in the form on his behalf? Because refusal to accept Gen Singh's word is tantamount to saying he's lying!
Now let me focus on just one small but pertinent detail: of all the independent certificates available, or needed, only one claims Gen Singh was born in 1950. That's his UPSC application form. On the other hand, his birth certificate, his school leaving certificate, his NDA and IMA records as well as the Adjutant General's (AG) branch, which is the concerned authority, show his date of birth as 1951. Are they all wrong?
No doubt the Military Secretary's office records claim the chief was born in 1950 but it seems that's only because they failed to correct it. A similar correction was made by the AG's branch as far back as 1971 and within the stipulated two year limit. So, today, the Military Secretary's office is relying on one single document, which has been accepted by others as an error, in defiance of everything else. Does that make sense?
The only complication is that it appears Gen Singh accepted 1950 as his date of birth when he was promoted to Corp Commander and Army Commander. Gen Singh says this happened under pressure and only conditionally. Some would say this is an inadequate explanation but even if that's accepted it doesn't follow it's untrue. Also set against this is the fact the at least four former chief justices have studied the issue and found in favour of Gen Singh's stand that he was born in 1951. Can they all be wrong?
In these circumstances I cannot fathom why the government has allowed this situation to fester. What was needed was prompt and discrete handling. What we got was delay, indecision and politicisation.
Did the government forget they were dealing with the army chief and not an office peon? Did they overlook the fact that behind Gen Singh lie the sentime-nts and loyalty of over a million soldiers? Did it not occur to them that as the matter steadily attracted media attention it was becoming a crisis? That it would affect military morale? That it would undermine civilian-military relations?
We've now reached a point where the army chief could go to court against his government or resign his office because he's been treated unjustly. If either happens will the government be blameless?
Fifty years ago my father's generation of Sandhurst-trained officers used to refer to politicians as "damned dhoti-kurta wallas". Today's officers may use different language but the contempt they feel for politicians is the same.
Views expressed by the author are personal.