It is not my intention to cause a sudden dip in morale in the Indian armed forces, a dip so vertiginous that when the Chinese are amassed at the Mehrauli crossing, our soldiers will be able to do nothing. But the crisis that reached its climax last week involving the date of birth of India’s army chief strikes me as being incredibly banal. How many angels can dance on a pin head being replaced by how many candles should be there on our army chief's birthday cake on May 10?
Don’t get me wrong. The fact that the spat between the ministry of defence and the army chief — which in institutional terms means the hand-to-hand combat between the Government of India and the Indian Army — was played out in public must have been disconcerting for patriots on both sides of the civilian-military border. On following the spat in the Indian media, the aforementioned Chinese must have plied themselves with endless mai tais and gleefully quoted from Du Fu’s ‘Ballad of the Ancient Cypress’, lines that only Vikram Seth would be able to faithfully translate as “If a great hall should teeter, wanting rafters and beams,/ Ten thousand oxen would turn their heads towards its mountain's weight.” That a quarrel had broken out between the army and the civilian government was serious. But what surely can’t be is the reason for this dangerous eyeballing: whether the army chief was bluffing about his age.
Here’s the source of the fracas in a nutshell: General VK Singh insisted that his date of birth is May 10, 1951 — and not May 10, 1950, as according to the service records that Singh had himself provided when he had applied for the National Defence Academy (NDA) when he was 14 (which means that he must have been then 13). I’ve conducted similar age-propping strategies when I was 14 (but was actually 15) to cover up the fact that I had lost a year when getting into school for the first time. I hope to dear god that by constantly repeating my real age for the last decade or so to people, especially to ladies who profess a fondness for older men, I have made amends.
So at best, Singh was guilty of some minor age-shuffling so that he could get into the NDA a year early. Today, that has come to bite him in his rear formation. This, to me, could have been easily sorted out by some clerical whiz in the government, if the civvies in the defence ministry wanted. Instead, it became an infructuous contest which even the Supreme Court labelled as being “a vital matter for the entire nation”. A vital matter for the entire nation. Really?
I’m told it’s about ‘honour’. In August 31, 1959, army chief General KS Thimayya offered to resign after a spat with defence minister VK Krishna Menon over, among other things, the latter’s refusal to consider the chief of army staff’s plans for preparing for a looming India-China conflict — which Menon thought was only gathering force in the brain of a restless military man. Nehru did manage to convince Thimayya to stay on as army chief till the latter retired in 1961 — even as the PM backed the wrong horse Menon into the winter of ’62.
Nehru had told Parliament in September 1959, the House agitated over a army chief-defence minister quarrel, that the issues involved in Thimayya’s attempted resignation were “rather trivial and of no consequence”, and that they arose “from temperamental differences and did not include promotions”. I can bet my 21st battalion that the spat didn’t arise because of promotions etc but because of the matter of Menon shrugging his shoulders each time Thimayya uttered the word ‘China’.
Now that was a spat I can understand where honour must have crept in. What loss of honour was General Singh worried about? That he’s been branded a liar by AK Antony and his para-militaries? But according to his own logic, he must have lied at least once — either when he was 13 or 14, or now when he’s 60 or 61. He told the court that he would resign in 48 hours the moment the government accepted he was 60. The problem for the court was trusting a man’s sense of hours when he’s mixed up 365 days. But, most incredibly, the court said that it was “not concerned with determining his age” and went on to utter something four days before Valentine’s Day about understanding the “pain in your heart of having your date of birth not being corrected”.
I think I just heard a gaggle of tipsy but sure-about-their-ages Chinese generals roll with laughter on the red carpeted floor while quoting one of Sun Tzu’s five dangerous faults that may affect a general — which Vikram Seth would faithfully translate as “A delicacy of honour that is sensitive to shame.”