Though it is widely being interpreted as such, the dispute over army chief General VK Singh’s year of birth is not a conflict between the civilian government and the army.
The conflict originated between two branches of the army headquarters, and the first decision on what has now snowballed into a major controversy was taken by the army’s top brass itself.
Two immediate predecessors of the current chief — General JJ Singh in 2006 and General Deepak Kapoor in 2009 — concluded that the legally maintainable year of birth for General VK Singh can only be 1950. The government’s subsequent decisions were based on this. He was commissioned in the army in 1970.
It was only in 2006 that the Military Secretary (MS) branch asked him to clarify about the existence of his two dates of birth in official records, before his promotion to corps commander. The MS branch, which is responsible for transfers and promotions of officers, maintained that Singh’s date of birth was May 10, 1950.
The Adjutant General (AG) branch, the official record keeper of the army, however, showed his year of birth as 1951. Though Singh has consistently maintained that all his service records show 1951 as his year of birth, he did give two undertakings in 2008 and 2009 that he would abide by the army’s decision on treating 1950 as his year of birth. The undertakings were given when he was due to be promoted first to commander and then to chief in April 2010.
The matter became public in January last year, when in response to a right to information query filed by a Lucknow resident, the army replied on the basis of a controversial opinion by the law ministry that Singh’s year of birth was 1951.
It was at this stage that the defence ministry intervened for the first time in May after the army pressed for change in Singh’s year of birth. It asked the law ministry to seek the attorney general’s opinion, who stated that no change could be allowed at this stage.
Attorney general GE Vahanvati reiterated his opinion in June and December (2011) that Singh’s year of birth will remain 1950 and he will have to retire in May this year.
Expert opinion is divided on the issue. Lt Gen (retd) VG Patankar says it is wrong to term the issue as government versus army. “I don’t think it is so. It is a personal issue that has become so big by virtue of the office being talked about.”
However, Lt Gen (retd) Vinod Chopra is of the view that government must have known about the issue.
“My feeling is that the army would have at least kept the defence ministry informed about the sensitive development. It is not possible that the army would have acted on its own.”