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No defence for this

I’m deeply saddened by the Army Chief controversy. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Jan 22, 2012 00:44 IST

I’m deeply saddened by the Army Chief controversy. It’s shown up the government in a very poor light, affected the image of the army and thrown into controversy the office of the army chief. No matter who wins the army is the loser.

What is particularly bizarre is that a simple and sensible resolution was available to the government weeks, if not months, ago but it refused to accept it. And you’ll be astonished to discover it was offered by none other than General VK Singh himself.

In separate meetings with the defence secretary, the defence minister and, finally, the finance minister, the Army Chief was asked how this issue should be sorted out and what he suggested is what most sane voices today believe is the best solution. The chief suggested the government issue a statement accepting that, on the basis of the certificates he has provided, 1951 is his date of birth. But, crucially, the general added that the same statement should say he was appointed on the assumption that his date of birth was 1950 and, therefore, his tenure was fixed to run till May 2012 and that retirement date will remain in force regardless of the amendment of his date of birth.

Why on earth did the government not agree? What would they have lost by accepting Gen Singh’s solution? Since he was prepared to step aside in 2012, as the government wants, what was the obstacle in amending his date of birth to reflect what he considers the true date?

Refusing to do so is tantamount to claiming the Army Chief is a liar. Any man, boxed into such a corner, would feel his honour and integrity is impugned. A soldier even more so.

Unfortunately, this is not the only bizarre aspect of this sorry situation. The army itself has a lot of explaining to do. How is it that for 36 years the Adjutant General’s branch and the Military Secretary’s office have maintained two different dates of birth without realising it? And why, when it was found out, was it not swiftly corrected?

I’m told successive military secretaries and army chiefs claimed it would affect the line of succession. But should army chiefs be appointed on the basis of age rather than merit?

Yet more strange is the way the line of succession argument has affected Gen VK Singh’s position — it ought to be a sequel to his retirement but, instead, it seems to have become the cause of it! He has to retire in 2012 because otherwise a pre-planned succession will be disrupted.

This makes the choice of army chief seem like a royal succession, determined by birth and not merit. Or is it the case — hideous though the thought may be — that politics at the top of the army has created this outcome? Not the best man but the best friend is chosen for the top job.

This is just an inference and I hope and pray it’s false. But at the moment, from all I’ve found out, it seems not only possible but, perhaps, undeniable.

When AK Antony uses the line of succession argument as his defence for not amending the Army Chief’s date of birth it seems he’s accepting a succession plan worked out at army headquarters. But choosing the army chief is his and the government’s prerogative! Has he forgotten that?

The more I find out about this dreadful mess the more it depresses me.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 22, 2012 00:37 IST