Wail the chief
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Wail the chief

I've deliberately waited a week because I want to be confident of my opinions before I share them with you. After all, the issues raised by the army chief's age controversy concern an institution I hold in enormous esteem, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Feb 22, 2012 23:23 IST
Karan Thapar,Gen VK Singh,army chief

I’ve deliberately waited a week because I want to be confident of my opinions before I share them with you. After all, the issues raised by the army chief’s age controversy concern an institution I hold in enormous esteem. But for that very reason it also behoves me to speak freely and, if necessary, critically.

I want to confine myself to a few points I consider paramount. First, was Gen VK Singh justified in taking his own government to court? My earlier comments may have suggested he was but I’ve come to think otherwise. Let me explain.

Like other citizens, Gen Singh, as an individual, has a right to seek justice from the Supreme Court. If captains, majors and colonels can — and even generals have — so can he. But Gen Singh is not just another soldier. He’s the army chief. As such he not only heads the army but, more importantly, personifies the institution. This imposes certain unique constraints and obligations on him. I believe in going to court Gen Singh overlooked this.

If, instead, he had resigned as chief and then sought redressal from the courts Gen Singh would have been considered both a hero and a martyr. A hero for upholding the high standing of his office at the cost of his own career. A martyr because a seemingly rigid and insensitive government had driven him to this.

But that’s not what happened. Gen Singh went to court pleading his honour and integrity were at stake. The key question he then faced was one he never answered but which continues to haunt him: was his honour and integrity not in question when, no matter how conditionally and no matter what the pressure, he agreed to accept in the army’s interest whatever his bosses deemed to be his date of birth and, then — and this is crucial — reiterated suo motto, four months before becoming chief, that he stood by that commitment?

If taking a stand on his date of birth was critical to his self-esteem surely the point at which he should have done this was 2006, 2008 or 2009, when the army raised the issue? Instead, at the time, perhaps because critical promotions would have been at risk, he found a way of accepting the wrong date. It seems it was only as chief when, presumably, there was nothing more to gain, he mustered the resolve to stand up.

Finally, what should Gen Singh have done when he lost? Remember, he was fighting for his honour and integrity. He identified this goal in terms of the Supreme Court accepting 1951 as his date of birth. But it pointedly did not. Worse, it accepted 1950 as the year the army should maintain in its service records. So, whatever sweet words the judges may have used, honour and integrity, in the terms Gen Singh defined them, were denied to him.

I think he should have immediately resigned. I believe that would have been the honourable thing to do.

Instead he left for Jaipur and then London, as if it was business as usual. Worse, he told The Indian Express the court had “upheld (his) integrity and honour” which, as I’ve explained, it had not.

I fear Gen Singh, who’s an honourable man, will live to rue these mistakes. He’ll always be known as the chief who took the government to court and lost. Sadly, some will also remember he didn’t resign immediately. That he didn’t do the decent thing.

Views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Feb 18, 2012 21:54 IST