How the controversy over Dalbir Singh unfolded
Defence minister Arun Jaitley told Parliament on Wednesday that the appointment of Lt Gen Dalbir Singh as the next army chief was final, seeking to cap a controversy over the move that has been criticised by former army chief-turned-minister VK Singh.
The controversy comes in the wake of an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the ministry of defence (MoD), which was critical of VK Singh for taking "illegal and premeditated" decisions.
The affidavit was filed by the MoD in response to a petition filed by Lt Gen Ravi Dastane, who is seeking the apex court's intervention to stay the appointment of Lt Gen Singh as the next army chief.
Lt Gen Dastane lost the case in the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) and had approached the SC with his appeal in which he claimed he was eligible to be promoted as an army commander since Lt Gen Singh was under a promotion ban imposed by Gen Singh.
If the court accepts Lt Gen Dastane's argument, then he could be eligible to be the army chief as well.
Gen Singh, who has been opposed to Lt Gen Singh's appointment as the next army chief, took to Twitter to publicly air his opposition on Tuesday night.
"MoD affidavit same as it gave to AFT (Armed Force Tribunal) under protective and conniving UPA, what is new folks?" he tweeted.
The tweet was a direct and public attack on the NDA government and immediately sent alarm bells ringing in the top echelons of senior leadership.
Sources familiar with the issue told HT that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was upset when he was informed about the tweets by Gen Singh.
While defence minister Jaitley had asked for an explanation by Tuesday evening, the PM had not expressed his views on the matter until Gen Singh sent out his tweets.
It is understood that Modi had a word with Jaitley and a decision was taken to reiterate the government's support for Lt Gen Singh's appointment immediately after that.
"The defence minister has also agreed that the government cannot revise its position from the stand taken in the AFT. The government's defence of Lt Gen Singh rests upon the argument that Gen Singh's actions were illegal and premeditated," the source told HT.
The government is also upset with Gen Singh using twitter to publicly cast aspersions on Lt Gen Singh. He alleged on twitter that Lt Gen Singh had tried to "protect criminals" as the "head of the organisation".
Gen Singh was referring to Lt Gen Singh's tenure as the commander of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps. In December 2011, the Corps Intelligence and Surveillance Unit (CISU) under Lt Gen Singh had conducted a "raid" on a Jorhat-based businessman alleged to be a ULFA leader as well.
However, the CISU was out of the jurisdiction of 3 Corps and had allegedly stolen some gold and mobile phones and the whole raid was "cooked up" for material gains.
Gen Singh's tweets also reflected his unhappiness with his cabinet colleague Jaitley, who is in charge of the defence ministry for the time being.
Sources close to Gen Singh claimed to HT that Jaitley was aware of the affidavit but did nothing to stop it.
"Gen Singh feels that the same people who nixed his age-row issue in the earlier government continue to influence the policies of the new government," a source close to Gen Singh told HT.
However, Gen Singh seems to be isolated in the government with PM Modi and Jaitley in agreement that the appointment of the next army chief could not be subjected to a "needless and settled" controversy.
Earlier, senior defence ministry officials had debated the affidavit before it was filed in the SC.
"It was decided not to reply to Lt Gen Dastane's petition till the new army chief took over," a senior defence ministry official told HT.
"But a decision was taken to file the affidavit and the basic arguments placed before the AFT was not changed. This had the ministry's approval," the source said. However, the affidavit has created a situation in which the government is now seen severely reprimanding one of its ministers in public.
Genesis of the controversy
Nearly three years ago, Gen Singh had ordered an inquiry into the incident, which was carried out by the then Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Bikram Singh. The inquiry by Lt Gen Bikram Singh led to a censure for members of the CISU, including its commanding officer, Col Srikumar.
However Gen Singh did not accept the recommendations of the inquiry and also asked that Lt Gen Singh's role should also be investigated since the CISU reported to him.
The move was intriguing, as Lt Gen Singh had already been identified as a future army chief and was next in line after Lt Gen Bikram Singh's tenure ending July 31, 2014.
With days left to go for his retirement, Gen Singh issued a show-cause notice to Lt Gen Singh and placed his promotion under a discipline-vigilance (DV) ban.
This sparked off a controversy in 2012 and was viewed as a clear move by Gen Singh to nix Lt Gen Singh's chances of becoming the army chief two years later.
What was not known then was the fact that if Lt Gen Singh was not appointed, then a relative of Gen Singh would be in line to be the army chief.
Meanwhile, another Corps Commander, Lt Gen Ravi Dastane, who was commanding the Leh-based 14 Corps, also wrote to army headquarters pointing out that if Lt Gen Singh was under a DV ban, then he was eligible for being considered as an army commander.
"As per rules, the army chief is supposed to send two names for each post. But Gen Singh only sent two names instead of the required four for the posts of Eastern and Western Army Commands," a defence ministry source confirmed to HT. The two names were that of Lt Gen Singh and Lt Gen Sanjiv Chahchra.
When Lt Gen Dastane's letters and statutory complaints were not addressed he approached the Armed Forces Tribunal so that he could be considered as an army commander.
If he was selected, he would be eligible to be the army chief instead of Lt Gen Singh. But Lt Gen Dastane lost the case in the Tribunal and approached the Supreme Court.