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In the year and now

Is the ruckus over the army chief’s date of birth about GoI meddling? Maroof Raza writes.

india Updated: Sep 15, 2011 22:04 IST
Maroof Raza
Maroof Raza
Hindustan Times

In a rare stand of defiance, army chief General VK Singh has questioned the government’s insistence that his date of birth is May 10, 1950. The General maintains he was born in 1951. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) says that accepting 1951 would upset the succession plan it has in place for the army.

The General says, by questioning his repeated claims, based on his matriculation certificate — copies of which are in circulation — it is questioning his integrity.

Apparently, this ‘age debate’ was first raked up in 2006, when General JJ Singh was the chief. Some say that JJ’s parochial agenda can’t be ruled out. It resurfaced again as an RTI question in 2010.

The MoD now claims it has a letter from the army’s military secretary’s (MS) branch, which (on the basis of a Union Public Service Commission application form for the National Defence Academy (NDA), submitted by a 15-year-old VK Singh) shows 1950 as his year of birth.

The General says this was erroneously filled in by his school teacher, BS Bhatnagar.

More importantly, a form filled by a minor is only acceptable if authenticated by a matriculation certificate, as per our laws. And his matriculation certificate says May 10, 1951. Also records show that 1951 is the date of birth that General VK Singh has filled, in every document, since joining the NDA in 1966.

Moreover, it’s not the MS but the adjutant General’s (AG) branch, that keeps these records. The MoD’s babus certainly know this. But despite the AG’s branch’s repeated claims that the General was born in 1951, his many attempts to get the MS branch to accept 1951 as his date of birth were dismissed.

So is there more than meets the eye? Apparently at the heart of the controversy are three issues: 1) to limit the General’s tenure to two years, 2) to ensure that his successor is the man the government wants, and 3) to drive home the supremacy of the MoD’s babus over the military.

So the MoD insists its ‘succession plan’ would be upset if it accepts Gen VK Singh’s claim that he was born in 1951. This is a bizarre argument to get General Singh out of the way — as bizarre as the one given by Indira Gandhi to bypass a much respected soldier-scholar, Lt Gen SK Sinha who was clearly slated to succeed Gen Krishna Rao.

Instead, she appointed Gen AS Vaidya, claiming he was a war hero. But then, Gandhi had bypassed Lt Gen Prem Bhagat — a Victoria Cross awardee (equal to our Param Veer Chakra), and the only true war hero who should have been chief — by appointing an amenable Kashmiri, Gen TN Raina, as army chief instead.

In both cases, the ‘line of succession’ was ignored.

History has shown that India’s politicians and mandarins have always been uncomfortable with a straight-talking army chief. And Gen VK Singh is regarded as an upright soldier who has been able to restore the Indian army’s reputation after the battering it had received following the Adarsh Society and the Sukhna land scams, under Gen Deepak Kapoor.

Ironically now, it is this man’s integrity that is being questioned.

Could this stand-off lead Gen VK Singh to move the courts? If he does so, it would be a first by an army chief. And as his case is strong — with former chief justices having backed his claim — the outcome will clearly leave the government red-faced.

The answer, therefore, is to find a solution to this unusual civil-military stand-off. By accepting Gen VK Singh’s contention, the government would put to rest this controversy which has cast an unsavoury shadow over the General’s reputation and integrity.

And if it still wishes to adhere to the ‘line of succession’, the government could allow Gen VK Singh, after May 2012 and until 2013 when he must retire, to continue as chief of defence staff — a rotational appointment — he already holds, and appoint another chief of army staff, as his successor.

(Maroof Raza is the author of Generals and Governments in India and Pakistan. The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Sep 15, 2011 22:02 IST