BY RSN SINGH
The SSC, Higher Secondary or 12th Standard board certificates usually serve as unimpeachable records confirming one’s date of birth (DOB). The Supreme Court, too, has ruled so in unambiguous terms.
But some vested interests inside and outside the country are desperately trying to turn this simple reality upside down in the case of the present Army Chief, Gen VK Singh. They have, for very long, been engaged in subverting the very institution of the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) by engineering a controversy about the age of the present incumbent, possibly with the idea of supplanting him with a convenient and pliable officer.
All through his career, till he became Lt Gen, VK Singh’s DOB (10 May 1951), as reflected in his matriculation certificate, was taken as true and valid. However, very late in his career, when he appeared on the scene as the strongest contender for the post of army chief, someone fabricated a controversy by claiming he was a year older, and that his date of birth was 10 May 1950, based on legally untenable arguments.
It is common knowledge in army circles that but for a specific succession plan initiated some years ago by a previous incumbent, the ‘age’ controversy in respect of Gen Singh would never have surfaced. Why did these vested interests place such a premium on their succession plan? Why did they try to prevent Gen Singh from becoming COAS?
The age controversy poses some very serious questions. Why is the discomfort level with Gen Singh so high in certain quarters? Is he being targeted for being non-pliable, upright and intolerant of corruption? Is there a design to weaken the professional moorings of the Indian army by manipulating and attacking its moral and social fabric?
Here is the inside dope.
It is about succession: The controversy is not merely about the age and tenure of the present chief. More importantly, it is about a succession plan scripted a few years back (in 2006) by none other than the then army chief. The succession script naturally attracted vested interests in the form of politicians, arms merchants, businessmen and other ambitious army officers. The controversy needs to be, therefore, understood in its entirety.
It is a moral issue: The controversy raises questions about the state of health of the Indian Army, denting its very edifice. Senior officers, depending on their career calculations, are divided over the issue. The lower rank-and-file members of the army perceive the controversy in the manner they are fed by the rival camps. The overall consequence is that the image of the army and the honour and moral authority of its chief has never been attacked so viciously by insiders and vested interests for non-operational reasons.
The Pakistani press is speculating about the issue, and has been raising doubts about the health of the Indian Army and its unity. When an army chief vouches for a simple detail like his date of birth, it should be accepted as such, unless there are huge reasons to doubt that person’s truthfulness. The point is, the psychological integrity of the army has been fraying over the years. Gen Singh’s ‘age’ controversy should thus not be viewed in isolation. It is actually a manifestation of the deterioration, misuse and subversion of the office of the COAS for nearly a decade.
Who created the controversy? An impression is being sought to be conveyed by Gen Singh’s detractors that he fudged his age just to ‘enjoy’ the office of COAS for an additional year. This is a travesty of truth. The fact is his age was never an issue throughout his career. Nor was the issue ever raked up by Army HQ or even the defence ministry as he rose to the rank of Lt Gen with his date of birth showing 10 May 1951. The issue was first raised in 2006, when the army chief prepared a succession plan going downwards several levels. It is well-known that he raked up the issue to ensure the passage of one of his favourites, apparently on sectarian considerations, to the office of COAS. In this case, he had planned for succession three interventions below.
The legal and financial implications: When preparing this particular succession plan, the said army chief went by the Army List, which gives Gen Singh’s date of birth as 10 May 1950. The Army List is prepared by the military secretary (MS) branch and contains minimal details. The branch otherwise deals with postings, promotions, deputations, and retirement, and is not the legal repository or otherwise of personal and family details of an officer. Right from the time an officer enters the training academy till he retires and even after, all records are maintained by the adjutant general (AG) branch. The AG branch clearly puts Gen Singh’s age as 10 May 1951.
It may also be pointed out that Gen Singh rose to the rank of Lt Gen after appearing before several promotion boards – all of which accepted his May 1951 date of birth. The boards which cleared his promotion from brigadier to major-general to lieutenant general were endorsed by the prime minister himself. If the contention of the military secretary branch is that Gen Singh was born in 1950, then all his promotions were illegal and have huge financial implications. In fact, the legality of his entire career comes under question.
On 14 December 2007, the defence ministry had queried the MS branch for recording Gen Singh’s date of birth as 10 May 1950, and asked for reconciliation with the previously accepted date of birth. The noting on the file was, however, found to have said: “Enquiry not to be conducted.” This indicates that vested interests were trying to settle the age issue without an enquiry.
Building up the controversy: The said army chief, in order to effect his own succession plan, activated his military secretary to handicap Gen Singh’s chances by generating the age controversy. With the same dubious intention, an explanation was sought. It is worth pointing out that even without the age controversy, Gen Singh’s claims to the post of COAS were not affected. It was the fate of Gen Singh’s successor which depended on these dates. The said army chief’s protégé would have made it to COAS only if Gen Singh’s age was pushed back by a year.
Matters got murkier when it was found that the army had given a no-objection certificate in the Sukna land scam, whereby a private party was given the right to set up an educational institution on government land. Since the army had a key corps stationed near Sukna, its NOC was vital to this project. The person who allegedly played a key role in the scam was the military secretary himself. He, along with many others, is facing trial by the judiciary. Reportedly, the same lobby has been joined by the Adarsh Society scam lobby to dislodge Gen Singh.
The arms lobby may also be at work. There are insinuations that one retired Lt Gen, who is dabbling in the arms business, has been active in the bid to supply Tatra vehicles, manufactured abroad, through an Indian public sector company, Bharat Earth Movers Ltd, at nearly double the cost of what is available off the shelf. Reportedly, the army chief has turned it down, inviting the wrath of this supplier and many others of his ilk.
Gen Singh took over as COAS when the army was bedevilled by scams, and he took it upon himself to arrest this decline in its image. This is one reason why opposition to him may be building. One senior officer, who stands to benefit the most if Singh is made to retire a year earlier, is said to be blatantly playing the sectarian card and was said to be lobbying indirectly with the law ministry. The ministry made a sudden volte face and threw its weight behind the 1950 birth date. Not to be left behind, one TV channel even claimed Gen Singh’s real birth date was in 1949 – but faced with libel action, the channel hastily backtracked.
How the birthdate confusion arose: Here’s how the date differences arose. Gen Singh entered Birla Public School with his date of birth (DOB) showing as 10 May 1951. His provisional matriculation certificate also carries the same date. The date change controversy originated with one of his teachers, BS Bhatnagar, who was keen on sending the maximum number of students to the National Defence Academy (NDA). The forms with the wrong birth date were filled by him. Bhatnagar went on to become principal of Lawrence School, Lovedale, and has since admitted that the error was his.
Gen Singh’s DOB in his medical examination form as an air force candidate before joining the NDA also reflects the correct date in 1951. When he passed the NDA exam, the anomaly between the forms filled by Bhatnagar and his provisional matriculation certificate was noticed at the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC), but this anomaly was rectified and the right DOB shows up in his NDA graduation and Indian Military Academy entry records.
But clerical oversight ensured that even after he entered the IMA, the covering envelope (from the NDA) mentioned 1950 as his DOB. It is this covering envelope, which has no legal sanctity, that Gen Singh’s detractors are using to put his DOB into question. In every subsequent document, barring the Army List dished out by the military secretary branch, the right DOB appears.
Singh’s options: Under the circumstances, what can a chief do? The option of resigning in disgust was ruled out as it would sound like an admission of defeat or even guilt. Going to court would also have set a bad precedent. Instead, the AG branch sent the papers to four retired chief justices of India for their opinion. All of them unanimously agreed that the 1951 date was the correct one.
The question is this: who benefits from this controversy? Apart from the officers who may expect to step into his shoes, it is only the country’s enemies, since a controversy at the top can only demoralise the armed forces. Moreover, even assuming Gen Singh was a year older, what should a government do? Get rid of him, or take up the matter after he retires in a quiet and unobtrusive way?
(RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also a guest blogger for Canary Trap. This post was first published on Firstpost on July 13, 2011)