Age of controversy

Print edition : February 24, 2012

ARMY CHIEF GEN. V.K. SINGH and Defence Minister A.K. Antony at the Martyrs' Day function in New Delhi on January 30.-SHAHBAZ KHAN/PTI

The apex court asks the government to explain why the Defence Ministry rejected the Army chief's statutory complaint on his date of birth.

THE entire controversy surrounding the official date of birth of the Chief of the Army Staff General V.K. Singh in the Army's records has brought into sharp focus the issue of civilian-military relations besides exposing the shoddy state of affairs in the Army itself the inconsistency in a soldier's date of birth in records held by two different branches was allowed to continue for over 35 years.

With the Supreme Court telling the government to clarify its position on the date of birth and explain the grounds on which the Ministry of Defence rejected Gen. V.K. Singh's statutory complaint on December 30, 2011, many facts, quite a few of them uncomfortable ones, are now expected to come to light. The Supreme Court, hearing the Army chief's plea on February 3, also expressed its displeasure at the manner in which the government had treated this issue.

The actions of the government forced the Army chief, widely regarded as a man of great honour and integrity, to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court to get his date of birth reconciled. In the Army, the Adjutant General (A.G.) branch, which is the official record-keeper of officers' personal information, and the Military Secretary (M.S.) branch, which maintains the records of ranks and promotions, had two different dates of birth in their records for Gen. V.K. Singh since 1971 soon after he was commissioned into the Army. While the A.G. branch maintained his date of birth as May 10, 1951, on the basis of his Secondary School Certificate (SSC) issued by the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education, the M.S. branch recorded it as May 10, 1950, on the basis of the entry made in the form submitted to the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for taking the National Defence Academy (NDA) examination.

As a result, for the first time an Army chief in a democratic country has been forced to go to court against his own government.

While there is no denying the fact that the controversy was the making of the Army itself, the bureaucracy, on its part, is seen as having exploited the situation to retain what is seen as its stranglehold over the defence forces.

The dichotomy in the date of birth was apparently detected for the first time in 2006. Gen. V.K. Singh's Indian Military Academy ID card, his passport, his annual medical reports and annual confidential reports (ACR) have his date of birth as May 10, 1951. Whereas the M.S. branch continued to give the date as May 10, 1950 in the Army List, which contains details such as officers' dates of birth, promotion records, rank and medals awarded.

The Army chief himself apparently did not notice the variance or he did not make a serious effort earlier to set right the discrepancy. Why would he? He never had any reason to suspect that his date of birth was anything else but May 10, 1951, says a close aide of his. Until 2006, his date of birth had no bearing on any of his promotions or official assignments, so it never became an issue.

The first time the discrepancy was noticed was in 2006 when the Military Secretary, Lt. Gen. Richard Khare, wrote to V.K. Singh, then a Major General. The letter, dated May 3, 2006, pointed to the variance in the date of birth and advised him to either reflect the correct date of birth as May 10, 1950, in future or alternatively clarify the variance and the correct date of birth as known by you.

In his reply, dated May 10, 2006, V.K. Singh explained that the variance was because his date of birth in the NDA form had been entered wrongly, as per details provided by a clerk, and that in 1971 when he received his SSC certificate, he submitted the original to the A.G's branch and subsequently the A.G's branch corrected his date of birth to May 10, 1951. He also wrote that on two other occasions, in 1985 and 2002, he wrote to the M.S. branch to make corrections in the Army List and was told by the branch that since the records were maintained correctly by them, the needful would be done. I have always retained the impression that the necessary corrections would have been done by the M.S. branch at the behest of the A.G's branch. It appears this impression has been wrong as a doubt has come up almost 35 years after submission of correct certificates, the General wrote in a letter to the Military Secretary in 2008.

The age controversy continued to crop up now and then, with the A.G. branch reiterating that his date of birth was May 10, 1951, and the M.S. branch insisting that since the official record with it was May 10, 1950, irrespective of the documentary evidence available, his date of birth would be considered as 1950 only. Matters almost came to a head in 2008 when Gen. V.K. Singh was to be considered for elevation from Corps Commander to Army Commander. On January 21, 2008, Lt. Gen. P.R. Gangadharan, the Military Secretary then, wrote to him saying that since there was no correspondence with the A.G's branch to substantiate his claim of his date of birth being May 10, 1951, and no correspondence existed of his efforts to get the dates corrected in 1985 and 2002, we are constrained to maintain your official date of birth as May 10, 1950, and the same may kindly be reflected in all your records/documents. This almost amounted to saying that Gen. V.K. Singh had been lying until then about his correct date of birth.

Gen. Singh replied on January 24, 2008, saying that since the M.S. had raised questions on his integrity, he would like to clarify that only once had he submitted the proof of his age, the SSC certificate, for his date of birth, and that he never sought any change ever and all documents maintained by him, as also by the A.G. branch, reflected his date of birth as May 10, 1951. He requested the M.S. that anything which is required to be done in the larger interest of the organisation may be undertaken by the Army HQ.

Another letter written by V.K. Singh on January 30, 2008, to the M.S. makes it clear that several rounds of discussion followed with the M.S. branch and the office of the Chief of the Army Staff, and he was forced to accept an incorrect date of birth as his official date of birth. In this letter V.K. Singh wrote, In view of the constraint and in accordance with the discussion of date I will mention the date of birth as directed (May 10, 1950).

This was followed by another letter from him on January 31, 2008, which says date as mentioned is accepted. Earlier, on January 24, 2008, a signal was sent from the M.S. branch to Gen. Singh specifically telling him if reply not recd by 1000 hrs on 25 jan 08 action deemed appropriate will be taken. This was followed by the General's acceptance of his incorrect date of birth.

GEN. DEEPAK KAPOOR, from whom Gen. V.K. Singh took over as the Army chief in 2010. Gen. Singh's critics point to the fact that at least three times he gave in writing - twice to the M.S. branch in 2008 and once to Gen. Kapoor in 2009 - that he would accept the date of birth as given by the M.S. branch as his official date of birth.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

On January 25, 2008, a seemingly relieved M.S. branch wrote a detailed note to the Ministry of Defence saying the officer concerned had agreed to write his date of birth as May 10, 1950, though he never had any mala fide intention in mentioning his date of birth as May 10, 1951. The variance, the letter explained, was on account of lack of coordination between the two branches at that point of time.

In substance, the M.S. branch agreed that the date of birth claimed by Gen. Singh was indeed backed by documentary evidence, but it would not accept it and would continue to hold his date of birth as 1950. The M.S. branch never explained if the 1951 date was indeed based on the SSC certificate and other documents including the various ACRs of the officer concerned. It continued to insist on the year as 1950, which was more of an aberration, mentioned only in one document, the NDA form. All this correspondence happened when Gen. Singh was being considered for promotion to Army Commander from Corps Commander.

Succession theory

This obsessive insistence on 1950, say Army insiders who have been Gen. Singh's close associates, was to set a particular line of succession and pave the way for Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh to take over as the Army chief from Gen. V.K. Singh. Informed sources said the issue had its genesis in a particular lobby rooting for him. This lobby, the sources said, derived its influence from the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), which had become active on this issue. And this line of succession, the sources said, was set in motion way back in 2006.

This line of argument is as mystifying as it is difficult to substantiate with documentary evidence. But then, Gen. V.K. Singh's age suddenly became important in 2006. One person who can set the record straight on this is Gen. (retd) J.J. Singh, who was the Army chief then, but he has preferred to remain quiet so far. Efforts by this correspondent to contact him proved futile. His aides-de-camp (ADCs) said he was busy.

LT. GEN. (RETD) S.K. SINHA. As the Vice Chief of the Army Staff he sought premature retirement after he was superseded for the top post in 1983. According to him, the question of honour should have come up in 2006 and then in 2008 when, according to Gen. V.K. Singh, he was "coerced" into agreeing to the incorrect date of birth.-RAJEEV BHATT

It is said that possible contenders for the top post, such as Maj. Gen R.K. Arora, who was Gen. V.K. Singh's course mate and an outstanding candidate, Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag and Lt Gen. R.K. Karwal, were shunted out to pave the way for Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh. This theory could have been put into practice only if Gen. V.K. Singh retired on May 31, 2012, and for that to happen his date of birth would have to be May 10, 1950. If 1951 was accepted as the year, then he would get an extension of 10 months, during which time Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh would retire and Lt. Gen. K.T. Parnaik would become the chief. And if Gen. V.K. Singh retires before May 31, 2012 (that is, in case he resigns), Lt. Gen. Shankar Ghosh will become the chief.

An informed source close to the Army chief told Frontline that continuing for another year was not the priority for Gen V.K. Singh; his only aim was to get the government to accept his correct date of birth and then he may even resign before the appointed date. For him, it is important to clear the impression that he is only rooting for the post for another year. The insinuations on his integrity, first by the M.S. branch, then by the Ministry of Defence, which referred the matter to the Attorney General without taking Gen. Singh into confidence, is what has hurt him, and he has been forced to take this extreme step to defend his honour like a true soldier, said the source. The Attorney General, taking cognisance of only the facts provided by the M.S. branch, had opined that the General's date of birth should be treated as 1950, which became the basis for the Defence Ministry to reject his statutory complaint.

Criticism

But the fact that Gen. V. K. Singh chose to approach the Supreme Court has led to criticism. He insists that he was only trying to defend his honour, but his critics point to the fact that at least three times he gave in writing twice to the M.S. branch in 2008, and once to Army chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor in 2009 that he would accept the date of birth as given by the M.S. branch as his official date of birth.

He lost the moral high ground then itself because selective defence of honour is not acceptable, says Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha, the only Vice Chief of the Army Staff who was superseded by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983 when she made Gen. A.S. Vaidya, his junior, the chief. Lt. Gen. Sinha, who sought premature retirement in 1983, had opposed in writing Indira Gandhi's handling of the Sikh militancy (he opposed the use of the Army at the first instance) and his family was known to be close to Jayaprakash Narayan.

I could have gone to court, but I didn't. Generals don't go to court against the civilian authority in democratically run countries. The supremacy of the civilian authority has to be maintained. Nowhere in the world has this ever happened. Generals, no matter how highly decorated they are, should just fade away, says Sinha.

According to him, the question of honour should have come up in 2006 and then in 2008 when, according to Gen. V.K. Singh, he was coerced into agreeing to the incorrect date of birth. But having accepted it then, he cannot take the moral high ground now, though there can be no doubt that he is an honest, upright officer of great integrity, says Sinha.

Insensitive Ministry

As for the Defence Ministry's handling of the issue, there is little to show that it was sensitive to the concern of the Army chief; it went about sorting out the issue at the Joint Secretary level. The Ministry of Defence should have sorted out this issue in 15 minutes. In fact, the Minister should have personally seen to it that the issue was resolved at the earliest, instead of allowing his officials to bandy the issue about between various legal branches, says Sinha.

Similarly, Lt. Gen. (retd) Prakash Katoch, too, thinks the negative role played by the bureaucracy should be exposed now that the matter is being debated at great length. He wondered why the Ministry did not rectify the mistake the moment it came to light, and why it kept reinforcing the wrong date.

In the midst of this debate, the issue of seniority being the sole criterion for appointing the Army chief has come to the fore with many retired Army officers questioning it. Hopefully, once the Supreme Court deals with the issue, these uncomfortable questions can be debated and resolved in a more transparent manner.

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