The Supreme Court decision on Friday in the matter of the date of birth controversy apropos Army Chief General V.K. Singh has placed the Indian government -- as represented by the Ministry of Defence in an awkward position.
In what may be construed as a rap on the knuckles, the Supreme Court observed the decision-making process of the government went against the principles of natural justice and the Constitution and further added the entire manner in which the Army Chief's date of birth had been determined as May 10, 1950 "appears to be vitiated."
The Court advised that the Defence Minister's order of December 30 directing the Army to retain May 1950 be withdrawn, or allow the apex court to quash it. The matter has been listed for a further hearing on February 10, thereby allowing the government time to review its position and provide the Army Chief the redress he has sought.
While many in the military establishment and the retired 'fauji' community vouch for the honesty and integrity of this upright officer who has tackled corruption head on, India is currently going through a period where everything is under scrutiny and the highest levels of probity sought in public life and service.
India of the 1960s and 70s was notoriously lax when it came to maintaining proper records; a broken system which let many slip through the cracks and sucked in others. Deliberate distortions of the year of birth to qualify or gain relative advantage were routine.
The defence minister cannot be blind to that harsh reality and this may have forced his hand. Some sections of civil society are aghast that a serving four-star general who heads a million-man army has taken recourse to the legal route.
However, a review of the sequence of events that have led to this unprecedented and unfortunate situation, wherein a serving Army Chief has to knock at the doors of the Supreme Court to seek ‘justice' is illustrative of the deeper fissures in the higher defence management of the country.
At one level the entire issue appears to be procedural -- that of correcting the date of birth in respect of V.K. Singh who joined the National Defence Academy in 1966 as held by two different branches of the Army HQ -- namely the Adjutant General and that of the Military Secretary. The first error (it is evident) occurred within the Army and this lay dormant for almost 30 years -- that of the AG and the MS maintaining two different years of birth for the officer.
From here onwards, the story gets both murky and opaque, as to how the year of birth was determined by Army HQ as 1950 and not 1951 and the manner in which this was recorded when V.K. Singh was to be promoted to higher ranks. Different versions have been brought into the public domain and one narrative suggests that as a three-star Lt General, V.K. Singh was prevailed upon by his chief at the time (General Deepak Kapoor) to accept 1950 as his year of birth and that the former accepted this -- but under duress.
It is understood now the matter was first referred to the Ministry of Defence in May 2011 -- by which time V.K. Singh had become the Army Chief -- for setting the record right.
It is evident that for many months, the Ministry of Defence did not deal with the matter in an appropriate and empathetic manner -- given that this pertained to the Army Chief -- and finally General V.K. Singh approached the Supreme Court in mid-January. While there is no denying the fact the original error occurred within the army, this was compounded by the seemingly cavalier manner in which the Ministry of Defence has addressed this whole issue. More recent revelations in the media refer to a communication from the MS Branch of the Army HQ in July 2011 which seems to indicate that as far back as September 1996 (when V.K. Singh was being considered for promotion to the rank of Brigadier), the date conveyed to the Ministry was May 1951 -- and that the change to 1950 is a later entry.
The reasons for this change of the year of birth have led to intense speculation in recent weeks and one view is this was done by V.K. Singh's predecessors to ensure that the line of succession favoured certain officers. Since the selection to the post of the Army Chief is usually done strictly in accordance with seniority, a difference of one year in the date of birth will have a bearing on the tenure of the chief (three years or attaining 62 years; whichever is earlier) and the selection of the next incumbent.
If this indeed is true, then the role of the Chiefs who preceded General V.K. Singh and the concerned bureaucrats in the Ministry would come under adverse scrutiny and perhaps the current Supreme Court directive will shed some light on this opaque area. What is even more distressing is a view that V.K. Singh is being targeted since he is an upright officer who has taken a firm stand against corruption (the Adarsh building scam for example) and that he is not deemed ‘pliable'. The inference and perception that follows is the UPA government does not respect or reward merit and integrity -- and that V.K. Singh is paying the price for exuding these very qualities.
Perceptions are important in a modern democratic polity and in recent years, there has been a growing sense of cynicism and anguish in India that institutions are diluting the rectitude and integrity expected of them. The linkages between corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, police officials and the lower judiciary -- and the exploitation of this nexus by different mafia groups be they builders, land, liquor or education barons is the cancer that is spreading in the Indian polity. The interface of big money and the highest echelons of government is now under critical scrutiny in respect of the 2G spectrum case and the ISRO episode.
The quality of governance in India is seen to be increasingly tainted and this augurs very badly for a nation that seeks to ensure equitable and inclusive prosperity for its citizens, as also enhance its regional and global relevance. The controversy of the Army Chief's date of birth began as a procedural lapse -- but in its trajectory to the highest court, it has now diminished the institutional credibility of the office of the Defence Minister and that of the Army Chief.
If the final determination is that it is not just accidental ineptitude -- but deliberate turpitude at play -- then the whole edifice of national security would be severely damaged. One hopes that the highest political level in India -- both government and the opposition -- will intervene to find a modus vivendi before February 10.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is Director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. The views expressed in the column are his own.)