It is not known how the Supreme Court will rule on the dispute between the Ministry of Defence and the Army Chief General VK Singh regarding his correct date of birth which will be heard in court on February 3rd. Regardless of how the court rules the disgraceful incompetence and the malafide intention of the Defence Ministry have been exposed. The controversy about whether the Army Chief was born in 1950 or in 1951 has been festering for days much to the detriment of the army’s morale and reputation.
Weeks earlier the media had pointed out that the offices of the Adjutant General and the Military Secretary showed different records of the General’s birth date; that the General had on more than one occasion requested to no avail that the record of the Military Secretary which he disputed should be rectified; that the Defence Ministry on several earlier occasions while giving citations to General Singh when he received medals of honour had listed 1951 as his date of birth; that the General quoted several documents including his matriculation certificate to vindicate his claim of having been born in 1951; and finally that in his petition to the Supreme Court the General had committed himself to retiring whenever the government thought fit – he wanted merely his claimed date of birth to be accepted.
It had been strongly suggested in these columns that the matter therefore should be speedily resolved before the court case. It was pointed out that the long term implications of the dispute could adversely affect the army’s morale and national security. The government did no such thing. Instead, just days before the court case the Defence Ministry has written to the Adjutant General’s office to change its record in order to conform it to the Military Secretary’s record. Why has the Ministry acted so belatedly after allowing this unseemly controversy to engage public attention for months? Does this not reveal inexplicable incompetence?
However, beyond incompetence there is also the whiff of malafide intent. The Military Secretary’s office deals with promotions of officers. It is manned by military officers. There has been media speculation that the controversies erupted because the different dates of birth claimed for General VK Singh would determine his retirement date and decide therefore who would be his successor. This speculation is misplaced. Seniority is not sacrosanct in determining the appointment of the Army Chief. It may be recalled that two outstanding officers, General Bhagat and General Sinha, were denied the post due to them. General Bhagat was blocked through political manipulation. General Sinha was superseded by General Vaidya for reasons best known to the government. Therefore the line of succession is a non-issue unless of course the Defence Minister himself is ignorant about these aforementioned facts. Given his recent performance that cannot be ruled out!
However, there is also the suspicion that the Defence Ministry’s conduct is malafide and inspired to protect corruption. General VK Singh was pro-active in rooting out corruption from the army which unfortunately had spread within its ranks quite recently. Not only cases of past corruption but possibly fresh defence deals on the anvil could have been influenced by General VK Singh. Corruption in defence deals does involve few military officers and bureaucrats, but most of all the leading politicians of the day. If that is the case it explains Defence Minister AK Antony’s conduct. He would not challenge the powers that be. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the birth date dispute there is need for a thorough inquiry into the functioning of the Defence Ministry in order to ensure that corruption is not protected or abetted. Sixty years ago a Defence Minister from Kerala had demoralized the army and created a national security crisis which remains a blot on the nation’s reputation to this day. One can only hope that the present Defence Minister from Kerala does not irreparably damage the army’s morale and the nation’s security.