Backed by feudal and martial Punjabis, the general presses his case in court.
He pressures the government into extending his term. He clings to office, denying promotion to his brother officers. He puts the army in confrontation with the government and he does so for personal honour. We’re not talking of Pakistan here, incidentally.
India’s army chief General VK Singh wants the Supreme Court to change his official year of birth from 1950 to 1951. This will help him stay as chief for another year. 1950 is the year he himself filled on his service commission form. 1951 is on his school-leaving certificate. He has been promoted on the basis of the earlier date, which he says he filled by mistake when he joined the army. On learning of the problem before he was made general, the defence ministry pressed him three times to accept 1950 as the official date or face action. Three times Gen Singh said he would accept the government’s decision. This was discovered in 2006 and Gen Singh then wrote: “Whatever decision is taken in the organisational interest is acceptable to me.”
On receiving this assurance from the soldier, presumably a man of his word, the government promoted him to full general. Once he got what he wanted, he turned nasty.
The organisational interests have now aligned with the army chief’s personal interests. Gen Singh claims that this is a battle for honour and integrity and not tenure. And yet in court he demands that the government change the date and “grant all consequential reliefs thereto”. What might these reliefs be? The extension of his term.
Granting this will mean that other generals will lose out on the chance to become army chief. The army’s succession pattern will be disturbed.
The former chief minister of Punjab Captain (retd) Amrinder Singh, inheritor of the abolished kingdom of Patiala, has come out in support of Gen Singh. A Congress politician, he is angling for the votes of retired and serving faujis from Punjab, which goes to the polls in the next few weeks. He believes India’s soldiers are all in favour of Gen Singh. The army chief’s supporters make the claim that in this tawdry matter of Gen Singh’s extension, the morale of the army will be affected. Really? Are our jawans so fragile? Will Singh’s serving another ten months restore their fighting spirit? And if their morale is actually being affected, should their boss not put the army’s interests before his own honour? Instead he has sneaked off to court.
Gen Singh is not known for his restraint or his thoughtfulness. This is to be expected from soldiers, but he’s our most senior warrior and should know better than shoot his mouth off.
After Marines killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Gen Singh was asked by journalists if India could carry out such a military operation. “I would like to say that only this that if such a chance comes, then all three arms (of the military) are competent to do this,” he said.
What was the need to say this? It is difficult to understand.
On Anna Hazare’s circus Gen Singh said this was “the power of democracy”. No, it wasn’t. Rousing a mob against parliament is not democratic, it is a challenge to rule of law.
How does such a man become India’s army chief? It is of course because of India’s seniority rule. This is how the bureaucracy is also promoted. While it may have its merits, chief among them being stability, it does mean that often someone less than competent will ascend to the top job.
This isn’t about his date of birth, and Gen Singh knows that. If the government thought he had been lying about it, he would have been court-martialled. For him to say that he is being accused of fudging it is a lie.
It certainly isn’t about his honour and integrity. He will retire as army chief and the perks that go with it. What more honour does a soldier expect from his nation?
If it really was about his personal honour, he should have stepped down and then gone to court instead of recklessly putting his institution through this trauma.
He can still do that.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2012.