By B. Raman
Many TV channels, including the NDTV today, have held Town Hall style debates on the controversy relating to the date of birth of Gen.V.K.Singh, our Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). The facts of the case are well-known. It should not, therefore, be necessary for me to repeat them here. All that I need to underline is that Gen. Singh failed to get a directive from the Supreme Court before which he articulated his grievances through his lawyer because of its reluctance to intervene in the matter, thereby making him withdraw his petition.
Many of us, in retrospect, will question the wisdom of his action in taking up the matter before the court instead of finding a face and honour-saving compromise in-house within the four walls of the Government. Gen. Singh was widely recognised as a General of very high integrity and professionalism who had distinguished himself in battles during his long career in the Army. Nobody—not even his detractors—questioned his fitness to command the Army and lead it in times of peace as well as war.
The case had no national security implications. Nor did it show the lack of wisdom of the present policy of choosing the COAS. In the civilian services above the rank of the Joint Secretary and in the Armed Forces above the rank of Majors-Gen and equivalent ranks, promotions are decided by merit and not by seniority. On the basis of the evaluation of the records and achievements a short panel of officers fit to hold the position is prepared and the senior most in the panel is promoted. The selection passes through two stages. In the first stage, the merit is the sole criterion. In the second and final stage after merit has been evaluated and assessed, the seniority becomes the factor. Thus, Gen. Singh cleared the first hurdle of merit on the basis of his outstanding record and capabilities and the second stage on the basis of his seniority.
His wrongly-recorded date of birth became a factor not for judging his suitability for commanding the Army, but for deciding his date of superannuation and the date of completion of his tenure. He should have got the issue regarding his wrongly-recorded date of birth settled before he assumed charge as the COAS. Even if he had not done so, the Government should have done so anticipating an inconvenient and distasteful denouement. Neither he nor the Government did so.
When he raised the issue half-way through his tenure, it gave an opportunity to his ill-wishers in the Army and outside to impute motives, thereby giving rise to an avoidable controversy of unfortunate fall-out.
The entire case and his failure to make his grievance find endorsement by the Supreme Court must have been followed with great interest by the junior ranks of the armed forces, including thousands of jawans. It would have been the subject-matter of heated discussions right across the barracks, cantonments and stations of the Army. The junior ranks would have been particularly keen to see whether the Supreme Court followed a different yard-stick in the case of a General. From that point of view, the Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene in the matter has to be welcomed because it would convey a clear message to all in the Armed Forces that in the eyes of the Supreme Court in deciding such cases ranks of the petitioners do not matter. All are equal from the jawan up to the General in its eyes.
What next? The Supreme Court’s non-intervention in a substantive manner has not cast any blemish on the integrity and professionalism of Gen. Singh. But it does cast a blemish on his image in the eyes of his jawans and junior officers. Whenever he visits the Army establishments, his image before his men would be not only that of a capable and courageous General of great integrity, but also that of a General who failed to maintain his personal and official dignity by agitating his grievance regarding his date of birth before the highest judiciary of the land and failed to have his grievance accepted.
This would definitely devalue his image in the eyes of the jawans and junior officers. As a disciplined force they would not show it outside, but in their heart of hearts, Gen Singh would be a leader with diminished dignity of office. It would, therefore, be in the interest of the institution and his own interest that he honourably resigns as the COAS after facilitating the process for the selection of his successor.