From being the first Commando to take over as Army Chief, General Vijay Kumar Singh has become the first serving Army Chief to take the government to court, less than two years after he assumed his post. At the centre of it all is a dispute over his age. The Army Chief, supported by evidence ranging from his PAN card, driving licence and school-leaving certificate to an identity card issued by the Indian Military Academy, maintains that his date of birth is May 10, 1951. However, the Ministry of Defence, going by the date on a National Defence Academy admission form, says it is May 10, 1950.
The resolution of the issue will determine when the Army Chief retires and who will take his place.
What is the Fuss About?
There are two branches that keep records of Army officers in India. The official record keeper is the Adjutant General’s branch, but the Military Secretary’s branch maintains records too. It all began in 1966, when the future General took the exam for entrance into the National Defence Academy (NDA). The previous year, as a 14-year-old boy, he had apparently written his year of birth as ‘1950’ by accident. In August, 1965, his father, also an Army officer, Major Jagat Singh, provided the NDA with a certificate from 14 Rajput Regiment’s commanding officer certifying Vijay Kumar Singh’s date of birth as May 10, 1951, as per his father’s service records. In 1971, he presented his school-leaving certificate as evidence that his year of birth was 1951.
While the Adjutant General’s branch listed his year of birth as 1951, the Military Secretary’s branch went by the application form to the NDA. So, there was a discrepancy in the records. He made efforts in 1985 and 2002 to get the anomaly corrected.
But the issue cropped up in 2006, when his name came up for promotion. Noticing there was a discrepancy in his date of birth, a bureaucrat asked the Military Secretary’s branch for clarification, as that is the branch which handles promotion. This branch said the year of birth was 1950. Military Secretary Lieutenant General Richard Khare wrote to Singh about the issue, and Singh replied saying he had thought it had been corrected, and if it hadn’t, it must be done at once.
The problem came up again in 2008, when the Army Headquarters asked the General to accept 1950 as his year of birth ahead of promotion to Army Commander. Under threat of disciplinary action, the General wrote to say, “whatever decision is taken in the organisation’s interest is acceptable to me.” He wrote a neutral letter, saying he had listed his year of birth as 1950 “as directed”, subtly indicating it wasn’t the correct year.
General V K Singh took over as Army Chief on March 31, 2010, and would continue to serve for a period of three years, or till the age of 62, whichever came first.
On October 25, 2010, IAS officer Kamal Tiwari filed an RTI to ask the Ministry of Defence what General V K Singh’s date of birth was. The MoD fowarded the request to the Law Ministry and the Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati, who answered it was ‘May 10, 1950’.
The Army Chief then sought again to have his date of birth corrected, but the government would not allow it. Even as several ministers vouched that they took General Singh’s word, they cited the rule book, which said a change in date of birth must be made within two years of the officer presenting the records to the Army.
General Singh responded, saying he was seeking a correction and not a change, but the government stuck to its guns, after the Attorney General said a change now would cause “large-scale disaffection in the Army”.
The Army Chief then decided to take the case to court, saying he had the right to retire with dignity after 40 years of service. In his petition, he said the then Chief of Army Staff, General Deepak Kapoor, had assured him in 2008 that he would resolve the issue of the date of birth. But when nothing was done for three months, Singh wrote again to Kapoor, asking for justice to be done. The 66-page petition is supported by 150 documents.
The Conspiracy Theories
The government’s refusal to relent has set off speculation about the reason for its stance. While some Army officers have told media that they are disillusioned by the political establishment’s message that it does not trust its seniormost officer, others have spoken of General Singh having enemies within the Army.
He took over as the Sukhna and Adarsh land scams damaged the Army’s reputation. He promised to weed out corruption in the Army, and called for the punishment of four officers of the rank of General, who were embroiled in the scams.
The names of General Deepak Kapoor and former Military Secretary, Lt Gen Avadesh Prakash, are included in the list of those alleged to be involved in the land scams.
Who Supports General VK Singh?
Four former Chief Justices of India — Justice J S Verma, Justice V N Khare, Justice G B Patnaik and Justice R C Lahoti — have all come out in support of General Singh. They say the government can only change the date of birth of an officer after seeking his response, if there seems to be a discrepancy. He must also be informed of the reason they decided to change the date — in this case, from 1951 to 1950.
But the government, through the Attorney General, says the discrepancy should have been fixed by 1973, two years after Singh presented his papers to the Army. The Attorney General also says “there is no record available of any effort to correct the date of birth between 1971 (when the SSC certificate was purportedly received) and 2006.”
Several retired officers and Army veterans have come out in support of General Singh. To the Congress’ embarrassment, its own Captain Amarinder Singh sent in a letter of support for Singh to Defence Minister A K Antony, who refused to accept it.
What will Happen Now?
The outcome of the court case will determine who General Singh’s successor will be, as the Chief of Army Staff is appointed on the basis of seniority, not merit. There are several possibilities:
1. If the date of birth is accepted as May 10, 1951, General V K Singh will be given an extension of 10 months. After that, current Northern Army Commander Lt Gen K T Parnaik will take over in 2013.
2. If the General retires on May 31 as scheduled, Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen Bikram Singh will take over.
3. If he resigns prematurely, then Vice Chief Lt Gen S K Singh will be appointed the Acting Chief, until Lt Gen Bikram Singh takes command on August 1.
4. If he resigns in February, when the most senior officer after him, Lt Gen V K Ahluwalia, retires, Western Army Commander Lt Gen S R Ghosh will be appointed Chief of Army Staff.