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The PM takes the easy way out again

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The Central decision on the Army chief’s date-of-birth seems to have his sanction

NEW DELHI ~ The controversy over the date-of-birth (DOB) of General VK Singh is heating up as the Government seems to be in a tearing hurry to announce his successor—much sooner than is usual, perhaps in the next week—when General Singh would be on an official tour of Myanmar.

In the Government’s view, the issue is settled. His DOB is 10 May 1950 and not 10 May 1951. It is a different matter that all his promotions, brigadier onwards, considered his DOB as 10 May 1951—as mentioned in his service book and matriculation certificate. Attorney General Goolam E Vahavanvati is categorical: “An amendment of date-of-birth is not legally tenable and the issue cannot be reopened at this stage on any basis whatsoever.” General Singh, in his statutory complaint to the Government, mentions that he is not seeking a ‘change’ but a just ‘correction’ to his DOB.

The Government wants General Singh to retire a year earlier because it does not want to disturb the current succession plan. If General Singh demits office now, it will be Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C), Eastern Command, who in all likelihood would be India’s next Chief of Army Staff.

Pradeep Kumar, the then defence secretary, in his note dated 7 May 2011, dubs it a ‘sensitive matter’, advising the Raksha Mantri (RM or Defence Minister) AK Antony to operate ‘in a way that is defendable in a court of law’. Kumar it seems is very sure that the matter will get settled in court. But it will not be General Singh who would go to the judiciary. Kumar writes, ‘Amendment in the date of birth of the CAOS [Chief of Army Staff] will have implications on the succession plan of the Army. The possibility of those affected by the decision [the obvious reference is to Lieutenant General Bikram Singh] seeking redressal in a court of law cannot be ruled out.’ The Defence Ministry’s criterion of reaching a decision in this matter seems to have been to pre-empt a court response. But the matter has reached the judiciary nonetheless, and a legal battle is now on the cards.

 Kumar referred the matter to Antony on 18 May 2011 with the comments: ‘RM may kindly pursue the opinion of the Attorney General.’ The very next day, Antony passed the matter to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO): ‘may send a copy of the Attorney General opinion to the PMO’, he noted. This indicates that the decision pertaining to this matter was taken at the level of the Prime Minister.

Former Congress Chief Minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh is not the only one who came out in open support of General Singh. On 23 August 2011, 36 MPs made a representation to the Prime Minister, protesting the Government’s decision to change General Singh’s DOB in his service record: ‘Such an order raises a question mark on the functioning of the Government… any direction by the Government to change the service records is going to complicate the issue as well, as legally it will not be tenable.’ So now we know who changed the DOB records: not General Singh, but the Government. The PM ignored the representation.

 The Congress MP from Sultanpur (abutting the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency represented by Rahul Gandhi), Dr Sanjay Singh, who is one of the 36 who made the representation to the PM, says: “My advice to the Government is to abide by [the] DOB mentioned in the matriculation certificate and not change the rules.”

In the two recent meetings that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has had with General Singh, he is believed to have advised the General to exit gracefully. On 7 September 2011, Mohan Singh of the Samajwadi Party asked a very pointed question of Antony in the Rajya Sabha. “What is the date of birth recorded in the service book of General VK Singh?” Antony replied in writing, ‘The date of birth is maintained… as 10th May 1950 at the time of his selection as Corps Commander in 2006,’ and qualified his answer by writing, ‘however, a different date of birth finds mention in certain documents.’ By certain documents, presumably, Antony means the service record.

General Singh has now approached the judiciary ‘to protect his honour’. The Government insists that the Army Chief will have to hang up his boots on 31 May. Not, it is clear, without a fight.