The Supreme Court decision on Friday (Feb 3)  in the matter of the date of birth controversy apropos the Army Chief General VK Singh has placed the government – as represented by the Ministry of  Defense in an awkward position. In what may be construed as a rap on the knuckles, the Supreme Court observed that  the decision-making process of the government went against the principles of natural justice and the Constitution and further added that the entire manner in which the Army Chief’s date of birth had been determined as May  10, 1950 “ appears to be vitiated.” The Court  advised that the Defence Minister’s order of  December 30, 2011 directing the Army to retain May 1950  be withdrawn, or allow the apex court to quash it. The matter has been listed for a further hearing on Friday (Feb 10), thereby allowing the government time to review its position and provide the Army Chief the redress he has sought. A review of the sequence of events that have led to this unprecedented and unfortunate situation,  wherein a serving Army Chief has to knock at the doors of the Supreme Court  to seek ‘justice’ is illustrative of the deeper fissure in the higher defence management of the country.

At one level the entire issue appears to be procedural – that of correcting the date of birth in respect of VK Singh  who joined the National Defence Academy in 1966 – as held by two different  branches of  the Army HQ – namely the Adjutant General and that of the Military Secretary. The first error it is evident occurred within the Army and this lay dormant  for almost 30 years – that of the AG and the MS maintaining  two different  years of birth for the officer. From here onwards the story gets both murky and opaque, as to  how the year of birth was determined  by Army HQ as 1950 and not 1951 and the manner in which this was recorded when VK Singh was to be promoted to higher ranks. Different versions have been brought into the public domain and one narrative suggest that as a three-star Lt. General VK Singh was prevailed upon by his Chief at the time – General Deepak Kapoor – to accept 1950 as  his  year of birth and that the former accepted this – but under duress. It is understood now that the matter was first referred to the Ministry of Defence in May 2011 – by which time VK Singh had become the Army Chief – for setting the record right.

It is evident that for many months the Ministry of  Defence  did not deal with the matter in an appropriate and  empathetic manner – given that this pertained to the Army Chief  - and finally Gen VK Singh approached the Supreme Court in mid January 2012.  While there is  no denying the fact that the original error occurred within the Army, this was compounded by the seemingly cavalier manner in which the Ministry of  Defence  has addressed this whole issue. More recent revelations in the media refer to a communication from the MS Branch of the Army HQ  in July 2011 which seems to indicate that as far back as September 1996 (when VK Singh was being considered for promotion to the rank of  Brigadier), the date conveyed to the Ministry was May 1951 – and that the change to 1950 is a later entry.
The reasons for this change of the year of birth have led to intense speculation in recent weeks and one view is that this was done by VK Singh’s  predecessors to ensure that the line of succession favoured certain officers. Since the  selection to the  post of the Army Chief is usually done strictly in accordance with seniority, a difference of one year in the date of birth will have a bearing on the tenure of the Chief  ( three years or attaining 62 years – whichever is earlier ) and the selection of the next incumbent.
If this indeed is true – then the role of  the  Chiefs who preceded General VK Singh and the concerned bureaucrats in the Ministry would come under adverse scrutiny – and perhaps the current Supreme Court directive will shed some light  on this opaque area.  What is even more distressing is a view that Gen. VK Singh is being   targeted since he is an upright officer who has taken a firm stand against corruption (the Adarsh building scam for example) and that he is not deemed ‘pliable’. The inference and perception that follows  is that the UPA government does not respect or reward merit and integrity – and that Gen VK Singh is paying the price for exuding these very qualities.

Perceptions are important in a modern democratic polity and in recent years, there has been a growing sense of cynicism and anguish in India that institutions are diluting the rectitude and integrity expected of them. The  linkages between corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, police officials and the lower judiciary – and the exploitation of this nexus by different mafia  groups – be they builders , land, liquor or education barons  is  the cancer that is spreading in the Indian polity. The interface of big money and  the highest echelons of government is now under critical scrutiny in respect of the 2 G spectrum case and the ISRO episode.

The quality  of governance in India  is  seen to be increasingly tainted and this augurs very badly for a nation that seeks to ensure equitable and inclusive prosperity for its citizens, as also enhance its regional and global relevance. The controversy of the Army Chief’s date of birth began as a procedural lapse – but in its trajectory to the highest court, it  has now diminished  the institutional credibility of the office of the  Defence Minister and that of the Army Chief.

If the final determination is that it is not just accidental ineptitude – but deliberate turpitude at play – then the whole edifice of  national security would be  severely  damaged. One hopes that the highest political level in India – both government and the opposition -  will intervene to find a modus vivendi before February 10.