Retiring the date of birth controversy
The controversy over the date of birth of Gen.VK Singh has been gaining steam for about 3 months now. It’s likely to stay in the headlines till the middle of this year regardless of the eventual resolution of the issue.
Independent India is not totally new to controversies regarding service chiefs. Gen. Thimmiah offered his resignation in 1959 when he could not get along with V.K. Menon, the then Minister of Defense. There was this infamous spat between Adm. Vishnu Baghwat and George Fernandes. In both cases, it was the service chief who eventually was on the losing side. The main difference between the two incidents was that it was an honorable exit for Gen. Thimmaih and an outright dismissal for Adm. Bhagwat.
We can discuss and question the wisdom of the government in power in both cases. However, there should not be a shred of doubt in anybody’s mind that what happened in both cases was completely in tune with the principle of the supremacy of the elected civilian government. When there is an irrevocable difference with respect to policy or important decisions between a service chief and government, the government wins. The service chief has only two options:
1) Swallow his disagreement and carry out the government directions
2) Resign and place his reasons on record.
There is no 3rd option. Insubordination is not only unethical; it is non-permissible in the military. The government is justified in firing anybody for insubordination regardless of the validity of other issues involved.
However, in this context, the Date of Birth issue is totally unique. Gen V. K. Singh cannot change his date of birth even if he was willing to do so! His insistence on recording his actual date of birth based on legal evidence cannot be treated as either insubordination or disagreement with government policy.
We have had a lot of arguments on both sides. Let’s review the arguments supporting the Government’s position first.
1) Gen Singh’s fraudulently claiming a later birth date.
This is most easily demolished argument as there is apparently solid legal evidence to back up his claim, his matriculation certificate. Incidentally, this is the only document accepted as proof across all government departments.
2) He filled his forms wrongly and therefore it is written in stone till eternity.
None of the UPSC forms have more sanctity than the matriculation certificate. Let’s say, he had claimed his date of birth to be a year later than the actual date on the matriculation certificate. If this were to be discovered later, he would have been accused of fraud if he never corrected it!
3) The General’s promotions were dependent on his date of birth (although wrongly recorded). So he cannot disclaim the source of his advantage after availing it.
This is the most preposterous of the arguments. The services have a steep pyramidal structure where selections to senior ranks are through selection boards after due process. If age matters at all, it is an advantage to be younger as the general rule for military careers is “UP OR RETIRE”. So, what advantage does an officer get by recording an earlier date of birth?
What sort of a promotion process are the services running, if a correction of DOB to later date can invalidate the entire career chain? If someone was made a general assuming he was 55 years old, should he be sacked if he turned out to be 54 years old?
4) The General should have taken steps to correct it earlier. He raised no objections during earlier promotions that were conditional on accepting this date.
This is perhaps a valid point. If the General woke up after decades of service and suddenly discovered that his DOB was wrong, it points to his lack of good sense and judgment. But, clearly at least 1 branch of the army does record his correct date of birth. There is also evidence to suggest that he has been constantly raising the issue.
So, why didn’t the officer press the matter earlier? Here lies the crux of the issue. The DOB comes into play for a serving officer only to determine his retiring date. Unlike, an ordinary government employee, his retiring date is constantly shifting goalpost depending on the rank he achieves through successive promotions.
The higher you go, the later you retire. It’s not worth creating a controversy when you are constantly getting promotions since you always have more time to sort it out. In Gen. V. K. Singh’s case, the time to finally press the issue is now since he cannot go any higher. If he made pragmatic choices earlier, you can only accuse him of being a good strategist! Who would bother about the wrong DOB of a Lt. Colonel?
5) The General should retire in May 12 since it would otherwise upset the succession chain. Therefore, he should accept the existing DOB.
There are 2 possibilities here.
a) The government wants Gen V K Singh out or at least by May 12.
If there are fundamental issues that need the government is unhappy with the army chief, they can tell him to resign discreetly at a mutually agreed time. If any chief were to not agree to this, he can always be sacked. But the government cannot take a step like this for petty reasons and there are always consequences in terms of institutional credibility and morale. None of this requires any sleight of hand with somebody’s date of birth.
b) The government wants a certain person to succeed at certain time.
Senior generals of the army come out of a professional cadre but their appointment is the prerogative of the government. It can choose to extend the tenure of a person or supersede another. While this is subject to constraints and careful consideration, it is an exclusive privilege of the government. Again, this should not involve manipulation of Dates of birth.
But there are disturbing issues here that need to be probed further. Indian army has definitely more than 30 Lt Generals at any time. Assuming that even 15% of them are potential aspirants for COAS, it would be five people. Are we assuming that the future of the organization is dependent upon a certain individual making it to the top? How can we fix the succession line of a dynamic organization like this in advance? Is it not unfair to other people who might be equally meritorious? Chance and death will not spare even a carefully worked out succession sequence.
Let us now review the arguments for the chief:
1) Its a matter of honour.
No. It’s a matter of tenure. If Gen Singh were to drop the insistence on extension of his tenure (in line with his claimed DOB), there would be no controversy. There is no honour in serving under a government unwilling to repose full faith in his ability.
2) The fixing of the succession line is somehow against the anti-corruption drive undertaken by the incumbent.
It is presumptuous to insinuate against future occupants of office without any proof. He can always place his recommendation for future choices on the record. However, the government has the prerogative to consider or disregard it.
Is there a way out of this mess? Certainly, but this depends on the wisdom and maturity that needs to be shown by all parties. Here is some suggestion that respective parties can consider.
1) Political Parties ! Please stay out.
While the BJP has wisely and very admirably kept mum, Capt. Amrinder Singh of Patiala has come out swinging for the General. While his readiness to take on his own party colleagues is admirable, he should adopt the same approach.
2) To the General- Go to court to make your point if needed. But resign after that.
The COAS may have a strong case legally. But he should resign voluntarily if the government is not willing to continue with him. He wins no brownie points by continuing to embarrass the government. But, it will set a wrong precedent with respect to relations between the army and future governments.
3) To the Govt- Sack St Anthony, our patron saint of Do-Nothing.
The present situation is a direct result of Anthony’s mishandling of MoD. He is perhaps the most incompetent person to occupy this post after V. K. Menon . He needs to go NOW.