Things could have been handled much better, says Gen. Singh
New Delhi, Jan. 5: The army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, will take a decision in the interest of the organisation he heads on the issue of his age and will not be guided by personal pique, he has told The Telegraph.
Unhappy with slurs cast on his character, the general maintained that his honour and the prestige of the army he heads will guide his response to the defence ministry’s refusal to accept May 10, 1951, as his date of birth (DoB).
“Things could have been handled much better,” Gen. V.K. Singh said in an interview on Thursday morning, asked if he was under moral pressure because the defence ministry had turned down his request to correct his date of birth. “It is the dream of many people to be the chief of this proud army and I am proud to be where I am.”
Excerpts from the interview:
The Telegraph: What do you think of the difference of opinion regarding your date of birth? You have made repeated complaints. Does this threaten to disrupt governance?
Gen. Singh: It has always been a question of integrity and honour and nothing else. Whatever complaints were put up was to ensure that systems and processes remain intact.
TT: There have been doubts that this may threaten the relationship between the civilian government and the military.
Gen. Singh: This has nothing to do with civil-military relations. But these are issues that could have been handled better.
TT: By contesting the defence ministry order on your date of birth, have you risked the rules?
Gen. Singh: I have scrupulously maintained the procedures and decorum laid down in the services. Even if there are personal issues that I have been agitated about, it has always been with the feeling that the organisation is always supreme.
TT: Is it still frustrating?
Gen. Singh: This is a proud army and I am proud to be the army chief. Very few people get to be the army chief of such a large force. It is a matter of great pride. Many people dream of getting here.
TT: There is a public interest litigation (filed by ex-servicemen) requesting the Supreme Court for orders to correct your year of birth to 1951.
Gen. Singh: I have nothing to do with it.
TT: Are you under pressure?
Gen. Singh: I cannot allow that to interfere with my work. I am just leaving for the airport now. (The general was leaving for a three-day official trip to Myanmar.) I have responsibilities to shoulder.
Gen. Singh has got legal advice from four former chief justices. But he said he was not headed to court just now.
Ministers in the government are understood to be trying to reach a compromise without letting the chief feel humiliated. But there are still contentious issues that are holding up a rapprochement.
On Wednesday, law minister Salman Khurshid told television channel NDTV: “Just nobody, nobody should believe the general has not spoken the truth.… He is an outstanding officer. But there are rules.”
During the conversation, Gen. Singh spoke about “Exercise Sudarshan Shakti”, which the army concluded with the Indian Air Force last month. He said the exercise tested concepts that might have a far-reaching impact on the force in synergising land battles with aerial support.
Gen. Singh and Southern Army Commander Lt Gen. A.K. Singh were the architects of the drill and worked on conceptualising it for more than three years.
The general was also looking forward to his Myanmar visit that he said would involve talks on confidence-building measures and securitising the open border.
Despite the professional demands, the dispute over his date of birth remains a distraction. Within the army, the rank and file is desperate for information on how events may unfold now that the defence minister has turned down the chief’s “statutory complaint”.
In the ministry, bureaucrats say that the dispute was a product of Army Headquarters itself. The adjutant general’s branch, the keeper of personnel records, has Gen. Singh’s DoB registered as May 10, 1951. The adjutant general’s branch is the authority for such records.
But the military secretary’s branch, responsible for transfers and postings, has Gen. Singh’s DoB registered as May 10, 1950, a year earlier.
In Parliament, defence minister A.K. Antony said in a reply in September that Gen. Singh’s promotions as corps commander, army commander and army chief were on the basis of the 1950 record. The defence minister also said that the army chief was due to retire on May 31, 2012. This was when the chief’s statutory complaint was still pending.
But Gen. Singh has asserted in official complaints that all his promotions till then were on the basis of his DoB as May 10, 1951.
He has taken legal opinion from four former chief justices and a former solicitor-general who gave statements in support of his arguments.
But Antony has acted on the basis of the opinion of attorney-general Goolam E. Vahanvati who said changing — Gen. Singh says “correcting” — the DoB now will lead to complications and have an impact on the line of succession.
Current Eastern Army Commander Lt Gen. Bikram Singh may be next in line to be the army chief if Gen. Singh retires in May this year. If his tenure is extended — Gen. Singh has not asked for it —current Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. K.T. Parnaik may be in contention for the chief’s office.
The controversy over Gen. Singh’s DoB was stoked in 2008 when he was Eastern Army Commander based in Fort William, Calcutta. He ordered the court of inquiry into the attempted transfer of land in Sukna in the strategic north Bengal corridor. Former military secretary Avadhesh Prakash was last year found guilty in that case by a court martial that has stripped him of his privileges.
There may yet be a resolution to the dispute over the army chief’s DoB. All his official papers — passport, PAN card, identity cards — have his DoB as May 10, 1951. The government is not challenging that. The resolution may be the outcome of a political trade-off here: the government will not challenge the official documents and thereby give a nod to efforts to redeem his honour.