Wednesday, January 18, 2012
The VK Singh age issue is an extraordinary saga of victimhood. Army Chief General VK Singh says that he is a victim, though, since he reached the highest rank he could, it is not easy to discover just what he has lost. The government feels that it is the victim in a case which seems to be an outcome of internal politics in the Army. Actually the big losers are the people of the country who had, at last, got an Army chief who was willing to crack down on the rising instances of corruption in the organisation and provide it much needed leadership. Instead, he seems to have gone astray in a quest for personal vindication. In the process he has taken a step that has been unprecedented in the democratic world — challenged the government of the day through a law suit, even while continuing in office.
General Singh has repeatedly said that the issue is a personal one and relates to his honour and integrity. There is something puzzling here. In the public sphere, at least, virtually no one has questioned the general’s honour and integrity, claimed that he had forged his dates of birth, is a “liar”, or done anything improper. There have been whispers that in 2006 and again in 2008, faced with the prospect of losing out his promotion, the general was coerced to live with the incorrect May 31, 1950 date of birth, and he agreed in the interests of the organisation, whatever that may be.
Thereafter, though he did reach the top of the pyramid, he seems to have retained a deep sense of bitterness that injustice was done to him. Things indeed had come to a sorry pass if one chief, howsoever, wrongly or rightly, believes that two former chiefs have victimised him. As a citizen of the country, therefore, he has all the right to seek redressal of a wrong done to him. But the question lingers: as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) what should have been the right course for him to adopt? And, perhaps more important: Has the Ministry of Defence mishandled the case beyond repair?
Actually Singh’s case is a system related problem. The government has so far never had someone who heads a major department file a suit against it, even while continuing in office. This is because there is an expectation that once appointed to such a post you do not “rock the boat”. This is a lesson that is well ingrained in the IAS bureaucracy where you will never hear of any complaint of victimisation or supersession being taken to court. Everyone is accommodated in the system.
In return, the government also ensures that it does not upset things by accepting the widest latitude—ranging from incompetence to moral turpitude and corruption—in the conduct of its department heads. In the past there have been at least three chiefs, two of the air force and one of the army, who have escaped being sacked for corruption, only because the government did not want to rock the systemic boat. In 1972, the government quietly sent two generals into retirement because it did not want to pursue a case relating to their involvement in looting in Bangladesh. Indeed, there has been no dearth of similar instances in the government.
There is a major problem here relating to the Army and the armed forces. They have been considered outside the system as it were. Though in recent years the Ministry of Defence has claimed to have become the Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence, this is a Potemkin construction which has not fooled anyone. The Army continues to be administered by the civilians in the same rough-shod and incompetent manner that it was in the past.
Had the Ministry of Defence been a truly integrated organisation, with the uniformed and civilian personnel serving side by side, it is possible that the present episode may have taken another, more positive, turn. Unfortunately, the age episode will only persuade the civilians in the MOD to dig in their heels and perpetuate the present archaic system through which the armed forces are controlled.
The rocking the boat issue is significant in another way as well, as evidenced by the Attorney General’s claim that to accept May 31,1951 as the right date of birth for Singh would lead to disaffection in the army as it would alter the chain of succession.
This is a specious argument. There is no set chain of succession. Every chief is selected by the Cabinet Committee on Security from a panel of seven army commanders and the vice chief of army staff. The government is well within its right to appoint any of them and has, twice in the past, overlooked the claims of the senior most among these generals. The reason why they choose the senior-most is that it ensures that the system functions smoothly and that there is no unseemly lobbying or judicial challenge relating to the appointment. So, three chiefs ago, a certain injustice was done to ensure the succession after Singh’s retirement.
In many ways Singh’s action marks the emergence of the new Army. For long it has claimed special honour as being comprised of people who lay down their lives for the country. The reality, of course, is that in a volunteer army today, most people sign up because it is a good career move. As for integrity, the spate of corruption and ketchup charges in the last decade reveal that the Army is like any other institution in the country. Regimental nepotism, corruption, victimising or “fixing” inconvenient officers, have been part of the Army since independence. But in the past the officers affected saw it as their karma and accepted it as part of their misplaced culture of honour and integrity. The rising instances of legal challenges finally compelled the government to set up the armed forces tribunal which has just about gotten underway a year or so ago. But no one could have foreseen that the Chief of the Army Staff himself would have a grievance that required redressal. And why not?
The Army is like any other institution and it is not fair to expect an individual there to make an individual sacrifice “for the organisation”. The government needed to address V.K. Singh’s complaint, not that of the COAS.
Yes, the system matters, but then violence was done to the system by two previous chiefs, and needed to be redressed in some way or the other. Perhaps the correction could have been made along with a Cabinet Committee on Security decision that there would be no change in the superannuation date of General Singh. There may have been a legal challenge to that, but then again there may not.
A positive consequence of the present seemingly sordid episode could be the shift of the Army from a culture of faux patriotism and honour, into one that emphasises duty and professionalism.
Such a culture is not based on expectations that the men in uniform will display a stiff upper lip at any slight or order, but will question them and insist on transparency. This can change the Indian Army from a colonial relict that it is, into a citizen army where everyone is equal, in the eyes of the Constitution and its law, and there are no super-patriots with some special claim on honour and integrity.
Like any citizen, army personnel would be seen as people who are doing their job, and who deserve to be treated with respect and fairness.
Mail Today January 18, 2012