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Premvir Das: Self before service?

The army chief is claiming to defend his honour, but he has not chosen the honourable route

Premvir Das 

After this, nothing is unbelievable. The chief of India's army files a writ petition against the government he serves — after a week of press statements in which he assures the media, and through it the country, that an issue is being made out of nothing, a mountain out of a molehill. At the reception in his home on Army Day, January 15, he gives no impression that anything extraordinary is afoot. A day later, he goes to the highest court of justice through a petition which must have taken several days, indeed, weeks, to plan.

The first commandment taught at the Indian Military Academy is that the safety, honour and welfare of one’s country comes first, those of the men under command (read the Indian army) comes next; and our own personal safety and welfare comes last, always and every time. Yet, this has given way to a scenario in which the last has become the first. Both the country and the Indian Army have become laughing stocks. In every living room and in every public place, the episode is being bandied about — and not in laudatory terms, either. All sorts of stories are being whispered, of dark conspiracies afoot to put this person or that into the chair that the chief presently occupies. It is also being said that this is just another episode in the perennial civil-military relationship — in which the former is always seeking to downgrade the latter.

Looked at dispassionately, this is much ado about nothing. General V K Singh applied for the National Defence Academy, while giving his year of birth as May 1950. He says that this was erroneously filled in the application form by his schoolteacher. Notwithstanding this claim, the act of one filling in — or getting filled in — a date and year of birth in the application form is irrelevant. To this has to be attached a high school certificate; only thereafter is the candidate cleared for appearing in the examination — conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, not just any rag-tag organisation. Viewed from this perspective, the very acceptance of his candidature at that time is open to question.

Thereafter, in the period specified for this very purpose, no attempt was made to change the “erroneous” date and year of birth as required by Army regulations. Later, when higher ranks came within reach, requests for change began to be made — and were, correctly, turned down as the period in which they could be made had elapsed. On this single ground, much less any others, Army Headquarters, itself, will not entertain a similar request from any serving officer.

When, at last, the time came for him to be promoted to Corps Commander, Army Commander and finally, Chief of Army Staff, Gen Singh had no hesitation in accepting 1950 as his year of birth. Now he wants his date of birth to be changed and when that is not done, there are cries that it is a conspiracy or that the pride of the Armed Forces — izzat — is being compromised, or that poor civil-military relations are the cause.

In this entire episode, now inexorably drawing to its tragic end, one thing is completely forgotten: that what we should be concerned with is the pride and honour of the Army, and indeed, the Armed Forces — not that of the army chief. It matters little whether the Adjutant General or the Military Secretary are the correct repositories of dates of birth; they are there to deal with issues of importance to younger officers, certainly not to those relating to a person holding the office of the Chief of the Army Staff.

The general made a representation, something few in his position would have done, and it was turned down. Amazingly, for an officer in his position, he did not take note of the fact that while he could address his submission to the Defence Minister, the entire processing would be done by the Defence Secretary, his junior in protocol, and even by civil servants lower down. In effect, he placed the position of the army chief, and thereby of the army which he represents, as a supplicant for a cause which had no bearing on the service to which he belonged, but pertained only to himself personally.

The legitimacy of his plaint is not the issue, but the manner in which it served to place the individual’s interest above that of the haloed institution that he heads and symbolises, certainly is. Every serving officer has the right to petition through redressal of grievance mechanisms; but the Army/Navy/Air Force Acts, when enacted, never visualised that the chief of a service would, or could even dream of, taking recourse to that provision. The chief acts as the arbiter on such petitions, does not seek their cover himself. The army chief's petitions must be assessed against this larger and more exacting context, and not against what the AG or the MS hold in their records. This is nothing to do with civil-military relations.

With the government having rejected the grievance, there was only one honourable course available to the incumbent army chief: he had to resign. In 1998, there was an almost similar case when the government had rejected the advice of the navy chief — but that, at least, was on a professional issue, and not on anything affecting his personal interest. He did not resign.

There have been many instances when people in this position elsewhere in the militaries of the world have differed with the political leadership, almost always on matters of professional importance, and when their view has not been accepted, resigned. This is the correct way of doing things.

But the army chief, while claiming to defend his honour has, alas, not chosen the honourable route. If the writ is fought in court, it will be nothing short of trauma for India’s armed forces. One can be sure that the government will be able to produce damning evidence which will belittle the Chief’s reputation. Surely, this is not what Gen Singh had sought for himself when he entered his office in South Block two years ago.

Even now, it is not too late. He should leave with such grace as is remaining and get his personal honour vindicated, if that is needed. Every day that he remains in office he loses in stature. Should that option not be exercised, sadly and frankly, the option of the President’s pleasure being withdrawn, for the second time in the history of our armed forces, could become a reality. And all for age — what a tragedy.

The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command

First Published: Sun, January 22 2012. 00:48 IST