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Is there a fissure between the Army chief and the defence ministry?

By Syed Nazakat

The question whether General V.K. Singh would retire from the Army on May 31, 2012 or exactly a year later has been hanging for more than a year now. And, as of now, it looks like the matter will be sorted out in court. An ex-servicemen’s NGO, Grenadier’s Association of Rohtak, filed a PIL last year, seeking the Supreme Court’s intervention in Singh’s support.

The matter was listed on December 16, 2011 before the division bench of Justice B.S. Chauhan and Justice T.S. Thakur.  As Thakur refused to hear the case, the court ordered that the matter be listed before another bench. Senior lawyer Bhim Singh, who appeared for the petitioner, told THE WEEK that matter has now been assigned to a fresh bench.  Last year, the defence ministry, on the recommendation of Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati, had rejected the Army chief’s plea to treat May 10, 1951 as his date of birth. Since then, there was talk that Singh might seek judicial intervention.  Singh can approach either the Armed Forces Tribunal or the Supreme Court. But option two might upset the government and Singh may face more trouble. “If he approaches the court while in service, he could be sacked,” said a top defence ministry official.

However, in a recent interview, Singh said that he had no confrontation with the government, only a difference of perception. Defence Minister A.K. Antony, on the other hand, is confident that his ministry’s stand on the age row would stand legal scrutiny. But a legal battle with an Army general is the last thing he wants now.  Already panting under a big load of troubles, the Congress is certainly peeved by the row. “What is happening is definitely a matter of concern. Those who are charged with the responsibility or are dealing with the issue should arrive at some kind of appropriate solution,” said party spokesperson Manish Tewari.

The dispute arose a few years ago, when a query under the RTI revealed that defence ministry files had recorded two dates of birth of the army chief. The adjutant general’s branch, which deals with pensions, had recorded it as May 10, 1951, and the military secretary had noted it as May 10, 1950.  The issue erupted last year when General Avadhesh Prakash was the military secretary. Singh, as eastern commander, had initiated stringent action against Prakash in the Sukhna land scam.

The issue is quite confusing. Singh’s school certificate, his record of service, ID card, passport, driving licence and official medical examination reports have his date of birth as May 10, 1951. But, a few other documents, including his handwritten application to theNationalDefenceAcademyand his file in theIndianMilitaryAcademy, Dehradun, have it as May 10, 1950.

Last September,Antonytold Parliament that Singh’s date of birth had been maintained as May 10, 1950, when he was selected as corps commander in 2006, promoted as Army commander in 2008, and appointed Chief of Army Staff in 2010. Hence, he concluded, Singh shall retire on May 31, 2012.

The defence ministry has started the process of appointing the next Army chief, who is usually named two months before the retirement of the incumbent. In the ministry’s scheme of things, eastern Army commander Lt-Gen. Bikram Singh is likely to take over as the next Army chief. But if General V.K. Singh gets a one-year extension, present northern commander Lt-Gen. K.T. Parnaik may become the next Army chief.

General Singh andAntonyhave been maintaining that all is well between them. But, defence observers say the dispute has affected the morale of the armed forces.

 (THE WEEK, January 2012)

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