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Beneath the controversy over the Army chief’s age bubbles intense lobbying for the top post

By Syed Nazakat

A lot, it is said, can happen over coffee. It was perhaps with this hope that Defence Minister A.K. Antony called Army chief General V.K. Singh for a cup of coffee last December, to persuade him to retire amicably this year.  The Army chief had been seeking a correction in his date of birth, though he had agreed to accept May 10, 1950 as his date of birth when he was appointed as chief two years ago.Antonyinformed Singh that his ministry rejected a petition to record his date of birth as May 10, 1951, and told him it should not be seen as “a reflection of any trust-deficit in the chief”.

The caffeine failed to do the trick. Before leaving the room, Singh salutedAntonyand said: “I will keep my options open.”

Officials close to Singh say he was vexed after the petition was rejected. He felt it would affect his “honour and integrity”. Singh, however, maintained that it was his personal issue, and that he did not have time to think over it. But, apparently, he was planning an unprecedented move—to take the government to court. 

“He should not have,” says Major-General Nilendra Kumar, former judge advocate general of the Army. “He should have resigned and then fought at an individual level.”

The issue before court is a bureaucratic tussle over Singh’s date of birth—but underneath the surface is intense lobbying for the top post. The government feels it has become a ‘victim’ in a case, which is an outcome of internal politics in the Army. Sources in the South Block sayAntonyhas sought all papers relating to the case, as he is concerned that the military bureaucracy could have misled him.

Antonytold Parliament last September that Singh’s date of birth had been maintained as May 10, 1950 at the time of his selection as corps commander in 2006, as well his promotions as Army commander in 2008 and Chief of Army Staff in 2010, and, hence, he would retire in May 2012.

But, according to the military secretary’s letter no. A/450/01/GEN/MS(X) dated July 1, 2011, which is in THE WEEK’s possession, the year of birth is noted as 1951. 

Singh pleads that it was one of his teachers who wrongly entered his date of birth as May 10, 1950 in his UPSC application form, and that he had submitted in April 1971 his matriculation certificate, which has 1951.

But, before being appointed chief, Singh had given a written undertaking that he would not rake up the age issue. In the current petition to the Supreme Court, Singh claims he did so under duress—that he had no option but to comply with the order of his direct superior (then Army chief Gen. Deepak Kapoor).

Singh has got a band of supporters, many of them retired officers. While some have been appearing on TV shows to argue his case, others have launched web campaigns.

One of them, Major-General (retd) G.D. Bakshi, says, “He was pushed to wall by the [defence] ministry and forced to approach court to seek justice. He was being portrayed as a liar.”

Former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, an ex-Army captain, also backs Singh, and so does Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh, a senior lawyer who has taken up Singh’s case in court. Former Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, the only Indian service chief to be sacked, too, supports Singh’s decision.

Besides the melodrama, the raging controversy has direct bearing on the succession chain ofIndia’s military command. Currently, there are eight Army commanders and all are technically eligible to be chosen as chief.

The chief is selected by the Cabinet Committee on Security, from a panel of Army commanders and the vice-chief. Governments usually follow the seniority principle, except in extremely rare instances. 

Now, if Singh retires on May 31, Lt-Gen. Bikram Singh is likely to become the next chief. The eastern commander has been lobbying hard for the post, and is backed by former Army chief  Gen. (retd) J.J. Singh, who is now Arunachal Pradesh Governor. Sources say he has support from within the Prime Minister’s Office, too.

There is also a lobby at work to discredit him. As the date of birth controversy erupted, stories about Bikram Singh’s daughter-in-law being a Pakistani national started doing the rounds.

Then, a little-known NGO inKashmiraccused him of being involved in an alleged fake encounter in Anantnag district in 2001. The Jammu & Kashmir High Court has issued notices to the state government and the defence ministry to file their responses to the writ petition, which may be heard in February.

If V.K. Singh gets extension or Bikram Singh’s does not make it to the top post owing to his court case, northern commander Lt-Gen. K.T. Parnaik will take over the mantle. Parnaik is known as the ‘thinking general’. Officials say he has encyclopedic (some say obsessive) knowledge about terrorists, and that he pushes his men aggressively to neutralise as many of them as possible.

The dark horse in the race is western commander Lt-Gen. Shankar Ghosh. If Singh quits or is sacked, Ghosh will have a strong case to become the next chief, based on seniority. In a curious move, Ghosh recently got his medical category upgraded to Shape-1. He had got it downgraded in 2011 on account of osteoarthritis to get a higher disability pension.

Ghosh is slated to retire on May 31, too. But, if he is made a general, his retirement age would be automatically extended from 60 to 62.

Interestingly, Ghosh dismissed reports questioning his fitness last year. “Did you see me disabled today? I was standing for two hours. I just want to tell you that I am perfectly fine,” he told reporters after the Army parade inDelhion July 13.

For many military veterans, the whole issue has been disheartening. “No matter what the outcome of the case is, it has led us to an unfortunate and dangerous situation,” says Major-General Nilendra Kumar. “It has divided the Army into different camps.”                                           

(THE WEEK, January 19, 2012)

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