Dispute over Army chief's age puts govt in a tight spot

Dispute over Army chief's age puts govt in a tight spot

Certainly, India’s army already has plenty to keep it busy. To the northeast lies China, which is quietly but rapidly expanding its military presence along the border. To the northwest lies nuclear-armed Pakistan, which has already fought three wars with India and is now wobbling with political instability.

Yet for weeks, the Indian Army has been embroiled in an achingly public dispute not about national security but about the birth date of its chief. In a drama that has sparked emotional sparring on television talk shows and condemnation in newspaper editorials, the army chief, Vijay Kumar Singh, has insisted that he was born on May 10, 1951. But government has insisted that, no, he was born on May 10, 1950. The answer to the dispute could determine whether Singh retires in May or 10 months later, as military regulations stipulate that the army chief must step down after three years on the job or upon his 62nd birthday, whichever comes first.

The controversy, which has direct bearing on the succession schedule of India’s military command, came to a head on Monday when Singh unexpectedly took the matter to the Supreme Court. He filed a petition asking the justices to decide a seemingly simple question: When was he born? “This is about his pride, integrity and honour,” said Puneet Bali, one of the lawyers involved in the general’s petition.

It is a tale of pride and paperwork, of honour and hubris (and clerical typos) that has become an embarrassment to the ministry of defence and the country’s 1.3 million-member army. Some critics have blamed the ministry for badly mishandling the issue, while others have blamed Singh for pursuing the matter as a way to extend his tenure in the top job.

The situation has created the uncomfortable appearance of India’s military leadership squaring off against its civilian leaders. It also has created some awkward political spectacles: On Sunday, Singh played host to prime minister Manmohan Singh and defence minister A K  Antony to celebrate the country’s 64th Army Day. The next day, he sued the government in the Supreme Court. “There was an element of surprise,” said Ashok Mehta, a retired general who has been critical of the army chief’s actions. “One of the principles of war is deception. I think he let people believe he wasn’t actually going to court.”

The practical impact of the case concerns the schedule for leadership changes within the Indian Army. Singh, who served with distinction in the 1971 war against Pakistan, assumed the Army’s top job on March 31, 2010. By this timetable, Singh is scheduled to step down in May, based on the 1950 birthday cited by the government. However, Singh’s contention that he is actually younger, if upheld, would potentially make him eligible to remain on the job and complete a full three-year term.

Public comments

In his few public comments, Singh has dismissed accusations that he is trying to cling to his position and also denied that he is fighting with the defence ministry. “It is not something for personal gains, so far as I’m concerned,” Singh recently told a news channel.

For all the juicy media appeal of the country’s top general suing the government he is sworn to defend, the case is also about one of the banes of Indian life: the mountains of paperwork required by the country’s bureaucracy. It is not definitively clear how, when or why the conflicting dates began to appear, but as the general began to rise through the ranks, he had two birthdays registered in the Army’s clerical system. The adjutant’s general branch listed his birth year as 1951. The military secretary’s branch put the year as 1950. Somewhere, a typo occurred.

The general himself seemingly accepted the 1950 birth date at critical moments in his career. In Singh’s last three promotions, culminating in his 2010 appointment as army chief, his birth year was listed as 1950 on official records. But Singh has argued that he was pressured to accept that false date, according to media accounts. Last year, the general filed an administrative complaint, seeking to have the date changed to 1951; the complaint wended through the system until the defence ministry issued a final rejection.
As the controversy percolated in recent months, India’s political leaders tried to reassure the public that the situation was not undermining the country’s military readiness. Yet some ministers said the cabinet, in appointing Singh army chief, did so based on records indicating he was born in 1950, which meant he was not expected to serve in the job for a full three years. “Rules are rules,” law minister Salman Khurshid told the media.

The Supreme Court could choose not to accept Singh’s petition, thus neither ruling nor interfering in the matter. Or it could hold a full-blown hearing in which the general would be allowed to present evidence supporting his claims to a 1951 birthday. For many retired military leaders, the whole messy spectacle has been disheartening. Many have blamed both the army and the Defence ministry for not correcting the problem years ago.
Criticism against Singh has also been harsh, as some critics have blamed him for failing to heed the military credo that an officer should always put service before self.

“He may be right, in terms of procedure,” said Uday Bhaskar, a retired commodore in the Indian Navy. “But what this has done is diminish the institution and tarnish the individual, no matter how unwarranted it may be.”

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