What's in a birth date?

Age row: With the Army chief going to court, the government is left in a piquant situation

Chief of Army Staff Gen V K Singh lays claim to the credit of cleaning up the image of the Army and restoring its dignity and honour. He is now fighting a legal battle to save his own ''honour and integrity''. Here’s the full story behind the scenes.

Like a ghost, a mistake made half a century ago has come back to haunt the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Vijay Kumar Singh, at the fag of his illustrious career. What lay almost dormant for decades has snowballed into a national crisis, thanks to Singh’s dogged pursuance to protect his “honour and integrity” and the government’s inept handling of the issue, which could have been sorted out earlier, feel many. Even as Cabinet ministers have gone on record showering sympathy on the general, an indecisive government lobbed the ball to the Supreme Court to take the final call.

Singh came to lead the 1.3 million-strong Indian Army at a time when Sukhna land and Adarsh housing scams besmirched the olive green uniform. Singh’s predecessor, Gen Deepak Kapoor, figured in both scandals. Singh claimed Kapoor threatened him into accepting 1950 as his year of birth instead of 1951 in organisational interest, and Singh had no other option but “to comply with the orders and command of his direct superior.”

Predecessors blamed

Supporters of Singh said that his two predecessors, Gen J J Singh and Kapoor, were responsible for raking up the issue after three decades and making it a national controversy. They said Kapoor had vested interests and wanted to belittle Singh before being considered for the post of Army chief. Skullduggery is not exactly a new phenomenon in the armed forces and previous military secretary Lt Gen Avadesh Prakash – believed to be close to Kapoor – pursued Kapoor’s agenda to keep the issue alive.

Singh as the GOC of Eastern Command in Kolkata was heading a panel that probed Sukhna land scam in which Prakash (along with other officers) was involved. Prakash was found guilty and dismissed from the service without any pension and benefits by a court martial.

The age controversy has its genesis in two sets of records kept at the Army headquarters. While the Adjutant General's branch shows it as May 10, 1951, according to the Military Secretary's branch Singh's date of birth is May 10,1950.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Singh said there was an “inadvertent mistake” in the application form submitted to the National Defence Academy in July 1965. As no date of birth certificate from Rajasthan Secondary Education Board was available, a certificate from the commanding officer of 14 Rajput Regiment where Singh’s father Jagat Singh was working as a Major was furnished with the UPSC application for the NDA examination.

When UPSC raised a query about the anomaly, he provided the explanation and a school leaving certificate from Birla Public School, Pilani. UPSC accepted those documents.

Interestingly, when the controversy broke out last year, Singh’s supporters presented his English teacher B S Bhatnagar to a section of the media. After half a century Bhatnagar claimed to have remembered the wrong entry and pleaded guilty. The petition in the apex court, however, does not say anything about the English teacher. It only suggests an inadvertent mistake.

Subsequently, Singh went to the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun in 1969. The IMA dossier on Singh showed 1950 as his year of birth as it was prepared on the basis of the UPSC application form. When the discrepancy was pointed out, IMA too corresponded with the school and received the same school leaving certificate on the basis of which IMA forwarded May 10, 1951 as his date of birth to the AG Branch at Army Headquarters (Manpower Planning 5/6). Singh received the Board certificate in 1971, which was submitted to the AG branch.

However, in 1974-75 the MS branch published the Army List where Singh’s year of birth has been shown as 10.05.1950. He claimed since Army List was a confidential document, he had no access to the list and had no knowledge about the wrong entry. He claimed that he received all promotions based on 1951 as his year of birth but the government said that his last two promotions - as the GOC of Eastern Command in Kolkata and 2 Corps in Ambala - were on the basis of 1950 as DOB.

35 years later...

More than 35 years later, Singh received a letter from the MS branch on May 3, 2006 pointing out the alleged discrepancy. Since then, the Chief claimed all his efforts to rectify the MS records went futile as MS quoted two official memo to point out that a change in date of birth in records had to be done within the first two years of commissioning and it is too late in the day for Singh. The general in turn argued that he was merely suggesting reconciliation of records between the two branches and not a change in date of birth.

“The AG branch has two separate divisions for manpower planning and recruitment. There is a discrepancy between the two branches of AG in addition to the difference between MS and AG. A misrepresentation is being made that MS has no role in commissioning,” Major General Nilendra Kumar, former Judge Advocate General in the Army, told Deccan Herald. "The system has been fair to him but he sets a wrong precedent by going to the Supreme Court."

Kumar found it strange that this file never came to him for legal opinion between 2001 and 2008 when he was the JAG – topmost law officer in the Army – but Singh managed to obtain the opinion of four retired Supreme Court Chief Justices – J S Verma, V N Khare, G B Patnaik and R C Lahoti – as well as former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanyam.

The opinion of the former CJIs were also annexed with a public interest litigation filed by Grenadier Association of Rohatak. The Supreme Court, however, took a serious view of the annexures and reprimanded the lawyer for doing so while dismissing the PIL on Friday. Singh’s petition in the Supreme Court – first by any military chief in Independent India -- came a day after the Army Day and within three days of publicly claiming that the date of birth controversy is affecting him only within four walls of his house. The confrontation has created a piquant situation as the government is unsure how to accommodate Singh in strategic meetings.

Even though the ministers were sympathetic to Singh, all efforts for back-channel reconciliation have come to a naught. The two senior-most ministers in the Cabinet – former defence minister Pranab Mukherjee who was asked by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to troubleshoot, and his successor in South Block A K Antony – are sticklers for rule books and miffed with Singh for flouting the same after taking advantage of the date of birth mistake throughout his career. However, no drastic action a la former Navy chief Vishnu Bhagwat, who defied the Cabinet order on the appointment of his deputy, was likely as the UPA government wants to battle it out in the court.

*  If Gen Singh’s birth year is accepted as 1951, Northern Army Commander Lt Gen K T Parnaik would become the next chief in May 2013.

*  If the UPSC application showing 1950 as Singh’s DOB is taken into consideration, Lt Gen Bikram Singh, heading the Eastern Command, will take the baton after Gen Singh retires in May 2012.

*  And if Singh retires prematurely, the government will be free to go by seniority or choose a Commander of its choice as next Army chief.

Between the lines

* Gen Singh was born in Bapora village in Bhiwani district (Haryana) on May 10, 1951. His father was the Late Lt Col Jagat Singh of Rajput Regiment.

* Studied in Birla Public School, Pilani up to Class X; date of birth recorded in school register and school leaving certificate show May 10, 1951.

* Gen Singh claimed that the wrong entry in the application form of National Defence Academy, Khargwasla, was made by B S Bhatnagar, then English teacher at Birla Public School.

* After the controversy broke out, Army presented Bhatnagar to the media; the old man remembered the wrong entry made half a century before and narrated the episode.

* The NDA application was neither accompanied by matriculation certificate nor a certification from his father about the date of birth.

* Before facing Service Selection Board, a certificate from his father’s unit (14 Rajput) and school leaving certificate giving date of birth (May 10, 1951) was forwarded to UPSC.

* UPSC pointed out the anomaly and Singh explained. He was called by SSB and allowed to join NDA on “provisional” basis pending submission of matriculation certificate. UPSC then laid the matter to rest.

* Singh joined Indian Military Academy, Dehradun after passing out from NDA and was commissioned in Indian Army on June 14, 1970 in Infantry (2 Rajput).

* He filled Form No IAFZ-2041 (May 10, 1951) on joining the Unit, which is forwarded to Army HQ AG’s Branch.

* In 1971 he visited his village, found the certificate. Rajasthan Board sent the certificate to his father's unit but he moved out from there by then. The certificate followed Singh's father through the official communication channel to his subsequent posting in Rewa and Narnaul and finally came to his ancestral village where it was lying as his father, after retirement, moved out of that village.

* After Singh submitted the certificate, his commission was made permanent.

* Military Secretary branch published the Army List wrongly showing May 10, 1950 as his DOB

* Since 1971, AG branch was showing 1951 as his year of birth in the ACR but the MS branch did not change its record.

* Singh claimed he repeatedly approached the MS branch for rectification. But even though he received verbal assurance, the MS branch did not make the necessary changes.

* The MS branch quoted Government of India Office memorandum, dated April 21, 1964 and Defence Ministry Memorandum dated June 1954 to claim that it could not change the records as no modification in DOB is to be made after two years of commissioning of an officer.

The burden of heading 1.3 million-strong Army

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