Wise Generals don’t fight avoidable wars. The Chief of Army Staff, General V K Singh, fought a prolonged war on a personal issue, stretched his lines beyond a limit and lost it.
As a serving Chief of one of the largest armies of the world he ought not to have become a complainant before the highest court of the land – only to lose the war he had waged for several months over the date of his birth.
Was he born in 1950 or in 1951 was the question. Involved was a few months’ extension of his tenure in the top most job in the Indian Army.
The Indian Army has a high reputation to keep and it was the duty of General V K Singh to protect it. By approaching the Supreme Court he staked his own honour and that of the post he was holding. Both have come out somewhat bruised.
Why he made a simple question of his own date of birth a matter of honour cannot be easily explained. Had the system of army promotion done injustice to him, or was it some pent up grievance he was nursing all along that had pushed him on to a wrong track which was bound to lead him to a dead-end.
Going by the <i>obiter dicta</i> of the two judges it was clear that Gen. V K Singh was overdrawing on his honour theme that he felt would be compromised if he was to be considered born in 1950.
The judges rejected his demand that he be considered born in 1951, but gave avuncular advice to the chief that he is “a great soldier” and that a date of birth did not have a bearing on his honour.
Having reached the acme of his career with the Indian armed forces, the court seemed to be asking: “What more do you want, General?”
The judges did not want to go into the question that V K Singh was born in 1951. They chose to go by May 10, 1950 as the date of birth as shown in the application form filled in by the young aspirant himself when he sat for the NDA examination, and also by the records of the UPSC.
The Supreme Court also saw merit in the Ministry of Defence going by the undertaking given by the General himself in 2008 and 2009 that he would go by the 1950 date. This was when he was being promoted to higher ranks on the ladder that led to his being the Chief of Army Staff.
Justice H L Gokhale said in the court: “The government gave you an opportunity. It is not fair to criticize the Defence Ministry. The matter was treated as closed. The government made you Chief of the Army. They could have easily said ‘We don’t need such a person’.”
Justice R M Lodha said: “We want to ensure as Chief of Army you continue to serve the country as you did in 38 years. This verdict should not come in your way. Wise men are those who move with the wind.”
As good old uncles often do, this was an exercise in applying balm to a General who has lost his battle, and who might take defeat to heart and quit his job.
Men who have a heightened sense of honour often need such a piece of advice and it is good the Supreme Court gave it to the General. The Chief himself in his long career himself might have given this kind of advice to a junior with a hurt ego.
Whether General V K Singh chooses to accept the Supreme Court’s advice remains to be seen. On the surface, his continuance at the helm seems to have become untenable. This is because he took the battle too far, leaving himself with little space to beat retreat with a grace.
It is for him to decide. In service, he would become a kind of lame duck in uniform; always looking back over on his 38 years of the battles, won and lost, including the great DoB battle.
General V K Singh should feel happy he made it to the top. He must, however, ponder whether it was worth all the bother. He might also consider whether it is wise to divide his Army in two camps – for and against him on his personal issue.
Or did he get carried away with the breaking news headlines in the newspapers or on the TV channels? For weeks the General’s age had become their staple.
The government has clearly won the case in the Supreme Court. But it must review the system of selecting the Chief of Army Staff. Particularly it should consider whether the seniority principle which guides the selection process gets the best of chiefs for the Army.
Often the senior-most General may not be the option. Indian Army requires the ablest of the commanders to be its chief. The accident of getting born on a particular day should not be decisive.
The best way perhaps would be to select the best General out of top brass of eight top commanders.
<i>(Mr H K Dua is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament.)</i>