Hitting the General below the belt
Before Army chief General Vijay Kumar Singh’s doughty daughter landed up at the Supreme Court registry to file a writ petition on behalf of her father on Monday evening, the officer wrote to Defence Minister A K Antony that he was taking legal recourse in the age issue.
General Singh informed Antony that he had been forced to go to the court to prevent a possible adverse legal fallout of another petition filed before by the Rohtak chapter of the so-called Grenadiers Association and with which he had no truck in any way. It is another matter that a court insider leaked the news of General Singh going to court to TV news channels much before his letter reached Antony on Monday.
General Singh was advised by his lawyers that his legal options on the date of birth issue would be closed if the Supreme Court took up the Grenadiers Association’s petition as it was rather insidious and factually inaccurate in many places. For instance, the association’s petition stated that Lt. General Bikramjeet Singh, presently Eastern Army Commander and in line for the Army Chief’s job, was related to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Given such inaccuracies, the Supreme Court in all probability would have taken a rather poor view of the submission and would have foreclosed all options for General Singh. Now that General Singh has sought legal remedy to determine whether he was born in 1950 or 1951, it would be interesting to shed light on the behind the scenes and unsuccessful dialogue between him and the government over what the he terms as an honour and integrity issue. General Singh in his petition has sought interim relief from the court over the rejection of his statutory complaint on the age issue by the Defence Minister on December 30, 2011. After General Singh filed his statutory complaint before Antony on August 25, 2011, he met UPA wise man and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and told him what he had done.
Mukherjee looked at General Singh and said that he took this statutory complaint as an opportunity and not a challenge for the government. General Singh told Mukherjee that the complaint was only aimed at rectifying his age and not programmed to increase his tenure as Army Chief — a matter which is the prerogative of the government. For the next four months, a key government interlocutor and a close friend of Singh played the messenger in the hope that an amicable compromise could be reached. The interlocutor failed. Not because his or General Singh’s intentions were not honourable but because the UPA has now acquired the habit of speaking in multiple voices.
The final straw for the Chief was a series of slanderous media articles this month which led him to believe that they were being orchestrated by the Defence Ministry. Before General Singh went on an official visit to Myanmar on January 5 he met National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon. Sharp as he is, Menon suggested that the government would come out with a statement making it amply clear that age was not the issue and that it wanted General Singh for other services preferably in the civilian set-up. As the idea was fair, General Singh agreed to it with a single caveat. He said as long as the government agreed that his date of birth was 1951 he was even willing to resign and pave way for whomsoever the UPA wanted to appoint as Army Chief. General Singh returned from Myanmar on January 9 and met Mukherjee, who assured him that he was on the job and solution soon would be found to the age issue.
In the meantime, senior UPA ministers including Antony, P Chidambaram and Salman Khurshid prepared for stage two by calling General Singh a very competent soldier. A solution was in sight and the interlocutor was toiling hard, but then came the series of slanted media articles, which the Army suspects the Defence Ministry of inspiring and that hit at General Singh’s personal integrity. A day before the Army Day on January 15, Antony gave a dressing down to all his officers and made it clear that not a word should be leaked by his ministry. But the damage had been done.
General Singh was awarded the Yudh Seva Medal in 1989-90, the Ati Vasisht Seva Medal in 2006 and the Param Vishisht Seva Medal in 2009 by the President of India with his date of birth May 10, 1951 mentioned on them, but still the inspired media articles took pot shots at him. After hosting At-Home for the President, the Prime Minister and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, General Singh decided to take on his detractors. The writ petition was drafted by 3.00 am on Monday morning and submitted before the Court on the same day.