Real lesson from Gen Singh's defeat: System always wins

The Supreme Court has done the right thing by declining to entertain Gen Singh's petition. But did justice win in the end?

R Jagannathan February 11, 2012 12:02:24 IST
Real lesson from Gen Singh's defeat: System always wins

Why is one left with the feeling that justice has been done — and yet not quite been done — in the case of Gen VK Singh, who, on Friday, lost his case to have his date of birth reaffirmed as 10 May 1951?

One suspects that the real reason is that ultimately one can’t escape the inexorable logic of a system that grinds you down, even if you are right. The system exists, warts and all, and in the end it wins. The average man knows it when he fights the bureaucracy in vain. On Friday, a general also had to acknowledge its power.

Nobody except Gen Singh knows whether or not his date of birth is what he claims it to be. But everybody knows that the key powers in the army before Gen Singh’s time, and the civilian authority, decided to opt for another date. They refused to accept the general’s contention. And even the Supreme Court more or less forced him to withdraw his petition or face defeat.

The court was, of course, right. If it had done anything else, it would have set a bad precedent. It is not the court’s business to determine anyone’s date of birth. It entered the picture only because someone as important as the Chief of Army Staff was raising a complaint.

The court made this starkly clear. “In any other matter, we would not have spared two minutes. We thought that this is not a matter which should be left to a tribunal, that we should hear it ourselves,” The Indian Express reported Justice RM Lodha as saying at the final hearing.

The two-judge bench, which included Justice HL Gokhale, said its power of judicial review under Article 32 of the Constitution was limited to the “recognition of age as per the service records” and not unearth the “actual age” of the army chief.

Real lesson from Gen Singhs defeat System always wins

Army Chief Gen VK Singh on his arrival in Jaipur on Friday. PTI

Quite right, too. If the court had made an exception for the army chief, every man in uniform would have sought court remedy for his grievances. There was simply no way it was going to set such a bad precedent.

The verdict holds a mirror to the system’s inability to stop abuses of power. This is what needs fixing, but neither the government, nor the army, nor the general came out smelling of roses.

The government was party to coercing the general to accept what he did not believe was his date of birth.

In 2007, when the general was raising the age issue within the army – where the Military Secretary’s Branch (MS Branch) and the Adjutant General’s Branch (AG’s Branch) had different dates on their records – the ministry of defence (MoD) was taking a serious view of his refusal to accept the MS Branch’s view.

Bimal Julka, then Joint Secretary in MoD, wrote a stern letter to the army that if Singh was going to keep raising his age issue, “the question of suitability of Lt Gen VK Singh as army commander calls for a revisit.” According to a report by Raj Chengappa in Business Standard (read the full report here), Julka claimed it was “an oddity that the officer has continued to stand by a date of birth which is not officially recognised and thereby revealing an attitude apparently questionable and not reflective of the qualities expected from an army commander.”

The civilian authority clearly had no respect for the general’s grievance.

It was this message that forced Gen Singh to sue for peace – since the implied threat was clear. If he did not accept, he would not be promoted. So he wrote to his bosses: “I have total belief in the system as also great faith in the sagacity and wisdom of the organisation I have been serving. Therefore, anything which is required to be done in the larger interests of the organisation may be undertaken by the HQ.”

A few days later, the then army chief, Gen Deepak Kapoor, apparently reemphasised the consequences of him sticking to his story on date of birth, and Singh again capitulated on 24 January 2008: “Whatever decision taken in the org interest is acceptable to me.”

The powers-that-be were still unhappy with the wording of his surrender, and asked him to formally accept 10 May 1950 as his date of birth. It was at this point that Gen Singh threw in the towel, and wrote back on 31 January 2008: “Date as mentioned is accepted.” He was made GOC-in-C (Eastern Command), the normal stepping stone to the office of army chief.

From the above, it is clear that Gen Singh was virtually forced to accept a decision on his age under duress, and not willingly.

Natural justice demanded that a full investigation was conducted by the army to reconcile the MS and AG Branches’ divergence, and the final date of birth determined as per law. But this did not happen. The system failed the general.

Where the general himself went wrong is clear: caught between the prospect of losing a promotion and living to fight another day, he chose the latter. It was a tactical decision, and he clearly swallowed his pride to ensure that the system did not victimise him and deny him his due after an illustrious career.

But it was clearly a wrong decision — in retrospect. The Supreme Court refused to accept his reason for going along with what he did not believe was right. According to The Times of India, the court said: "In a matter like this, which is of vital importance to the nation, if you are raising a service matter and age issue, then go before the Armed Forces Tribunal and stand in the witness box to substantiate your claim. You take a call. You did not go to court when the civilian authority decided that 1950 was your year of birth. You became army chief and then came to the court. This is not expected.”

The court rubbed it in further: "Can you explain why did you tell them to take a decision and agreed to abide by that decision? We do not permit even private parties to resile from their commitment. As a graceful, dignified officer you were sure the government will be objective and you will abide by the government's decision on date of birth in service record. Wise people go with the wind. If you want a final decision, we will give it."

Was the court right in believing that the general agreed of his own free will to the government’s version of his date of birth?

In the end, the court gave him a Hobson’s choice: withdraw your petition or be prepared to lose.

The general did what he has always done when confronted with a superior force: retreat.

It’s a pity. The system may not have delivered him justice, but maybe he should have fought it and gone to the tribunal. In the process, he would probably have lost his promotion. He would have lost either way.

When it comes to fighting the system, you can’t win: you either lose your due or your honour. Or both.

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