How honour was court-martialled

The flip side of the story is that it was within the power of defence minister A.K. Antony to put a stop to the sordid controversy

In a rather unusual, if also belated, move, President Pratibha Patil, who is also the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, has publicly expressed her “concern” over the civil-military mess created by an honest but obstinate Army Chief and an honest but dysfunctional defence minister that has dismayed the country. The President, in her interview to a newspaper, chose her words carefully, and was terse. But there was no mistaking her disquiet.
“This was something”, she said, apparently in reply to a question, “that should not have happened. It should have been handled in a disciplined manner”. Beyond that she did not go. So nothing is known about whether she conveyed her unhappiness to her government, and if so, why it did not produce the desired result.

Some would perhaps argue that since the Indian President, like the British sovereign, acts only on the advice of the Council of Ministers s/he cannot take any initiative. But this is not exactly so. The constitutional position is stated correctly. But at the same time, in Walter Bagehot’s famous words, it is also a function of the constitutional head of state to “caution, warn and advise” the government when the situation so warrants. What this country has gone through during the last three months is certainly such a situation.
The dreary details of the damage that has been done to the country, the Army and the outgoing Chief of Army Staff, Gen. V. K. Singh himself, are well-known and have indeed been discussed threadbare, often in a regrettably partisan manner. Consequently, attention should focus on the main features of the disaster that should have been nipped in the bud.
In the first place, the whole crisis began with Gen. Singh’s relentless efforts to get his date of birth changed, which would have entitled him to one more year in service. He thus became the first Army Chief in independent India to drag the government to the court over a trivial issue. Indeed, the stark reality is that nowhere in any democracy in the world has such a thing ever happened.
The flip side of the sad story is that it was within the power of defence minister A.K. Antony to put a stop to the sordid controversy at the stage when the general chose to file a statutory complaint. But despite his saintly halo, he chose to do nothing. Nor is there anything to show that he referred the delicate matter to the Prime Minister. The ministry of defence (MoD) rejected the statutory appeal and Gen. Singh rushed to the Supreme Court.
Secondly, even after the apex court dismissed Gen. Singh’s petition against the government’s decision with the remark that his constant efforts to “wriggle out” of his repeated commitments to “treat the date of birth controversy as closed does not befit a meritorious officer at the fag end of (his) career”, nothing was done to put a lid on the dismal goings-on.
No wonder then that Gen. Singh’s next move was what was instantly nicknamed the “bribery bombshell”. In two media interviews he claimed that a recently retired lieutenant-general had offered him a bribe of `14 crores, and that he had mentioned this to the defence minister who had “beaten his head in despair”. What the general did not say but Mr Antony disclosed in Parliament later was that the incident was nearly two years old and Gen. Singh had told the defence minister that he “did not want to pursue it”.
Neither the minister nor the general has explained to this day why they sat on such a serious charge for nearly 24 months. However, as soon as Gen. Singh went public, Mr Antony called in the Central Bureau of Investigation. There are now three cases before the relevant authorities or courts. The CBI is investigating the bribery charge against Lt. Gen. Tejinder Singh who has since been named by Gen. Singh. For his part, the lieutenant-general has filed a defamation suit in the Delhi high court against the Army Chief. Lt. Gen. Singh has followed this up with a petition to the Supreme Court praying for an inquiry into the “bugging of the telephones of the MoD, including those of the defence minister”, allegedly at the behest of the Army Chief. This is disgraceful enough but not a patch on what else has happened. Three most depressing developments merit attention.
First, given the accumulated resentment within the armed forces against the civilian bureaucracy and even greater discontent among ex-servicemen, there has been sympathy and support for the Army Chief from that quarter. On the other hand many retired generals, including some predecessors of the Army Chief, are critical of him.
Secondly, and deplorably, the ubiquitous caste factor immediately got intermixed with the date of birth controversy. Leave alone the unsuccessful attempt by 20 Rajput MPs to meet the Prime Minister and Gen. Singh’s own visit to Ballia to unveil the statue of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, the so-called Akhil Bharatiya Rajput Sangharsh Samiti is holding a day-long rally at Jantar Mantar to “protest” against the “injustice” meted out to Gen. Singh.
Thirdly, and most disgustingly, presumably because of highly inflamed political polarisation in the country, some eminent activists, including a former Chief Election Commissioner and a former Navy Chief, thought it fit to file a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court challenging the appointment of Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh (there is a confusion of Singhs here) as the next Army Chief, which was
rejected.
Here the issue, most sorrowfully, was given a communal turn. Subsequent versions of the petitioners dispute this but what was reported was that the attorney-general took strong objection to the suggestion that a Sikh former chief, with “orders from above”, had manipulated Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh’s appointment. Whereupon Their Lordships had declared, “No, no. We won’t allow this,” and dismissed the petition. However inflamed the polarised feelings, India’s secular and professional Army should be spared such slurs.

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