An error had been made regarding the date of birth of my father at the time of filling up the UPSC form when he had applied for admission to the National Defence Academy (NDA). This was detected instantly and certain steps were taken to correct the year of birth even before he joined the academy. In fact, he reported 13 days late to the NDA as the date was being sorted out. This was obviously taken due note of, for all NDA records then showed his year of birth as 1951. Three years later, when he moved from the NDA to the Indian Military Academy (IMA), he was told to write the date of birth as in the UPSC form. He pointed out that this had been corrected and was told that this would be verified by a board of officers. The pre-commission advisory board checked and verified his particulars; his IMA identity card and his record of service duly stated that he was born in 1951. For the next few decades, ever since his commissioning into the army, his year of birth in all records, whether in the military secretariat or the adjutant general’s branch, was 1951. The only exception was the Army List, which is published keeping the original UPSC form as reference point. Even in this case, as the date of birth had to be verified against the school-leaving certificate, the entry was erroneous.
On May 3, 2006, 19 days after the results of the selection board for lieutenant generals had been declassified, the military secretary at the time, Lt Gen Richard Khare, first wrote to Gen V.K. Singh claiming there was a discrepancy in the records of the two branches. This set off a chain of events that eventually led to the army chief first filing a statutory complaint and then referring the matter to the Supreme Court.
On February 3, 2012, the SC, in its wisdom, castigated the government, stating that the due process of natural justice had not been followed and the process had been “vitiated” in addressing the army chief’s statutory complaint. The attorney general at that time asked for an adjournment, which was granted. During the second hearing, a week later, the attorney general started proceedings by submitting an affidavit by way of which it withdrew its order dated December 30, 2011, that rejected the statutory complaint. In view of the government's move, and the praise about the general’s professional and personal conduct, our lawyer felt there was no point in pressing the matter further, especially since the court had made it clear that in light of the government’s stance, there was nothing further to be discussed from a legal point of view. As a citizen of India, the army chief has already expressed his grateful thanks to the learned judges of the apex court for addressing the issue.
I don’t want to be,
A wealthy man,
Nor I want to be,
A working man.
I want to be,
A great soldier,
Fighting on the front,
with a gun on my shoulder,
I want to die for,
My great, beloved nation,
And for my enemy,
I shall have no compassion,
I want to let the
That Indians can die,
For their Motherland.
(A poem written by Gen V.K. Singh as a Std VIII student, culled from his school magazine)
The order passed by the court is not ambiguous in its content. I am bitterly disappointed at the deliberate spin given in the media to the proceedings in the court, which in my view and understanding are quite contrary to what the honourable judges have said in their order. Firstly, the order does not uphold an error in the threshold document, nor does it say anything about the legality of either of the two dates of birth. There’s also nothing to suggest that the so-called ‘acceptance letters’ exist. While it is true that these points came up during the hearing—as did many other statements, which include the much talked about “wise men move with the wind” remark of the judges—but these were arguments that in my understanding cannot be confused with the order passed by the learned judges.
If the government had not withdrawn its order of December 30 concerning my father’s statutory appeal, the arguments in the court would have had a different flavour and intensity and all the facts given above would have come into play, requiring adjudication. But this did not happen, and my father’s critics have gone to town, repeatedly harping that there are three occasions when he had “moved with the wind” and given acceptance letters to the year of birth being 1950. This is blatantly untrue, and I would like to set the record straight.
Contrary to what is being projected, there has never been any such ‘acceptance letter’. In 2006, he was perhaps the only serving lieutenant general in the history of the nation to be asked to furnish a fresh date of birth prior to being cleared for appointment as a corps commander. This despite the fact that just a few weeks prior to that, the military secretariat branch records had cleared him for promotion based on a 1951 year of birth. The then army chief, Gen J.J. Singh, my father’s chief at the time, had categorically told him that there was merely a clerical discrepancy in the records. This would be sorted out, and for that he needed to accept that he had faith in the army chief’s decisions. This would be in the interest of the organisation, as it was otherwise holding up the appointments of all corps commanders. Once the army chief had this letter, it was projected to the defence ministry that there was an ‘acceptance letter’ procured from my father, acknowledging the year of birth as 1950. The fact that my father, then a lieutenant general, continued to ask the military secretariat branch even after that how and why the army chief had been advised to make him declare a new year of birth underlines the fact that in 2006 there was no such ‘acceptance’.
The question that needs to be asked of the then army chief, the military secretary (Lt Gen Khare) and the judge advocate general (Maj Gen Nilender Kumar), who together initiated what was clearly not the standard operating procedure in 2006, is: Why did they make an exception in this case only? These gentlemen have found immunity in red tape, aided perhaps by some deft management of the media, which has sidestepped this question, while my father is accused of “bending with the wind”. In my view, this is where the injustice lies.
As for the second and third ‘acceptance’ letters, it is loosely being said they had been written in 2008 and 2009. This immediately begs the question that if there was a ‘first acceptance’ letter, then, what was the need for a second and a third one to be asked for? The situation here is slightly more complex. The army chief at this point of time was Gen Deepak Kapoor and the military secretary Lt Gen Avdhesh Prakash. It is a well known fact that these two gentlemen, both professionally and otherwise, differed sharply from my father (then a lieutenant general) and if the former had his way, my father would not have headed the Eastern Command. Professionally, there was nothing that could be used by the army chief to damage my father, so the ‘age issue’ was once again raked up to provoke him into disobeying a direct order to accept an incorrect year of birth. The army chief is the most powerful man in the army and a series of letters were written which have to be seen in their entirety to get the complete picture. Opinions should not be based on an isolated sentence which cites “the larger organisational interest”. Had this logic been true—that Lt Gen V.K. Singh ‘accepted’ the year of birth as 1950 so as to head the Eastern Command and later become army chief—he would have shut the cupola and not stirred the issue at all during his tenure as eastern army commander before taking over as the chief. However, he continued to write to the military secretary (Lt Gen Prakash), going systematically along accepted lines of redressing the clerical error within the army.
Honour and izzat are words that are emblazoned on a soldier’s heart. Apart from being the daughter of Gen V.K. Singh, I too am an army wife and have seen from close quarters the man I call my father stand up for what he considers is the right thing to do.
In this rather one-sided slanging match, it is also being implied by his critics that the army chief would be better off fighting for one-rank-one-pay, war memorials, weapon systems and all the other problems that haunt the system. I am not going to get drawn into what all he has done as the army chief; that’s best left to others and that is a part of his job anyway. For me, his worldview is best encapsulated in a quote from Ernest Hemingway that he uses often: “Few men for the right cause brave the disrespect of their fellow men, the censure of their colleagues and ignorance of society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields out painfully to change.”
(Mrinalini Singh is the daughter of Gen V.K. Singh)
—as told to Chander Suta Dogra