Monday, February 13, 2012
In what came to be called an ‘unprecedented step’, the Army Chief, Gen VK Singh had gone to the Supreme Court seeking justice against a Government order dated December 30, 2011, which had rejected his statutory complaint seeking resolution of a conflict in his service records that showed two dates of birth – 10 May 1951 as per the records held by the Adjutant General’s Branch (AG) and 10 May 1950 as per the records held by the Military Secretary’s branch (MS) at the Army Headquarters. All legally tenable evidence like birth certificate, school leaving certificate and prior legal advice from three or four former Chief Justices of India pointed only to one date – 10 May 1951 as the correct year of Gen VK Singh’s birth.
In the first hearing on February 3, the apex Court reprimanded the Government for its ‘vitiated decision making process’ which had resulted in rejection of Gen VK Singh’s statutory complaint. Throwing back the Government order of December 30, the honourable judges also offered the Government counsel to either withdraw this order or else they would quash it, as reported in the media. In the second hearing on February 10, even as the Government withdrew its impugned order, the Court surprisingly upheld the same Government decision that had rejected the General’s contention and maintained 1950 as his year of birth. It also ticked him off for reneging on his earlier commitments accepting the date he was now challenging. The General withdrew his petition.
The case has thrown up some significant issues, which must engage public attention and concern.
Law Vs Ethics
As far as the petitioner and public curiosity are concerned, of the two dates in his service records, one was correct and the other wrong – whatever the reasons. The Court was expected to adjudicate and give a verdict on the right and wrong in the case before it. Instead, the honourable judges chose to discuss the good and bad in the case. Thus in what appeared to be an ethics-before-law approach, they sought to invoke the General’s conscience by suggesting that it did not behove of a virtuous leader of men like him to question the date he had earlier accepted – for whatever reasons. Ethically, yes, it does indicate a lack of moral courage in a man who commands world’s second largest Army to give in to duress and blackmail. More serious than this human fallibility, however, is the fact that his seniors were audaciously deceitful and scheming to extract his acceptance of a date of birth they knew was false. Is it not legally expedient to expose and suitably punish those who indulged in such unethical and illegal machinations at such high levels?
A natural fallout of this brokering at the Supreme Court is the likelihood of government employees using it as a precedent to justify unauthenticated dates of birth given carelessly or cunningly at the time of recruitment by just signing ‘undertakings of acceptance’ some time later in service ignoring or even refuting the primary documents like birth certificate and school leaving certificate. Birth is a natural occurrence, which is impossible to be altered humanly. How can even Gen VK Singh be required or authorised to accept or reject such an inalterable date, time and space ordained by Providence? Had the honourable judges proceeded to look into it, they would have found that 1951 was indeed the correct date. It was most frustrating that on February 10, India’s Army Chief was again coerced to accept what was legally and factually wrong – a false date of his birth – and agree to an armistice letting justice remain elusive and beyond his reach even at the country’s highest altar of justice. A wrong appeared being helped to triumph over the right; falsehood over truth.
‘Vitiated Decision making Process’
What was so bad in the Government order of December 30 that the honourable Supreme Court treated it unworthy of acceptance and forced the Government to withdraw it? It was essentially a reiteration of the Government’s earlier decision maintaining 1950 as the year of Gen VK Singh’s birth, which he had challenged. If the December 30 order was bad and vitiated, so would be the earlier government orders communicating the same text. But surprisingly, these very orders pushing 1950 as his year of birth have been now upheld.
Logically a decision that flows from a vitiated process cannot be fair. What beats human prudence, however, is that the same vitiated decision that was thrown back at the Government has been implicitly allowed to prevail. What should be a cause of concern here, this case was not an odd casualty of the ‘vitiated process of decision making’ in the offices of MoD. Many proposals and recommendations from the Armed Forces on vital issues concerning national defence, security and state of the Forces have been treated shabbily. One of the causes is lack of professional awareness and inability of bureaucrats to understand the urgency and operational significance of military recommendations.
This handicap could be offset in two ways. One, military officers should be posted in various departments of MoD to aid, advise and streamline the decision making process which requires a professional orientation especially when the world looks at India as a rising global power. Two, bureaucrats earmarked to be posted to MoD should be required to qualify in appropriately structured courses at the Military training establishments and do field tenures with military units and formations deployed in active operational areas so as to understand operational military environments in their proper perspective. Such exposures will integrate the Forces Headquarters with the MoD more effectively.
Authority Vs Accountability
A protectionist environment has gradually come up in departments where officers misuse their authority in several ways. Keeping enquiries inconclusive for years on, overstaying tenures, ignoring complaints and not acting upon recommendations of authorities like CVC and CBI are common. As corruption spread to high government positions, it became easier for office functionaries to buy and sell favours with impunity. More and more officers began working for selfish motives ignoring their official responsibility. Money, they found, could influence inquiry and justice could be bought too. Official equation of senior-junior has been turned upside down in the evolving environment where the junior is now a partner of his boss in a common pursuit where they share the exploits mutually. The junior has thus emerged more audacious and stronger, whereas the senior has become more timid and susceptible to blackmail.
Expressing concern at the rising malaise recently, the Supreme Court had to stipulate a three-month time limit for the Government to give its decision on requests for sanction of prosecution against delinquent officials failing which the prosecution shall commence without further waiting. The Supreme Court’s indictment of the ‘vitiated process of decision making’ in the MoD should lead to inner systemic cleansing and revamping offices and departments to make them more responsive.
Larger Ramifications of the Case
In the unseemly legal battle between the Army Chief and his own Government, both – the victor and the vanquished – share each other’s gain and loss, honour and disgrace. Irrespective of who wins in such a scenario, the nation loses. The apex Court and the Government both lauded Gen VK Singh’s honesty, integrity and abilities to lead the Army and allowed him to withdraw his petition. Hindsight now suggests that even though the law entitles everyone to seek redress of grievances through courts of law, it would perhaps be more honourable for officers in such high positions to either accept the Government decision or, if unable to digest such a decision, resign and fade away honourably.
Currently, there is an uneasy calm and eerie whispers in the corridors of South Block that this case might further vitiate the already tenuous civil-military relationship. An atmosphere of animosity between the warring individuals and their departments might persist for some time and, therefore, the need for initiating conscientious efforts to restore and reinforce the elusive trust and goodwill between the MoD and Army Headquarters. In the event of Gen VK Singh offering to resign now, it would be a great gesture on part of the Defence Minister and senior MoD officials to show magnanimity and accord all honour and decorum to him while bidding him farewell. Such a gesture would go a long way not only to iron out the surficial suspicions but also in restoring and strengthening the civil-military relationship.
Sunday, February 05, 2012
Judiciary, of late, has been very critical of the Executive as is evident from the rising number of Government actions failing to stand judicial scrutiny. In the rising multitude of indictments, the latest was cancellation of 121 licenses in 2-G spectrum scam, soon followed by the Supreme Court’s yet another rebuke to the Government over its ‘vitiated decision making process’ in the case of Army Chief’s age goof-up. The parliamentary process has been virtually at a standstill without any worthwhile legislative business being conducted in the last two sessions. Having failed to implement some of its choicest policies like FDI recently, the ‘Roll back Government’ has also demoralised the otherwise upswing corporate India, as indicated by a Group of eminent citizens including former judges and corporate leaders like Azim Premji, Deepak Parekh and Narayan Vaghul who wrote to the Prime Minister in October last year exhorting him to act against the "strong nexus between certain corporates, bureaucrats and power-brokers – the most serious threat to Indian economy.” The scenario is worrisome – is the Government collapsing?
Irony is that despite a growing economy, terrorism on the ebb and borders relatively calm, Indian Democracy is facing its worst threats from within. While a number of factors can be blamed for the on-going deterioration, three main causes that need to be immediately attended are briefly discussed here. Once they are fixed, rest of the malady will automatically get fixed because it draws life from these three.
Degeneration of Political Parties
Political parties in India have largely lost their representative character and metamorphosed into family controlled fiefdoms – a phenomenon that is audaciously blunt and open throughout the country. Distribution of tickets has nothing to do with people’s opinion about the candidate or his/her personal qualities and abilities. All that is required is his ‘loyalty rating for the Party’ (read Family) and ‘winnability’ which means ‘muscle power and/or money power’ in the local area. A survey by ‘Association for Democratic Reforms’ (ADR) shows that all Parties have more or less equal share of criminals in the polls. Party high commands thus surround themselves with a select group of loyalists who settle down in power positions to serve the ‘boss’ for the coming five years. Today, there are cabinet ministers who are in their seats not because of their abilities or grass-root level powerbase but because of their proximity to the Party boss.
Therefore, to make Party nominations more representative and genuinely democratic, it is desirable to make it mandatory for all parties to follow a streamlined procedure whereby the most popular grass root workers win Party nominations to contest elections as true representatives of the people. Electoral reforms have been much debated yet overdue.
Power without Accountability
India has the distinction of having world’s most learned Prime Minister. What an irony that Mr Manmohan Singh has also been labelled as the most ‘dysfunctional Prime Minister’ and as ‘an honest Prime Minister of the most corrupt Government’. A serious handicap of the coalition government being experienced is that coalition partners often indulge in blackmailing the lead Party and take their independent decisions ignoring the Prime Minister who has had to reluctantly acquiesce to uncomfortable decisions. A Raja issuing 2-G licenses is a case in point.
Besides the coercive coalition partners, two power centres outside the Government have emerged so domineering that the institution of Prime Minister has been further degraded. The power of the Government has drifted from South Block to 10, Janpath from where Sonia Gandhi’s countenance carries more compelling power than Prime Minister’s directions to his ministers and officers. Rahul Gandhi, in his rehearsals for his future role, is seemingly overseeing the Prime Ministerial functions. These extra-constitutional centres of power have created peculiar problems in the Government functioning because those who have all the accountability have no power, and those who have all the power have no accountability whatsoever. This has not only imbalanced the government’s power structure but also marred intrinsic responsibility, speed and efficiency at the highest levels.
Given their awesome stature in the Congress Party and an unelected Prime Minister heading a coalition Government, it is impractical to visualise the Government functioning free from the Sonia-Rahul influence. If so, it is even more desirable that the duo should join the Government and bear accountability for their roles in decision-making. Secondly, institutionalising a strong and independent Lokpal with its own investigative arm is essential to redeem the government from diarchy and restore its fading credibility.
Callous, Inefficient and Arrogant Bureaucracy
Numerous panels convened by the Government including Administrative Reforms Commission, Police Reforms Commission, Law Commission, Election Commission and others have recommended significant steps to revamp the administrative structure that could provide an honest, efficient and responsive system to ensure good governance. All those recommendations are today collecting dust in backrooms of departments concerned and, what is surprising, the government does not seem to bother about these despite reminders from the Supreme Court. One wonders at the temerity of the government functionaries not attending to Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the CBI requests for prosecution of delinquent officers for years and decades. As revealed by the CBI sources, requests for prosecution are pending against 169 officers – 147 of them being senior bureaucrats – for over a decade! Such a system naturally promotes corruption and inefficiency as the culprits feel immune and beyond law. Again, it had to be the Supreme Court to lay down a four months’ time limit for the Government decision failing which the prosecution can commence without further waiting for the Government sanction.
Another vital aspect is the bureaucracy lacking in specialisation of the departments they are required to manage and coordinate. It is common to find IAS officers of various seniorities shifting from one ministry to another without much consideration as to how they fit in the new job ahead. Little wonder that they keep decisions pending and whenever a crucial decision is taken, it often leads to embarrassment to the Government. The Supreme Court’s rebuke to the government for its ‘vitiated decision making process’ in the case of country’s Army Chief’s age controversy exposes the naiveté of senior bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence where they specialise more on tourism and commerce without much idea about national defence, security and military affairs.
These are times of high-speed decision making keeping vigil on internal and external repercussions. It is therefore necessary that technocrats, professionals and experts must replace the generalists – jack-of-all-trades, master of none – in key positions in the ministries and departments. By the time IAS officers acquire a particular level, say Director level, they must be required to opt for a specialised field like Finance, Defence etc whereupon they would be required to hone up their expertise through appropriately structured courses field tenures for on-the-job exposure before they are called upon to manage and coordinate departments and ministries.
Governance in India needs immediate inner cleansing – perhaps a thorough servicing and overhaul – to save itself and the country from a veritable disaster.
The debate in the media about the Army Chief’s date of birth has developed in a manner that points and counter points have been brought before the public in ample measure. However, for some inexplicable reason a few periodicals (eg, India Today, January 16) have not hesitated in twisting facts and projecting a one-sided view to the public. In a series of articles more recently published in ‘The Tribune’, events and documents, including classified, have been quoted to establish only one thing: that Gen VK Singh’s UPSC form bears 10 May 1950 as his date of birth and that he later had ‘accepted’ the same as correct even though his actual date of birth as per his birth certificate and school leaving certificate bear 10 May 1951. Interestingly, the MS Branch relied more on the ‘UPSC Form’ (10 May 1950) whereas the AG’s Branch has relied on documents that are legally required and accepted in all government departments – school leaving certificate and birth certificate (10 May 1951). What it implies is that the Army HQ had two sets of Gen Singh’s date of birth and that the officer is said to have ‘accepted’ the one ‘preferred’ by the MS Branch. The unfair inference being sold is that the General has reneged on his ‘acceptance.’ These misgivings need to be clarified.
Who’s seeking the ‘Change’?
Gen VK Singh has never sought any ‘change’ in his date of birth. Actually, he has been all along resisting the ‘change’ that the authorities have sought to make in his service records in an arbitrary manner. He is actually questioning why his authentic date of birth (10 May 1951) is repeatedly being sought to be amended to read as ‘10 May 1950’ – the latter being an error rectified long ago. Yet, how strange that the authorities have relied more upon what he as a boy of 14-15 entered in his UPSC form for the NDA entrance examination in early sixties and not upon documents that are universally accepted as legal proof of facts like date of birth like his School leaving Certificate and Birth Certificate issued by a Military Hospital where he was borne.
Interestingly, the Master Data Sheets (MDS) – a crucial document prepared by the MS Branch (Army HQ) in respect of officers under consideration for promotion by the Selection Board – have all through shown the correct date of birth (10 May 1951). Strangely, the same MS Branch started raising questions on this date from 2006 onwards. When the MS wrote to him informing that ‘19 May 1950’ would be treated as his correct date (year) of birth and not ‘1951’ and that the AG’s branch was being advised to amend their records accordingly, Gen VK Singh wrote back questioning why his date of birth (1951) was sought to be changed/amended.
On being asked by the Army HQ, Gen VK Singh only expressed his confidence in those who were his superiors then and expected them to resolve the anomaly by maintaining what is correct and authentic in all respects. Normally, a ‘change’ is requested by those in whose cases the records have a date different from what they have to offer. In Gen VK Singh’s case the Army HQ had a conflict within – the AG’s Branch records showing it as 19 May 1951 while the MS Branch (having insidiously re-invented an obsolete date rather late) started showing it as 10 May 1950 from 2006 or so onwards. The General’s simple and single contention has been ‘let the true and actual date of birth remain. If the authorities had any doubts about his certificates, they could have got them verified/re-verified rather than deciding in a highly questionable manner. Rather than seeking a ‘change’, he is merely trying to prevent a ‘change’ that is being unfairly imposed upon him.
Has the General reneged on his Undertakings?
The claim that Gen VK Singh has ‘reneged on his undertakings’ is also grossly false and nothing more than a maligning campaign against the General. Photocopies of operative portions of communication between Gen VK Singh’s and the Army HQ published in Outlook (January 30) and ‘The Tribune’ have exposed the dirty games and treacheries at work in the highest corridors of power at South Block. Far from ‘accepting’ 1950 as his year of birth, the General has said enough against the move to alter his date of birth in very candid yet respectful way. “I have been greatly hurt and pained by the aspersions cast on my integrity and military reputation….Thus I have no qualm in giving in writing whatever I was asked for, despite my reservation,” (his letter dated July 1, 2008 to Gen Deepak Kapoor, the then Army Chief, as quoted in Outlook, Jan 30). In another letter dated November 12, 2009, he reaffirms his stand on the issue thus: “I have taken your directions in letter and spirit…..after the MS wrote that this function is of the AG branch, I have treated this issue as closed. I am sure you are well aware of these facts.” Succinctly, Gen Singh’s much publicised ‘acceptance’ ran thus, “…whatever decision taken in organisational interest is acceptable to me.” Far from giving his ‘acceptance’, these respectful submissions carry enough pain and resentment against the MS Branch machinations and yet he reposed great faith and trust in his ‘Chief’ (Gen Deepak Kapoor) because he believed that organisational interests would be best served by upholding the truth which in this case was his date of birth (10 May 1951) and which, so he thought, Gen Deepak Kapoor would honour. Alas! his faith was betrayed.
Further, is it not weird that departing from official norms and laid down rules, the authorities proceeded to obtain ‘undertakings’ and ‘acceptance’ for deciding upon a date of birth from the affected officer himself? How can government officers be called upon to choose and ‘accept’ or ‘deny’ their own date of birth? How can a factual date of birth be changed on any account whatsoever, ‘undertakings’ and ‘acceptance’ notwithstanding? Out of the three documents – UPSC Form, Matriculation Certificate and Birth Certificate – prudence dictates acceptance of the latter two, the UPSC Form being no more than an application form submitted by the individual concerned while the other two are from authorities legally authorised to certify facts of truth. The question of Gen VK Singh reneging on his ‘acceptance’ is therefore fundamentally fallacious and grossly misleading.
Dignity of the Office of India’s Army Chief
There is a category of people who feel that by suing the Government in the Supreme Court Gen VK Singh has ‘lowered’ the dignity of the high Office of the Army Chief. This again is a propaganda being inspired by those who have an axe to grind. There are innumerable cases of government officers pending in courts against the Government. Also, it is neither illegal, nor unbecoming of a Chief’s position in any manner to seek redress of grievances in accordance with the law of the land and in full adherence to the procedures prescribed by the Government itself. Therefore, it is not merely a question of seeking redress and relief for himself but also his moral duty to vindicate the honour and dignity of the high Office he holds by showing to the Army and the Nation that he does his best to vindicate the honour and dignity of the office he holds.
Gen VK Singh knew that both the dates were OK for him and could have lumped what was being thrust on him. But he refused to accept what he believed was factually wrong even at a time when stakes were crucially high for him. As an Army Commander he proceeded against some very senior officers for their misdemeanour without fear or favour much to Gen Deepak Kapoor’s discomfiture. His courage has contributed to restoring and fortifying the honour and dignity of the Office he holds and the trust reposed in him.
Now, just to mark the contrast, sample this communication from a ‘Joint Secretary’ (Major General’s equal) to the Gen Deepak Kapoor about a Lt Gen who is tipped to be Army Commander soon:-
‘Bimal Julka, Joint Secretary (G/Air), MoD, in his letter of 21 January 2008, warned the Army HQ that MoD would reconsider its proposal to promote him (Gen VK Singh) as Army Commander if he persisted with “an attitude apparently questionable and not reflective of the qualities expected from any Army Commander”.’ (As quoted by Raj Chengappa in ‘The Tribune’).
The contents of this communication fall in the category of ‘warning’ and ‘admonition.’ As per the established practice in government departments, junior officers – civil or military – do not ‘tick off’ seniors and those who in protocol enjoy a higher status. If such a warning/admonition was ever warranted, it would be more appropriate if it was signed by the Defence Minister or in any case not by any officer lower than the Defence Secretary. That such a letter came to the Chief from a ‘joint secretary’ who had no compunction to restrain himself from using such objectionable language against a potential Army Commander, and the Army Chief not only tolerated but seemed to pass on the ‘threat’ to a General who would subsequently replace him as India’s Army Chief has surely smothered the high office. The least the Army Chief (Gen Kapoor) should have done was to write to the Defence Secretary enclosing the Joint Secretary’s letter and expressing his disapproval of the impropriety of the JS using the language and matter unbecoming of his position.
And even as the case is sub-judice in the Supreme Court, an errant Babu at the MoD has audaciously assumed the role of Providence and, intervening in the internal Service matters, asked the AG Branch (Army HQ) to ‘change’ their records so as to read ‘1950’ (the impugned date/year) as the year of Gen VK Singh’s birth. It is this kind of bureaucrats who, acting on behalf of the Government, erode people’s faith in the Government, tarnish its image and destroy its institutions.