Monday, February 13, 2012

Have Peace, Not Justice

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.

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