The Supreme Court today disposed of a petition filed by Army Chief V.K.Singh on the matter concerning his age. The govt had decided to go by records which had his year of birth as 1950 while other records had it as 1951. This meant that he would have to retire in May 2012 while 1951 would have meant retiring in 2013. Why the case landed up in the SC is a sorry story which is consistent with the poor handling of various issues the central govt is by now reputed for. On December 30 the govt rejected a second appeal by Gen. Singh to recognise his DOB as 1951 seeking the advice of the Attorney General. It was the second time the govt had sought the advice of the AG on the same issue. This rejection led to the General taking the matter to the SC. Now, that’s the drama that the media couldn’t resist at all. What should have been reported as case of serious nature was turned into a WWE wrestling match of sorts by the media.
Dignity V Ambition was the constant topic of debates in the media. Shameful! General Singh is in the final year of his career, he is over 60, has earned laurels throughout his career. So to even remotely suggest that there was some ingredient of ambition in his stand is an offensive mud-slinging exercise that the media revels in. And, of course, there were those media crooks who even suggested he should resign as soon as the petition was filed. The General acted out of a call of his conscience and the belief that the govt doubted his integrity by rejecting his appeal. So what do the SC observations hold in this case?
First, last week the SC observed that the govt procedure was faulty in rejecting the General’s appeal since it used the same advice (of the AG) that it had already used in a previous appeal. This therefore vitiated the principles of natural justice according to the SC. In the second hearing of the case today the SC recommended the General withdraw his plea since the govt had already agreed and decided to withdraw its controversial order of December 30. The SC also observed that basic documents such as his school leaving certificate used in UPSC records and other records showed his DOB as 1951. SC also observed that it was an issue of service records where the records showing 1950 were proper and that neither his honour nor integrity was in question and that he should have taken steps to rectify the anomaly long back instead of this late state in his career.
The SC maintained it didn’t want to intervene in an issue of service records and did not want dirty linen washed in public. That, in short, summarises the SC approach to the whole case. So it is neither a loss to the General nor a victory for the govt. In a case such as this it is obvious that the people were with the General because they definitely have far more respect for the Army than for the govt. Secondly, General V K Singh is reputed to be an upright officer who has fought corruption in the army. In contrast, the UPA is now seen as a natural friend of corruption. Effectively the SC just said: Your DOB is 1951 but let the service records stay as they are and not reverse what was accepted for over 30 years. That is all!
The implications of the SC observations clearly point to the following:
- The govt. simply failed to resolve the issue amicably and let matters get out of hand.
- That the grievance and dispute redress systems in the army procedures need to be looked into closely and revamped where necessary.
- That in the future even the Army may resort to normal legal processes in the face of govt intransigence.
During the time when the dispute was being negotiated with Gen. Singh the govt could have come out openly and stated in no uncertain circumstances that they hold him in high esteem, respect his integrity, his honour and the 1951 date, but would stand by the records. Instead, the govt was constantly giving the image of a conflict. If the govt has to learn any lessons then these are the ones. The govt was saved by a slim lifeline today. What if the SC had ruled against the govt? That would have completely eroded the govt’s right to even continue with any credibility. The last thing a civilian govt would want is a conflict over such issues with the Army Chief.
The case was turned into a circus by the media as usual. From the time the SC observations were being relayed from the court the usual rants came out: Blow to Army Chief, Setback to Army Chief! Some TV channels even reported Singh's petition was "Dismissed" when technically that was inaccurate since he had withdrawn his petition. It is indeed shameful that such headlines are being used to indicate a loss for the general. It was not a loss. There are those in the media who are now suggesting that General Singh should now resign early. This is a faulty suggestion. It is up to Singh to decide on that. An unresolved disagreement was referred by him to the SC. That’s all. It is not a defeat or loss even in the slightest sense. This was not some property dispute. Finally, the fact is that a huge majority of India does believe Gen. Singh and that his DOB, as claimed by him, is indeed 1951. That’s a victory unavailable to the govt. which has been losing trust every minute. As the saying goes – the law is an Ass, though not all the time. General Singh came through with his reputation intact and with honours.