M A I N   N E W S

Tribune analysis
Army chief’s age row
A matter of honour vs propriety
By Raj Chengappa

PART 1: A matter of Honour vs Propriety
PART 2: The second big anomaly
PART 3: The Twist in the Tale
PART 4: The General’s Gambit
PART 5: The General gives his ‘word’
A matter of propriety vs integrity

With over 1.3 million personnel, the Indian Army is considered to be among the world's largest armed forces and has many challenges to face. Vijay Kumar Singh, the Chief of Army Staff, in his statutory complaint to the Union Government on August 26, 2011 outlines some of them in the first paragraph.

Singh states, “The attention of the world is focused on how India is consolidating its military capabilities, with more focused strategy of strengthening military structures, realising military modernisation, expanding its strategic space in the region, becoming a reckonable military power and achieving a desired degree of military balance with leading nations.”

Fine words, but then the next 91 paragraphs of his plaint to the government had nothing to do with the critical issues that the Indian Army faces. Instead, it spells out his crusade to get his date of birth corrected in the records of the military branches he oversees and seeks redressal from the Government on the issue. It is unprecedented for a serving chief to take recourse to filing a statutory complaint against the Government.

General Singh though believes it is a matter of his constitutional right and a question of his “honour” to set right what he believes is an organisation wrong. The crux of the confrontation pertains to the date of his birth. He maintains that his date of birth is May 10, 1951 while a wing of the Indian Army, the Military Secretary Branch, maintains that it is May 10, 1950 — a year earlier. The clash is being described as a “Matter of Honour versus Tenure”.

Impact on succession

If his date of birth is corrected, the Army Chief would get to serve till March 31, 2013 when he completes three years in service rather than retire on May 31, 2012 — an addition of 10 more months. (The Army Chief's tenure is for three years or till he completes 62 years of age, whichever is earlier). It would also have implications for the succession plan in the Army as many of the top brass from whom the next chief is to be selected would retire by then.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) on December 30, 2011, went into great detail into the points raised in General Singh's statutory complaint and concluded, “After analysing all the issues raised by the complainant in the light of the documents on record and the applicable rules… his (the Army Chief's) official date of birth will continue to remain May 10, 1950” and for added emphasis the order spelt out the date in words “May Tenth Nineteen Hundred and Fifty”. The decision was “By order and in the name of the President”.

The Army Chief then stunned the Government and the nation by taking the matter to the next level of confrontation. He has now approached the Supreme Court for relief. It is the first time that a serving Army chief has gone to court challenging an order of the Union Government. The Supreme Court has so far not heard his petition. In the light of the importance of the outcome not just for the Indian armed forces but for the nation, The Tribune, presents the full facts of the case and the issues involved in public interest.

The first anomaly

The origin of the dispute starts from the very beginning of his career when Vijay Kumar Singh, then all of 14 or 15 depending on which date of birth is taken, applied for the entrance examination to the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakwasla near Pune, the country's premier institute that imparts training to officer cadets of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Belonging to Hisar, now in Haryana, Vijay Kumar Singh, was the eldest of the three sons of Colonel Jagat Singh. He was then studying in Birla Public School, a boarding school in Pilani, Rajasthan. In personal conversations Singh recalled that he was good in mathematics and thought of pursuing engineering. Fate willed otherwise.

When the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) on June 5, 1965 put out an advertisement for the NDA course commencing on July 1, 1966, his teachers urged him to apply for the armed forces as did his father.

It is here that the young Vijay Kumar Singh committed his first “error” by filling his date of birth as May 10, 1950 in the application form which he completed on July 29, 1965. It didn't make him ineligible to take the examination because the stipulation was that the candidate must have been born not earlier than January 2, 1949 and not later than July 1, 1951 to be eligible.

There are, however, various versions as to why and how this “error” occurred. Some media reports state that it was his school teacher who had helped him fill up the form and entered his date of birth erroneously.

That variance has been the subject of much debate as it involves a legal technicality for under the UPSC rules the candidate has to fill the form in his own handwriting and certify that the statements made therein are true to the best of his knowledge. Any violation, it is opined, may result in disqualification.

In his letter of May 10, 2006 to Lt General Richard Khare, the then Military Secretary, Vijay Kumar Singh, then a Major General and Chief of Staff of the 15 Corp in Srinagar, wrote that, “it is submitted that the date of birth given in the UPSC form was filled as per details given by the school clerk and the same was subsequently maintained till the original certificate was received. In the absence of original certificate the error due to what the clerk gave continued.”

In his second opinion on the matter to the MoD dated June 8, 2011, Goolam 
E. Vahanvati, Attorney General of India, refers to an opinion given by Justice JS Verma, the former Chief Justice of India, who was consulted in the matter by a wing of the Army.

Justice Verma had opined then: “It appears that the only document relied on to provide a feeble support to a contrary view may be the initial UPSC Form of Application for Admission to the NDA that was filled by a teacher of the school where VK Singh was a student. That erroneously mentions that the Date of Birth as May 10, 1950. The teacher concerned has later unequivocally clarified that it was his mistake.”

Who filled the form?

Vahanvati in his opinion points out that: “This by itself is a remarkable statement considering the fact that the (UPSC) Application form itself in the very fourth line at the heading instructs as under ‘To be filled in the candidate’s own handwriting’. Not only that, but the declaration made by the candidate is that, ‘the statements made in the application are true to the best of my knowledge’ and belief.”

Vahanvati then goes on to add: “I need not labour this point further except to point out that the statements now made, if it all this can be considered, makes the matter more serious as it shows that the Application which was required to be filled in the candidate's own handwriting was in fact filled by a teacher and not by Shri VK Singh.”

Vahanvati does not pursue this line of argument in his opinion. But in all subsequent petitions including in the writ petition to the Supreme Court where a reference to the application form is made, General Singh states that the error was “inadvertent” with no mention of the clerical error or the teacher filling up the form. He now maintains that it was he who filled the form.

An error in an application form is always subject to correction so even if it was filled up by him there was scope to make amends. But then a peculiar set of circumstances resulted in conflicting dates being maintained in Army records subsequently.

For verifying the age, under the rules, the UPSC requires that either the candidate submit his matriculation certificate or in case he is to appear for the examination have an age certificate issued by the headmaster/principal of the institution from where he is studying, showing the date of his birth or his exact age as recorded in the institution’s ‘Admission Register’. But the instructions are clear: A candidate would finally need to submit his original matriculation or equivalent certificate before he is admitted to the NDA.

As Vijay Kumar Singh was to appear for his Class X Board examinations being conducted by the Rajasthan Secondary Education Board later that year to provide proof of date of birth he states that his father had a certificate issued from the Officer Commanding of his unit, 14 Rajput Regiment, dated August 3, 1965, submitted to the UPSC before the written examinations that was held in December 1965.

It states: “Certified that according to record of service in respect of IC-3753 Major Jagat Singh maintained in this office, the date of birth of his son Vijay Kumar Singh is May 10, 1951.” Significantly, the year mentioned of his birth is 1951 and not 1950.

Getting into NDA

The young Vijay Kumar Singh then appears for the NDA examinations and subsequently for his Secondary School examinations. In early May 1966, the UPSC writes to him stating that he has been declared successful in the NDA examinations and provisionally admitted to the Academy, subject to furnishing proof of having passed the Class X examination and a medical examination in one of their centres.

On May 11, 1966, Vijay Kumar Singh then clears a medical test done by the AFCME, Delhi, wherein his date of birth is shown as May 10, 1951. His father then writes to the Headmaster of Birla Public School on June 10, 1966 stating that he needs to send proof to the UPSC that his son had passed Class X. His father gives as reference a letter from the UPSC dated June 1, 1966 to Vijay Kumar Singh asking for it. His father marks a copy of the letter to the UPSC branch concerned.

On June 16, 1966, Radha Raman Pathak, the then headmaster, Birla Public School, writes to Jagat Singh stating: “I am happy to inform you that your ward Vijay Kumar Singh has passed in the Secondary School Certificate Examination of 1966 conducted by the Board of Secondary Education, Rajasthan and has managed to get a First Division with distinction in maths.”

The school is also said to have issued a transfer certificate during that period. In the General's writ petition, a duplicate copy of the transfer certificate from the Birla Public School is produced as an annexure which lists his date as May 10, 1951. Curiously, the duplicate copy is issued on October 19, 2011. No date is indicated of when it was originally issued.

On June 18, 1966, the UPSC sends a letter about the discrepancy in the date of birth as compared to what was filled by Vijay Kumar Singh in the original application form. It is not clear whether it was referring to the birth certificate submitted earlier by his father or the one that has just been sent.

Discrepancy found

Sri Krishan, Under Secretary, UPSC, in his letter to Vijay Kumar Singh states: “With reference to your application to the above examination, I am directed to say that you have claimed May 10, 1950 as your date of birth in column 5 of the application where as in the certificate submitted by you, the date of birth is shown as May 10, 1951. You are required to clarify the discrepancy and intimate the correct date of birth.”

Singh in his petition then states that his father wrote to the UPSC on June 20, 1966 enclosing the letter sent by the school that he had successfully cleared the Secondary School Certificate “with distinction in maths”. No mention though is made about the date of birth or reference to the letter of June 18 sent by the UPSC requesting clarification of the discrepancy in the date of birth.

Vijay Kumar Singh clarifies that in response to the letter of the UPSC dated June 18, 1966, he went personally to Delhi and alongwith a letter dated June 24, 1966 submitted a provisional matriculation certificate clarifying that his date of birth is May 10, 1951. The UPSC issued a receipt to him of the letter on June 27, 1966 and he has produced a copy of the receipt in his writ petition.

According to Singh, “As far as I was concerned the UPSC had noted my date of birth as May 10, 1951 even before I was selected for training at the NDA. Had this clarification not been accepted then clearance for me to join the NDA would not have been given.”

When the MoD went into the whole matter last year, the UPSC reported back that it was not able to locate any of the records pertaining to the correspondence with Vijay Kumar Singh or his father, Jagat Singh. Also they were not able to retrieve the personal files of his father which would have had a record of his son's date of birth as these files were destroyed after a certain period of time.

These facts have compounded the General's quest to prove that he had been wronged.

Tomorrow: The Second Big Anomaly





HOME PAGE | Punjab | Haryana | Jammu & Kashmir | Himachal Pradesh | Regional Briefs | Nation | Opinions |
| Business | Sports | World | Letters | Chandigarh | Ludhiana | Delhi |
| Calendar | Weather | Archive | Subscribe | E-mail |