M A I N   N E W S

Tribune analysis
Army Chief’s Age Row-Part 5

A matter of Honour vs Propriety
The General gives his ‘word’
By Raj Chengappa

File photo of VK Singh Chief of Army Staff (right) with AK Antony, Union Defence Minister
File photo of VK Singh Chief of Army Staff (right) with AK Antony, Union Defence Minister

Personal and Confidential:
From: Lt Gen VK Singh,
GoC, HQ 2 Corp,
To: Lt Gen PR Gangadharan,
Military Secretary, IHQ of MoD (Army)
Dated 31 Jan 2008.
Dear General,
1. Ref Para 5 and 6 of your letter
No 36808/DO/MS-8B dt 21 Jan 08.
2. Date as mentioned is accepted, Regards, Yours’ sincerely,
signed VK Singh.

This letter that General Vijay Kumar Singh, Chief of Army Staff, wrote four years ago is being regarded as an important piece of evidence by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) when the General’s writ petition challenging the Union of India order over the matter of his correct date of birth comes up for hearing in the Supreme Court. The letter came after a series of exchanges between the MoD, Gangadharan, the then Military Secretary (MS) and Singh, who was then a Lieutenant General and General Officer Commanding of the 2 Corps stationed in Ambala.

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

Part 4 of The Tribune series on the messy row over the Army Chief’s age, talked of how Singh acquiesced under pressure to accept his date of birth as 10 May 1950 instead of 10 May 1951. This was after 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 as Army Commander if he persisted with “an attitude apparently questionable and not reflective of the qualities expected from any Army Commander.” This came after Singh reopened the issue of his date of birth in December 2007, having remained silent for more than a year after his promotion as Corps Commander.

It was in April 2006 that the MoD, when it received a proposal from Army HQ to promote Singh from a Major General to Lieutenant General, had for the first time pointed out that while his Annual Confidential Records (ACRs) showed 10 May 1951 as his date of birth, in another Army record it was entered as 10 May 1950. With the Army HQ promising the MoD that it would sort out the issue, Singh got his promotion and was posted to the 2 Corps in June 2006.

Soon after, Lt Gen Richard Khare, the then MS, in his letter of 21 August 2006 formally rejected his plea to have his date of birth corrected in the records citing mainly an MoD rule that no such change could be considered after a lapse of two years of an officer being commissioned in the armed forces.

However, with Singh raking up his date of birth issue again, Julka sent out a warning to Army HQ in January 2008 that the MoD would reconsider the proposal to promote him as Army Commander. That triggered a flurry of signals from Army HQ to Singh at Ambala to get him to give a written commitment that he accepted his date of birth as 10 May 1950.

First, PR Gangadharan, the MS, in a letter on 21 January 2008, formally rejected his plea to reconcile his date of birth in the MS record which had it as 10 May 1950 and the AG’s Branch which had it as 10 May 1951. Gangadharan’s six paragraph letter detailed the reasons as to why his request was being turned down with Para 5 stating “In view of the above, we are constrained to maintain your official date of birth as 10 May 1950 and the same may kindly be reflected in all your records/documents. The AG’s Branch is being accordingly intimated to amend the records being maintained by them.” And Para 6 asked Singh to, “Please acknowledge and confirm acceptance.”

After a telephonic conversation with Deepak Kapoor, the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS), who apparently briefed him about the consequences if he remained adamant about having his date of birth changed, Singh signaled on 24 January 2008, “ whatever decision taken in the org. interest is acceptable to me.”

Army HQ was not satisfied with such a vague commitment. So within hours of receiving Singh’s cable, Maj Gen K. Purshotam, the Deputy (MS)X, sent a terse cable stating, “response vide ibid sig. not in conformity with response asked for vide para 5 and 6 of letter dt 21 Jan 2008. If reply not recd by 1000 hrs on 25 Jan 08 action deemed appropriate will be taken.”

While referring to this cable, Singh in his statutory complaint to the MoD, stated that, “This was done as the COAS had ordered me during the course of his discussion to only say/write that I accept the date as desired by MS Branch. He did not want me to write that this acceptance was due to his order to me.”

The MS Branch though was busy defending Singh to prevent the MoD from rejecting his promotion. Gangadharan, the MS wrote to Julka on 25 January 2008 that, “the officer (VK Singh) did not have any malafide intention in continuing to write his date of birth as 10 May 1951.”

And that, “It is the considered view of this HQ that the officer is not blameworthy. He has all the attributes and credentials and deserves to be considered for the appointment of GOC-in-C/HQ as already recommended…this has the approval of COAS."

Julka then called for a detailed inquiry, “to find out the correct date of birth of the officer immediately in consultation with the AG’s Branch.” AG’s Branch came back with an ambiguous reply on 30 January 2008 for the first time indicating that within the AG directorates itself two sets of dates were being maintained. The note by Lt Gen K. R. Rao, DG (MP and PS) in the AG’s Branch, stated that while the Manpower Planning (MP) Directorate had Singh's date of birth as 10 May 1951, the Recruiting Directorate had it as 10 May 1950.

Forcing his hand

The AG's Branch ambiguous reply appears to have been communicated to Singh who wrote a letter on the same day now stating, “in accordance with the discussion of date, I will mention the date of birth as directed.” Gangadharan promptly wrote to Julka informing him that after, “a detailed examination in consultation with AG's branch” he gave reasons why 10 May 1950 should remain as the date of birth and ending that “the officer has now again affirmed that his date of birth would be indicated as 10 May 1950.” He reiterated that Singh had “no malafide intention.”

But apparently Julka in consultation with the then Defence Secretary Vijay Singh was unconvinced with the wordings of Singh's commitment to “mention the date of birth as directed.” That was communicated to Singh by Army HQ. He reluctantly wrote back on 31 January 2008, “Date as mentioned is accepted.” His promotion to the rank of Army Commander was then approved and he was appointed GOC-in-C, Eastern Command on 1 March 2008.

In his statutory complaint to the MoD of 26 August 2011, Singh gives the reasons why he finally acceded, stating, “In the highest traditions of the Indian army, I had no option but to comply with the orders and command of my superior officer as also assurances of my superior officer with the hope that he would bring the issue to a logical and ethical conclusion by accepting facts.”

This would not be the only time that he would put down in writing that he had accepted his date of birth as 1950. It would happen again just before he was appointed as Chief of Army Staff. But not before Singh would revive the issue of having his date of birth “reconciled” in the Army records.

Raising it again

On 1 July, 2008, he wrote a personal letter to Kapoor, stating, “I have mulled over the entire handling of the issue in great detail. I must also confess to my Chief that I have been greatly hurt and pained by the aspersions cast on my integrity and military reputation, which we all jealously guard.” He went into details as to why he thought the verification process with regard to his date of birth was faulty. He ended by stating, “I would humbly request my Chief that necessary justice must be done and the damage to my integrity must be taken care of.”

With Kapoor apparently not responding, on 25 December 2008, he wrote to Lt Gen Avadesh Prakash, the then Military Secretary, stating, “My dear Avadesh, …Please let me know the procedure and methodology followed by MS Branch for verification of date of birth as also how my date of my birth has been determined by MS Branch.”

On 15 January 2009, Prakash gave a detailed reply outlining the procedure and informing why his date had finally been determined as 10 May 1950. Singh was back with another letter on 11 February 2009 punching holes in Prakash’s argument. On 20 March 2009, Singh sent another letter to Prakash enclosing correspondence with the UPSC over correction of his date of birth and stating that his commission was provisional till he submitted his matriculation certificate.

Prakash’s reply of 13 April 2009 is to the point and states “that your commissioning was not provisional for any reason.” He then pointed out, “vied your letter of 31 January 2008, date of birth ie 10 May 1950 has been accepted by you. Therefore, this issue stands closed.”

Quest to become Chief

On August 20, 2009, the MS Branch issued a notice of retirement to Singh informing him that he would retire on 31 May 2010 on attaining the compulsory retirement age for Lieutenant Generals at 60. That age was calculated on the basis of his date of birth being 10 May 1950. MoD pointed out in its order of December 2011 that there is ‘no record to show that this notice was contested” by Singh after that.

By October, with Deepak Kapoor retiring on March 31, 2010, as the senior most ranking Lieutenant General, Singh is in the zone of consideration to succeed him as COAS. His bio-data is forwarded by the Deputy MS, Eastern Command, to the Army HQ on 23 October, 2009 indicating that his date of birth as 10 May, 1950. With MoD clearly upset with Singh raking up the age issue again there are indications that it may come in the way of him being appointed as the next Chief of Army Staff.

On 12 November 2009, Singh suo moto wrote to Deepak Kapoor, stating,

“My dear Chief,

1. I have learnt of some misgivings and doubts being raised on my commitment given on my date of birth as per your directions. You are well aware that I have not gone back on this commitment.

2. In July'08 when I wrote to you to seek justice and elaboration of MS Branch constraints, you had told me that this case is closed and will not be discussed. I have taken your directions in letter and spirit. My subsequent correspondence with the MS Branch has been on the verification process which I wanted to know for my own satisfaction. After the MS wrote saying that this function is of AG Branch, I have treated this issue as closed. I am sure you are well aware of these facts.

3. I once again reiterate my commitment to you stands and any doubt or misgivings need to be dispelled.

With best regards, Your sincerely, Signed VK Singh.”

This would be the second time that Singh would put on record that he regarded the date of birth “issue as closed” even averring that, “ that I have not gone back on this commitment. “ In his statutory complaint to the MoD of August 2011, Singh maintained that, “This letter in no way was an acceptance of any kind and was written as part of culmination of my correspondence with the MS Branch.” A stand he reiterated in his writ petition.

The MoD though in its order of 30 December 2011 rejecting Singh's statutory complaint, pointed out, “The commitment was given not only to the then COAS but separately to the Government through the Defence Secretary by way of a NOO (Not on Original) Endorsement.” Essentially it meant that he had marked a copy to the Defence Secretary without indicating it in his letter to Kapoor.

The MoD further pointed out, “ While processing the selection of the next COAS this ibid letter was placed before the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet and it was mentioned that the complainant had accepted his date of birth as 10 May 1950… the position now to be taken by complainant of distancing himself from this commitment is, therefore, not tenable.”

Three commitments

The MoD then observed, “Thus at three stages ie at the time of his appointment as Corps Commander in 2006, Army Commander in 2008 and COAS in 2009-10, Army HQ confirmed his date of birth as 10 May, 1950. The complainant had also accepted this as his date of birth in 2008 and 2009.”

If the MoD thought the matter would rest after Singh had given his “commitment” it would be mistaken. For not long after he was appointed as Chief of Army Staff on 
31 March 2010, General Vijay Kumar Singh would bring the issue of his date of birth on centre-stage again.

Part 6: A matter of integrity





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