SC upholds govt decision on Army Chief’s age
New Delhi, February 10
As a result of today’s development, Gen Singh’s DoB will stay as May 10, 1950 on Army records, and not as May 10, 1951, as claimed by him. Consequently, he will retire on May 31 this year.
Recording Gen Singh’s statement that “he does not wish to press the matter further,” a Bench comprising Justices RM Lodha and HL Gokhale clarified in its brief order that it was “disposing of” his writ petition “accordingly,” implying that it was neither withdrawn by him nor dismissed by the court.
The Army Chief had come to the SC, challenging two Defence Ministry orders issued on July 21 and 22, 2011 and another by Antony on December 30, 2011, fixing his DoB as May 10, 1950. The age dispute was the result of two branches of the Army maintaining two different DoBs of Gen Singh.
The portion of Antony’s letter withdrawn by the government pertains to the reasons for rejecting his statutory complaint against the Defence Ministry’s decision to maintain his DoB as 1950.
Today’s order was basically the result of the efforts by the Bench to offer an honourable exit route to Gen Singh. In fact, the Bench made it clear during more than two hours of arguments that it wanted to pass an order that would not have any adverse reflection on his conduct, commitment or integrity.
The apex court clarified that it agreed to hear the plea as it did not want to leave it to other forums such as the AFT because of several important aspects involved in the controversy — its ramifications, public and national interest, and the image of the government and the Army Chief.
Senior counsel UU Lalit, who argued for Gen Singh, threw up his hands after the Bench raised a number of probing questions. The all important question that possibly brought about the change in the counsel was as to why was he going back on his commitment given to the government at the time of his last three promotions, including to the post of the Chief of Army Staff, that he would abide by the decision of his higher authorities in matter of his DoB.
“How could you resile from that commitment? We don’t allow even ordinary litigants to go back on their commitments even in arbitration proceedings,” the Bench remarked. Although Gen Singh was also an ordinary litigant in the eyes of law, “We can’t shut eyes to the fact that you are holding such a high office,” the judges noted.
The Bench also asked him as to why he did not take to judicial recourse when the controversy cropped up for the first time a few years ago. It was not proper that he had come to the SC at this stage.
The Bench also pointed out that Gen Singh had left the DoB decision in the hands of the authority after giving it a good thought, and not in a hurry. He had also clarified that he was leaving it to the authorities in the interest of the organisation. The Bench wondered why he was raking up the issue now after rising to the “pinnacle.”
“With your stature and after reaching the highest position and getting all that one could aspire for and having given the commitment, why are you messing up things unnecessarily,” the Bench asked.
“Persons holding such decorated offices should not unnecessarily drag the controversy over age into public domain,” the judges opined. It also pointed out that Gen Singh had “restated and reiterated” that the authorities would take the final call on the DoB, but was reopening the issue “at this final stage”
The Bench said Gen Singh did not assert on the DoB at the time of the last three promotions as he would have “exposed yourself to some disciplinary action” then.
Several letters written by Gen Singh “do reflect that you have left on them to take a final call on your DoB,” the court noted.
The judiciary could not quash the government order declaring his DoB as 1950 unless it suffered from any perversity and required to be corrected by the court under the extraordinary jurisdiction available under the Article 32, which Gen Singh had sought to invoke, the Bench observed.
The Bench said the UPSC record and the Army List were the crucial documents to determine the DoB and both were against Gen Singh’s claim. While the UPSC form, filled in by him in his own handwriting, showed 1950 as DoB, the Army List also showed the same date. Lalit, however, said UPSC was bound to correct the DoB as per the matriculation certificate, which showed 1951 as date of birth. Besides the matriculation certificate, his client had also provided certificates from his school headmaster and the Army regiment of his father in support of the claim that the DoB was 1951.
The Bench then pointed out that all “entry-level” documents pertaining to the National Defence Academy (NDA), Indian Military Academy (IMA) and the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) showed his DoB as 1950. At this, Lalit said the admission form for the NDA was filled in by the teacher of his client as he was just 14 years old then and this mistake had to be repeated in the IMA and the UPSC to avoid confusion in the absence of the matriculation certificate which was not available then.
During the arguments, Gen Singh offered to quit immediately if the court declared his DoB as 1950. “Declare 1951 as the date of birth, I will go within 48 hours. I will go voluntarily or put in my papers,” counsel Lalit said.
At some other point, Lalit clarified that his client would retire on May 31 this year even if his DoB was taken as 1951. Lalit pleaded with the court to clarify that having the DoB as 1950 on the Army records should not create problems for Gen Singh as his DoB was 1951 on the passport, the permanent account number (PAN) issued by the Income Tax Department and some other documents. The Bench, however, clarified it was not in a position to do so as Gen Singh did not even want the court to record in its order that the SC was upholding the July 2011 orders of the Defence Ministry.