The General Challenge

Disclaimer: The dispute between Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singh and the GOI, on his date of birth, is a legal matter. I am not a lawyer. This post is thus less about law and more about kite flying!

Facts of case

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get to the crux of the issue. In brief, COAS Gen V.K. Singh’s case was that the only mistake he ever made was an innocuous one – at the time of filling his NDA form he entered an erroneous DOB. Instead of 1951 he mentioned 1950. However, at every conceivable subsequent occasion, he made an effort to get it corrected. So much so, that between 1971 (when he was commissioned in the Army) and 2006, (when he was promoted to Lt. Gen rank) this issue never arose since he believed it was settled.  It was only in 2006 that the issue rose afresh and all written undertakings he gave later (total three) to abide by 1950 DOB were taken under duress.

It was basis these “facts” that Gen Singh persisted in his efforts and went as far as the SC. He had all possible documents, hitherto considered sacrosanct in determining DOB – birth certificate, matriculation certificate, Passport, etc – in his favor. The Supreme Court opined on 10th Feb – and opined that Gen Singh basically had no case. 

I try and understand why the SC so ruled.

Implications of SC judgment

Consider for a moment the implications of the ruling:  the SC has ruled that if you fill a wrong DOB, and the system takes time in correcting it (as most Indian systems do), then irrespective of any documentation to the contrary, the erroneous DOB will stand. Infact, the SC has set a precedent where backing up your claims on DOB with documentary proof may not be necessary if you can manipulate the system to lie low for a few years (2-3 years as per most service rules during which DOB can be changed). So theoretically, enterprising people in Bihar, for example, could enter their DOB say 5 years lower than what it actually is, and with connivance of officers concerned, render any documentation to the contrary as irrelevant. 5 years of extra service gained!

Not only this, the SC has opened another box (Pandora’s if you like) – arguably a person could now have two DOB’s – one for service matters and one the real DOB. Yes, DOB is not a matter of opinion but a FACT, but SC has said that two versions of the same fact could conceivably exist. It’s like saying 2+2 could have two different answers depending on context!

Before this SC ruling, every court in India, from HC to SC itself have ruled that birth certificate and / or matriculation certificate ARE the only legal documents to be relied upon in determining a person’s DOB. In this case, the SC has chosen to overlook them. And set a dangerous precedent.

The question is why? Why has the SC taken a stance which flies in face of logic, visibly looks like a judgment against the merits of the case? Why was the SC risking ruling in a case against settled principles of law, going even to the extent of  inventing such concepts as “at threshold” etc?

Why did the SC so rule? Civil – military relations

In TV debates and in print articles a majority of retired military men have backed up Gen Singh in his fight. A fair number of them, though, have also opposed his move, calling it personal battle etc. However, I have not seen even one retired civil officer or bureaucrat backing up Gen Singh’s case. Each and every retired civilian officer who appeared in the debate, on TV or in print, vehemently opposed Gen Singh dragging this case this far. This I argue is not incidental. It is at the crux of the issue – civil military relations.

Consider the region in and around India and the relationship between civilians and military. While we naturally focus on Pakistan and how the military has wrecked the democracy there, consider other countries in the region. Nepal – where Maoists / military have made a mess of democracy  ;   Bhutan – where the King derives his power from the military he commands  ;  Bangladesh – a country with history of coups, one failed as recently as a fortnight back ; Myanmar – ruled by a military junta for three decades  ;  Sri Lanka – excesses of military in LTTE phase, still considerable say in power  ;  Maldives – a coup in progress even as you read this. That makes up the entire SAARC.

But let’s look a little further and beyond:  the Middle East – most, if not all countries are ruled by despots there and the military serves as their private protection force rather than as national defense force. Be it Iran or Saudi Arabia, Syria or Egypt – no ruler in any of the countries can survive if he does not have military on his side. Infact, regimes change when military changes side. In the much famous Egyptian revolution last year, Hosni Mubarak only quit when the military deserted him and not because of protests alone  ;  China – though not a classical military dictatorship, but the head of PLA is an important member of the ruling decision making body, even in matters of civil policy.

Look around and it is almost surreal – there is not one country within sight of India (Japan in East and Israel in West are the nearest) who have such a classical distinction, as in India, between the civil rulers and the men in uniform. In every other country of consequence in and around us (leaving aside city states like Singapore in SE Asia), the military either plays a very important role in civil domestic matters (as in China) or a direct role in all civil matters (as in Pakistan).  What is the norm in Europe and US is such a glaring exception in our part of the world.

Now under these circumstances if our civilian rulers, and this includes the much maligned bureaucracy, are paranoid about maintaining civilian supremacy, can we really fault them?

If the SC had ruled in favor of Gen Singh, a precedent would have been set where the Chief of Army could defy the government of the day and still stand. Thus emboldened, maybe not Gen Singh himself, but a future Chief could have tried to broaden the envelope – defy the government on some other issue and hope to stand, because a precedent had been set.  Maybe a future chief would defy the government on a more substantiative issue with far greater implications. Would the SC have liked to set such a precedent and set to peril, the path of civilian supremacy?

But when we say civilian supremacy, who do we mean? Do we mean only the elected politicians (as commonly understood), or also the bureaucrats (as rued by men in uniform)? Or do we also include the SC in the concept of civilian supremacy?  Is not the SC, in all its majesty, as the final word in most matters, at the very top of the civilian hierarchy? Consider – in the Lokpal debate although there were some apprehensions on whether PM should be under Lokpal or not, but most agreed. However on judiciary (as in SC), there was total unanimity that it must not be under Lokpal, lest it’s independence be compromised. Everyone realises that the SC is at the very heart of civilian supremacy. Would the SC, then, have liked to set a precedent which could have imperiled its own supremacy at a later date? Because whenever the equation between civilians and military tilts in favor of the military, the courts of the land become but just a tool (think Pakistan, think Maldives or even think China).

The SC, I argue, was actually ruling in favor of civilian supremacy, even at risk of overlooking merits of the case. The SC was ruling to preserve its own supremacy. As about unsettling long settled principles of law in determining DOB, it’s a trivial matter. A future larger bench, in a different case, could reset it right. By then, The General challenge would have long been gone.

Is this a good thing , in broader scheme of things? I leave that for you to decide.

(PS: Bihar is mentioned in these columns only as an illustration and no disrespect meant to people from Bihar).

15 thoughts on “The General Challenge

  1. Narendra says:

    Something isn’t right i felt while reading your blog. In India, there’s no military dominant culture, history reveals that in spite fighting two three wars. Kind of master-slave relationship, going well so far! In gen Singh’s DoB case, don’t think any distant possibility or threat to civilian supremacy. He has been perceived to be overall honest man.

    I can guess there could be tussle between gen Singh and Govt, which is broadly corrupt, over some defense deals or something like that, leading the fight so far.

    But I fail to understand, despite so many solid facts, SC dismissing general Singh’s petition. It’s an enigma to me! But anything can happen in a country where all it’s pillars dipped into corruption head to toe.


    • Akhilesh Mishra says:

      As I said, the SC went out of it’s way to rule in govt’s favour despite overwhelming documentary evidence to the contrary. THus my conclusion as the only logical one.


  2. Col J Sharotri (rtd) says:

    Yes, the Hon’ble SC has made certain observations which do indicate “civil supremacy” syndrem. Also d SC observed dat govt has treated d General with all due respect, which is not true because d General was treated with blatant arrogance n contempt, most glaring point being the MOD letter (directly) to Adj Gen(Army hq) directing him to change d COAS DOB to1950, and an another letter sent undated(?).Does such treatiment to the highest ranking soldier of the Indian Army,amount to “due respect” ? Such treatment to Indian Army(Armed Forces) perhaps emanates from the fact that our Neta-Babu combine is confident dat unlike odr countries especially our neighbours, Indian Army is utmostly loyal to the govt of the day n will nevr violate d constitution in that regard. During one of d TV debates one participant (a former FS Offr)even said, “Well, Gen should know what happend to Admiral Bhagwat, after all it is democracy where orders of Civ govt can not be challenged”, that sums up d concept of “civilian rule” in our country. But, does it ogr well for the country?, dissaticfd soldiers !
    However, I am also disappointed with the General withdrawing his petiton on the coxing of /fear of adverse verdict of the SC. He should have obtained d verdict of d SC and if it were against him(as it were to be) the General shud have resignerd immediately(within minutes). Now not doing so and continuing till 31 May, is nothing but bailing out the govt which illtreated him and himiltd him.They are now “showing”respect and faith “in him only to seek his continuation in service till May end so that they can have , as was planned by them, d man of their “choice” as the new Army Chief. Gen VK Singh would restore his integrity n honour onlyby quitting which would (also) perhaps unsettle d govt’s malafide move….?


    • Jayaram Bhat says:

      The fact that Defence Minister ( purportedly under advice from MOD officials) has adhered to the “Official” version(DOB-1950)even to the point of confronting Army chief at SC even after his willingness to resign if Govt accepts his contention (DOB-1951) , speaks Volumes ! Given similar controversies (Gujrat Riots, ISRO Chief’s Controversy etc) especially during progress of 2G Spectrum Case, makes us feel that UPA-2 Govt was hell bent on diverting Nation’s attention & Media focus away from SC pursuing Cases pertaining to investigation / disclosures into Overseas’ Black Money holders !


    • Akhilesh Mishra says:

      Col (Retd) Sharotri Sir,
      Thanks for reading the blog. You make very valid points. The SC could not have been blind to the glaringly obvious mistreatment of the General by the govt. Yet, it choose to rule the way it did. That is why the conclusion I makes seems inescapable.
      Yes I agree with you – Gen Singh should resign forthwith else his will diminish himself each day.


      • This civil supremacy thesis is basically an ostrich egg. In Islamic nations all around us, sovereignty is vested in the Almighty, hence the question of civil supremacy does not even arise. These Islamic states are incompatible to sustain democracy without external help. Israel and Japan are democracy because of the non-Islamic nature of their constitution. Coming back to India, politician are basically “jaaheel” (as a very respected man said) to military maters (particularly if they have Oxbridge degrees, not of Military Science). And babus, their arrogance is directly proportional to their incomplete with a left-wing stink. KGB actually thought India as a case study in 80s, to young recruits, on how to penetrate a foreign government bureaucratic machinery (as they had done it in the 70s). Maldives is the most recent proof that the Civil administration is ill-suited to handle military matters. The civil administration cannot take care of 200 rebellious policemen and 80 officers with a 1.3 Mn strong Army, they should kept as far away from supremacy as possible. In the far-north another crisis is growing in Kashmir (Report: ). One thing should be made clear getting ruled by a fellow countryman as a dictator is far better then get ruled by foreigners. Throughout the entire history of India every time the incompetent civil administration has mismanaged the Army we have had a national catastrophe in the country. In the face of an eminent central Asian invasion of India Pusyamitra Sunga actually had to assassinate the civilian emperor and cease command of the nation, although it was too late to save the western frontiers which collapsed his intervention into politics saved the nation from getting overrun by foreigners.


        • Akhilesh Mishra says:

          Your thesis of Islamic nations as being inherently unable to sustain democracy is interesting and certainly with proof. Very exceptions exist – Turkey and Algeria maybe. Even they are not perfect democracies. However, you miss the case of China.


          • Severe setback at the hand of the Russians made Turks start to think of the faults in their system. Court intrigues started to become regular and more intense due to Muslim practice of polygamy and marrying close relatives. These women started to play an active political role, however due to fundamental restriction imposed on women by Islam, they lacked the skills required to govern. Like the Mughals (post Humayun to Shah-Jahan), the Turks originally were very innovative and enterprising people (and i am not going into the brutalities of either). Sultan Selim the third started a reforms process, necessity of which was apparent by then due to the military setbacks. A century before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was called the Sick man of Europe. After the defeat and disintegration at the end of World War I and occupation of Istanbul, the intellectual debate conclusively ended in the acceptance of the fact, that Islam is incapable of sustaining and securing a modern state. Hence the Republic of Turkey rejected political directions of Islam. Thus they are more close to democracy then other Muslim states. Algeria due to French rule and embracing of left-wing atheist theories got rid of regressive Islamism. I am not clubbing China into this discussion on primitive societies of Islam, they deserve better. China and it’s peripheral nations deserve a discussion on their own right. That would be the bureaucratic-Imperial Model.


  3. Let me begin by saying that I do not consider Gen VK Singh is dishonest or his integrity is questionable.
    But I do feel that accepting the court’s direction, is indicative of the fact that the great General has been coerced the 3rd time. He has twice accepted 1950 date under “coercion” and this is the third time. The honourable thing for him would be to put in his papers and prove his point. I am sure SC and Govt would not mind that.


  4. When you say he accepted the dob under duress – to me it seems the General is someone who through out his career has been desperate for rank and position. He accepted the wrong date of birth because a higher rank was on offer. Now that his tenure is coming to an end he kicks up this issue of DOB again. Should he have should more intregrity at some initial stages of his career and out his foot down after all the duress was not that anyone was holding a gun to his head but was the lure of a higher rank


  5. Debarshi Bhattacharya says:

    Wonder why Nandan Nilekani hasnot spoken yet!!?? If only we had a unique ID and presumably, a unique DOB (which might change by a day, given the 00:00 confusion, which makes us miss our flights occassionally, and definitely not by 12 months), Gen. Singh couldn’t have given whatever DOB proof he gave to get into NDA in the first place.
    Working backwards, if he was born in 1951, which I am sure he might have (:-)), he couldn’t have got into NDA – hence, 1950 was convenient at that moment of time. Going ahead, he couldn’t have picked up his ranks and most importantly, the General’s rank had he not been the most senior officer at every gate for every rank he picked up. Again, 1950 seems to be a lucky year! 1951 appears most wanted only before 31 May 2012!
    On the integrity and personal honor piece, since it is “personal”, things should have been kept that way. There is always a conflict when one’s honor comes at the cost someone else’s. In this case, there were 3 “someone else'” – the MOD, the SC and the Army itself. A shrewd strategist should have been advised to shoot at fewer adversaries. Post retirement, at least the Army is out of the way.


    • Akhilesh Mishra says:

      Excellently and crisply argued ( as expected from you) 🙂

      A few points:
      1. Gen Singh would have still been eligible to appear in NDA exams even if he had filled up 1951 as per then age eligibility rules.

      2. Promotion by time scale or years of service (and thus seniority) only happens upto Lt. Col rank. After that there is a selection grade promotion (thus only on merit) to Colonel. However, if you miss this selection grade, then too one can become a Colonel after 5 years under time scale. ( but seniority would obviously be lost). This is though the last of time scale promotions.

      Beyond this there is NO time scale. Thus at each level after Colonel – to Brigadier, Major General and Lt. General there is a merit based selection process. That is why, about 70% of each passing out NDA batch finish their career at Colonel level only. Only the few rise upto Brigdaier and beyond. Thus it is a myth that seniority plays any role in one becoming a coomander ( as in Chief of Eastern Command etc ). Once a commander though ( after 4 rounds of merit based promotion), the seniormost becomes Cheif. Sounds fair to me !

      3. About Gen Singh taking on 3 “someone else” – excellent point. ONe man cannot hope to take on his own institution (Army), the boss of the institution (MOD) and the super boss (SC) and yet hope to win !


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