Tuesday, January 17, 2012

If General Singh was born in 1951, would he have become General at all?

General VK Singh, the high decorated Chief of Army Staff has decided to take his struggle for deciding his real date of birth to the Supreme Court. In doing so, he has challenged the Ministry of Defence which decides matters of senior level postings, retirements, etc. The facts of the matter are a little unclear – and the Supreme Court will no doubt look into them. But there is one thing the General may want to keep in mind. That if his word is taken, then maybe he would have never made it to General at all. Mor on this later.

The basic controversy has arisen because the first UPSC form that General Singh signed (but not filled) when he applied to the Army mentions 1951 as the year of birth. Apparently the practice in those days was for the clerk to fill the form and the candidate to merely sign it. One would normally assume that the candidate would at least look once at the form before signing. Any error would be caught immediately and the error rectified there and then. If the practice was that candidates didn’t usually look at the form before signing, then by now, we should have had many hundreds or even thousands of cases of errors – and that experience should have provided us the precedent to resolve such problems.

The primary and most relevant documents that matter in proving the date of birth are the birth certificate issued by the hospital at the time of birth and the school matriculation certificate issued upon completion of SSC. Both mention 1951 as the year of birth, proving the General’s claim. These documents have been filed in the Adjutant General’s office which maintains all official records.

Unfortunately, the Military Secretary’s office (Ministry of Defence) continues to have the UPSC joining form and 1950 as its official record. There is thus a conflict between the records maintained by the Army and the concerned government ministry. Till the Supreme Court decides the matter, we will not know what the truth is. But as a result of the anomaly, an unnecessary controversy has broken out. And it’s become political. The opposition has accused the government of mishandling the situation and compromising “national security” (how I cannot understand).

When the Supreme Court hears the appeals, it will no doubt settle the age controversy one way or the other. And in the best traditions of respecting judicial verdicts, both the General and the Indian Government will abide by its verdict.

For now, let us assume that the General is right about his age. In that case, it is very likely that the General would never have become General at all. He would have retired as a Lieutenant General and the controversy would not even have arisen. Why do I say this?

Here’s why. As is well known, the Indian Army – just like all other bureaucratic arms of the government – relies strongly on age in deciding postings and promotions. In fact, bureaucrats are usually referred to as “batch of 1970” and so on depending on when they got inducted into the IAS. Likewise, IPS officers also follow a strict seniority principle in senior level appointments. There’s a corollary to this age principle. Unless there is a strong reason, a senior (by age) officer is not superceded by a younger officer. Hence each year matters and usually the batch become the benchmark for deciding who goes ahead and who stays behind in crunch situations. There may be other factors that come into play in deciding which officer within the same batch goes ahead, but batch seniority is the primary criterion in deciding promotions. This batch seniority principle is followed throughout the entire bureaucracy; each officer aware of the impact of this on his/her terminal designation at the time of retirement.

If the Military Secretary’s Office had updated the General’s records to reflect the correct date of birth, then it is entirely possible that the General may never have been made General at all. In fact, the fact that he was considered a year older must have played a role in him getting the job compared to his peers. Had it been known that he was a year younger in reality, it is likely that someone a year older would have got the job. In that case, General Singh would have retired as Lieutenant General. In fact, all through his career, he would have reached each position a year later than he actually did. It would be very unfair if the General got the advantage of older age all through his life, but when it came to retirement, he got the advantage of being a year younger.

The real truth is that this looks like a case of a genuine error in the records maintained by the Army and the Military Secretary’s office. This issue should have been sorted out earlier, but if wasn’t done, then it surely cannot be taken up now. The General himself has said that he doesn’t want a year’s extension. All he wants is for his word to be trusted. I think there is no reason for us to disbelieve him…..and that’s where the matter should end….

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