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Army chief's age: A needless controversy

September 05, 2011 18:22 IST

A chief lodging a 'statutory complaint' sends a very wrong signal to the rank and file of the service.  Does India need a spectacle like this? Even more dangerously, this also signals the breakdown of communication at the highest levels of the defence ministry, says Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd)

The recent controversy about the 'legal' age of the present army chief is rather disturbing and entirely avoidable. One thought that a government that had just recently tied itself in knots during an agitation led by an ex-soldier would be more prudent! It is indeed disturbing that the army chief has lodged a 'statutory complaint' in regard to his date of birth.

It is akin to a sitting Supreme Court judge petitioning the Supreme Court over some personal grievance! For the army chief himself is the authority of appeal for justice within the army through the 'non statutory complaint'.

This bit is for those not knowledgeable about the armed forces! The issue of age is crucial in a service career. With every increase in rank; the age of retirement also changes. As a corollary, if one does not get a chance for a promotion to a certain rank, at certain age, irrespective of merit and good record, one retires!

There have been cases of many very capable generals never making it to chief or even army commander! Adding a personal note, this author took a decision to retire prematurely (among one of the reasons) that give age and rank, there was no chance for getting beyond one star rank! Having said that, not just the age but even date of birth becomes crucial when it comes to the very top post. This is so because like in the case of the Supreme Court, the government has been following the policy/practice of appointing the senior-most serving general as the chief, though there is no compulsion to do so!  Thus if the incumbent chief gets ten months more to serve, then some of the present generals retire without even being considered for the top post. It is here the 'politics' of extensions and manipulation comes in! In case of bureaucracy, many times the government gets out of the jam by creating a new post -- we have the cases of several 'additional chief secretaries'. But imagine an army with an 'additional chief of army staff'.

A vast majority of the officers and men retire honourably without ever lodging the non-statutory or statutory complaint in their entire career.   

Administration by rules or whims?

The present army chief is an alumnus of National Defence Academy. A simple exercise in googling the UPSC rules gives out the rule position very clearly. I quote,

"The date of birth accepted by the commission is that entered in the matriculation or secondary school leaving certificate or in a certificate recognised by an Indian University as equivalent to matriculation or in an extract from a register of matriculates maintained by a university which must be certified by the proper authority of the university or in the higher secondary or an equivalent examination certificates."

"No other document relating to age like horoscopes, affidavits, birth extracts from municipal corporation, service records and the like will be accepted."

Note 1: Candidates should note that only the date of birth as recorded in the matriculation/higher secondary examination certificate or an equivalent certificate available on the date of submission of applications will be accepted by the commission and no subsequent request for its change will be considered or granted.

Note 2: Candidates should also note that once a date of birth has been claimed by them and entered in the records of the commission for the purpose of admission to an examination, no change will be allowed subsequently or at and subsequent examination on any ground whatsoever.

Note 3: The candidates should exercise due care while entering their date of birth in column 8 of the application form for the examination. If on verification at any subsequent stage any variation is found in their date of birth from the one entered in their matriculation or equivalent examination certificate, disciplinary action will be taken against them by the commission under the rules."

From the public sources it appears that the army chief is drawing attention to the date of birth in his matriculation certificate. That the 'other' date was wrongly filled is a failing for which either the record should have been corrected or the general should have been dismissed as a cadet. It is ridiculous in the extreme that this matter has become controversial when he has served the country for 40 odd years with distinction!

It is not known to this author whether the chief had raised this issue earlier or not. If he has then he is on solid legal ground. It should be noted that the 'statutory complaint' is open to judicial scrutiny (non-statutory complaint is not). Thus even if the ministry turns down the complaint, the chief has the option of going to the judiciary!

The army like any other organisation has its own bad apples and needs an independent 'outside' authority to make sure that nepotism and favouritism does not rule the roost. This job was being carried out effectively most of the time by the ministry in a fair manner. I do recall that the officers often preferred a defence ministry arbitration in intra service disputes since it was seen as a neutral and fair agency.

What appears in this instance is that the ministry is either ill advised or is taking sides. Both are disastrous as it affects the 'institution' of the army chief.  Of seminal importance is protection of the dignity of the institution. A chief lodging a 'statutory complaint' sends a very wrong signal to the rank and file of the service.

Does India need a spectacle like this? Even more dangerously, this also signals the breakdown of communication at the highest levels of the defence ministry.

Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd)