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Rediff.com  » News » Army chief's age issue: Government loses face either way

Army chief's age issue: Government loses face either way

January 05, 2012 09:48 IST

For the armed forces, for whom their chiefs have been the sole leader, the age controversy has eroded their confidence in our State, feels Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

It's time, he says, for the defence minister and the army chief to sit down and decide the issue based on legally tenable evidence.

There is a lot at stake in New Delhi for the prestige of the nation's most respected institution: The Indian Army.

The issue of General V K Singh's age is not just an issue of the government accepting that he was born in 1951 as per his school leaving certificate which remains the basic document for proof of age, but it is also a case of the entire institution of the armed forces watching from the sidelines how the government deals with the man who heads their million plus army.

The general has undoubtedly been a revered leader in every appointment that he has served in the army and boasts a fabulous record of service. That he was destined to be the army chief someday was an opinion entertained by his colleagues even when he was a brigadier.

The controversy of age has come to the fore repeatedly in the past, even when he was being appointed army commander of the Eastern Command. With our system of appointing the senior-most army commander as army chief on the army chief's retirement, by and large, he was already in line for the next chief then.

A lot was expected from General Singh when he took over as army chief. Hugely popular in the organisation, as army commander he had led a study to define the contours of transformation that the army requires to undertake. However, there has been very little news of the transformation contemplated while there has been a deluge of reports centered on the age controversy. The episode has been a setback to all but perhaps a few who have always enjoyed an unsavoury spectacle unfolding.

The issue of the army chief's age also influences the succession chain. Should the army chief retire early, Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, currently the army commander, Eastern Command, is the most likely candidate to become the next army chief.

However, should the ministry of defence accept the army chief's contention regarding his age, it would be Lieutenant General K T Parnaik, army commander, Northern Command, who could take over the reins.

A lack of trust between the army headquarters and the ministry of defence has existed for decades before the current model of the integrated HQ of the ministry of defence was put in place. The current model has failed to bring in the integration desired, nor has any effort been made to further joint functioning between the ministry and the three services.

In effect, the ministry works with minimal representation from the services. For synergy between the military and the politico-bureaucratic combine to be genuinely operative, trust is a big factor. The age episode, as it gets played out in public, erodes the trust even further.

As far as army officers are concerned, a large majority of them feel their chief must get his due. Never have officers of the forces held the bureaucracy in high esteem. But for the odd defence minister like George Fernandes, who made repeated trips to the Siachen Glacier and, rarely, if ever, combined his visits to military establishments with any political itinerary, none have ever even tried to earn any respect from the rank and file soldier.

For the men and women in armed forces, for whom their chiefs have been the sole leader, the age imbroglio has only eroded their confidence in our State. If we do have a case of the chief resigning now, as a lot of press reports suggest, it would definitely alienate the rank and file of the defence forces.

With all facts of the case being surely available, it's time for the defence minister and the army chief to sit across the table and decide the issue based on legally tenable evidence.

The minister must realise that the government loses face, either way. However, if his decision is an honest one, it will at least be a display of moral courage and uprightness for a ministry surely in need of a more positive image.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)