army chief controversy

Why one of the messiest chapters in Indian army history refuses to be closed

The defence ministry continues to back the current Army Chief, even though it means questioning the role of one of his predecessors, now a sitting minister.

It is unprecedented in the annals of post-Independence India for a serving Army Chief to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court accusing a predecessor – or a serving minister – of impropriety.

In this case, it happens to be a predecessor and a serving minister.

Chief of Army Staff General Dalbir Singh Suhag has accused Minister of State for External Affairs General (retired) VK Singh, of trying to stall his promotion “with mysterious design, malafide intent and to arbitrarily punish” him for “extraneous reasons”, the Indian Express reported.

In an affidavit submitted in his personal capacity to the Supreme Court, Suhag has said that in 2012 he “was sought to be victimised by the then COAS” [VK Singh] “with the sole purpose of denying [him] promotion to the appointment of Army Commander”.

The controversy is a continuation of one of the messiest chapters in the history of the Indian army when VK Singh, as the Chief of Army Staff, raised the issue of his date of birth and took the United Progressive Alliance government to court.

More than six years ago, when VK Singh took over as the army chief, he had staked his claim to an additional year in office on the grounds that he was born in 1951 and not 1950, as stated in army’s official records. His contention was that throughout his career he had followed 1951 as his year of birth, but for a mistake in an entry before he joined National Defence Academy that led to a year being shaved off from his service.

Ordinarily, such a move should have been resolved when VK Singh accepted 1950 as his year of birth, just before his promotion as an Army Commander. However, while Singh accepted the year under protest, he had never reconciled to the fact and finally went to the Supreme Court, challenging the government’s position.

But at stake was not just VK Singh’s own tenure but the entire succession plan of the Indian Army, usually offered to the senior-most army commander. In this case, had the government accepted VK Singh’s claim, he would have served three years as the Army Chief, and his successor, Gen Bikram Singh would have retired without getting the top job. In such a scenario, perhaps, VK Singh would have also retired a year later than he did and possibly would not have sought a career in politics. But that was not to be.

The succession war

Had VK Singh served for an extra year, it would have impacted not just Bikram Singh, but also Suhag. Those opposed to VK Singh argue that he deliberately filed Discipline and Vigilance ban on Suhag to nix his chances as a future Army Chief.

In January 2012, a military intelligence official, Major T Ravi Kumar wrote to the Dimapur-based 3 Corps commander, Lt Gen Suhag, asking him to inquire into allegations of a fake encounter and dacoity by his colleagues of the 3 Corps Intelligence and Surveillance Unit. A copy of the letter was also marked to Lt Gen Bikram Singh, then the Eastern Army Commander and then army chief, Gen VK Singh.

Gen VK Singh forwarded the letter to Lt Gen Bikram Singh as well as Lt Gen Suhag asking them to conduct an inquiry into these allegations. It was this letter that sparked off a flurry of events that has led to the Indian Army’s most embarrassing moment, as top army Generals fight amongst themselves, through media leaks and court cases.

During his tenure as the Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen Bikram Singh ordered a Court of Inquiry conducted by Brigadier A Bhuyan. While Bhuyan was supposed to inquire into the allegations of fake encounters and dacoity by the officers and men of Suhag’s Unit, the role of Suhag himself was not inquired into. VK Singh felt that a much senior officer should have been asked to conduct the inquiry since Lt Gen Suhag was two rungs higher than Brigadier Bhuyan. It was suspected that Suhag protected the unit he commanded from the court of inquiry.

The matter would have been laid to rest but VK Singh issued a show cause notice to Suhag. As per procedure, when a notice is issued to a serving officer, a ban is placed on the officer’s promotion, till the allegations have been cleared up satisfactorily.

Ideally, this would have been a routine procedure, except for a few critical details. VK Singh had already lost his case in the Supreme Court for an extension of his service and he was days away from his retirement. Bikram Singh was the Army Chief-designate and Suhag was waiting to take up his position as the Eastern Army Commander. A prolonged ban at this stage would have ensured that Suhag would never become the army chief, impacting the succession plan forever.

The officer, who was ideally poised to be considered for promotion during the ban on Suhag was Lt Gen Ravi Dastane. Had he been considered for the Eastern Army Commander’s post, he would be in position to become the army chief after Bikram Singh. In fact, the post of the Eastern Army Commander was kept vacant till Bikram Singh took over. Clearly, the intention was to ensure that Suhag was cleared of the ban, so that he could take over Eastern Command and be eligible for the top job. The succession war had clearly become a murky one, unprecedented in the history of the Indian Army.

And sure enough, on taking over as the chief, Bikram Singh lifted the ban on Suhag.

Court battles

Meanwhile, even though VK Singh lost the case for his extension in the Supreme Court, Dastane filed a petition seeking promotion to the rank of an army commander. His argument was simple. When the promotion ban was placed on Suhag, Dastane was the senior-most officer who should have been automatically considered for promotion. Since that was not done, he missed out his chance to contend for the Army Chief’s post.

There was a case of conflict of interest in lifting the ban on Suhag’s appointment, Dastane also argued in his petition. Bikram Singh as the Eastern Army Commander, Dastane contended, was also responsible for the actions of Suhag who was serving under him, therefore creating a conflict of interest.

The case went to court, but in July 2014, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice TS Thakur refused to stay Suhag’s appointment as the next Army Chief.

Meanwhile, Dastane, the petitioner, retired from military service, but continued to fight the case leading to a prolonged court battle. Even though the government had changed and VK Singh had been appointed as a Minister of State, the Ministry of Defence filed an affidavit in the same case, virtually blaming him for the mess.

What surprised everyone was that such an affidavit had been allowed to go through, even though it would embarrass a sitting union minister.

The current affidavit, ostensibly filed by the current army chief in his “personal capacity” has caused further embarrassment to VK Singh. The current affidavit, even though filed in the Army Chief’s “personal capacity” was informally cleared by the defence ministry, say officials in Army Headquarters. This sends out a message that the ministry will continue to back the current Army Chief, even if it means questioning the role of a sitting Minister of State.

Those close to VK Singh allege that this is being done deliberately at the behest of “arm dealers and corrupt bureaucrats” who continue to dominate the workings of the defence ministry. This had also been their allegation as the reason why VK Singh was denied the extra year – parochial considerations were insinuated as a possible motivation as then chief Gen JJ Singh, it was alleged, had wanted to ensure that Bikram Singh and Suhag went on to get the top job, which would not have been possible otherwise.

But what is beyond dispute is that this episode has deeply politicised the army that is sworn to remain apolitical. The damage done to the institution is irreversible.

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