“Izzat”, meaning honour, reputation, and prestige is a fundamental ethos of the Indian army. How then did we find ourselves embarrassing the nation by publicly discussing critical matters of national security at a time whenIndia was hosting the BRICS summit? If the tradition in the Indian army is to do or die for the name and honour of the nation, then who is to blame for exposing the critical deficiencies in our army equipment and the lack of operational preparedness, the morning when the Chinese premier and other heads of states were waking up in New Delhi with all Indian newspapers, carrying reports of these shortcomings, lying by their bedside? If the army inculcates that discipline is uncompromisable, no matter what the provocation, and orders are meant to be followed, especially those of superiors, then what message is the recent standoff between the Defence Minister and COAS sending to the men and women in olive green? If the Indian army stokes the attitude of service before self in every soldier then how is it that the controversies involving the COAS are taking precedence over national interests?
Patriotism evokes strong reactions, whether we’re cheering for Indiain a cricket match or if we’re mourning terrorism inflicted by our enemies. Thus, it was no surprise to read the various patriotic responses my article “Honour Unbound” published in this newspaper on March 29th generated. Coming from a civilian background one looks up to uniformed personnel. General V.K. Singh’s commitment, sacrifice, and financial honesty are unquestionable. There can also be no conflict that we need to shed the rot that has crept into our defence procurement system and the society at large. Corruption, kick-backs, bribes and all other nefarious activities have to be stopped and the time has come for the common man’s voice to be heard on all matters which affect the nation that we regard as being our mother.
But let patriotism not carry us away into believing that the Government is on one side and all others on another, almost as if the interests of the two are incongruous. In a democracy, the appointed Government decides on policy, security and others matters and defence procurement falls within their prerogative. Is our current procurement process flawed and outdated – indeed! There is urgent need to overhaul the lengthy defence procurement decision making process and at the same time check the cancellation of contracts or blacklisting of companies, especially given our reliance on foreign equipment to fulfil our nations defence needs. Efforts also need to be taken to give a fillip to domestic defence enterprise – both public and private – and to give serious consideration to increasing the FDI limits in the defence sector. Has the Government lacked leadership and could it have handled the age-row controversy better? Perhaps, but there must have been constraints of Governmental functioning that dictated the process.
But can the Government alone be blamed for all deficiencies? It is believed that the army takes exceptionally long to conduct trials and has its own administrative processes adding to the delay. Whether we like it or not, in our system of political functioning, the COAS is subordinate to civilian authority vested in the Defence Minister. And no amount of provocation is reason for insubordination.
Is the General really being marginalised for targeting corruption in the defence establishment and being picked at because vested interest of the mighty are at stake? Or is Singh riding the anti-corruption wave which has currently flared up the common man’s passion? Is the Army Chief vindicated by the dirt that has reportedly come out on Tatra and is Tatra the only one or will we find skeletons in the closet of other suppliers as well if we were to dig deep? Is the “bribery bomb” just an extension of General Singh’s prolonged battle to get his date of birth changed in his service records and the frustration at being denied the same by the Supreme Court? Is this a way to shift the focus from himself to matters of lack of modernization and corruption in defence procurement processes that are bound to raise eyebrows and evoke patriotism? If Singh’s best explanation on the timing to press bribery allegations against that his former colleague is that his name reappeared in another matter, then would he have remained silent if the phone tapping controversy wouldn’t have emerged? How does a former colleague, who would be aware of the General’s zero-tolerance to corruption even dare to approach the COAS with an offer of bribe and what prevented the honest General from immediately acting against the offender? The clouds remain over how a secret letter between the Prime Minister and the COAS became public and a lot will turn on the intelligence findings on who leaked this sensitive document. If it is indeed true that Army Chief’s regularly writes to the Prime Minister on the nation’s preparedness than thank god that we haven’t had these secret letters leaked in the past. Questions will also get asked that if General Singh has evidence against the Lt. General Tejinder Singh, then why is it that his letter to theCBIis “sketchy” and doesn’t even list the amount that was allegedly offered to him. Of course, a lot of factors are at play, but is this all part of some large planned conspiracy or is it just a coincidence that all the stumbling blocks are falling at the same time?
General Singh is always critical of the media and his lawyers expressed concerns even during the age-row hearings in Court and said that the media had made him out as someone who has misrepresented. At the time, the Court rightly expressed its inability to issue directions to the media and said that what really matters is what the Government thinks of him. And while we are on the Supreme Court, let us take note that it is a complete misrepresentation of facts to state that the Supreme Court has left the issue relating to the Army Chief’s date of birth open. On the contrary, the Court in clear terms stated that “the question before us in the Writ Petition is not about the determination of actual date of birth of the petitioner, but it concerns the recognition of a particular date of birth of the petitioner by the respondent in the official service record”. Based on the records submitted by Singh, the Court noted that on the evidence and his own admission on two occasions, V. K. Singh’s age for his service was 1950. In such circumstances, any representation to the President for restoration of the date of birth makes a mockery of the system, sets a bad precedent and sends a wrong message to the young recruits on the finality of decisions made by persons in authority.
In light of the above, are we not being naïve in believing that the timing of the recent revelations can be overlooked? The timing continues to be an important consideration and the clouds continue to cast a shadow on the actual motives behind the recent events.
On a lighter note, the Sunday cartoon of Beetle Bailey depicts the head of armycampSwampybeing dragged by his wife for shopping, since she wanted a man’s opinion. The commander responds by stating that: he’s not a man; he’s a soldier! The individual always puts the soldier before self and currently the COAS is duty bound to the oath he swore. Whether the General has tainted the image of the great institution that he pledged allegiance to serve is a matter for the General to ponder over. Whether the General should have resigned when the Supreme Court refused to reconcile his date of birth that he was desperately seeking is also a matter only the General can answer. But what we can make an informed comment on is that the office of the COAS is greater than the individual occupying it and the prestige of the nation greater than everything else. There may be no winners of this battle and politicising the issue doesn’t solve anything. But if the sparring in public glare continues the loser will be the defence institutions and the people ofIndia. And we know what happens if we evoke the patriotic sentiments of 1.2 billion Indians. Jai Hind!
Satvik Varma is an advocate at Supreme Court of India and Founder of Independent Law Chambers in New Delhi.
First carried by the Economic Times.