The controversy over the age of General V.K. Singh, the subject of an already heated and often unseemly public debate, is now threatening to get out of hand. With the Army Chief left with no resort but to challenge the Defence Ministry in the Supreme Court in order to “protect his integrity and honour,” the issue has the makings of an unseemly civilian-military confrontation that could easily have been avoided had plain common sense prevailed over bureaucratic thick-headedness. There are a slew of documents — including a birth certificate and a school-leaving certificate — that prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that General Singh, whose father as well as grandfather were Army officers, was born on May 10, 1951. This is the date of birth recorded in the office of the Adjutant General, the Army's official record-keeper. The controversy has arisen because the Military Secretary — another wing of Army Headquarters that maintains personal records relating to postings, transfers, and promotions — records him as having been born on May 10, 1950. General Singh has been at pains to explain that the latter date, gleaned from an application form for entrance to the National Defence Academy when he was only 14 years old, was a mistake committed by a teacher of his. He has also revealed that the discrepancy was raised with two predecessor Army Chiefs — but, strangely and for reasons the Defence Ministry has not yet disclosed, to no avail.
A brave and highly decorated officer, General Singh is recognised as a brilliant strategist and a reform-minded leader who is tough on corruption, as reflected in the hard line he adopted against erring officers in the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society scam. The mudslinging and insinuations intended to portray him as someone fiddling with his birth date to hang on to the power and privileges of high office must be rejected with contempt. One major reason why his year of birth has become such a hot potato is that the date of his retirement will have a bearing on who will succeed him as Army Chief. By refusing to accede to General Singh's request to correct the official record on the basis of documented fact, the Defence Ministry has shown astonishing short-sightedness, and in the process tread on a proud soldier's sense of honour. Even now, rather than fight for a bad cause in the highest court in the land, a disputation that could have a bearing on the Army's morale, the government should backtrack and come up with a constructive solution. By conceding General Singh's just case and treating him with the respect and honour that are his due, it should be able to clear the decks for a smooth succession to the post he occupies.