General Vijay Kumar Singh, the Chief of the Army Staff, who was recently in a controversy over his date of birth, speaks to Vidya Subrahmaniam on how “the drama” played out, the state of the Army, the Chinese threat and the Maoist problem.
After such a glorious innings in the Army, why do you have to make such a controversial exit?
I never got into any controversy. If you are talking about the age issue — I don't see it as a controversy at all — it should have ended when it came up first in 2006 because the rules are very clear. When you enter government service, it is the matriculation certificate that counts and there my birth year is 1951. The Army's Adjutant-General's branch, which keeps records, also shows the year as 1951. So where was the controversy? This is a manufactured controversy, created by people with all kinds of interests.
What kinds of interests and lobbies?
All kinds of interests are involved. Suddenly there was a blitz in the media and papers began to float around. Where did they come from? When you put your foot down and insist you want to institute good practices in the system, when you don't allow people to take the organisation for a ride, some people are going to be sidelined. This is one method of hitting back.
There is the Adarsh lobby, there are various lobbies of equipment dealers who realised we were not going to accept bad quality equipment.
You said in an interview that a lot of money was paid to orchestrate the controversy.
Yes, that is absolutely true. Some people went to the extent of fabricating a birth certificate. A lot of money exchanged hands for this.
Are some of these people serving in the Army?
Some are serving, some have retired. FIRs have been filed against some of these people. You will see in the coming months that things will slowly unravel. As time passes, we will know who the sutradhar of this drama is. I will come to know and so will you.
The Supreme Court observed that you twice accepted your year of birth — in 2008 and 2009 — as 1950. And if you allowed a senior to pressure you into committing a wrong, could the country have been safe in your hands?
When an issue comes up, and you are told this is the date we are going to mention, so please accept for now and we will sort it out later because right now the file has to go through, what do you do? At that level, could I have started a fight? No. So I said, you have given me your word, and here is my acceptance — it was a conditional acceptance.
But this assurance was not in writing, right?
When your superior, on whose orders you go to war, gives you an assurance, what are you supposed to do? Do you say, sorry, I don't believe you? Civilian life is different. In the Army you can be hauled up for disobedience. I had no choice.
When the government was unyielding on your year of birth, why did you not let the matter be? After all, you only had a year left?
This was never about my tenure. It was about principles. It is about establishing that the most authoritative document on date of birth is the matriculation certificate. My counsel told the Supreme Court that if the Government accepted 1951 as my year of birth, I'd quit immediately. What if it was my name that was changed? Should I have accepted it?
The accusation against you is that you accepted the wrong date of birth in order to use your seniority to get a promotion and then insisted you were a year younger so you could retire later.
That is absolutely wrong. In the Army promotions are not decided on the basis of the DoB. In our time we had different boards for different ranks – Lt. Colonel to Colonel, Colonel to Brigadier, Brigadier to Major General and so on. Your promotions are decided after you have been selected by the board and this is purely on merit. And then your seniority counts, which is already fixed at the time you pass out of the Indian Military Academy. DoB comes in only when you are due to become a core commander and here what is important is that you have a residual service of three years. When you become an Army commander, you need to have a residual service of two years. So where was my advantage? By agreeing to 1950, I was actually putting myself at a disadvantage.
What was the state of the Army when you took charge? And what have you achieved as you retire?
It saddens me that the only thing for which I get mentioned is the age controversy. When I took charge I had a vision, I had an agenda. There were problems in the internal health of the Army. We needed to restore the value system. The main question was how to transform the Army. We wanted it to be more lethal, more agile and a networked force capable of meeting all challenges. The other part was modernisation, which had a lot fo lacunae. Unfortunately, there was a lot of emphasis on the status quo. We have grown up from the Second World War in a particular manner, and we needed to change and reorient ourselves. Much of all this came out in a study which looked at the Army in terms of its operation, logistics and equipment available. We did sub-studies on all this and found the Army needed to change. I'm rather proud to say that we have done a great amount of work on the transformation. And I am sure my successor will carry on with the work.
The China threat?
China is a neighbour that has not yet settled its borders. It has made claims on certain parts of our territory and it has also done a great deal of infrastructure development in Tibet. We need to be prepared till such time as the borders remain unsettled.
How does it help China to go to war? And aren't there other ways to fight?
The space for conflict remains. After all, wars are an extension of politics. It is the settlement of an issue after political dialogue has failed and you resort to force to bring dialogue back to its place. I strongly believe that a fit army is like an insurance policy – you hope you won't need to use the policy but in case you do it should give the best possible cover.
We also did a lot of work for the jawans. The first thing we did was: In service I wanted a jawan to feel that he is an equal in every respect. We brought the quality and quantity of rations for jawans and officers to the same level. We did the same thing for clothing and also strongly pushed for accommodation upgrades. We gave an impetus to education so that when a jawan reitred he becomes capable of lateral induction into the para military forces and the armed police. After 15 years of service, a jawan is fit enough; if he is given lateral entry he'll feel valued.
It is believed you were resistant to the idea of sending the Army to fight the Maoists. Did Home Minister P. Chidambaram approach you on this?
The Maoist problem has become so large because we have allowed it to grow. It has to be fought politically, socially and in terms of the type of development we bring to impoverished areas. Where does the Army come into it? The Army should not fight its own people. We don't see the Maoists as a secessionist movement. That is why we have not gone into fight them. When Mr. Chidambaram asked me, I told him exactly this.