Not Just a Pakistani Problem: India’s Army Chief Challenges His Own Government

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Mustafa Quraishi / AP

Indian Army Chief, Gen. Vijay Kumar Singh, left, smiles during Indian Army Day celebrations in New Delhi, India on January 15, 2012.

Side by side on the front page of today’s Hindu newspaper are two stories about conflict between the Army and the civilian government in two South Asian countries. One of them, of course, is Pakistan, a country whose political leaders have struggled for most of its history to keep the Army in check.  What’s the other? Bangladesh,  where an Army-backed caretaker government ruled for two years? Sri Lanka, where a former Army chief is serving three years in prison for implicating the government that appointed him in war crimes? Or perhaps Nepal, where the biggest obstacle to political stability is integrating former Maoist rebels into the Army that once fought against them?

The answer, surprisingly, is India, a country that has never come close to military rule in its 64 years of independence. Civilian control of the military is one principle that unites every political party, and one that the Indian Army proudly submits to. And yet it has come to this: General V.K. Singh, India’s current Army chief, has filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging the very government that appointed him. The issue before the court is an arcane bureaucratic tussle over his date of birth; underneath the surface is a story about the hidden decline of an institution that was once the most respected in India.

Like many people in India, Singh lacks a birth certificate, so he has relied on his school records to establish his date of birth. The records he submitted when he joined the Army included a discrepancy — two dates, a year apart. Singh maintains that he was actually born in 1951 and has used that date on his passport and other personal documents. The 1950 date, he says, was a clerical mistake on one record. This kind of discrepancy is also common and might never have become a problem for Singh, except that 1950 is the date he used when he entered the upper ranks of India’s military leadership. India’s top brass, like their peers almost anywhere, jockey fiercely for promotion, and the competition is particularly intense at the highest levels, where age, rank and politics all play a role.

Singh’s supporters say that he was pressured to accept 1950 as his date of birth in order to ensure that he would retire in 2012 (the mandatory retirement age is 62), and thus clear the way for other ambitious officers to succeed him. An Army chief can serve for up to three years, so if Singh retired next year, it would exclude some potential successors. Singh has been fighting for months to get the Ministry of Defense to change the record to 1951, and having exhausted all his administrative options, he decided on Monday to take his case to the Supreme Court. It is the first time in history that a sitting Army chief has challenged the civilian government in this way, and the Indian media are aghast at the unseemly spectacle. “Self before service” read the cover of the newsmagazine India Today.

Why does one year make so much difference? It’s more than just a desire to remain in command, as his detractors claim; Singh will also earn a generous pension and benefits regardless of when he retires. It’s something darker, according to a group of retired Army officers who have been lobbying for the chief. One of them, Col. Brijraj Singh, told me that the row over the chief’s age is payback for his tough stand on corruption. Since taking command as Army chief, he has launched a series of investigations into allegations of corruption within the top ranks of the Army. An investigation into a controversial Mumbai high-rise found that two generals, including Singh’s predecessor as Army Chief, Deepak Kapoor, had been allotted flats in the building, which was meant for Kargil veterans and their widows. At the Defence Ministry’s request, Kapoor and several other high-ranking officials are now the subject of a probe by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. Another investigation ordered by Singh into a land deal in West Bengal ended with the conviction of a lieutenant general by a court martial for conduct unbecoming an officer and intent to defraud. “When he [V.K. Singh] took over he said, I am going to set the health of the army right,” the colonel told me. “By health, he means I am going to make the army corruption free.” For that, his supporters say V.K. Singh has become a target. If he retires this year, the next in line as Army Chief will be Lt. Gen. Bikram Singh, a man whom V.K. Singh’s supporters say is close to those accused in the corruption cases.

This unprecedented internal battle has embarrassed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, which has left the matter to the judiciary. Until it makes a ruling, India is left with one high-profile Supreme Court petition, several criminal cases and a months-long whispering campaign pitting top Army officers against each other. It’s hard to believe this is the same institution that produced men like Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and generations of Army families who have been one of India’s quiet sources of strength. In almost every city and small town in India, you’ll find retired Army officers and their wives as the mainstays of civic groups and social service organizations. In my own reporting, I have met people from every imaginable profession who credit their Army upbringing as a source of  discipline, adaptability and self-confidence. What I rarely find these days are Army officers who want their children to follow them in military service rather than the more lucrative private sector. The Indian Army was once unique, a vocation for a certain segment of the educated middle classes. It is now — like so many other venerable institutions in India — struggling just to maintain its dignity.