Millennium Post

Army chief’s appointment issue stirs the pot again

Succession struggles for who will become a head of the 1.3 million-strong Indian Army is becoming as vicious as that of the Indo-Pak tussle on the Line of Control.

The constant sniping directly by the serving officers against each other; exacerbated by the involvement of their retired patrons do not reflect well on the sense of honour that the ‘brotherhood’ of officers are expected to maintain, but now seem acute more in its absence.

To stir the pot this time is the recent statement by the main opposition party, the BJP, warning the Congress-led UPA government not to name the next chief of army staff before it demits office in mid-May for a new government to come into office.

While the BJP statement has clearly politicised the issue of the selection of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), many see it as the handiwork of the former COAS, General (retd) Vijai Kumar Singh, who is contesting as the party’s candidate in the ongoing general election from the Ghaziabad constituency, falling in the National Capital Region.

To be fair, while Singh had a strong reformist streak when he took over office as the COAS after General (retd) Deepak Kapoor laid down office in a storm of controversy involving corruption. But this zeal for reform got misdirected when he was seen fighting to correct a ‘wrong’ in terms of his ‘date of birth’. The UPA government had given him a short shrift then.

It had refused to extend his period of service and had appointed Gen Bikram Singh, then the eastern army commander to the post of COAS. This time around it is the case of Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, who is next in line, and is the current vice chief of the army.

Suhag had been issued a Discipline-Vigilance (DV) ban by Gen Singh on the eve of his elevation to the position of Eastern Army Command chief, after commanding the Dimapur-based III Corps. The cause: a raid and a theft in the house of one Poona Gogoi, an army contractor in Jorhat. That action was undertaken by an intelligence unit, working in close liaison with the Suhag, who was the corps commander.

But when then lieutenant general, Bikram Singh took over from VK Singh, he created an extra-ordinary situation by keeping the position of the Eastern Command chief vacant for 15 days so that he himself could remove the DV ban over Suhag and then appoint him GOC-in-C, Eastern Command.

This move has now come home to roost, because of two developments. At that time there were two vacancies for the positions of army commander. The succession line for becoming the GOC was led by Suhag as the first, Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra and Lt Gen Ravi Dastane. Chachra was elevated immediately, but as mentioned earlier, the other army commander’s vacancy was kept on hold with Dastane being denied a chance, considering that Suhag was under a DV ban. Dastane’s case has now reached the Supreme Court, which directed the ministry of defence and the army to submit a report in the case in December, 2013.

Till date, that report has not been submitted. Dastane’s contention is had he been made an army commander, he also would have been in the race for becoming a COAS along with Suhag.

Two, in the case of Poona Gogoi, the Guwahati High Court has ordered that the proceedings of the court martial of Suhag be sent to them, which the Army Headquarters has not done till now.

Now, that the retired general Vijai Kumar Singh has joined the BJP and the election season is on, the BJP warning to the government appear to be out-of-line, but not incorrect. For, the results of this general election will be declared on 16 May, at least two-and-a-half-month before Bikram Singh lays down office in July 31.

There is a precedent followed in the army that the next COAS is named at least one or two months in advance . So considering this UPA government will cease to exist on 16th May, there is no need to name the next COAS.

However, former major general and army’s unstated senior statesman, Afsir Karim believes the BJP statement will go down badly through the rank and file of the army as a ‘politicisation’ of the crucial appointment.

But, former vice chief of army staff, Lt Gen (retd) Vijay Oberoi says, ‘There is no reason why a lame duck government should name the next chief so much in advance, of which there is no precedence.
Notwithstanding either positions, this case of the next COAS is still to raise a lot more of dust.

Pinaki Bhattacharya

Pinaki Bhattacharya

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