Generals in the news

Generals in the newsThe army chief is in the news in India as well as in Pakistan, but for different reasons. In both cases, the Supreme Court of either country is an arbiter.

 In India, the Chief of Army Staff General V K Singh claims that his year of birth is 1950 while the ministry of defence has recorded it as 1951. If the government sticks to its date, as it is doing, he retires this May, nearly 10 months before his own calculation of birth date. Not General Singh himself, but some retired top brass have made it a point of honour for the armed forces and want him to vindicate it by challenging the government’s decision in the Supreme Court.

In Pakistan, the Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Kayani has already gone to the Supreme Court which has set up a commission of nine judges to probe into the charge that the army was contemplating a coup. The matter, called the Memogate, came to light a couple of months ago when the then Pakistan Ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, allegedly sent a message to the US through a Pakistani businessman that President Asif Zardari required America’s support because he apprehended a takeover by the army.

It was October when Haqqani sought the help but he did not make it public till the US did so. The disclosure made General Kayani furious. To lessen his anger, Zardari ordered Haqqani to quit. This was not a fair charge against Kayani because why should he threaten a takeover when the army already has the country under its control?

The argument that the Supreme Court surrendered to the army when it constituted the inquiry commission is churlish. And to make a charge against the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, is meaningless. He is the person who suffered at the hands of the army, then headed by General Pervez Musharraf. Chaudhry and his family were confined to one room and harassed in every way. But he did not give in. Doubting his integrity is neither fair not factually correct.

In fact, the constitution of the commission of Supreme Court and High Court judges was the only way to get at the bottom of the truth. There is no institution in Pakistan to which one can turn. The Supreme Court still evokes confidence and credibility. In fact, it has already issued a notice to Zardari to which he has replied.This is the maximum one can achieve in Pakistan. The controversy over the date of birth of the army chief would not have arisen in Pakistan because the conditions prevailing there are quite different from those in India. Yet the embarrassment caused over General Singh’s claim could have been avoided if the matter had been handled better and earlier, both by him and the defence ministry.

I can appreciate General Kayani making a fuss because he felt that he was being blamed for an act which he had not contemplated. But I fail to understand why General Singh is making his birth date an issue when it was “resolved” between him and the defence ministry before he was appointed Eastern Army Commander four years ago and the army chief two years ago. He himself gave in writing to the ministry of defence that the matter was “closed.”Good or bad, General Singh should have adhered to what was decided then. It was wrong on his part to have consulted former chief justices of India to bolster his case or to brief persons who came to TV shows – resembling Kangaroo court – to participate in discussions. It can be interpreted as an act of insubordination.

I heard some retired top brass converting the matter into an issue between civil and military. Such irresponsible talk, even if allowed in a democratic system, is tantamount to challenging the ethos of our polity. General Douglas MacArthur, hero of the Eastern sector of Second World War, was dismissed by President Henry Truman when he found the General deriding democracy.Even if the defence ministry’s decision on his birth date is not to his liking or some of his ambitious supporters, the buck stops at the table of an elected government. I am disappointed to find Bonapartism taking hold of some top retired military officers. The media itself should have undertaken the matter with care instead of sensationalising it. The Pakistani media in the case of Kayani acted with restraint and responsibility. It has shown guts even when threatened.

Saleem Shehzad for example was abducted, tortured and killed, reportedly by a state agency last year. He had broken the story on the infiltration of the armed forces by elements close to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Several journalists from Balochistan have been killed by non-state actors, said to be close to the security forces.The compromise formula hawked in the case of General Singh is again bad in content and intention. The proposal to appoint him as the chief of joint staff suggests as if there are two parties and an agreement has to be reached so that none loses face. What is not realised is that there is only one party in democracy, the people who elect their representatives who, in turn, constitute the government. In fact, the very proposal to create a post of chief of joint staff is not acceptable.

America has such an institution but the democratic system there is 150 years old. Democracy knows of no compromise which restricts or impinges on people’s say.The irony is that all military coups in Pakistan have been at the behest of America. The Pakistani military has signed more defence pacts and agreements with America than all civilian governments put together. It is the Pakistan military which joined America in Afghanistan in the eighties and recently leased out Pakistan airbases and air space corridors to America. Still Washington did not trust the army when Osama-bin Laden was killed in a house at Abbottabad.Both generals in Pakistan and India should introspect as they should have before they raised the dust. – PT