The 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, Chief of Army Staff General V.K. Singh claims that his year of birth is 1951 while the Ministry of Defence has recorded it as 1950. 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 Gen 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, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq 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, sent a message to the US through a Pakistani-American businessman that President Asif Zardari required America's support because he feared 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 Gen Kayani furious. 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 Choudhary is meaningless. He is the person who suffered at the hands of the army, then headed by General Pervez Musharraf. Choudhary 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. It is possible that Haqqani was playing politics when he was sponsoring the message.
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 other institution in Pakistan to which one can turn to. The Supreme Court still evokes confidence and credibility. In fact, it has already issued a notice to Zardari to which he has replied.
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 Gen 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 Gen 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 Gen 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, Gen 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 courts — to participate in discussions. It can be interpreted as an act of insubordination.
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 bonepartism 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 Shezad for example was abducted, tortured and killed, allegedly by a state agency last year. A commission of inquiry is still seemingly trying to find the murderer. He had broken the story on the alleged infiltration of the armed forces by extremist elements.
The compromise formula hawked in the case of Gen Singh is again bad in content and intention. In fact, the very proposal to create a post of chief of joint staff is not acceptable. America has such an institution but the democracy there is more than 200 years old.
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 air bases and air space corridors to America.
Both generals in Pakistan and India should introspect. Gen Kayani can get away with his allegation against the civil government and allow Zardari say that he is supreme. Gen Singh cannot because in democracy, the elected government is supreme.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.