The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear in July a plea seeking to stall the appointment of Lt General Dalbir Singh Suhag as next Army chief. The petition, filed by Lt General Ravi Dastane, was earlier fixed to be heard in September.
A vacation bench led by Justice Vikramjit Sen agreed to prepone the hearing after Dastane’s counsel pleaded for urgency in the matter in view of the facts that Dastane was retiring on August 31 while Suhag’s appointment as Army chief takes effect from August 1.
The counsel said that Suhag’s selection as Army commander was already challenged in the main petition and if this selection is set aside, Suhag’s appointment as next Army chief would also be struck down.
The bench then fixed the matter in the second week of July to hear the plea to stay Suhag’s appointment as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS). The UPA II government had approved Suhag as the chief-designate — incumbent General Bikram Singh retires on July 31. The convention has been to name a successor two months in advance.
As first reported by the Indian Express, the case had witnessed a twist after the government had defended Army vice chief Suhag’s promotion as Army commander — entitling him to be the next Army chief — and described the disciplinary ban on him by then Army chief and now Minister of State Gen (retd) V K Singh as “illegal”, “extraneous” and “premeditated”.
In the Modi government, V K Singh is a Minister of State with Development of North Eastern Region (independent charge), External Affairs, Overseas Indian Affairs as his portfolios.
Responding to a petition by Lt Gen Ravi Dastane, who alleged favouritism in selection of Dalbir Singh Suhag as Army commander — making him next in line to succeed General Bikram Singh — the Ministry of Defence, in its affidavit to the Supreme Court, said that the disciplinary proceedings against Suhag between April and May 2012 by then chief V K Singh was “without any basis or material on record”.
Suhag was placed under a Disciplinary and Vigilance (DV) ban by V K Singh for alleged “failure of command and control” in an operation carried out by an intelligence unit working directly under Suhag, the then Dimapur-based 3 Corps commander.
But Suhag’s promotion as Army commander was cleared by Gen Bikram Singh a fortnight after V K Singh retired, by reversing the ban. This delayed promotion, after reserving the vacant Army commander’s post for 15 days, was challenged by Dastane in the Supreme Court. He contended he was eligible to be Army commander but was denied the opportunity by General Bikram Singh who favoured Suhag despite the latter being placed under a ban at the relevant time.
The affidavit filed by the Ministry of Defence on Monday not only nixed Dastane’s challenge but also censured the manner in which V K Singh placed Suhag under the ban.
“The alleged lapses observed by the then COAS, as reflected in show cause notice, were premeditated and issued in utter disregard to the legal provisions governing the court of inquiry, principles of natural justice… the lapses were vague, based on presumptions and legally and factually not maintainable.”
“Evidently, the entire exercise to issue show cause notice was premeditated and as per records, the directions issued in this regard, including imposition of the DV ban and issue of show cause notice were found to be illegal,” the Ministry said, adding Suhag was appointed “in acting rank” (from the date he became eligible) as a matter of policy and not to favour him.
A day after this report was published, V K Singh hit back by attacking the officer who is now the Army chief designate, accusing him of trying to protect a unit that “kills innocents,” and “does dacoity.”
In a direct attack on Lt Gen Dalbir Singh, who has incidentally been given a go-ahead by Defence Minister Arun Jaitley to take over as the Army Chief on July 31, Singh tweeted: “If unit kills innocents, does dacoity and then head of organization tries to protect them, should he not be blamed? Criminals should go free!!’
As the Congress and other parties clamoured for removal of V K Singh in view of his indictment, union minister Arun Jaitley had to make a statement in the Rajya Sabha that Suhag’s appointment was final and that issues relating to selection and appointment in the Army should not be politicised.