In a twist to the legal battle involving the Army top brass, the government on Monday defended Army vice chief Dalbir Singh 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.
The UPA II government had approved Lt Gen Dalbir Singh 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.
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.
Relying on the findings of the competent authority, the Ministry stated that Dastane could not stake any claim to the top post once the DV ban on Suhag was held to be illegal. It added that closure of the case against Suhag could also not said to be hurriedly done and it was “most unwarranted” that an Army Lt General was making unfounded allegations of favouritism.
Even as criticised V K Singh’s decision, the Ministry went on to state that “there was no conflict of interest in the office of the COAS only because of change of appointment.”
Countering Dastane’s challenge to the selection process, the affidavit said the COAS and the Ministry played the selection board and independently examined the case of as many as seven officers, including Dastane, for consideration as appointment to Army commander. It was only after scrutiny that Suhag and Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra (who has since retired) were recommended for appointment.
It claimed there was nothing wrong in keeping the appointment on hold for some days as the Ministry awaited details of the DV ban on Suhag. On June 6, 2012 the Ministry was informed about the closure of the case.
“Once the imposition of the DV ban itself was found to be illegal, then the same would be non est ab initio (nullity from the inception) and it cannot in any manner come in the way of either the consideration or appointment of Suhag,” the Ministry said.
The Supreme Court will next hear the matter in September.