There seems to be great relief and general satisfaction that the court case of the army chief versus the Union of India has been resolved. It is true that the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the government, and has thereby brought to an end the spectacle of an army chief fighting the government. But the matter can hardly be said to be resolved. The Supreme Court’s judgment leaves the army chief, V.K. Singh, with two years of birth. This, not to put too fine a point on it, is actually unique. Mr Singh, common sense dictates, could not have been born twice. He was either born in 1950 or in 1951. But the apex court refused to say one or the other. Instead, it fell back on procedure and technicalities. Justice, which is the business of the Supreme Court, is not about grammar and procedure. The Supreme Court had to fall back on these because under Article 32 of the Constitution it cannot examine Mr Singh’s matriculation certificate as evidence. That certificate or the school-leaving certificate issued by the headmaster concerned is taken as firm evidence of a person’s age. If Mr Singh had argued his case on his matriculation certificate, he would have had to go to a civil court or to the Armed Forces Tribunal. But since Mr Singh did not choose such a route and went to the Supreme Court directly, the latter had no other alternative but to fall back on procedure.
The principle that the court used for its verdict was that of estoppel which “precludes a person from asserting something contrary to what is implied by a previous action or statement of that person.” In this specific case, it meant that since Mr Singh had accepted in 2008 and in 2009 that 1950 was his birth year, he could not now make a claim that was different from his previous acceptance of 1950 as his year of birth. This does not imply or mean that 1950 is Mr Singh’s actual year of birth. The Supreme Court did not rule on this matter. It was open to the court to ask Mr Singh to go to a civil court or to the Armed Forces Tribunal to establish his year of birth. The Supreme Court could not have been unaware that going to a civil court or to the Armed Forces Tribunal would have prolonged the issue and the embarrassment. Perhaps to avoid this, the court used the principle of estoppel. This was convenient but there are grounds to doubt if justice was rendered.
As matters stand, Mr Singh has to be satisfied with the encomium heaped upon him by the apex court. The government can be relieved since the court’s verdict has rescued it from a mess that is largely of the government’s own making. The handful of people interested in the idea and the delivery of Justice will be pardoned if they remain a trifle bewildered. What is sad of course is that the legal chapter of the episode could have been avoided if the minister concerned had been more alert and competent.