HC quashes Army selection board proceedings led by ex-chief V K Singh

In an embarrassment for the Army, the Delhi High Court has quashed the proceedings of the Special Selection Board of January 7, 2011, held as per a contentious promotional policy for elevation of Army officers to the rank of Lt General.

Once promoted as Lt General an officer goes on to head a corps or one of the seven Army commands or several other key positions, besides getting additional two years of service, till the age of 60.

The court, in its verdict on Monday, held the 2011 selection procedure, led by then Army chief V K Singh, as "illegal" and directed the Army to conduct the entire exercise afresh after constituting a Special Selection Board, which will assess officers on the basis of the "Quantified Policy" of December 31, 2008.

A Bench, led by Justice Pradeep Nandarajog, noted that the promotion board, which was presided over by Gen Singh, had embarked upon the new method of selection even though the Defence Ministry had not approved it and, in fact, asked them to make a few changes in it. According to the original rule, the Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) could expunge the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) of an officer being rated if it was found to be "grossly inconsistent" with his past record. However, a letter dated March 7, 2011 — when V K Singh was the Army chief — issued by the Military Secretary's branch said this rule was amended to allow the CoAS to "moderate" or "expunge" the ACR partly or fully for the same reason as in the past. This key modification — the power to "moderate" — meant that CoAS could edit the ACRs as he pleased. Both orders held that the changes made could not be revoked or reviewed. Although the force was informed of the amendment through the March 7, 2011 letter, the same letter said that Singh had approved this amendment and introduced it retrospectively since November 2010.

Two major generals denied promotion to the rank of Lt General under the new assessment procedure had approached the HC after the Armed Forces Tribunal rejected their plea. "The action of the Special Selection Board held on January 7, 2011, of assessing officers on the basis of revised Quantification Policy, which was yet to receive approval of the Ministry of Defence, is patently illegal. A promotion board cannot assess officers for promotion on the basis of the promotion policy which is not approved by the competent authority. If it does so, such decision of the promotion board would be illegal," said the HC.

The Bench underlined that the ministry had time and again directed the Army headquarters to implement the revised Quantification Policy from April 1, 2011, with the changes, but the Army had gone ahead with the changed standards while assessing the officers of the rank of Colonel and above on January 7, 2011 itself.

The court pointed out that the selection board was scheduled to be "held" in October and November 2010, but this was deferred "without there being any justifiable reason for deferment", and that the ministry had also made a note of it.

A note by the Defence Secretary on February 22, 2011, had stated that the January 2011 board proceedings were required to be cancelled but suggested against it on the ground that "it would be extremely detrimental to the discipline of the Armed Forces and the credibility of the system if the government cancels the entire proceedings of the selection board comprising the top-most generals". As a "sensible" solution, the Secretary had recommended that the names of officers selected by the board should be cleared for promotion after due scrutiny on the basis of the revised Quantified Model. Two days later, Defence Minister A K Antony accepted this suggestion and those selected were promoted to the rank of Lt General.

The Bench rejected the Secretary's justification of the Army's decision and said that there could not be valid ratification of an illegal act.

"It is obvious that the Defence Secretary was more influenced by the credibility of the promotion board being adversely affected and not by the merits of the matter. He forgot that to commit an error is to do no wrong, but to perpetuate an error is to do a wrong. Having once opined that the board could not have applied the criteria of a proposed revised policy which was expressly made applicable with effect from April 1, 2011, in all fairness, the Defence Secretary ought to have recommended the cancellation of the board proceedings with a direction that matter be considered afresh as per the existing policy," said the Bench.

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