Age matters only in the Indian Army Published January 22, 2012 SOURCE: TNN General Peter Jan Schoomaker retired from active service in December 2000. His last posting was as the chief of the prestigious US Special Operations Command. Almost two-and-a-halfyears after he retired, Gen Schoomaker was recalled to head the US Army in August 2003. Sounds strange? In the Indian military it is almost unthinkable to appoint a retired general as the chief of army. In India, this would upset the laid-down order of succession, and scuttle the hopes of many officers down the line. So what about merit? In this whole controversy sparked by Gen V K Singhâ€™s age, that issue is not being debated at all. The fact is that Indian military chiefs are no longer selected on the basis of merit. The only thing that counts is their age. As merit takes a backseat, the fight in the Ministry of Defence is all about ensuring that favourites are suitably placed in the line of promotion on the basis of their date of birth. Now, however, many within the ranks are beginning to question the obsession with age. â€œIt is absurd. When you are 15 or 16 you apply for NDA. Should the fact of being younger than others decide whether one should be military chief or not? It is laughable,â€ says a serving army general. â€œLetâ€™s say two of us join NDA together, and we get promotions at the same time. All through the service I may have excelled in my work, but if I were a day younger, it is you who gets to become the chief,â€ he says. A senior Air Force officer points out that Colin Powell, one of the most outstanding American military chiefs of all time, was 28th or so in seniority when he was appointed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. â€œWhat should matter is the tenure of service and merit,â€ he says. In the years following Independence, when Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister, the government did go by merit while selecting service chiefs. An officer recalled that Arjan Singh was appointed Air Force chief at 45. â€œIt was a tenure fixed for five years,â€ he says. So there was no â€˜fixedâ€™ line of succession at that time. That has changed. The reason date of birth has become the main factor is that top officers are growing timid, refusing to take risks. â€œOnce you become a brigadier or major general, you have a fair idea who would be chief or not. From then on the hopefuls start playing safe ,â€ says an officer. Both the Navy and Air Force have adopted selection policies which create a small group of â€˜aristocratsâ€™ among the officer cadre early in service, from whom the chiefs generally come. These officers invariably have done select tenures, such as being on the personal staff of senior commanders. In the Navy, an officer points out, many of these â€˜aristocratsâ€™ does not serve enough time at sea or other tough postings. â€œAs a result, our preferred officers do not have enough exposure to the battlefield. They are all fundamentally being groomed, and biding time, to take on senior appointments. And a few of them do become chiefs,â€ says a Navy officer. The net result of such skewed policies is that the day on which one is born has become the most crucial factor in deciding who commands one of the worldâ€™s biggest armies. Not surprisingly, many are closely watching how this court battle over Gen VK Singh â€˜s age ends. Will he retire on May 31, 2012, and let A, B and C become chief over the next six-seven years. Or will he retire on March 31, 2013, and allow X, Y and Z to succeed him? Either way, the military doesnâ€™t seem to benefit from this kind of thinking. In this unfolding drama, merit is likely to be the only casualty.