Another aspect of the “c” word and the Army Chief

This story is published in the latest issue of The Week.

Syed Nazakat

The talk of a coup, which incensed the entire military and political leadership of India had been incensing army chief Gen. V.K. Singh for weeks now. Even before the newspaper report of April 4 appeared, he was convinced that someone was out to malign him.

In the interview he granted to THE WEEK on March 13 he had said: “Even when our unit, division or brigade does exercise some people say that it was not an exercise. [They accuse] that we want to do something else. Now you can make a story out of it. There are lots of people who want to make stories these days. Nobody wants to see whether there was truth in it. You just throw muck at somebody.”

So V.K. Singh knew it was coming.The newspaper reported that on the night of January 16 the Central intelligence agencies reported to government that two key mechanised military units had moved unexpectedly towards Delhi. One unit of Mechanised Infantry, based at Hissar (in Haryana) with its Russian-made Armoured Fighting Vehicles, moved towards Delhi. Another unit, based at Agra, also marched towards Delhi with its airborne Para Brigade.

Panic buttons were pressed, the defence secretary was summoned back from abroad and the director-general of military operations was asked to call back the troops to barracks, so went the report.The fact, as it turned out, was that the movement was a routine exercise to test the mobility of various units through the thick fog that envelops the Indo-Gangetic plain during December-January. The practice of testing mobility through the fog had actually started after Operation Parakram after the Parliament attack, when it was found that the two strike corps, based in Ambala and Mathura, took more than a week to reach the border, instead of the originally planned two days.

“Since then we have been almost routinely testing the mobility of various units attached to the strike corps, and no one had raised even an eyebrow,” said an officer attached to the office of the general officer commanding, Delhi area.A senior officer in the headquarters told THE WEEK that all movement of vehicles and units takes place once or twice a year and some pass through Delhi and go to Tughlaqabad.

“The exercise was on the same pattern and once the effectiveness of the mobilization was checked, the troops were called back as per Standard Operating Procedure,” said the officer.

“A military Unit has some 1000 soldiers so people who think that with 2,000 soldiers someone can topple the government are complete fools. They don’t either understand Army or the government.” He said the units were engaged in a routine exercise to test their mobility in fog and did not need to warn the government in advance.Lt Gen. (retd) P.C. Katoch, former DG (information systems) echoes the same views. ìThere are already two infantry brigades and one artillery brigade stationed in Delhi. That means there are some 10,000 soldiers posted in Delhi. For the sake of argument suppose the Army wanted to topple the government they would have mobalised these 10,000 soldiers. What was the need to bring 2000 soldiers from other places? It is all non-sense and trash.î †

He said there is something fundamentally wrong with the government approach towards the Army. People within the government have been repeatedly leaked documents and stories to media to defame the chief [General Singh]. If you don’t want him [General Singh]; sack him but don’t insult him.”

On the day when the news created flutter in the country, Army Chief General V K Singh was in Nepal.

But perhaps he was already aware about the controversy surrounding the movement of his troops.Earlier, in other controversies, General Singh there was report that General Singhís men bugged the office of the defence minister. Defence Minister Antony gave clean chit to the Army by saying that there was no bugging. He also continued with the routine checking of his room and residence by the Military Intelligence (MI) directorate team. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) which was roped in to investigate the bugging incident is believed to have found no evidence against the Army officials.

What unfolded thereafter exposed an ugly turf war within the armed forces. The Army listed names of a former and some serving officers to be behind the snooping activities. It officially named Lt Gen. Tejinder Singh, a retired three-star officer of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), as being the kingpin behind the spying activity. It was alleged that he and some serving officers of the Military Intelligence were planting stories in the media.At a time when there was a new found bonhomie between the Army headquarters and ministry of defence the new controversy could spoil the relationship.

At Ooty where they had gone to pay tribute to Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, both — General Singh and Defence Minister A K Antony — refused to take questions. “Antony has been particular cautions of making any comment about General Singh. But the report of troops movement also shocked him. He called the report ‘totally baseless’.

“This was a routine exercise. We have complete faith in the patriotism of the Indian armed forces. Don’t question the patriotism of the army, the soldiers who are dying for the country. I’m proud of the Indian army, navy, air force and the coast guard,” Antony said at the commissioning ceremony for a new nuclear-powered submarine.

In a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, Manmohan Singh also dismissed such reports. †Members of Parliament quizzed Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma and Army Vice-Chief S K Singh about the suspicious movement of troops. Sharma and Singh, appearing before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, reportedly said it was normal process of testing the preparedness of the armed forces. The two were asked to appear before the Committee to brief members on recent controversies dogging the armed forces, including the deal to procure Tatra trucks for the Army.

The controversial Tatra all-terrain trucks have been used by the Army since 1986 to transport missiles, artillery and troops. The first procurement deal was signed with the Czech manufacturer when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. The attention to Tatra trucks was provoked by General Singhís disclosure that he was offered a bribe of 14 crores in 2010 to clear the purchase of “sub-standard” and overpriced trucks.

The bribe was allegedly offered by arms lobbyist for a truck supplier who supplied the Army for more than two decades with 7,000 over-priced vehicles which performed poorly when put to use. The CBI investigation into the purchase of Tatra vehicles may throw some shocking details as the agency after interrogating Ravi Rishi, the chairman of Vectra is planning to interrogate officials from the Defence Ministry as well as BEML, a state-run company that supplies trucks sourced from Tatra to the Army.

Several defence analysts said the report, coming at a time of tense relations between the government and the army, was “mischievous.” For the moment, General Singh’s farewell has already started. From April 1, he has a series of visits and meetings scheduled. Before his retirement on May 31, he may visit his regiment and some places where he has served during his 40-years of career. But for now, he is again at the center of fresh controversy. One thing is quite clear that the fresh controversy has not only endured his repeated claim that there are people within the system who are plotting against him but has also put question mark on civil-military relationship.

  1. April 6, 2012 -

    The alarming part of this is the way Govt reacted which depicts the total trust deficit between Govt and Army. This indeed is a dangerous trend. For Armed forces it is izzat and Iqbal which motivates them to lay their lives in battle, but alas the successive Govts in order to project the supremacy of civilan over the army has played havoc with this resulting in trust deficit. Both serving and retired defense forces personnel feel neglected and let down. Urgent measures are needed to restore their dignity and solving of their outstanding problems .

  2. April 6, 2012 -

    With the condition of present day Govt, there are many citizens in this country who will be happy to believe the coup story to be true!