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Cloaked daggers

Print edition : May 04, 2012 T+T-

General V.K. Singh, Chief of the Army Staff.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The intrigue and disinformation campaign against the Army Chief, General V.K. Singh, is discrediting the institution itself.

SO it now turns out, as many had suspected, that The Indian Express story alleging that there was unusual and un-notified movement on January 16 of two Army attack formations towards the national capital, which spooked New Delhi, was a complete fabrication. The barely hidden suggestion in the story was that the troop movement ominously took place the night before the Chief of the Army Staff General V.K. Singh moved the Supreme Court on the date of birth issue; it was a not-too-subtle way of the Army flexing its muscle against civilian authority.

The troop movement violated no protocol of standard operating procedure. Such movements need to be notified to the Defence Ministry only if they involve corps-level strength. The story appears to be wrong on other details too, and has been dismissed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, and General V.K. Singh.

However, the real question is who fed or planted the story, and with what motive. One may never know for certain the answer to the first question, but the plausible motive seems to have been to discredit Gen. V.K. Singh. One of his detractors, former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. H.S. Panag, said that the troop movement was an attempt by a compromised [military] hierarchy to pre-empt a likely decision by the Defence Ministry to sack the COAS. Lt Gen. Panag was relieved of his command after an anti-corruption inquiry in 2008, and has since retired. But he is a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. Thus, it was totally out of order for him to make these remarks. A similar story was planted earlier about Gen. V.K. Singh having ordered the clandestine interception of telephone conversations involving top Defence Ministry officials. This pointed to grave indiscipline. But the charge was never substantiated.

Even more important, the controversy about his year of birth (1951 or 1950) was raked up without any reference to the record pertinent to his promotion, first as Lt General and later as a full General. The sole basis for regarding the date as 1950, which would entail the end of his tenure this year, was another document concerning his application to the National Defence Academy. A confidential letter from the COAS to Manmohan Singh, pointing out serious deficiencies in the Army's war preparedness, was also mysteriously leaked.

Clearly, a great deal of intrigue and disinformation has been at play in an institution, which is supposed to follow exemplary standards of truthfulness, discipline and integrity. A possible clue to its source is provided in a writ petition moved before the Supreme Court by former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral L. Ramdas, former Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami and three ex-generals, among others.

This reportedly alleges that a process or line of succession was launched by former COAS Gen. J.J. Singh by initiating something new called the look-down policy, which was calculated to favour certain officers and have them promoted above the rank of Brigadier. As a result, many likely contenders to Army commanders' positions were eliminated to ensure that Gen. V.K. Singh would remain COAS only until May 2012 and that Lt Gen. Bikram Singh, currently the Eastern Army Commander, would succeed him.

The petition also alleges that there was a communal conspiracy behind the rejection of Gen. V.K. Singh's claim for a revision in his date of birth, in particular, lobbying by Sikh organisations, and support from certain high government officials. Even if this allegation is discounted, the petition, which prima facie appears broadly truthful, raises disturbing questions about the process through which high-level Army promotions and seniority lists are determined.

On March 3, Lt Gen. Bikram Singh was designated as the next COAS three months in advance, instead of the usual two months. But Lt Gen. Bikram Singh has two court cases pending against him: the first involving a fake encounter killing in Jammu and Kashmir in 2001, and the second concerning Indian troops' misconduct, including rape, during a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo under his charge in 2008. Surely, both propriety and convention demand that he should not have been designated the next COAS until he is cleared of these cases.

The Defence Ministry has also just cleared the names of Lt Gen. Dalbir Suhag, head of Dimapur-based 3 Corps, and Lt Gen. Sanjiv Chachra, Military Secretary, for promotion as army commanders. Lt Gen. Suhag was recently at the centre of a controversy triggered by the forwarding to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of a complaint about his role in the purchase of parachutes as the head of the Special Frontier Force.

The CBI refused to investigate the complaint, made by Trinamool Congress MP Ambica Banerjee, on the ground that Lt Gen. Suhag had been cleared by another government agency. As for Lt Gen. Chachra, his appointment as Military Secretary, in charge of transfers and postings, was reportedly opposed in the past by the Defence Ministry.

Evidently, there is very little coordination, accord or harmony between the armed forces and the civilian leadership, which is supposed to exercise supremacy over the armed forces in a democracy. Indeed, their relations are extremely strained, and marked by suspicion, distrust and a crisis of confidence. This does not generally bode well for the nation's defence.

Particularly worrisome is the recent trend of personnel of the armed forces pronouncing themselves on policy matters, or speaking at cross purposes with the government on issues such as a resolution of the Siachen glacier dispute with Pakistan, which has festered since 1984, and repealing or suspending the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Jammu and Kashmir. Siachen, the world's highest-altitude military conflict, has taken a huge toll on the Army, including the loss of an estimated 2,000 lives mainly thanks to frostbite, while driving thousands of soldiers into acute psychological disorders, and inflicting a daily expense of Rs.3 crore to Rs. 5 crore. India and Pakistan came close to resolving the dispute by agreeing to withdraw their troops from the glacier at least three times, in 1989, 2006 and 2011.

This was vetoed by the Army although occupying the icy heights confers no obvious strategic advantage. In 2006, Gen. J.J. Singh publicly ruled out his Army's withdrawal until its positions on the glacier are marked and recorded. As former United States Ambassador David Mulford put it in a cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, Army Chief J.J. Singh appears on the front page of the Indian Express seemingly fortnightly to tell readers the Army cannot support a withdrawal from Siachen. Given India's high degree of civilian control over the armed forces, it is improbable that Gen. Singh could repeatedly make such statements without MoD civilians giving at least tacit approval.

In a democracy, it is illegitimate for the armed forces to defy civilian authority in this manner. Similarly, in the recent debate over the AFSPA, whose withdrawal is demanded by the Jammu and Kashmir government not least because of a dramatic reduction in cross-border infiltration amidst declining militancy several Army commanders lobbied against the move and even threatened to stop counter-insurgency operations if the indispensable Act is lifted. It is the same story in Manipur.

The AFSPA is a draconian law unworthy of a civilised society. It grants impunity to an officer who kills civilians on the mere suspicion that they may be about to commit a violent act or even violate prohibitory orders which are imposed at the drop of a hat. To top it all, the government is taking refuge behind the AFSPA in refusing to sanction the prosecution of military personnel found by the police to have committed murder, culpable homicide or rape.

In Jammu and Kashmir alone, the Home Ministry refused such sanction in 42 cases in recent months, provoking the Supreme Court to remark: You go to a place in exercise of AFSPA, you commit rape, you commit murder, then where is the question of sanction? Among the cases is the Pathribal killing of five innocent civilians in March 2000, on the palpably false ground that they were Lashkar-e-Taiba militants responsible for the massacre of 36 Sikhs at Chittisinghpura.

Army units have been recently implicated in a number of fake encounters such as the cold-blooded execution of villagers at Ganderbal in 2007, and at Macchel in 2010. More details of excessive use of force and torture by them are available at the Asian Centre for Human Rights website: issue1/indian_army.html.

Corruption scandals in the Army have involved numerous arms deals, from Bofors and HDW submarines in the 1980s to the more recent Tatra trucks case, and the Sukna land scam and the Adarsh Housing Society scandal. The biggest cases are related to India's growing participation in the super-corrupt global arms bazaar since the Kargil conflict (1999), which has made it the world's biggest arms importer in 2007-11. More corruption can be expected as India spends an estimated $80 billion on armaments acquisition over the next five years.

While there is no direct link between corruption and the armed forces' defiance of civilian authority or outright lawlessness and encounter killings, a culture of impunity is common to all. Despite his faults and mistakes, Gen. V.K. Singh deserves support for opposing this and fighting corruption.

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