A mediatory role

Print edition : January 16, 1999

Congress(I) leader of the Opposition and former Defence Minister Sharad Pawar's letter, dated September 9, 1998, to Prime Minister Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandes.

I am taking the liberty of addressing a letter to you on what, in the normal course, would be a purely administrative matter. However, since I believe that the fall out on this issue is likely to have implications of some seriousness, I feel compelled to express my apprehensions.

2. During a recent conversation with one of my colleagues from Calcutta, I was informed that a Writ Petition has been filed in the Calcutta High Court against the Chief of the Naval Staff by one of the Vice Admirals. As a former Raksha Mantri I am fully aware that under extreme circumstances, personnel of the Defence Services are entitled to go to the Civil Courts for redressal of what they perceive as grave injustice being done to them. However, this step is not commonly taken and most of the Defence Personnel would consider it only under very grave provocation and after all formal legitimate avenues have been explored and found wanting. My experience in my tenure was this was an extreme step, specially since there are statutory methods of grievance redressal within the Service Regulations of the Defence Forces.

3. In this particular case, I am informed that there is a ROG submitted to the RM which is still pending disposal. Yet, the officer has already filed a writ petition in the court and has in a period of two months approached four different courts. These courts have all rejected his contention on the ground that the matter should be considered by the Central Government. The Courts have also directed him to respond to a Show Cause Notice issue by Naval Headquarters which, at least on court records, he has not done so far. The whole case reflects the mind set which is not in keeping with the traditions of and more important rules and disciplinary proceedings of the Defence Forces, in this case, the Navy.

4. The Petition is against the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. I have seen Admiral Bhagwat's work during my tenure as Raksha Mantri and I personally believe that he is extremely deserving of the current post that he holds. I also think that he is capable of defending his actions and do not wish to intercede on his behalf.

5. What disturbs me however, is the issues and the tenor of both the petition and the annexed ROG petitions which I had a chance to glance through. I find in the ROG that the petitioner has dragged in the Admiral's wife, Smt Niloufer Bhagwat. There is a very unfortunate and unseemly reference to her parentage and to the work she has been doing. I am concerned about this reference, firstly because it is totally alien to the traditions of the Defence Forces and to our own culture to drag in family members into professional bickerings, including complaints about postings and transfers. This is a trend which needs to be crushed before it can take root. Secondly, I have been personally acquainted with Smt Niloufer Bhagwat for the past thirty years. She is the daughter of one of the most respected civil servants of the then Bombay/Maharashtra state. Her upbringing is in the best liberal Indian traditions as can be seen from the fact that inspite of the advantages that she enjoyed, she chose to become a lawyer and use her professional abilities in fighting for issues which affected the common man. She has always been on the side of the under privileged and many of the cases she has fought would reflect this.

6. I am therefore pained to find that reference has been made to her 'half muslim' origins and also to her appearing before the Srikrishna Commission as if it is some sort of anti national act. There is also a reference "she is a card carrying member of the CPI" as if it was a subversive act. To the best of my knowledge this is factually incorrect. Secondly, the CPI is a national party which has considerable representation in the Parliament of this Country. The leaders of the CPI and its brother, CPI(M) are eminently respected and consulted by most government on issues of national importance. There is a state in this country which has been ruled by the CPI and other left parties for considerable period of time. I therefore find the content and tone of this reference insulting to the political system of this country and the comments of Mrs Bhagwat's muslim parentage are violative of our Secular Constitution and the oath of allegiance which all officers of the Armed Forces affirm.

7. Had this been a petition by an officer in the civilian services, I would have not felt the need to write to you. However, one of my observation as the Raksha Mantri was that, the Armed Forces were not tainted by the divisive forces which are currently at work in our country. My experience was that the Armed Forces were 'Indian' and were not concerned with religious, political or communal ideology except at a very peripheral level. I believe that this is one of the greatest strengths of this country. It would be disastrous to allow anybody or anything to shake this.

8. I am not aware whether any action has been taken against this officer who has gone to Court during the pendancy of the appeal to the Raksha Mantri. I presume that action will be taken for gross indiscipline. More than that, I think, it is absolutely necessary that clear signals should be sent from the top that this attempt to tarnish the Armed Forces will not be tolerated. I believe this signal should go from you because these allegations based on communal and political issues have started coming in after the 20th March, possibly the officer felt that the new government would not feel so strongly on this issue.

9. I would request that the following steps be taken:

(1) Action be initiated to deal with the ROG at the earliest and in totality, not in a piecemeal manner so that the grievance of the officer be seen by the Minister in complete perspective and after ascertaining the views of Naval Headquarters. (2) Clear signals be sent that any attempt at introducing communal and other divisive trends into the Armed Forces will be severely dealt with. I think this should start, prima facie, with action against the officer who has filed the petition. (3) There is an increasing tendency in the past two or three years for Defence personnel to rush to the Civil Courts. The Defence Services of any country are governed by systems, hierarchy and discipline very different from their civilian counterparts. The reasons for this are very well known and are time tested not only in India but also in all other countries including those which do not have permanent defence services. The system for addressing grievances are also clearly and statutory laid down so that it is not acceptable or necessary for them to approach the civilian courts. If there is a feeling that changes need to be made in keeping with the changing times this has to be an in-house exercise, initiated by the Heads of the Defence Services, themselves. There is no room for indiscipline or loose hierarchy in the Armed Forces and I think that the Government needs to very clearly state that the Armed Forces are expected to conform to the disciplinary standards expected of them.

10. I think that the type of attempts being made by the petitioner is not befitting of an officer of India's Defence Forces and needs to be dealt with severely. I hope you will take appropriate action. I would be happy to assist you to join in any discussions which you may like to have.

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