Concern over the dismissal

Print edition : January 16, 1999

The dismissal has triggered widespread indignation in the armed forces and there is apprehension that it may affect morale in the Services.

JOHN CHERIAN

THE dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat has sent shock waves through the Indian military establishment. The top military leadership has not spoken out against the dismissal for obvious reasons, but the indignation can nevertheless be sensed. The new Chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Yashwant Tipnis, who took over a day after Admiral Bhagwat was dismissed, described the unprecedented action as "the most unfortunate thing to have happened". Only a few senior retired officers support the decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government. Admiral Bhagwat's, successor, Admiral Sushil Kumar, has praised him for his vision. The Government is now resorting to innuendoes and is digging up files dating back to the 1980s in order to tarnish the image of Bhagwat.

Former Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal S.K. Kaul said that the dismissal was "most unfortunate". He said such a situation should have been avoided and the political leadership should have sorted out the differences. "There is a lot of give and take involved" while in office, Kaul said. "You should sit down at the table and sort out the problems. In the past too there have been problems. Every Chief has faced them." The job of leaders, he added, "is to solve, not to precipitate" problems.

Kaul noted that in democratic countries the armed forces remained apolitical because the Services were given their due. "What has happened now reflects the abject failure of the political leadership," he said. Defending Bhagwat's stand, Kaul asked whether a Minister would like to be saddled with a Secretary who had levelled serious charges against him.

Kaul said that a crisis of this magnitude was "waiting to happen". He pointed out that although the Arun Singh Committee report had been available for quite some time, there were no meaningful efforts towards reforms. "Mere cosmetic reforms will not help matters," he added.

Admiral R.H. Tahiliani (retd), former Chief of the Naval Staff, said that contrary to Defence Minister George Fernandes' "incredible" assertion, the dismissal would have serious implications for the morale of the rank and file. He said that the recent developments might "encourage more officers to go to courts of law and cultivate political and bureaucratic patrons."

Rear Admiral Raja Menon (retd) said that the reasons given by the Defence Minister for the dismissal were "trivial". In his opinion, the political establishment perhaps reckoned that it could get away with this because the Navy was the smallest of the three Services. Bhagwat, said Raja Menon, was "an outstanding as well as informed Chief who had a tremendous grasp of the power structures in Delhi and who used it to thwart the partisan interests of some powerful players." Raja Menon believes that Bhagwat became a marked man because he was in the forefront of the push for reforms. Bhagwat, he said, wanted to end the "isolation" of the armed forces in the matter of control of finances. Since Independence, the civilian bureaucracy has had a tight control on defence spending. However, given the present-day national security set-up, there was no place for a generalist, Raja Menon said. Bhagwat, he added, had a vision for maritime security.

Noting that Bhagwat had no differences with the constitutional authority, Raja Menon pointed out that the Defence Minister had taken sides with the bureaucracy. Fernandes had shown similar signs of "dysfunctional behaviour" earlier, said Raja Menon: he was in the forefront of the critics of former Army Chief Gen. S.F. Rodrigues.

Raja Menon noted that while forcing Bhagwat out of office the Government had to make one significant concession towards restructuring the armed forces in order to provide for a supreme command. The day after Bhagwat's dismissal, the Defence Minister claimed that an "integration programme" would be on the anvil before February. Raja Menon believes that Fernandes will not succeed in this. "He has neither the understanding nor the political acumen to outmanoeuvre" the civilian bureaucracy and other vested interests, he said.

Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar (retd), Director of the United Services Institution of India (USI), described the dismissal as a bad thing but said that he would reserve further comment until all the facts were available. At the same time, he said, the Government could have sent the file regarding Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh's posting back to the Naval Headquarters. "Sacking the Navy Chief is not the done thing," he said, but he remarked that if the issue boiled down to the defence of Cabinet authority then nobody could dispute the Government's decision.

Nambiar recalled that Gen. Robin Lockhart, an Englishman, was dismissed in November 1947 for failure to convey to the Indian Government crucial information related to plans by Pakistani tribesmen to invade Kashmir. Union Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel played an important role in that decision. But Lockhart was dismissed after clinching evidence was obtained, said Nambiar.

The Admiral's dismissal, in Nambiar's view, may have serious ramifications. "Like Pokhran, it was not thought through," he said. "After Pokhran some Ministers in the present Government started behaving as though they were in a wrestling akhara (ring)," said Nambiar.

The recent events, Nambiar said, had brought the defence services to the limelight for all the wrong reasons. "Societal values have changed and they are now reflected in the armed forces," remarked Nambiar.

The armed forces, he asserted, must recognise political authority as superior; at the same time, he pointed out, it is the bureaucracy which had been the problem.

Nambiar agreed that the arms lobby was a potent force in many countries.

Raja Menon said that Fernandes should take "command responsibility for the mess he has created" and resign as Defence Minister. "Courage," he said, "is shown not by sacking Chiefs merely to win bureaucratic turf battles."

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