Playing with fire

Print edition : January 16, 1999

The dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat has seriously, irreparably eroded the Union Government's credibility; worse, it signifies a deepening of the crisis of the Establishment.

PRAFUL BIDWAI

IT is nothing short of the outrageous that the Government should have sacked the chief of a combat force of the defence services without a weighty, cogent, well-formulated, convincing reason for doing so. And it is even worse that it did this while pulverising the elementary right that every citizen, not to speak of a high official, has: to being heard before being punished. There is not even an iota of justification for the lame arguments that the Government, in particular Defence Minister George Fernandes, has cited in support of its precipitate, indeed reckless, action.

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was not challenging the principle of supremacy of democratic authority over the defence services. Nor was he defying a legitimate civilian order. On the contrary, he was merely relying on the unambiguous formulation of Chapter 5 of the Regulations under the Indian Navy Act, which says appointments in the Navy of the rank of Captain and above must be made on "the recommendation of the Chief of the Naval Staff " (CNS).

If there was, as claimed, any tension between the right of "the people... to be informed of the compulsions which have led the Government" to dismiss Bhagwat, on the one hand, and "considerations of national security," which Bhagwat's continuation would have compromised, on the other, then the logical course for the Government would have been to put Bhagwat on trial. This alone could establish that he is an irresponsible person unworthy of high office, under whom the Navy cannot "function effectively, objectively and with... traditional neutrality within the democratic setup." Clearly, the Government did not have even a half-way tenable case against Bhagwat.

Nothing short of grave misconduct such as dereliction of duty, refusal to carry out an operational command, espionage, downright corruption or moral turpitude can ever warrant a draconian step such as the dismissal of a Service chief. However, at their maximum, the charges levelled by Fernandes against Bhagwat on January 1 do not even approach anything nearly as grave as that. Some of them are unsubstantiable; for example, the charge that Bhagwat verbally threatened Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar with a court-martial for having made a statutory grievance petition. Some of the charges have been decisively refuted or seriously questioned.

Documents show that Bhagwat did not fail to report on the activities of arms-dealers, and their links with naval officers, while sharing this information with his wife. He did bring these links to the notice of the Ministry. Bhagwat certainly did not order his staff to commit any breach of protocol by writing to Pakistani naval agencies without going through the Foreign Ministry. On the contrary, he emphasised the need to follow protocol in this regard. As for Fernandes' claim that he had obtained the concurrence of major political parties before dismissing Bhagwat, Sharad Pawar has forcefully contradicted him.

Not just several former Navy chiefs, but the heads of the two sister servicess, General V.P. Malik and Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, have expressed their dismay at Bhagwat's sacking, the former terming it "sad and unfortunate" and the latter calling it "extremely tragic." Even Admiral J.G. Nadkarni, with whom Bhagwat had fallen out bitterly over promotions, defended Bhagwat's right to appoint his deputy. Remarkably, no former Services chief has come to the Government's rescue.

IF the present mood is anything to go by, Bhagwat's dismissal is likely to create consternation, even demoralisation, in the servicess. This consternation is bound to be compounded by the hurt caused to military self-respect by the extraordinarily shoddy way in which Bhagwat was replaced by Sushil Kumar, for whom a special RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) service aircraft was flown in on December 30 amidst high secrecy, underlining the Defence Minister's wild suspicions about Bhagwat's possible intentions. If this was not bad enough, the Government committed a serious security lapse even while claiming to be a stickler for procedure. It appointed Admiral Sushil Kumar the CNS without going through the mandatory intelligence check and clearance. There is simply no excuse for bypassing the security check: no emergency, no circumstance, warranted this.

However, the worst damage is the communalism that the Government itself injected into the already murky goings-on by favouring Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh. The fact that the Akali Dal openly lobbied for the officer, whom Bhagwat refused to appoint as his deputy under pressure from the Defence Ministry, should alarm everyone. If this is how vital decisions concerning national security are being made, then the public can have little confidence in this Government's integrity. Add to this the deeply offensive and outrageously false allegation that Harinder Singh made in a writ petition before the Calcutta High Court, that Bhagwat is communally prejudiced against him since his wife is "half-Muslim". Throw in the fact that Niloufer Bhagwat is a known secularist who appeared for the Communist Party of India before the Srikrishna Commission. And you have an acutely disturbing cause for worry.

That is not all. Atal Behari Vajpayee himself added a yet deeper saffron tinge to the episode by visiting the Andaman Islands for his annual holiday, where he accepted the hospitality of Harinder Singh. This was a partisan act, coming as it did after the eruption of the controversy. Nothing could be more unbecoming of a Prime Minister.

If the Government is not to cause further damage to its already battered reputation, the least it can do is institute disciplinary action against both Harinder Singh - not just for making malicious charges against Bhagwat, but also for having accepted the hospitality of known arms-dealers in St. Petersburg - and former Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar. Ajit Kumar stands indicted by a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court for having misled the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet on seniority ranking in the Air Force. He was served a notice of criminal contempt. Ajit Kumar's misdemeanour is in fact even graver. Rather than cooperate with the Service chiefs, he tried to bully and bypass them. They have officially registered a complaint against him.

However, it is unlikely that George Fernandes will initiate action against Harinder Singh and Ajit Kumar. He blatantly sided with them on crucial matters. For instance, he expunged unfavourable remarks by Bhagwat from Harinder Singh's Annual Confidential Report. Such a step, itself unusual, would have been justified had Bhagwat's remarks been malicious or prejudiced. As it happens, they only recorded the fact that Harinder Singh accepted hospitality from some ex-Indian Navy arms-dealers in Europe and indeed admitted to having done so because they are "my friends". Fernandes' action amounts to deleting relevant or material information, not correcting an erroneous, unbalanced judgment.

IT is not this Government - whose days may well be numbered, and which few people expect to complete its term - which will pay the price for this colossal folly, this communalisation of a sensitive part of the state, for this act of extreme prejudice. It is its successors, indeed the public, that will do so. Messing about with the defence services, after having already compromised India's security and lowered its standing and credibility by going nuclear, is an act fraught with grave danger. The politicisation of the defence forces could pose a serious threat to Indian democracy. Already, there is a great deal of discontent in the servicess over issues of pay and promotions. Over 5,200 officers have filed writ petitions regarding postings and promotions. The fact that a bunch of irresponsible politicians could play tricks with the servicess so casually and blithely bears testimony to the deepening crisis of the Establishment composed of opinion-shapers, policy-makers and the top echelons of the civil service.

The issue goes far beyond Bhagwat or even the mode of succession in the servicess. Bhagwat may have had his faults. For instance, he has been accused of being short-tempered and litigation-minded. He made a range of allegations in a 1990 petition before the Bombay High Court, some of which appear excessive. But that is hardly pertinent. The Government appointed him CNS more than two years ago - presumably after a full, considered evaluation of his strengths and weaknesses. He has since done nothing that is inconsistent with his past positions or norms of good conduct. His views against interference by a generalist bureaucracy in the servicess' strategic planning were well-known. But these are perfectly legitimate. Many Generals and Admirals hold such views.

The real point is that those who head this top-heavy, fumbling, state have lost the ability to make elementary consensual decisions about relatively simple matters. A half-way competent and sincere Defence Minister could have forced the Defence Secretary and the Navy chief to sit together and resolve their operational differences. The succession issue too is amenable to simple solutions: if the Cabinet did not like the CNS' nominee for the deputy's post (Madanjeet Singh), it could ask the CNS to suggest another name, rather than foist one on him. Nor is it so difficult to identify the nexus between military officers and arms-dealers. It is known that just a handful of firms control the bulk of the $2 billion-plus worth of contracts for arms purchases by the defence forces. It is not difficult to put them under surveillance and weed out all forms of favouritism and graft.

This needs political will and a shared perception of purpose and of the public interest. Such perceptions are central to the very definition of what constitutes the Establish-ment. True, this is a somewhat nebulous and changing entity. But it has a basic continuity and broad orientation, based upon a certain vision of the future. India had just such an Establishment until the 1970s, based on the Nehruvian paradigm. This was founded on democracy, secularism, "socialism" and non-alignment. It emphasised the pluralistic, composite character of Indian culture. It sought a measure of distributive justice. And it was committed to modernisation. Main-stream Indian politics moved away from that paradigm in the 1980s and has since shifted towards a more elitist, dualist, market-oriented social model, with an obsession with ethnic-religious identities, and a narrow view of culture.

Under the highly corrosive impact of Hindutva, the Indian Establishment has all but collapsed. Today there is no agreement among the decision-makers on such basic issues as secularism, economic policy, India's place in the world, the working of the civil service, and reform of governance. Apathy and hopelessness are pervasive in the corridors of power. In many ways, the guardians of the system have failed it or deserted it to become predators who cannot think beyond their immediate self-interest.

The lowering of the stature of the higher judiciary - as evidenced by the Justice V. Ramaswami episode and the A.M. Bhattacharjee (Bombay Chief Justice) book-contract case - the excesses whether of K.P.S. Gill or of T.N. Seshan, the mishandling of the situation in Kashmir and northeastern India, and the growing failure of the state to contain communalism, witnessed most starkly in the recent virulent attacks on Christians, all signify a qualitative deterioration of and disorientation in India's institutions.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have inflicted further damage on these institutions. By messing around with the armed forces, they are literally playing with fire. India's armed services already suffer from lack of accountability, corruption, favouritism, and undue political interference. The Hindutva forces must be prevented from aggravating the situation. We simply cannot afford to upset the sensitive and delicate balance that has existed in India between the civilian and military lines of command, based on the need to preserve the integrity of each. That balance is among the few barriers to India's possible slippage into degenerate forms of semi-militarised "democracy" which some of our neighbours have had to suffer.

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