AN UNJUST DISMISSAL

Print edition : January 16, 1999

A communal and unsavoury combine has forced out of its way a Service Chief of uncompromisable integrity, independence and professionalism.

IN its first telling, the case against Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat painted him as an incipient Bonaparte, intent on overturning the established democratic principle that men in uniform will be fully accountable to the nation's political leadership. In subsequent narrations, the cashiered Admiral was portrayed as a whimsical and quarrelsome individual, vindictive towards subordinate officers and volatile in his ways. In between, mysterious hints were thrown of a grave threat to national security from his continuing incumbency as Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS).

Between them, this gamut of explanations should have clinched the issue. Yet the acrimony stirred up by the dismissal of the Navy Chief refuses to subside. Indeed, no personnel decision by the Central Government has engendered public misgivings on quite such a scale and bruised so many at the top of the political hierarchy.

Defence Minister George Fernandes was reckless enough to place himself in an advanced position in the battle against a military commander of uncompromisable integrity, professionalism and independence. He soon realised the folly of his misplaced gallantry, retreating rather than risk injury from public outrage. Within a fortnight of his infamous decision, Fernandes presented the picture of a troop commander reduced to sulking in his tent, protesting that too much was being made of what was "basically a disciplinary matter".

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, who was dismissed as the Chief of the Naval Staff on December 30. Bhagwat's removal reeks of conspiracy, communalism and clandestine deals that threaten national security.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

There have been multiple instances of sheer caprice in senior personnel appointments in government and the armed forces, but never quite so clear a suggestion of stealth and subterfuge. Bhagwat's removal reeks of conspiracy, communalism and clandestine deals that gravely threaten national security. From the first stirrings of trouble, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government consistently refused to enter upon the path of dialogue and conciliation. It rebuffed efforts to mediate an acceptable resolution of the dispute over the appointment of the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff (DCNS) and refused to assuage well-founded grievances over the officer it chose for the job. At the moment it picked for the climactic act in a sordid drama, the Government summoned the country's external intelligence agency - the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) - to ferry Bhagwat's chosen successor from Kochi to Delhi. After mistakenly advertising the manoeuvre as an indication of its management skills, the Defence Ministry realised to its horror that there could not have been a clearer admission of mala fide intent.

The proximate cause of Bhagwat's removal was his lawful and professionally uncompromising defiance of the Government's yet-to-be-explained decision to foist Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh, Fortress Commander in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as DCNS. The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) made this choice on December 9, 1998. On the following day, the CNS addressed a note to Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, appending transcripts of telephone conversations that Harinder Singh had conducted with officers at the second tier in the naval hierarchy - Vice-Admirals V. Pasricha, P.J. Jacob and Madanjit Singh - respectively Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command, Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff, and officiating DCNS. These recordings had been made by Harinder Singh between March 17 and April 2, 1998, and their transcripts sent to Ashwini Minna, editor of Punjab Kesri, a widely-circulated newspaper published from Jalandhar. Behind the veneer of banter and irreverent chatter between uniformed peers, the intent of the conversations was very clear - to draw out statements to the effect that the CNS was unwilling to entertain Harinder Singh's claims to a higher position in the naval hierarchy, purely on account of personal animus.

Admiral Bhagwat made a formal request that the Home Minister utilise his inherent powers of enforcement to prosecute Harinder Singh for the unauthorised recording of personal conversations. He also told Advani, informally, that he would not respond to provocation by resigning the office he held. The Government, he said, could sack him if it thought fit. Rather than accept a known recalcitrant as his deputy, said Bhagwat, he would consider dismissal a well-merited honour and a challenge.

The Government Order conveying the withdrawal of the President's pleasure for the continuance of Admiral Bhagwat in the Naval Service as CNS.

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Although evidently perturbed at the potential damage to military morale, Advani was not prepared to take a stand on the simmering conflict. Rather, he advised Bhagwat to take up his case with President K.R. Narayanan, the constitutional Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. It is learnt that the CNS was granted a 90-minute-long audience with the President shortly afterwards, and he briefed him comprehensively on the events that were taking place under his command.

A more formal communication was addressed by the CNS to the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Home Minister on December 10, which spelt out the reasons why he could not have Harinder Singh as DCNS. The officer holding this position needed to be one on whom the CNS "must have implicit trust and confidence", said Bhagwat, and Harinder Singh's "conduct (had) violated all norms of good order and naval discipline". The Defence Ministry's order of December 9 was, for this reason, "unimplementable", since it was in violation of Regulation 134 of the Navy Act, which stipulated that "the Government shall make appointments of Captain and above on the recommendation" of the CNS.

Bhagwat was able to summon to his aid an affidavit that the Government had submitted in ongoing litigation over a high-level Army appointment. Responding to a petition by Lieutenant-General R.S. Kadyan, challenging the appointment of Lt-Gen H.R.S. Kalkat as Commander of the Eastern Army, the Government had spelt out the criteria used in posting officers to higher operational commands: "The selection is made out of the officers eligible on the date of occurrence of the vacancy. Based on the number of vacancies, only a limited number of eligible officers are considered by the Chief of the Army Staff. He assesses merit and suitability of each officer, and endorses his recommendation for approval by the competent authority. The Chief of the Army Staff based on his vast experience in relation to the requirement of the office of the Army Commander, considers the suitability of the officers on merits. The merit and suitability being at par, due consideration is given to the seniority of an officer. However, merit and suitability have never been compromised for seniority."

Defence Minister George Fernandes.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The case against Harinder Singh was, briefly, that he had "incited communalism in the armed forces" by attempting to "alienate officers of the Sikh community", that he had attacked the wife of the incumbent CNS as a "half-Muslim" and made wholly unfounded allegations that the Staff Officer of the CNS - the only Kashmiri Muslim in the officer cadre of the Navy - was connected to militants in that State. When called to account for these misdemeanours, he had supposedly tendered an "unqualified apology". The Ministry of Defence (MoD) informed Naval Headquarters (NHQ) of its receipt of this apology on October 6. But none of the aggrieved officers was shown the contents of Harinder Singh's communication and indeed it appeared that there was no unqualified apology.

The CNS also put on record certain reservations about the Vice-Admiral's military command capabilities and his financial probity. These were subsequently reaffirmed in a communication dated December 28. The CNS had never stated that the Government's decision would not be implemented, said the note addressed to Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar. Rather, the decision appointing Harinder Singh DCNS was "unimplementable" since the ACC had arrived at it on the basis of insufficient information about the officer's service record.

Two days later came the infamous final solution - the unceremonious eviction of a serving military chief.

Ajit Kumar, who was replaced as Defence Secretary.-V.V. KRISHNAN

THE unseemly tale really begins on March 22, 1998, when Harinder Singh despatched a pastiche of wild suspicions, rumours and imagined grievances about the Navy Chief to his immediate superior, the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief (Eastern Naval Command). This was supposedly in exercise of the "redress of grievance" (ROG) option available to all officers, and began with the bald assertion that the CNS was "distorting" personnel policies in order to bring up officers belonging to his "constituency". There also seemed a "hidden denominational agenda" in his actions, alleged Harinder Singh, since his actions often suggested an overt hostility towards adherents of the Sikh faith. This, in turn, was perhaps a consequence of the CNS' wife Niloufer Bhagwat being a "half-Muslim" and a "'card carrying member of the Communist Party and their lawyer" (before the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry). As though this was not enough, Harinder singh flung a wild and incendiary charge against a Muslim officer, Lt. Cdr. A.A. Lone, questioning his patriotism and falsely alleging links with a person involved in hawala transactions for arms for Kashmir terrorists. About Niloufer Bhagwat, he alleged that her "half-Muslmi" origins and CPI links "could possibly explain why so many officers from this denomination remain close to them" and raised the question: "Could this case be a case of 'affirmative action'?"

For the rest, Harinder Singh's ROG petition was a highly coloured recapitulation of several personal encounters with Bhagwat over the years. The bias allegedly began in 1962, when Harinder Singh joined the training ship INS Tir as a Cadet Officer and underwent instructions in gunnery equipment from Bhagwat. Over the years, their paths intersected often - notably in 1983 and 1994 - and each encounter only strengthened Bhagwat's supposed aversion for his junior officer.

The adverse remarks that had been entered into his Confidential Report (C.R.) were entirely motived by this bias, charged Harinder Singh, and solely intended to deny him a higher position in the naval command hierarchy, which would otherwise be his due on purely professional criteria.

Harinder Singh's ROG petition was forwarded to NHQ on April 6. The response was sent within three weeks, signed by the Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff (VCNS), Jacob. The various issues raised by the officer had no bearing on his specific grievance and went far beyond his "competence and locus standi", said the VCNS. The language used and the imputations made were in violation of various statutory regulations of the armed forces. Harinder Singh, said Jacob, should explain within ten days why disciplinary action should not be taken against him for these multiple transgressions of naval discipline.

Civility was reaching breaking point by this time. Rather than respond to the NHQ communication, Harinder Singh was proceeding on a preemptive campaign, filing a second ROG petition on April 13 and a third on April 27.

THE WEEK

Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh.-B. JAYACHANDRAN / THE WEEK

Entries made in his C.R. for the period ending February 28 had come to his notice, and the Vice-Admiral was at pains to rebut them. There was, for instance, a reference to his very "average" military command capabilities, and his failure to provide NHQ with a "strategic appreciation" of the Andaman Islands littoral region for all of eight months. One specific omission was identified to question Harinder Singh's military leadership skills. While he was on leave from his post in February 1998, a major inter-services operation was launched in the Andamans Sea to interdict a narcotics and arms smuggling operation. The operation yielded a massive haul but the CNS noted that Harinder Singh gave no indication that he would "leave aside his personal concerns and rejoin duty to take charge" of it. There were also adverse notings on Harinder Singh's visit to Russia in May 1997, when he enjoyed the hospitality of two known arms dealers, one of whom had been placed on the MoD blacklist.

In his ROG petition, Harinder Singh chose to evade his failure to provide the strategic review of the Andamans region that the NHQ had requested and sought to enter necessary corrections on the other two points. He claimed to have, contrary to the CNS' observations, made himself available to join operations during the February 1998 exercises. This offer was ignored, since the CNS was allegedly more interested in ensuring his absence from the fray, so that this could be utilised to the detriment of his advancement prospects. And as for the arms brokers who had hosted him during his visit to Russia, these were retired naval officers, protested Harinder Singh - one of whom was part of his graduating class from the National Defence Academy. He was not alone among senior naval officers in maintaining a relationship of intimacy with these individuals. And it was unfair to use this as a pretext to tarnish his professional image.

The three Service Chiefs, (from left) Chief of the Naval Staff Sushil Kumar, who replaced Admiral Bhagwat, Chief of the Army Staff Gen. V.P. Malik and Chief of the Air Force Staff A.Y. Tipnis, who took over on December 31.-MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

NHQ refused to entertain all three ROG petitions, on the grounds that they failed to conform to the prescribed format and went far beyond any specific grievance. Harinder Singh then approached the Calcutta High Court for redress. A single judge refused to entertain his plea, following which he went in appeal to a Division Bench, which again ruled against him. The CNS had, in the intervening period, filed a contempt petition against Harinder Singh, who was obliged by July 9 to respond to a judicial notice served on him, but never did.

On August 12, the MoD ruled, after considering Harinder Singh's ROG petitions, to expunge the adverse remarks endorsed by the CNS. Subsequently, the Calcutta High Court was informed by the Judge Advocate-General of the Services and two government counsels under instructions from the Law Ministry and the Ministry of Defence that the disciplinary function relating to this case was being transferred from the jurisdiction of NHQ to the MoD. There was apparently no prior consultation with NHQ over this matter, which seemed solely intended as an ex post facto rationalisation of the MoD's unilateral decision in favour of Harinder Singh.

On behalf of NHQ, VCNS Jacob wrote to the Ministry on August 14, insisting that the expunged remarks be restored. The reason was very simple: "The adverse remarks are based on facts on record and assessments made by the CNS, on inputs that are only available to him and not to officials of the Ministry of Defence. These officials are thus not in a position to come to a conclusion or overriding judgment..."

A joint letter dated September 8, 1998 from the then Service Chiefs Gen. Malik, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen to Fernandes protesting against Ajit Kumar's behaviour.

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The confrontation was rapidly escalating. Niloufer Bhagwat, the outspoken constitutional lawyer-wife of the CNS, addressed a letter to the Defence Minister on August 13, registering her strong sense of outrage over the cultural biases that Harinder Singh's successive petitions revealed, especially in connection with her professional work on behalf of the victims of the Mumbai riots of December 1992 and January 1993.

A NOTABLE effort to mediate a constructive outcome was made by Sharad Pawar, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and former Defence Minister. In a letter of remarkable clarity and firmness despatched to the Prime Minister and Defence Minister on September 9, Pawar drew their attention to the multiplicity of petitions pending in court on account of Harinder Singh and counselled them to exert their authority in the cause of sanity: "Had this been a petition by an officer in the civilian services, I would not have felt the need to write to you. However one of my observations 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 the country. It would be disastrous to allow anybody or anything to shake this."

George Fernandes felt obliged, as a matter of courtesy, to send a laconic one-line reply to Pawar. But his attention was clearly elsewhere. Relations between the military hierarchy and the MoD bureaucracy were plunging rapidly and Fernandes seemed disinclined to check the precipitate descent. On September 8, he received a letter signed by all three Service Chiefs complaining of the "negative and unsupportive attitude" of Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar. His "brusque and insensitive" manner with even senior military officers did not make for a conducive atmosphere, complained the Service Chiefs.

Obviously, Ajit Kumar had been designated as the point-man in the sharpening conflict between the BJP-led Government and the armed forces. In March 1998, he had lodged a formal complaint with Admiral Bhagwat that the joint services operation held the previous month in the Andamans region had not been cleared in advance by the MoD. The CNS' response was that details of armed services operation could not be cleared in advance with the MoD, since many of them were in the nature of rapid reactions to intelligence inputs. In the bargain, Bhagwat is also learnt to have made a more general point about operational autonomy in the armed forces.

Relations, by all accounts, went rapidly downhill in subsequent months. On October 31, Bhagwat took what would seem an unusual step. He wrote to the Defence Minister drawing his attention to a series of adverse reports on the Navy in the print media. These reports, he suggested, had been put out by the Director of Public Relations in the MoD, on the explicit instructions of Ajit Kumar. Similar complaints, he reminded the Minister, had also been made by the Chiefs of the Army and the Air Force. As far as the Navy was concerned, the stories seemed to hinge around the career prospects of two Vice-Admirals - Harinder Singh and Raman Puri. This led him to believe, said Bhagwat, that these two officers were integrally connected to the campaign to undermine the naval leadership.

The new Defence Secretary, T.R. Prasad.-RAJEEV BHATT

The uneasy stalemate persisted a while longer before the Government precipitated the next phase of confrontation on December 9, by appointing Harinder Singh as DCNS. The final denouement came within three weeks. Fernandes is known to have issued a note to the Union Cabinet on December 26, recommending the summary removal of the Navy Chief. The options available had been famously set out by Admiral J.G. Nadkarni, CNS, in November 1990 in a recommendation against Bhagwat, then a Rear Admiral in the Western Fleet: "There are four courses of action open to deal with the misconduct of Flag Officer Bhagwat. They are (a) to invoke the pleasure of the President as enshrined in Article 310 of the Constitution... (b) to initiate action for dismissal, discharge or retire him from the Naval service under Section 15(2) of the Navy Act... (c) to place the Flag Officer on the retired list in terms of Regulation 179(2) ... (d) to Court martial him under the Navy Act and pending investigation and trial, suspend him under Regulation 91. ... Since options in sub-paragraphs (b), (c), and (d) are time consuming and would not send the deterrent message down the line to all ranks in the navy... I recommend that the services of Rear Admiral V. Bhagwat be immediately terminated under Section 15(1) of the Navy Act."

Lawyer Niloufer Bhagwat's letter of August 13, 1998 to Decence Minister George Fernandes about Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh's communally biased and divisive observations.

Just over eight years later, the President "in exercise of the powers conferred by 15(1) of the Navy Act" was "pleased to withdraw his pleasure for the continuance of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in the Naval Service." It was unclear whether this represented a vindication of the line that Nadkarni had advocated in 1990 or the victory of a particularly unsavoury crew in the higher echelons of the naval command.

BHAGWAT'S first close encounter with dishonourable discharge cast a long shadow over subsequent events in the Indian Navy, particularly in the higher ranks. By any objective test, Rear Admiral Bhagwat, as he then was, had the best service record among his peer group. With his sea Reports, assessed professionalism and seniority, he was a natural front-runner for a coveted fleet command. As CNS, Admiral Nadkarni thought differently, as did the FOC-in-C (Western Command), Vice-Admiral S.Jain. Being first and second in the service hierarchy, their influence, which counted for much, was exercised on behalf of Rear Admiral K.K. Kohli.

Bhagwat was incensed and, on failing to obtain redress through the statutory naval channels, moved the Bombay High Court for appropriate remedy. NHQ took the view that this was an act of gross indiscipline and Nadkarni's recommendation of summary termination by the withdrawal of Presidential "pleasure" was the direct outcome.

From Harinder Singh's letter

Excerpts from Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh's 26-page Redressal of Grievance letter of March 23, 1998:

"That he is particularly inimical to me for the performance of my duties without fear or favor and free from any pressure and for his perception that I stand in the way of his enforcing his agenda. I also fear that there is a hidden denominational agenda."

"I had earlier, at Delhi, suspected a denominational bias, when he unsolicited, on two occasions, brought up the subject of Sikhism, a subject I never discuss and passed adverse comments against the eighth Sikh guru, quoting from discussions he had with a mutual friend and advising me that I should get a deeper insight on the issue from the same friend. I did not respond and changed the subject. I, as the ACOP after observing his assessments over a period of time discerned an apparent bias against most of those wearing a turban, particularly those in senior ranks, where his gradings were generally lower than their earlier assessments. I am informed that his bias took root when a Sikh midshipman shot another officer when he was in command of INS Ranjit, during the post 84 period, and brought strictures personally against him for his responsibility in the incident, as the Commanding officer."

"One of Adm Bhagwat's parents had unfortunately expired a day before the start of the Promotion Board but he did not go to fulfil his filial duties, of performing the last rites due to his 'commitment' to the cause and possibly feared that another Board President may be appointed as all the other members had already mustered at Delhi. It is well known that Mrs Bhagwat is a half Muslim, card carrying member of the Communist Party and their lawyer and this could possibly explain why so many officers from this denomination remain close to them. Could this case be a case of 'affirmative action'? If so it would be at the expense of ethos of the nation and the Navy and send out the wrong signals in the service."

Yet the naval hierarchy had much to hide in the affair. One of Bhagwat's principal complaints was that his Annual Confidential Report (ACR) had been tampered with and replaced, to compromise his chances for a higher command assignment. After earning high ratings during Admiral Tahiliani's tenure as Navy Chief, he fell out of favour under Nadkarni who made motivated and assiduous efforts to sideline him. At one point, Minister of State for Defence Raja Ramanna recommended to the Appointments Committee of Cabinet (ACC), Bhagwat's appointment as Fleet Commander (Western Fleet) on the strong grounds of merit-cum-seniority. However, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, B.G. Deshmukh, pointed out to Prime Minister V.P. Singh that such an appointment would contravene Regulation 134 of Regulations Navy, Part III Statutory which made it clear that such an appointment could not be made without the recommendation of the Chief of the Naval Staff. Despite several consultations held on the subject by Dr. Ramanna in May-June 1990, Admiral Nadkarni refused to relent, reportedly threatening to resign if Bhagwat's appointment as Fleet Commander went through. Subsequent inquiries by a Naval Committee established that Bhagwat's ACR had indeed been tampered with and replaced during the Nadkarni-Jain regime, and that the Rear Admiral had been wrongly denied Fleet Command.

Nadkarni's November 28, 1990 recommendation that "the services of Rear Admiral V. Bhagwat be immediately terminated under Section 15(1) of the Navy Act" was disregarded by the Government with good reason, since the dismissal of a Flag Officer on the basis of a fabricated ACR would have done no good for the morale of the armed forces. Yet the notice of "severe displeasure" that had been served on Bhagwat by Admiral Nadkarni for one over-generalised observation made in the Redressal of Grievance application continued. Nadkarni's successor, Admiral L. Ramdas, who himself had to overcome behind-the-scenes manoeuvres during the Chandra Shekhar regime to make Jain Chief of Naval Staff, argued successfully that the validity of the "displeasure doctrine" should be curtailed from three years to one.

Ramdas' ascent to the apex of the naval hierarchy restored a sense of propriety and momentarily subdued the unsavoury happenings at the top. But Rear Admiral Bhagwat still faced obstacles related to his petition in the Bombay High Court. Naval Headquarters made the withdrawal of the petition a condition for Bhagwat's advance to the post of Fleet Commander. With Niloufer strongly advicing a recorded withdrawal on each point in court, as distinct from a withdrawal simplicitor, the petition was duly withdrawn.

The Ministry of Defence's communication of August 12, 1998 notifying the expunging of adverse remarks recorded against Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh.

With a change of government in early 1991, much uncertainty hung over the career of Rear Admiral Bhagwat and at one point he seriously contemplated resignation from the service. However, the new Defence Minister, Sharad Pawar, turned out to be a refreshing change. He showed both fairness and a readiness to go into details; he discussed Bhagwat's case with both Admiral Ramdas and Defence Secretary N.N. Vohra, both of whom were sympathetic. Upon a recommendation by the CNS and approval by the ACC, the Narasimha Rao Government appointed Bhagwat Fleet Commander (Eastern Fleet) in October 1991.

A second stage promotion in May 1992 came after a similar process in the case of the Promotion Board. Rear Admiral Bhagwat gained due promotion along with three others. Further elevation came upon recommendation by the CNS and approval by the ACC and Vice Admiral Bhagwat became Deputy Chief of Naval Staff under Ramdas' successor, Admiral V.S. Shekhawat. He went on to serve as FOC-in-C of the Western Command, before his elevation as CNS in September 1996.

SUCCESSION in the Navy has been a stormy and contentious matter since 1990, if not earlier. As Nadkarni approached the age of retirement in November 1990, there were two Vice-Admirals who were considered potential replacements - L. Ramdas and S. Jain. The latter had been given an extension in service with the explicit purpose of giving him a chance to occupy the top slot. In October 1990, the V.P. Singh Government decided in favour of Ramdas. The following month, the Government fell, to be replaced by a rump faction of the Janata Dal with the external support of the Congress(I).

Subsequent events have been recorded by R. Venkataraman, who, as head of state, had a unique vantage point from which to view them. Shortly after assuming office, Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar made overtures to the President through the Defence Secretary, to ask whether Ramdas' appointment could be rescinded. The President demurred. Orders on the succession had already been issued and their withdrawal would create avoidable confusion and heartburn, he argued. Chandra Shekhar was insistent: could not Nadkarni then be given an extension, he asked. Venkataraman was again lukewarm. There was no obvious rationale for what was clearly an extraordinary step, he responded, and a Service Chief on extension would fail to command the unequivocal allegiance of his men.

What these presidential reminiscences point to is an officer cadre in the Navy that was riven by deep factional politics from at least 1990. Bhagwat's petition in the Bombay High Court was symptomatic of a problem that had reached near crisis proportions. The core of his legal challenge was completely different from Harinder Singh's in 1998. Bhagwat's case was that both the CNS and the ACC were bound by relevant criteria laid down by the Navy law and regulations; he had clear and well-documented grounds to allege mala fide on the part of his superior officers.

In endorsing the dismissal of Bhagwat, Nadkarni and S.M. Nanda are singular in their own ways among former Navy Chiefs. Their reasons are partly congruent. Nanda heads one of the most successful arms brokerage firms in India, with operations in Moscow and London. His son took early retirement from the Indian Navy to join the family business, and is reported to have provided hospitality in London to the wife of Harinder Singh during his overseas visit in May 1997. Nadkarni was investigated by the CBI in 1990-91 for alleged "assets disproportionate to his known sources of income." The matter ended with his paying considerable income tax dues.

Further inferences, although of a tentative nature, are possible for anybody who recalls that the Chandra Shekhar Government, during its undistinguished tenure, afforded a most congenial environment for all manner of commercial adventurers. The first, unavailing efforts to scupper the Bofors investigations were made during this period. The linkages with l'affaire Vishnu Bhagwat would be apparent if it is remembered that Bofors has so far been the only serious and productive investigation into the rampant problem of corruption in defence procurement. To step back from the immediate imbroglio and take in the larger picture is to go right to the source of the turmoil that has seized the top officer corps of the Indian Navy. It is to realise the full dimensions and ramifications of the continuing flirtation with the global arms bazaar, to the detriment of professional military evaluations of national security.

IT is significant that the principal belligerents on behalf of the Government - George Fernandes and Atal Behari Vajpayee - were nowhere in evidence in the public debate that followed the dismissal. Beyond seeking refuge in enigmatic and unexplained references to "national security", they have managed to say little of substantive value. On the contrary, every explanation they have floated - whether directly or through their proxies in the media - has been shot down almost immediately.

Combat through innuendo was the chosen strategy of the Defence Minister in the week after the dismissal. Bhagwat was accused of sheltering an allegedly unsavoury subordinate, Rear Admiral S.V. Purohit. As officiating Chief of Logistics in NHQ, Purohit, it was alleged, had cultivated ties of great intimacy with blacklisted defence firms and profited from them. Yet Bhagwat was intent not merely on retaining him in a pivotal position, but also on promoting him to the next higher rank.

The plain truth, as it emerged, was that a set of allegations against Purohit had been widely circulated in the Ministry and the media in October 1997. Although anonymous, these accusations were put through a departmental scrutiny by the Defence Ministry and later referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Neither examination found the least bit of substance in the charges, which only seemed to vindicate Bhagwat's stand: anonymous accusations should not be dignified with a formal inquiry.

It was then suggested by George Fernandes that Bhagwat had, in irritation at a statutory complaint filed by Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar, the next ranking officer in the naval hierarchy, threatened to court-martial him. The allegation is impossible to verify, since the threat was supposedly delivered over the telephone. But on the day of its purported occurrence, Bhagwat was on a visit to a neighbouring country. And all that the records reveal is an exchange between the CNS and Sushil Kumar, in the course of which Bhagwat informs his eventual successor that his communication could not be treated as a statutory complaint since it did not fulfil certain formal requirements.

BHAGWAT'S personal convictions and deep sense of intellectual rigour made him a misfit in an ambience where the easy and lazy options were preferred. He was known, for instance, to question every major import deal and vigorously argue the case for indigenous production. His experience in the Service similarly taught him to study keenly every procurement deal for evidence of cost-rigging. He was wary in the extreme, even at the cost of alienating his peer group, of military officers who chose to enter the arms bazaar as contractors and middlemen after retirement. The loose and permissive attitude that Harinder Singh displayed during his visit to Russia was, in Bhagwat's code of conduct, deeply repugnant.

In his value system, the former Navy Chief was an unreconstructed Nehruvian. He wore his commitment to national self-reliance as a badge of honour in circles that had learnt to look at the principle as an inconvenience. His sense of secularism, of fair play among communities and equal opportunity for all, was strongly rooted in the optimism - perhaps even naivete - of Nehru's time, before cynicism and opportunism overwhelmed these basic commitments of state policy. When much seemed at stake for him professionally on account of lawyer-wife, Niloufer, taking on the Shiv Sena-BJP regime in Maharashtra before the Srikrishna Commission, not for a moment did the future CNS waver or vacillate. "I wear this uniform to protect my citizens," friends remember him saying when friendly warnings were conveyed about how Niloufer's anti-communal lawyerly work would jeopardise his career prospects.

Harinder Singh's appointment as DCNS was more than a personal affront for Bhagwat. It was a transparent effort to discredit and dishonour an entire value system. Predictably enough, it drew a defiant reaction from the Navy Chief, providing the Government with the cause for summary dismissal. In this sense, Defence Minister George Fernandes clearly played the role of an agent provocateur for a communal combine. Those who bear arms for the Indian Republic are not expected to have political convictions of their own. They should, rather, mirror all the biases and predilections of the ruling party, or in this case, coalition. However, in the panic-stricken Defence Minister's decision to review the existing pattern of relations between the bureaucracy and the military lies conclusive evidence that Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat has touched a raw nerve somewhere in the Hindutva Government's project of suborning every institution of the state in pursuit of its atavistic vision.

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