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The colours of Army green

Published : Jan 02, 2004 00:00 IST

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The appointment of the first Chief of Defence Staff is dogged by controversy, with charges of extraneous considerations affecting the decision.

IF the head of the National Commission on Minorities has his way, India's top military officers could soon be wearing the colours of their faith pinned to their olive-green uniforms.

In November, news broke that the Commission's Chairman, Tarlochan Singh, was using his office to lobby for the appointment of Lieutenant-General J.J. Singh as the next Chief of the Army Staff (CoAS). In a letter to Defence Minister George Fernandes, Tarlochan Singh made clear the reasons for his support of General J.J. Singh. "It is," he wrote, "the first time in 50 years that a Sikh officer has a chance to be the Army Chief." Currently posted as the head of the Shimla-based Army Training Command, or ARTRAC, Singh is currently second in line in the top-job sweepstakes behind Lt. Gen. S.S. `Shammy' Mehta, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Command.

Should Tarlochan Singh have his way, all Fernandes would have to do is delay General Nirmal Chander Vij's appointment as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) until January 31 or later. On that date, General Mehta would retire from service, making General J.J. Singh the senior-most contender for the office CoAS. His appointment would not be automatic, for General Singh would have to be holding an active command at the time of his appointment, but most in the Army believe lateral movement to enable this would take place as a matter of course. If, on the other hand, General Vij is appointed CDS before January 31, General Mehta would get a three-year tenure as the next Army Chief, and General J.J. Singh would retire as one of several Army Commanders.

Tarlochan Singh's letter does grant some insight into just why the appointment of a CDS has been delayed for so long. Most modern militaries have a post of this kind, generally held by a four-star General of the same rank as the three service chiefs, to coordinate united responses to strategic needs. India first began to accept the need for the creation of such a post three years ago, after the Kargil war. It met with resistance from the other services, who feared the post would become an instrument of Army domination of overall command. Rajya Sabha member General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, former CoAS, recently claimed that the delay was the outcome of rearguard action by former Air Force chiefs, who he claimed had acted as a "mafia".

Just in October, however, the differences appeared to have been ironed out. At a conference of Corps Commanders, Fernandes promised the post would be realised within three months. He also gave an interview to a specialist defence magazine, expressing support for the creation of the new top-job. However, the creation of the CDS post has not even been referred to the Cabinet Committee on Security until mid-December. No one in the Ministry of Defence will provide a clear, on-record explanation of the reasons for the delay - particularly since not a single politician of consequence has in principle opposed the creation of the CDS position - but Tarlochan Singh's letter does suggest that lobbies hoping to delay the job just for long enough to give General Mehta a shot at office have had some success.

Tarlochan Singh himself has mounted an energetic defence of his position, claiming that the prospects of successive Sikh candidates for the position of Army Chiefs had "invariably been sabotaged". He claimed that "this had led to the heightening of the Sikh grouse on this count". "This time again," he said in a November 28 interview, "if by the dint of seniority, a Sikh General stands to become the Army Chief, the process should not be allowed to be sabotaged." The fact that his letter had been leaked, he asserted, was itself evidence of such sabotage. This argument, however, is profoundly disingenuous. The post of CDS was not created to deny J.J. Singh a chance to become Army Chief; if anything, it should have been created years ago.

Peculiar positions, however, have long been stock-in-trade for the Minorities Commission Chairman. In October, he complained that sportsmen of Sikh origin, including golfer Chiranjeev Singh and cricketer Harbhajan Singh, "do not keep hair required by their faith". He defended the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) Trishul Diksha programme in March, attracting sharp criticism from several secular and Christian organisations. He also wrote to Christian leaders to protest against the conversion of some Sikh families in Bhilai, demanding that Church leaders "desist from this activity to avoid tension between two minority communities". After similar conversions took place in Punjab earlier in the year, he had asked Shiromani Akali Dal leader Kirpal Singh Badungar to investigate the issue - a distinctly political subcontracting of activity for the Minorities Commission.

All of this, however, is of a piece with Tarlochan Singh's stated political beliefs. A one-time aide of President Zail Singh, Tarlochan Singh was a key line of communication between Rashtrapati Bhawan and the Sikh Right. After Operation Bluestar, Tarlochan Singh played a key role in ensuring the President was not excommunicated by the Akal Takht, by persuading Sikh clerics that Zail Singh was not informed about the military operation. It is unclear just how he moved close to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but Tarlochan Singh continued to play an active role in the SAD's affairs after moving to the Minorities Commission. He publicly backed, for example, efforts to unify various Akali Dal factions earlier this year - conduct many consider grossly inappropriate, since it suggested only one political party legitimately spoke for all Sikhs.

SADLY, several of Tarlochan Singh's friends in the Akali Dal have played similar roles in military affairs in the past. Last year, a similar scandal erupted after a letter written by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Air Command to former Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal was leaked. In the October 2001 letter, the Thiruvananthapuram-based officer asked Badal "to speak with Hon'ble Prime Minister and get me posted to WAC (Western Air Command) as the change-over at WAC/VCAS (Vice Chief of Air Staff) is due in end-December 2001". In return, the officer promised to "tackle J&K and Pakistan as required by the government", and also "help people of Punjab in many ways." "With Akalpurukh's (the Almighty's) blessings and your help," the officer signed off, "I can become the Chief of the Air Staff of Indian Air Force one day."

Earlier, the Akali Dal also played a key role in paving the way for the sacking of former Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. In 1998, Bhagwat refused to promote the Andaman and Nicobar Fortress Commander, Harinder Singh, as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. Harinder Singh had drawn adverse notice after he accepted hospitality from two arms traders during a visit to Moscow in 1997, one of whom figures on the Defence Ministry's blacklist. Then, in a petition to his superiors, Harinder Singh had levelled venomous allegations, describing Bhagwat's wife, a leading lawyer, as a "half-Muslim, card-carrying member of the Communist Party". Akali Dal MP Prem Singh Chandumajra joined this attack on Bhagwat saying that it "was quite obvious he was opposed to having a Sikh as Deputy Naval Chief". What evidence Chandumajra had for this contention continues to remain a secret.

Part of the reason for the Akali Dal's persistent communal interference in Army affairs is its deep internalisation of the colonial invention of the Sikhs - along with some other communities, like Punjabi Muslims and Marathas - as a "martial race". In the Sikh religious Right's imagination, a leading role in armed service is almost part of the manifest destiny of the Panth; the denial of leadership inevitably the result of some overarching conspiracy. While many wholly secular observers believe that some Sikh officers have been denied senior positions because of their faith, there is little evidence of systemic persecution. Several Sikh officers have occupied sensitive posts within the Army; former Research and Analysis Wing chief Amarjit Singh Dulat was of Sikh origin, as is the chief of the super-secret National Technical Intelligence Communication Centre, R.S. `Billy' Bedi.

It is also true, however, the Akali Dal is not the only party to have played communal politics in the armed forces. The Bharatiya Janata Party's record has been almost as bad. During the Kargil war, General Vij and Air Vice-Marshal S.K. Malik agreed to brief the BJP National Executive. The May 6, 1999, briefing broke Army tradition. In the Lok Sabha elections that followed the war, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself chose to deliver an election speech in Karnal from a platform decorated with portraits of the three service chiefs. Again, an injured Kargil war hero, Grenadier Yogendra Yadav, was ordered to touch Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Giriraj Kishore's feet at the Army Hospital in New Delhi.

Compliance with communal objectives has indeed been good for many careers. Former 3 Infantry Division commander Lt. Gen. V.S. Budhwar provided logistical support for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-organised Sindhu Darshan festival at Leh in 1998. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani and RSS ideologue Tarun Vijay were among those who attended the function, which was underwritten by Army funds. Payback time came for Budhwar when he faced credible allegations of serious command failures before and during the Kargil war. Frontline has carried documents that showed that Budhwar and his superiors had received repeated warnings of a border build-up, but chose not to commit resources to meet the challenge (Frontline, November 10, 2000). He received a medal for his efforts.

Military competence, notably, seems one issue wholly ignored in the ongoing controversy. After years of political abuse of discretion, India's service chiefs are appointed not on the basis of their skills to hold the top job, but their seniority. All those who reach a certain level of seniority, the argument goes, have roughly the same abilities to manage their armed services.

Within the Army, however, most officers - cutting across their religious persuasion - see General Mehta as a more competent military commander than General Singh. There is, however, no real public-domain method of validating this proposition, and peer popularity is not in any case always a useful means to gauge command skills. General Mehta's critics, moreover, charge him with being uncomfortably close to the Defence Minister - a charge which, if true, will be put to test in coming weeks.

By mid-January, then, General Nirmal Vij will have taken charge as India's first CDS - or communal forces will have succeeded in shaping the course of top military appointments, a development with potentially calamitous implications for India's armed forces. If that does happen, it will be a tragic but perhaps inevitable outcome of the course defence management has taken ever since the NDA government came to power. Secularism is not an ideological construction in the Indian Army but, in several regiments, a survival imperative. Five fingers, every rookie cadet is taught, can unite to make a fist - or be broken easily, one by one. The Defence Minister might do well to listen to what his troops have to say on the subject on his next visit to the field.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 02, 2004.)

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