An officer and a politician

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

A senior Air Force officer pays the price for his transparent effort to boost his career by playing the political-communal card.

AIR MARSHAL Manjit Singh Sekhon has one of the oldest excuses in the world: everybody does it. The sad thing is that he is pretty much right.

In early March, news broke of a letter written by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Air Command to Prakash Singh Badal, till recently Punjab Chief Minister. 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, Sekhon 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," Sekhon signed off, "I can become the Chief of the Air Staff of Indian Air Force one day." Badal's Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which was voted out in Punjab in the February 2002 Assembly election, is a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance which is in power in New Delhi.

For his outrageous breach of service rules, Sekhon was forced to submit his resignation on March 19, after being threatened with summary dismissal. But the Air Marshal has been meeting lawyers, and should the matter go to court, there is certain to be a very public washing of in-house linen.

By the accounts of his peers, Sekhon is not a corrupt or dishonest officer. He conducted a very professional investigation into the near-disastrous handling in March of an Antonov An-32 transport flight by Air Marshal Vinod 'Jimmy' Bhatia. Bhatia had strayed into Pakistan airspace while attempting to land in Kargil, ignoring the advice of more experienced pilots on board. Pakistani air defence responded by firing a surface-to-air missile, which ended up blowing an engine off the An-32. Air Marshal Bhatia sought to cover his tracks, claiming that the plane was hit by accidental Indian fire. Had the plane crashed, the incident could well have provoked a border confrontation. Sekhon's report - now kept in abeyance because of his own problems - nailed Bhatia's lie. Bhatia, meanwhile, has asked for the case to be reopened following Sekhon's resignation.

What is really interesting about Sekhon's letter, then, is just how transparent it was. The Air Marshal wrote on his own letterhead when he could have made a verbal request to Badal, or sent a note through an intermediary. Indeed, according to reports, he even sent a similar note to Union Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain, advertising himself as "the most warrior-like Sikh officer". Clearly, Sekhon did not think he had done anything to be embarrassed about. And that says not a little about the state the Indian armed forces have been reduced to under the reign of Defence Minister George Fernandes.

Former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was the first victim of Fernandes' bizarre understanding of what civil control of the armed forces means. In 1998, Bhagwat refused to promote the Andaman and Nicobar Fortress Commander, Harinder Singh, as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff (DCNS). His decision was well-founded. Apart from several legal issues, 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 Ministry of Defence blacklist. Then, in a petition to his superiors, Harinder Singh had levelled venomous communal allegations, describing Bhagwat's wife, a leading lawyer, as a "half-Muslim, card-carrying member of the Communist Party", and claiming that his chief's Staff Officer, A.A. Lone, was linked to hawala traders. Later, he covertly taped conversations with peer officers, seeking to entrap them as saying that Bhagwat had anti-Sikh biases, and then leaked the transcripts to the press.

Under other circumstances, Harinder Singh would have faced court-martial and a prison term. Instead, Bhagwat became the first serving chief of any of India's armed forces to be dismissed from service, after he protested against the Union government's decision to promote Harinder Singh, ignoring his writ. There were several reasons underpinning Bhagwat's removal, not the least of which was his resistance to powerful arms-import lobbies. But there was another, less-known factor: Harinder Singh had the support of the SAD. SAD MP Prem Singh Chandumajra attacked Bhagwat on communal lines, saying that it "was quite obvious he was opposed to having a Sikh as deputy naval chief". Harinder Singh, perhaps unsurprisingly, retired from service this month with none of the serious allegations against him ever having been investigated.

But the SAD is not the only party to have played communal politics in the armed forces. The Bharatiya Janata Party's record has, if anything, been worse. During the Kargil war, Director-General of Military Operations M.C. 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 Behari Vajpayee himself chose to deliver an election speech in Karnal from a platform decorated with portraits of the three service chiefs. Again during the August 1999 campaign, an injured Param Vir Chakra winner, Grenadier Yogendra Yadav, was ordered to touch Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Giriraj Kishore's feet at the Army Hospital in New Delhi. When the soldier was found physically unable to comply, his wife performed the gesture in his stead.

Compliance with communal objectives has indeed been good for many careers. Former 3 Infantry Division commander Lieutenant-General V.N. Budhwar provided logistical support for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak 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. Again the next year, Budhwar ensured personnel support and accommodation for RSS cadre who attended the festival.

Payback time came for Budhwar when he faced credible allegations of serious command failures before and during the Kargil war. Frontline has carried documents which showed that Budhwar and his superiors had received repeated warnings of a border build-up by Pakistan, but chose not to commit resources to meet the challenge (Frontline, November 10, 2000). The 121 Brigade at Kargil, for example, wrote to Budhwar's staff in the summer of 1998, pointing to intelligence reports "listing out militant activity opposite Mashkoh valley". The Brigade asked for surveillance flights "over Mashkoh Nala, Mumar Shung and Tololing Nalas". The requests were rejected. Around the same time, Budhwar was busy getting his staff to cooperate with his pet project, that of building a zoo in Leh.

Budhwar received a medal for his efforts; the 121 Brigade Commander was sacked. Where officers used to maintain a studious distance from politicians, many, notably the outgoing 14 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Arjun Ray, now talk openly about their close relationships with those in power. Everyone, it would seem, has got the message.

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