The sacking of a Brigadier

Print edition : June 23, 2001

The dismissal of Brigadier Surinder Singh from the Army appears to signal the start of a legal battle over the issue.

He has displayed professional resolve in executing op (operational) tasks. He followed professional advice and has instituted measures to minimise damage to own assets in the bde (brigade) sect (sector) due to enemy fire. On discovery of the armed intrusion by Pakistan into unheld areas of the bde sector, he acted swiftly, blunted the designs of the enemy by containing the intrusion and set the state for further operations.

- 3 Infantry Division commander Major-General V.S. Budhwar's comments on 121 Brigade commander Brigadier Surinder Singh, in his confidential report of July 8, 1999.

WHEN the Indian Army announced on June 4, 2001 that the Brigade Commander responsible for the defence of Kargil during the war of 1999 had been sacked for incompetence, their spokesperson left out a few pertinent facts. Notable among them was the fact that Brigadier Surinder Singh's superiors all thought he was an excellent officer - until the truth about their own high-level command failures during the Kargil war began to emerge.

Brigadier Surinder Singh.-

Authored by his immediate superior at the height of the Kargil campaign, Brigadier Surinder Singh's internal confidential report gave him 122 marks out of a possible 144, which was an exceptional score. His highest score, nine out of nine, came for qualities such as "boldness and resoluteness in the execution of his duties" and "acumen in judicious utilisation of human and material resources". The lowest grade, seven out of a possible nine, came for "understanding (and) appreciation of the viewpoint of his subordinates. Not four weeks after Major-General Budhwar authored this glowing account of Surinder Singh's abilities, he and other top officers of the Indian Army made the 121 Brigade Commander subject to an extraordinary witch-hunt.

Few observers of the Surinder Singh saga had expected the Brigadier to survive the action launched against him just weeks after the Kargil war. On August 22, 2000, outgoing Chief of the Army Staff General V.P. Malik had issued a show-cause notice, holding out the threat of dismissal under Rule 19 of the Army service rules. The notice charged Surinder Singh with having leaked classified documents to the media, and of having vacated a forward post in the Kaksar sub-sector without authorisation. It also pointed to criticism of the Brigadier in the official Kargil Review Committee (KRC), chaired by defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam, and in the Army's own internal investigation of Kargil operations, conducted by Lieutenant-General A.R.K. Reddy. Malik's successor, General S. Padmanabhan, subsequently allowed Surinder Singh to resume duties at Ranchi, but eventually succumbed to institutional pressure to make the Brigadier a scapegoat.

The decision, when it was made, was timed to avoid any immediate legal challenge. Surinder Singh was due to retire on July 30, and had been issued formal papers denying him a two-year extension. The extension was denied because he was declined what the Army calls a "substantive promotion", on the grounds that disciplinary proceedings were pending against him. Surinder Singh was preparing to return home to Chandigarh when the bombshell fell. The order terminating his services under Rule 19 was made public just after the High Courts closed for their summer vacation, making it difficult to obtain a stay. On June 4, Surinder Singh was on a train from his home to Ranchi - which fact ensured that he had no immediate recourse to legal aid. Such was the haste with which the operation was executed that the order the media had been told about was never served. As late as June 7, sources told Frontline, Surinder Singh had not been served the five-page order terminating his service.

What provoked this extraordinary operation? The mysteries of the campaign against Surinder Singh have piled up at an alarming rate since late 1999. Two courts of inquiry were instituted against him for supposed misconduct. The first was for the vacation of Bajrang Post, a position routinely vacated in winter in the area of Point 5299 metres, by the 4 Jat Regiment in early 1999. The court of inquiry came to the conclusion that Surinder Singh had "to take effective steps to keep the Line of Control under secure surveillance". It also found, embarrassingly, that Surinder Singh's superiors had authorised the decision, and were informed of it. The second court of inquiry, dealing with the question of leak of documents, ended with little evidence other than the finding that the Brigadier had moved documents from his office to his bunker. Surinder Singh was then attached to a unit in Rajouri, a formality that marks the beginning of the court martial process. Neither court martial ever met or summoned any witness.

Aware that it had little evidence, and that the courts martial were unlikely to succeed, the Army chose to change tack. Malik now issued his Rule 19 show-cause notice. This provision enables the Chief of the Army Staff to remove officers from service, where a "trial by court martial is inexpedient and/or impractical". All that the show-cause notice cites by way of reason for this decision is "careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of the case, including the national security and the sensitivity of the operation matters". How what was deemed practical and inexpedient in 1999 had become impractical and inexpedient now was unclear. Surinder Singh, denied documents and legal counsel, was only able to submit a final reply to the show-cause notice in December 2000. This came after a closed-door November 27 meeting with Gen. Padmanabhan, after which Surinder Singh was granted permission to work with his counsel in Chandigarh before being posted back to Ranchi. One senior officer present at the meeting told Frontline that the Army Chief promised Surinder Singh that he would "personally ensure that justice is done". In the event, all that Gen. Padmanabhan could ensure was that Surinder Singh would get to keep his pension and retirement benefits despite being sacked.

Surinder Singh's real problems began in the first week of August 1999, when Outlook magazine carried an article claiming that Surinder Singh had, between August 1998 and March 1999, "sent six letters to his superiors, the Army Chief and the Defence Ministry informing them of increasing threat perception along the LoC, but nothing was done". Although the article was wrong in fact - Surinder Singh had sent no letters to anyone on this issue, evidence perhaps that he did not leak information to Outlook - the report did provoke media investigation on the issue. Soon afterwards, Frontline published excerpts from several Army intelligence and 121 Brigade documents, showing that Surinder Singh had repeatedly asked for new equipment, and pointed to deteriorating security conditions along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kargil. Budhwar and his superiors in the Northern Command, however, did not act. After repeated official denials that such documents existed, Frontline published copies of the documents in October 2000 (issue dated November 10, 2000).

From Budhwar and 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal upwards, the Army top brass reacted with panic. One strategy was to pretend that Surinder Singh had asked for equipment and resources, notably satellite imagery, that the Army did not have. But Frontline is now in possession of an August 12, 1998 letter from the 121 Brigade's Brigade Major, R.K. Dwivedi, stating that the Director of Military Operations had told Surinder Singh that Army Headquarters had "Sat (satellite) imagery and air photos pertaining to most of the en (enemy) areas opposite own sect (sector)". Specific images which were needed could, the letter notes, be made available at the request of Budhwar. He never made such a request, and, in the event, turned down repeated appeals by 121 Brigade for more air surveillance and patrols.

Another tactic was to discredit Surinder Singh personally. If Budhwar had nothing but praise for him on July 8, 1999, Kishan Pal wrote a venomous assessment 20 days later. The Ministry of Defence public relations machine went into overdrive, using pliant journalists to suggest Surinder Singh was hysterical and unprofessional.

ARMY officials were not the only ones to play a role in the effort to cover up evidence of command failure. The KRC's findings, although they have no legal basis because the committee was not constituted by law, have been used to shore up the case for Surinder Singh's dismissal. The KRC, despite its repeated assertions that it would not target individuals, devoted several pages to criticise him. Its principal charge was that Surinder Singh's "action on the ground with his own resources did not match his expressed concerns", and that there was no information to support his claims of the forward movement of Pakistan troops in the Olthingthang area. The committee did not, however, see it fit to mention that the period of winter vacation of posts during 1998-1999 was much smaller than during past winters, a sign of Surinder Singh's desire to keep his men up along the LoC for as long as possible. Nor did it point out that his requests for resources had been rejected.

Worst of all, Surinder Singh did indeed furnish evidence to show that he had reason to worry about the forward movement of Pakistan troops. In his second interaction with the committee in December 1999, the Brigadier pointed to a series of intelligence warnings that underpinned his concerns. Letter number 1793/Int dated July 21, 1998, issued by 3 Infantry Division to the 102 and 121 Brigades, mentioned that the 24 Sind regiment had moved to the Kargil sector. Another letter, 1793/Inf (II), sent the same day, quoted an extract from a 15 Corps Headquarters letter, number 1403/3/GS(A) dated July 11, 1998, noting that the 21 Azad Kashmir Battalion had moved to Skardu. A final letter, again numbered 1793/Inf but dated July 23, 1998, noted that a battalion had moved from Sialkot to the area across the LoC from Kargil. The KRC simply blacked out this material and made a false allegation against Surinder Singh. It did not censure officers elsewhere, notably those officers who failed to contain the first intrusions in the Turtok area.

Inevitably, the issue seems to be headed towards the court. "I am a lawyer," says counsel for Surinder Singh, R.S. Randhawa, a military law expert, "and I am not supposed to take things personally. But it's clear to me that a terrible injustice has been done, and I will fight this with all I have. The battle, as far as I am concerned, has just begun." Surinder Singh has said that he intends to fight for his rights. "The last time I spoke to him," says Randhawa, "he told me that the only thing important to him as a soldier is his honour. He has kept quiet all these months because he believed the system would, in the end, protect his honour. Now, he will do whatever has to be done to clear his name."

Although Randhawa is unwilling to discuss the legal strategy that would be pursued, others familiar with military law told his correspondent that the Delhi High Court or the Jammu and Kashmir High Court would be moved. Courts have traditionally been reluctant to interfere in the Army's internal matters, but this case also involves matters of enormous public interest.

No matter which way the legal battle goes, the sacking of Surinder Singh has raised questions about whether any of the lessons of the Kargil war have been learnt. While over a dozen junior officers now face various forms of military proceedings for their supposed failures during the war of 1999, not one senior command-level figure has had to suffer the consequences of glaring errors of judgment. Budhwar, sources told Frontline, has received only an administrative censure, which will not hamper his long-term career prospects. Kishan Pal, who gamed at the outset for a low-level engagement that his troops would complete in days, was made Quarter Master General. More career advance has been blocked not by his strategic mistakes, but by ill-health. Northern Army Commander H.M. Khanna and former Army chief Malik have had to face no official questioning at all of their conduct.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor