June 12, 2011

Time for new Army Chief

In any genuine democracy it is the civilian leadership that controls the military. But that does not mean that the military will have no voice and role in matters affecting their operational abilities. That is why I have often condemned the fashion of some elements in our country, drawn from academia, civilian bureaucracy and active politics, in viewing the Indian armed forces with great suspicion. They remind us how Jawaharlal Nehru had once said that there was no significant role for the military in India. These very elements also oppose the idea of India having a “Chief of Defence Staff”, a post every comparable democracy such as the US and the UK allows. They fear that it will give a military officer too much power.

And worse, these very elements have been bitter that the government tolerated the remark of former Army Chief JJ Singh that India should not withdraw from Siachen glacier in the name of promoting good India-Pakistan ties. They also pressurised the government last year to take action against the present Chief, General VK Singh, just because he defended the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act. I think that these elements are overreacting a bit. The Generals are within their limits to express the viewpoints of armed forces on issues that directly concern them. The government should take these as important inputs while making decisions. The point is that being a democracy, our armed forces should have a voice on important strategic issues, though they cannot dictate what the ultimate decisions will be. That is the prerogative of the political establishment. In other words, there has to be some Lakshman Rekha within which the military leaders should be respected for their decisions and voice but beyond which those need to be disciplined.

I am underscoring the above point in the wake of two recent developments. One was the discussions between the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan over the Siachen glacier, a part of Jammu and Kashmir that happens to be the world’s highest battlefield and two-third of which has been under the absolute control of the Indian Army since 1984, to the great dismay of Pakistan. Under relentless pressure of the United States and our “secular” commentators, the Manmohan Singh government seems to be in favour of Indian pullout from the glacier under some innovative compromise of demilitarisation. It is said that the place has no strategic value, that it is too expensive, both in manpower and ammunition, to hold on to our advantage and that the Indian withdrawal will be a fine gesture to Pakistan, which, in turn, will reciprocate in strengthening other confidence building measures. In other words, the government seems prepared to gift away on diplomatic table what our soldiers have fought hard to gain in the battlefield.
Without going to details of the Siachen impasse, this much can be said that the Indian Army, which has sacrificed a lot, is not willing to vacate the glacier now that the causalities of our soldiers are negligible, thanks to the vastly improved communication and equipments. From the commanding heights here, our armed forces can have a better monitoring of the Chinese in the adjacent Karakoram region, very much a part of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir that Pakistan has almost gifted away to China illegally. The strategic value of the glacier lies also in its political value. All told, if Kashmir is our integral part, then Siachen is also our integral part. We have fought and negotiated with Pakistan since it controls a part of Kashmir, which we want to bring back or ensure the status quo so that we retain what we have. If this approach is logically extended to Siachen, we must retain it. So, the main issue is not the Siachen glacier, which is well within areas under Indian control, but Pakistani attempts to dislodge Indian forces from there.

Viewed thus, the Army is perfectly within its right to voice misgivings at the attempts of the government towards making a deal over Siachen. After all, it is the Army which has already suffered the folly of our civilian leadership in returning the Hajipir Pass to Pakistan, which we had captured during the 1965 war. Had it been under our control, Poonch and Rajouri Districts would never have been flooded with terrorists from across the border.

That brings me to the second development mentioned above. There was that astounding piece of news in The Indian Express, saying: “In an unprecedented move, the Army has sought the opinion of two former Chief Justices of India on the controversy over its Chief General VK Singh’s date of birth.” It seems that at the time of joining the Army, General Singh had given May 10, 1950, as his date of birth. But his subsequent Class X certificate showed it as May 10, 1951. If one goes by the year 1951, General Singh will remain Chief till 2013, but it would lead to lot of complications in the succession line and open the doors to complex litigation process as the affected officers, who, otherwise, could be the Chief, will not take things lying down. That is why the Attorney General has given the opinion that 1950 should be allowed as the Chief’s date of birth.

At the time of taking over as the Army Chief, General Singh had said that he would go by whatever was in the “organisational interest”. And this is something that is legitimately for the Defence Minister AK Antony and his ministry to decide. Thus, it is really perplexing how and why the Army, which means General Singh, decided to refer the matter to two former Chief Justices for opinion that would influence Antony’s decision. It is equally perplexing how Justices JS Verma and GB Patnaik agreed to offer the advice, which is for 1951 as the “correct” date of birth, thus favouring General’s extended tenure.

In fact, the reasoning cited by Justice Verma is shocking. He has referred to General Singh’s “not sparing even the highest in the armed forces for their involvement in the housing and land scams.” The learned Justice says that if the General steps down before his “legitimate tenure” that would give “the public impression of silencing the voice on inconvenient truth”. I think that it is an outlandish argument that General Singh would stay irrespective of the merits of the case and overall interests of the Army just because he is viewed to be fighting the corruption.

Justice Verma should also know that General Singh, despite his undoubted talents and integrity, has been promoting groupism within the Army and playing to public gallery for building his image. He recently agreed with a TV journalist that Lt Col Prasad S Purohit was a “Hindu terrorist” for his alleged involvement in the Samjhauta train blasts. And this was despite the fact that Purohit is yet to be formally chargesheeted, let alone convicted. Incidentally, Swami Aseemanand, on whose confessions Hindu terrorists’ role in the train blast has been based, now tells the court that his statement was extracted forcibly by the investigating agencies! Given this, I think it would have been proper for the Army Chief to reply that the law would take its own course and Purohit, if found guilty, would be dealt with accordingly. Instead, what he did was that he pronounced Purohit guilty just because it was politically correct for his image building.

General Singh has also not shown the maturity in dealing with the much-maligned Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai. The charges were that in the name of Kargil War widows, top officials of the armed forces formed a housing society in the land belonging to the Defence Ministry. He took the charges very seriously, ordered enquiries and threatened to take actions against the wrong-doers. The truth, as it has emerged now, is that the application for the formation of the Society did not refer to the war widows and what is more important, the Defence Ministry has admitted in an affidavit submitted to Mumbai High Court that it has no record of the land in question to prove ownership!

The same is the case with the so-called Sukana scandal. Here a senior General, Lt Gen PK Rath, has been punished for issuing a no objection certificate to a school building on a property that did not belong to the Army. He thought that the school would prove beneficial to the children of the Army personnel in the area. There were never any monetary considerations. But, he has been punished on the ground that he was influenced in his decision by a superior in the Army headquarters, who, incidentally, was not getting along with his immediate superior in Kolkata, who, incidentally, happens to be the present Army Chief. I do not know whether General Rath has gone to the Supreme Court for “Redressal”; he should.

Be that as it may, by lobbying for his extension and taking the help of retired justices in the process, General Singh has crossed the Lakshman Rekha. I am convinced that his intentions have never been strictly military; these have been loaded with elements of self-promotion. This is dangerous for the Army and the country. Defence Minister Antony must display the guts to show the General the door. India needs a new Army Chief.

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