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The coup controversy backs up Army chief’s claims of conspiracy against him

By Syed Nazakat

Even before a newspaper report of a military coup appeared on April 4, the Army chief General V.K. Singh, it seems, had been expecting something like it. He said in an interview with THE WEEK last month: “Even when our unit, division or brigade does exercise some people say that it was not an exercise. [They accuse] that we want to do something else. Now you can make a story out of it. There are lots of people who want to make stories these days. Nobody wants to see whether there was truth in it. You just throw muck at somebody.” General Singh was on an official visit toNepalwhen the news created a flutter inIndia.

The newspaper reported that on the night of January 16, central intelligence agencies reported to the government that two key mechanised military units had moved unexpectedly towards Delhi―a unit of mechanised infantry, based in Hissar in Haryana, with its Russian-made armoured fighting vehicles and another one based inAgra, with its airborne parabrigade. Panic buttons were pressed, the defence secretary was summoned back from a trip abroad and the director-general of military operations was asked to call back the troops to barracks, said the report.

The fact, as it turned out, was that the movement was a routine exercise to test the mobility of units through the thick fog that envelops the Gangetic plain in winter. The practice actually started after Operation Parakram after the Parliament attack in 2001, when it was found that the two strike corps, based in Ambala andMathura, took more than a week to reach the border, instead of the planned two days. “Since then we have been almost routinely testing the mobility of various units attached to the strike corps, and no one had raised even an eyebrow,” said an officer attached to the office of the general officer commanding,Delhiarea.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony and the Prime Minister’s Office dismissed the newspaper report. “This was a routine exercise. We have complete faith in the patriotism of the Indian armed forces. Don’t question the patriotism of the Army, the soldiers who are dying for the country. I’m proud of the Indian Army, Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard,” saidAntony.

A senior officer in the Army Headquarters told THE WEEK that all movements of vehicles and units take place once or twice a year and some pass throughDelhiand go to Tughlaqabad. “The exercise was on the same pattern and once the effectiveness of the mobilisation was checked, the troops were called back as per the standard operating procedure.”

Said Lt-Gen. (retd) P.C. Katoch, former director-general of information systems: “There are two infantry brigades and one artillery brigade stationed inDelhi. That means there are some 10,000 soldiers posted inDelhi. For the sake of argument, suppose the Army wanted to topple the government they would have mobilised these 10,000 soldiers. What was the need to bring 2,000 soldiers from other places? It is all nonsense and trash.” He said there was something wrong with the government’s approach towards the Army. “People within the government have been repeatedly leaking documents and stories to the media to defame the [Army] chief. If you don’t want him, sack him. But don’t insult him,” he said.

Earlier, there were allegations that the Army men bugged the office of the defence minister.Antony, however, gave a clean chit to the Army. And he continued with the routine checking of his room and residence by the Military Intelligence directorate team. The Intelligence Bureau, which investigated the bugging incident, is believed to have found no evidence against the Army.

What unfolded later, however, exposed an ugly turf war in the armed forces. The Army listed the names of a former and some serving officers behind the snooping activities. It officially named Lt-Gen. Tejinder Singh, a retired three-star officer, as the kingpin of the entire conspiracy. It was alleged that he and some serving officers in the Military Intelligence were planting stories in the media.

The coup controversy might set back the improving relations between the Army Headquarters and the ministry of defence. Members of Parliament quizzed Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma and Army vice-chief Lt-Gen. S.K. Singh on the suspicious movement of the troops. Sharma and Singh, appearing before the parliamentary standing committee on defence, reportedly said that it was a normal process of testing the preparedness of the armed forces. The two were asked to appear before the committee to brief members on the controversies dogging the armed forces, including the deal to procure Tatra trucks for the Army.

The controversial Tatra all-terrain trucks have been used by the Army since 1986 to transport missiles, artillery and troops. The first procurement deal was signed with the Czech manufacturer when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. A controversy erupted when General Singh alleged that he was offered a bribe of Rs 14 crore in 2010 to clear the purchase of the “substandard” and overpriced trucks. The CBI has started investigating the allegation.

General Singh’s farewell has already started. He has a series of visits and meetings scheduled. Before his retirement on May 31, he may visit his regiment and some places where he has served during his 40 years of career. But, for now, he is again at the centre of a controversy. One thing is clear: the new controversy has not only validated his repeated claims of people within the system plotting against him but also put a question mark on the civil-military relationship.

 (THE WEEK, April 15, 2012)

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