Army exercises, others sweat- Govt scrambles to calm fears over troop movement
|OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT|
New Delhi, April 4: A newspaper report on the movement of two key army units towards New Delhi on the night after the army chief moved the Supreme Court kept the Centre as well as the defence establishment on toes through the day today.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and defence minister A.K. Antony called the report "alarmist" and "absolutely baseless" and said there was no rift between the government and the armed forces.
Under normal circumstances, such army exercises would not have drawn much attention. But, as The Indian Express report said, the defence secretary did enquire about the movement of the units that night, a step that is now being seen as a measure of the distrust between the government and the army.
The newspaper underscored that "nobody is using the 'C' word to imply anything other than 'curious'." But attention stayed fixed on the report spread over the whole front page and fuelled a perception that matters have reached such a pass that anything is possible.
A parliamentary panel today questioned the defence secretary, Sashi Kant Sharma, on the exercises. Sources said he replied that the exercises were "routine".
The basic facts reported by the newspaper have not been denied but the inferences many readers drew from the report have been hotly contested by serving officers and veterans who said they could not find anything amiss tactically in the exercises to suspect foul play.
A mechanised infantry unit from Hissar had moved towards Delhi and elements of the 50 Independent Para Brigade had also moved to the capital in what the army says were separate exercises.
The Para Brigade, based in Agra, conducted a media briefing on the exercise about three weeks back (the newspaper said its investigations had started over six weeks ago). The brigade said it was testing the ability of its troops to move quickly in fog with the logistical support and weaponry it needs for urgent missions. The Para Brigade's brief is to be prepared for missions even over long distances at short notice. According to weather records on January 17, the dawn indeed was foggy.
The defence minister and the army confirmed that the units did move on the night of January 16-17. On January 16, the army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, had challenged the government's rejection of his plea on his date of birth in the Supreme Court.
The Indian Express report on Wednesday, written by a team of journalists that included the paper's editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta, said intelligence agencies sent an alert to the government after a unit of the 33rd Armoured Division based in Hissar moved with their equipment on tank-transporters towards the capital.
A major element of the Para Brigade also moved towards Delhi and billeted at Palam.
The armoured division is part of 1 (strike) Corps that, like the 50 Para Brigade, also reports directly to Army Headquarters.
Defence ministry sources have said the army does not need to notify the government about routine movements.
Several officers and veterans concurred, saying a unit would at the most have 900 personnel. If at all anyone in the army wanted some muscle power, the better and swifter option without attracting so much attention would have been to summon forces from Meerut or marshall enough boots from Delhi itself.
But others pointed out that the aggressive intent insinuated by some observers to the movement of the units from Hissar and Agra painted sections of the army's top brass as potential threats to civil political authority. At the same time, a government that worries over the movement of its own army betrays signs of not only distrust but of a certain kind of paranoia, they added.
"Absolutely baseless," defence minister Antony said of the report in response to a question in Visakhapatnam. "The army has already explained this. It is usual; these are natural activities. Nothing unusual. We are absolutely confident of the patriotism of the armed forces. Don't question their patriotism. They will not do anything to undermine Indian democracy," the defence minister said.
"These are alarmist reports. They should not be taken at face value," the Prime Minister said at Rashtrapati Bhavan where he was to attend an event to give away the Padma awards.
The Indian Express today said it stood by the report that came after investigations of over six weeks. "The report is a meticulous reconstruction and a very sober interpretation of the movement of two key army units towards New Delhi on the night of January 16-17," a statement from the newspaper said.
The newspaper report came against the backdrop of a series of developments — beginning with the row over the army chief's age — that suggested the government and the army chief were not seeing eye to eye on crucial issues.
Antony said: "The Indian armed forces cannot take the luxury of controversies. India is a democracy, will continue to be one and they will be part of our democracy. I have fullest faith in the patriotism of the armed forces."
The defence minister said "already the army has explained the position and I endorse". He said "there is no communication gap between the ministry of defence and armed forces, especially with the chief. It is not a fight."
Asked for his response to the BJP's demand that he should resign, Antony said: "It is an Opposition party."
Echoes from the past
Some veterans could not help but look back. They recalled the late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw saying shortly after he turned 90 that towards the end of 1971 or in early 1972, flush from the victory of the war, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had asked him: "So when are you going to take over the country, Sam?"
Manekshaw did not detail his response. But another account says he replied: "You run the country, I run the army."
In Operation Brasstacks in 1987-1988, the then army chief, Gen. K. Sundarji, was exercising the army's armoured and mechanised forces in Rajasthan. The Pakistan Army, fearing an incursion because of the Indian Army's mobilisation, also deployed troops near the border.
Sundarji was testing the armoured and mechanised forces to work out how to increase speed in the desert region.
The mobilisation and Pakistan's response quickly escalated into a confrontationist situation despite political advice against it. In the aftermath of the exercise — that did not lead to conflict because the two sides pulled back — India and Pakistan agreed on a set of confidence-building measures.