The story of a reported plan by the Army Chief VK Singh to send a message to the government on the date of the hearing of his age case in the Supreme Court by allegedly mobilising two military units, one from Hisar another from Agra are reminiscent of the time when the government in 1964 got frightened by the then Army Chief JN Chaudhuri organising troops for Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral. Having been witness to the chaos that attended Gandhiji’s funeral in 1948, Chaudhuri thought the presence of troops would help keep the situation under control. Alas, our bureaucrats thought a coup was in the offing. While modern independent India has fortunately not witnessed a military coup showing the strength of democratic institutions, the British in India certainly had their share of military revolts, the most massive one being the revolt of 1857. From the Vellore mutiny in 1806 to the mutiny of Irish soliders in 1920, the British had seen it all.
History apart, the present narrative on the reported attempts to mobilise two military units for the purpose of a coup or whatever else it was meant to be is a result of the impasse in civil-military relations. This is because of the years of ingrained distance between the bureaucracy and military in India. The movement of troops from Hisar and Agra was known to government and it had also been reported by another media apart from the one that reported before. Therefore, it was not breaking news but sponsored news the second time around. Even the Army Chief had in a transcribed interview warned of the possibility of a misrepresentation of the movement of troops just a couple of weeks prior to news became public. The movement of troops, within specified areas is a routine exercise and needs no noting. When larger exercises take place, then government has to take note and inform foreign governments also.
Exercise brasstacks game planned by General Sundarji was one such large movement which created excitement and panic in Pakistan. But a coup is different. By nature it has to be covert and moving troops on a large scale is not without danger. It is therefore much easier to have in-situ troops in action. Remember also that India is not Pakistan, where the military is prone to leading the government. Is a coup with 1,000 troops possible? No way. Some journalists with much imagination thought that the ‘C’ word could be carried out without so much as a whisper with these men, who were actually practicing for rapid movement in a foggy weather. Actually, some 30,000 troops are stationed in Delhi and an equal or larger number are present in the capital during the Army Day and Republic Day. So are we to assume that the movement of a armoured unit and a unit from 50 para brigade a precursor to an actual coup? Let us make one thing clear, if the Indian Army wants to do a coup, nothing can stop it, except itself. In 1984, when Sikh troops of the Indian Army revolted it was put down immediately.
This was because of the ethos and training of the armed forces. This is in itself has of course been denuded over the years because of the inroads of corruption in the Army, as the Army Chief VK Singh has recently pointed out in his letter to the Defence Minister. The Intelligence Bureau apparently got the creeps when they saw these two army units apparently sneaking towards Delhi. Naturally, the more loyal than the king gang informed the king at dead of night. But all this was just a blind for the real game that is going on within the establishment to find an Army Chief who will be a ‘yes’ man. There are several aspects to the present low in civil military relations in India. Internal disquiet in the Army during the tenure of the past several chiefs, inability of the government to sought out issues relating to the armed forces, powerful external lobbies working to undermine the military system and finally, inherent distrust of the military by the Indian bureaucracy.
All this created the ground for the so-called ‘C’ on the night of January 16-17. It would appear that the deep-seated suspicion of the military, harboured by the politico-bureaucratic combine led to the reports about the movement and the timing came in handy as the Army chief was waiting for his court verdict. Let us for a moment go back into the past and revisit the 1857 mutiny. Recall that when Mangal Pandey shot his senior officer on May 10, the British knew that the greased cartridges were only the tip of the iceberg. But they were caught by surprise because they had little intelligence about the ‘native’ Indian Army. Today, the intelligence system is active internally, meaning within the echelons of government and makes it difficult to plot something close to a mutiny.
The one thing that was prompt was the government response which quickly quashed any thoughts of a coup. But that did nothing to reduce the disquiet that exists in the corridors of power (and outside it) over an individual as Army Chief who decides to stand for principle. That is why there are moves which are clearly meant to damage the reputation of the Army. It is a considered view that the first thing for the government to do is to dispel the notion that they are a divided house. That is precisely the impression the story of the movement of troops sought to create and perpetuate. The one lesson that can be learnt from the above is how not to create stories or how to create them with some objectivity. After all, if the media wants to sensationalise it, they can always do so, but it must be tempered with the realisation that national security is being dealt with.
— The author is an avid watcher of defence issues