Ashok Karnik says that the Indian army should be kept out of murky politics.
One by one, institutions are being denigrated in this country, without a thought for the future. The venerated Army is now suspect. The sensational newspaper report about the Army’s Technical Support Division (TSD) prepared by the Army’s own Board of Officers enquiry was shocking; it puts our apolitical Army in the dock. It is alleged that the TSD indulged in electronic snooping over the Government, tried to bring down the J&K Government and used an NGO to lodge a PIL against the prospective COAS, Gen. Bikram Singh. The allegations are prima facie dubious but since these are made by the Army’s own enquiry, held by Lt. General Vinod Bhatia, one has to take notice. The report was leaked and its official version is not available but the Government has not denied its existence.
lIt was made to appear as if the TSD was set up under instructions of General V.K.Singh (now retired) and controlled by him like his personal army. The TSD worked under a Lt. Colonel, with 30 men and had a budget of a few crores. V.K. Singh has had a running battle with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) prior to his retirement, over his date of birth (DOB). In this fracas, anything was considered good enough to beat V.K. Singh with. V.K.Singh’s likely alliance with the BJP added fuel to the fire. Therefore, the present report and its leakage raised doubts. There was also an important question why, if the report was so alarming, the Government did not take action for 6 moths after the report was received in March 2013. In fact, if the report is true, the Army’s activities amounted to treason. It may be recalled that a news story had claimed last year that an army unit had marched on Delhi without authorization, at the height of Gen. Singh’s battle with MOD over his DOB. This turned out to be a false alarm. Such reports are deliberately leaked to damage reputations of those who clash with the Government. Gen. Singh’s fight over his DOB might be unedifying but to resort to underhand tricks to defame him is even worse. Some news media allow themselves to be used as cat’s paw; they need to take care to avoid being manipulated; sensational disclosures are often gambits in intramural power play.
- Gen. V.K. Singh countered the allegations by claiming that the TSD was set up post-26/11 under orders of the Minister of Defence. The equipment alleged to have been used for eavesdropping was purchased by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and not by the TSD. The DIA does not work under the Army Chief but directly under the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The equipment was found to be unserviceable and was given away to a private party. The Government should ask why the DIA purchased this equipment and what was done with it. It was ridiculous to allege that a mere Rs.1.30 crore were enough to topple a state government. V.K. Singh did admit that money was paid to a Minster but it was meant for social and sports activities meant to bring the Kashmiri youth into the national fold. Here, he committed a blunder. Reticence is a virtue the General forgot. If the money was paid from the secret service fund, he had no business explaining its purpose. he was not required to do so. In his eagerness to rebut the allegations made against him, he forgot the cardinal principle that secret operations are meant to be kept secret and there was no need for him to drag a Kashmir Minster in the controversy. Gen. Singh raised more questions by making such a disclosure: Why should the TSD indulge in such covert activities? Is the Army meant to dabble in internal socio-political matters by using its secret funds? It does a lot of social work in J&K and other states through ‘Operation Sadbhavna’ to make the Army’s profile more people friendly but should it be a covert operation?
- Gen. V.K. Singh obviously holds Gen. Bikram Singh, the current COAS, responsible for the report against him. The relations between the two Generals are certainly not cordial. Bikram Singh may feel that V.K. Singh tried to deny him the Chief’s post by trying to extend his own service by one year and the latter feels that his successor tried to strike back through the present enquiry report. In fact, the sniping within the Army has given a chance to outsiders to malign the Army. It is not like any other bureaucratic struggle as the Army Chief is God for lakhs of jawans and his getting tarred affects those who are prepared to die for him.
- The entire sordid episode raises more fundamental questions beyond Gen. V.K. Singh’s personal conduct. The Army is now accused of using its secret funds for political ends as also to settle personal scores. The apprehension that it also tried to intercept Government communications puts it in the rogue category. The one institution that was universally respected in the country now stands charged with misconduct or even treason. How did such a thing come to pass? Who has gained what through theses shenanigans?
- It is an unwritten rule of governance that an entity that has the power of the gun should be kept separated from the power of Intelligence. Every military force or para-military organisation genuinely wants to have the ability to collect Intelligence for its own operational use. Care is taken to ensure that these forces are equipped to collect only tactical Intelligence but national security-related Intelligence is left to other specialized agencies that have no armed powers. In India, the task is given to the IB and R&AW who do not have even police powers. This ensures that concentration of power is avoided and it does not breed unwanted ambition. The Army should have desisted from raising units like the TSD or, if found absolutely necessary, its role should have been carefully delineated. The Army is under attack from several sources. Even its role in the encounter in the Keran Sector of J&K in which it fought for 15 days (September 24-October 8) to repulse the intruders was belittled as the hype of the media and the battle that never was. What happens to the Army’s credibility?
- The Government has already been lax in allowing a battle between the IB and the CBI (Ishrat Jahan case) to demoralize the IB; the CBI is already the famed ‘caged parrot’; the Government has attacked the CAG, tried unsuccessfully to protect convicted criminals in Parliament/Assemblies; started questioning the overreach of the Courts; the Cabinet system has been undermined, the Parliament is no longer a forum for debates on conflicting ideas; it is reduced to a platform for obfuscation of issues. Now the Government has allowed the Army’s reputation to be dragged through mud. Intelligence operations which are supposed to be sacrosanct are now being discussed on street corners and Generals being questioned as to whom they paid for what. Secret operations are to be left to competent operators with full faith in their integrity and their word accepted as to the monies spent. No accountant can question an Intelligence Chief.
- In whatever manner the present sorry controversy is resolved, the Government must take responsibility for allowing it to damage the Army’s reputation. The PM and the Defence Minster have the responsibility to see that such disputes are settled within four walls and do not become the talk of the town. All officers have their personality quirks but a Minister should have the caliber to keep control over his domain. Abdication of responsibility and passing the buck has become the rule of UPA II. Who will stand up to be counted as a leader and say he takes the responsibility and also the blame?
The author is a retired Intelligence Bureau Officer.