So rattled was the UPA government with the movement of troops on the night of January 16 that hours after the defence secretary had ordered Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) Lt Gen A K Choudhary to send them back, a helicopter took off from Palam’s technical area to check whether the troops had moved back.
Sources have confirmed to The Indian Express that on the morning of January 17, on board the chopper was an official of the Intelligence Bureau, one from the Research and Analysis Wing and a third intelligence official.
Their mission: to ascertain the status of the armoured fighting vehicles which had moved from Hisar and were being carried on tank transporters.
This airborne mission lasted about 45 minutes after which the intelligence chiefs were informed that the mechanised unit was indeed rolling back to its base.
This may have come as some comfort to the “highest seat of power” in government that — as the DGMO confirmed to The Indian Express — had met the previous morning, on January 16, to discuss an altogether different matter: the filing of the petition on the same day by the then Army Chief General V K Singh in the Supreme Court against the government on his date of birth controversy.
Sources said that the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary Pulok Chatterji convened a 9.30 am meeting in the PMO with Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth.
They were joined by Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati.
Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma, who was in Malaysia, was contacted the previous night, and told to arrange for “certain files” to reach the PMO.
Sharma is said to have informed the PMO that since the operative part of his defence dialogue in Malaysia was over, he would cut short his visit and return to the capital.
Sources said that this morning meeting weighed the options of action against Singh — from dismissal to asking him to go on leave. In this context, files related to the 1998 sacking of Navy Chief Vishnu Bhagwat were referred to.
But there was no unanimity on what action to take. The Attorney General is said to have advised against taking any drastic step. After leaving the PMO, he proceeded to his residence to prepare a note on the legal points arising out of Singh’s petition.
By the time officials in the Defence Ministry received a copy of V K Singh’s petition, news had trickled in, first, via intelligence inputs, of unusual movement of a mechanised infantry unit from Hisar.
Subsequently, reports came in that a Para Brigade had left the cantonment in Agra. The Defence Secretary, who had, by then, landed in New Delhi, was asked to rush to 7, Race Course Road to attend another urgent meeting.
The Prime Minister, according to accounts, sat grimly throughout this meeting, which began at around 7.30 pm. Among those attending this security conclave were National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon; Home Minister P Chidambaram and Intelligence Bureau Chief Nehchal Sandhu, who was constantly receiving inputs from his formations and had images of the deployment on his Ipad.
Around 9 pm, Sharma gave instructions for his South Block office to be opened and left the RCR meeting. At around 11 pm, he summoned DGMO Lt-Gen Choudhary and told him to order the troops to go back.
The DGMO was told that since mobilization for the January 26 parade was already in progress, the movement of additional units should not have been permitted. He was asked to provide an update on the turnaround of the two units irrespective of how late it was. Close to midnight, the Defence Secretary returned home.