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The unprecedented resignation of Admiral D.K. Joshi from the high office of chief of naval staff (CNS) on Wednesday, in the wake of the unfortunate accident on the Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhuratna earlier in the day, may seem impulsive. But it is in keeping with the finest traditions of the military. The unwritten tenet of the profession of arms is that success is attributed to the subordinates in the chain of command. The blame for failures and lapses rests with the top leadership — and as the “old man”, Joshi took it on the chin and burnished this principle, which alas has been ignored in India for many decades.
Leadership applies across the civil-military spectrum. Not since former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as the Union railway minister in 1956 (following an accident in Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu, in which 144 people were killed), has there been a display of such conviction and the resolute acceptance of moral and institutional responsibility.
The resignation of Joshi is as unprecedented as the swift manner in which it was accepted by the government, and this aspect merits attention. The Indian navy has been under adverse scrutiny since the enormity of the loss of another Kilo-class submarine, the INS Sindhurakshak, which suffered an explosion on board in August 2013 that gutted the boat and led to the loss of 18 lives. In the interim — from Sindhughosh to the Sindhuratna mishap — there have been as many as nine incidents of operational lapses and minor accidents involving naval ships and submarines that have come under intense media focus. The perception is that the navy, the traditional silent service, has been making news for the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, this perception — that there was something terribly wrong with the institution — was allowed to fester and, in many ways, Sindhuratna is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The loss of life in any context is agonising and while the military profession accepts this exigency as being in the call of duty, every commander assumes the safety of the lives of those under his command as sacrosanct. Consequently, the penalties and repercussions for such occurrences are strict. The fact that two young officers lost their lives in the Sindhuratna incident may have weighed heavily on Joshi. In his resignation, the former CNS has set the same, if not higher, standard of rectitude that he had applied to his commanding officers.
But the larger question that lingers is: does the buck stop at the office of the naval chief? Each of the accidents/ incidents is of different magnitude and contour. Many would be deemed to be of an order not unprecedented — as, for instance, a ship touching the jetty while coming alongside, continued…