The General’s labyrinth

Contrast this army chief with another aggrieved one: K.S. Thimayya

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: March 30, 2012 2:56 am

Contrast this army chief with another aggrieved one: K.S. Thimayya

Never since Independence has the Indian army — one of the few institutions respected by the country despite some scandals within it — been subjected to so much gratuitous damage as during recent days. With the leakage of a super-sensitive letter to the prime minister,the situation has taken an alarming turn. Tragically,the architect of this avoidable tragedy is none other than the chief of army staff,General V. K. Singh,now on the verge of retirement. The current brouhaha began with two interviews given by him to a newspaper and a TV channel during which he alleged that he was offered a bribe of Rs14 crore,and that he had mentioned this to Defence Minister A.K. Antony,who had “struck his forehead with his palm” in despair.

What happened or did not happen thereafter he left unstated. Nor was it clear when exactly the alleged bribe was offered. Most significantly,the army chief did not disclose what Antony revealed in Parliament on Tuesday,that having mentioned the matter to him verbally,the general had added that he “did not want to pursue it”. This throws an altogether different and lurid light on General Singh’s sudden and curious decision to go public,albeit in selective interviews a year-and-a-half after the event that he did not want to pursue,in any case.

Another question that arises is — why didn’t Antony,whose reputation for having resolutely fought corruption “all his life” is beyond doubt,take action on his own? He has told Rajya Sabha that he had acted on his own judgement,and if he was wrong,he should be punished.

Others say that in the absence of a written complaint by General Singh,the minister could not have done anything. This is disputed by B. Raman,arguably the man best qualified to speak on the subject as a former Number Two in the Research and Analysis Wing and a leading security analyst. According to Raman,the army chief should have followed up his conversation with the minister with a written report to him and placed the matter also on the files of the army headquarters. For his part,Raman adds,the defence minister should have recorded a note on his conversation with the army chief,started an inquiry and kept the cabinet secretary and principal secretary to the prime minister informed. In his opinion,both the chief of the army staff and the defence minister failed to do their duty. Only after the general hurled the “bribery bomb” into the public domain did Antony refer the malodorous affair to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Meanwhile,in the unending cacophony on TV talk shows,in Parliament,in the print media and in the bazaars,the army and its present chief are attracting uncomplimentary attention. Several predecessors of General Singh have said that they are surprised that anyone could dare approach the army chief directly with an offer of a bribe. They have also pointed out that had such an offer been made to them,they would have immediately acted against the offender. At the same time Lieutenant-General (retired) Tejinder Singh,a former chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency,the person accused by General Singh in his verbal report to Antony as well as in an army press note,has filed a case of criminal defamation against General Singh and four others.

The nearest General Singh came to giving a glimpse of his reasoning for unacknowledged inaction was in his elaborate TV interview. The interviewer asked him,pertinently,why hadn’t he got the man offering him a bribe arrested on the spot or at least file an FIR. The army chief had replied: “When someone who had just retired from the army,in the course of a long conversation,told me what I would be given if I cleared a particular file,I was too startled.” This is neither here nor there.

In view of the many murky developments,General Singh has only himself to blame if a large number of his peers and others are openly saying that the “bribery bomb” incident is an offshoot of his frustration over the failure of his painfully prolonged struggle to get his date of birth changed to his satisfaction. In other words,the bribery episode seems to be a continuation of his war with the defence ministry and through it,with the government. He was the first army chief to drag the government to the Supreme Court over a relatively trivial matter. The apex court’s judgment rejecting his petition and forcing him to withdraw it is instructive and should be compulsory reading for future generations of officers of the armed forces.

In the course of its judgment,the Supreme Court did not fault General Singh’s “persistent efforts since 1985 to correct his date of birth”,but it recorded its “disapproval” of the way in which he “wriggled out of his commitments to the then army chief and the ministry of defence that he would accept 1950 as his date of birth and treat the date controversy as closed”. “Having given these commitments”,their Lordships observed,“it does not befit a meritorious officer like you to take such a stand at the fag end of (your) career. Maybe,it is an unfortunate happening or destiny.”

Contrast all this with the exemplary conduct of the iconic General K.S. Thimayya,the fourth army chief,who had grave and legitimate grievances against then defence minister,Krishna Menon. He resigned gracefully but was persuaded by Nehru to withdraw the resignation. Then,during a parliamentary debate,the prime minister,invoking the doctrine of civilian supremacy over the military,backed Menon and said that he “could not congratulate” the general. “Timmy”,the quintessential officer and gentleman that he was,never complained,didn’t go to court and gave no interviews to the press. Quietly,he completed his tenure with dignity.

Now that the CBI is investigating the matter “comprehensively” and the protagonists of the unseemly controversy have had their say,there is an urgent and immediate need to put an end to the hare-brained chatter and motivated mud-slinging.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator,express@expressindia.com

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