No room for evasion

An inquiry must be set up to probe how civil-military relations became precarious on UPA 2’s watch

Updated: February 24, 2014 1:22 am

One night in January 2012, the unnotified movement of two army units towards the national capital touched off unusual alarm in the highest echelons of government. The movement coincided with the then army chief, General V.K. Singh, in an unprecedented move, asking the Supreme Court to step into his public confrontation with the government on the date of birth issue. That row had disturbed the mostly un-selfconscious rhythms of the civil-military relationship in this country and injected a new brittleness in the equation between the two leaderships and institutions. However, The Indian Express’s report in April 2012, baring the events of that January night, was strenuously denied by the army and government. Now, two years later, then DGMO  Lt Gen A.K. Choudhary has confirmed the panic that seized the “highest seat of power” over the controversial troop movements in January 2012. More reports in this paper have shone greater light on that episode: Then air chief N.A.K. Browne has disclosed that one of the two troop movements was actually planned for a month later as a joint exercise with the Air Force, and that, contrary to the Army’s claim at the time, the Air Force was not consulted ahead of the January 15-16 movement. And the next day, a helicopter took off from Palam’s technical area to ascertain whether the troops had indeed moved back as directed.

Yet, incredibly, the official denial and evasion continues. There has been name-calling and it hasn’t helped matters — General Singh has called this paper’s reporters “presstitutes”, and its reports a “fable” of a “sick mind”. Even though the facts that have been revealed and confirmed point to a chilling escalation of distrust between the army and civilian leaderships, there is no move towards an acknowledgement, let alone a closure, of an unhappy chapter in the story of a crucial relationship. A new leadership has taken charge of the army since the January 2012 episode. A new government is likely to be voted in in the elections scheduled for May. It will have to face unanswered questions. How did the government allow the trust between institutions that vitally undergirds its functioning to be so eroded? What have been the lessons learnt? What correctives have been put in place to ensure that such a precarious point in civil-military relations is not reached again?

An inquiry must be set up to probe the events of that January night two years ago. This government has been too weak or too embarrassed, or both, to clear the air. The defence minister and the defence secretary have failed to share the full story even with Parliament. In the circumstances, it will be the responsibility and challenge of the new government to lay out the whole truth about the anxieties that overtook the Manmohan Singh government in January 2012, and to take the measures necessary to erase their institutional overhang.

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