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Friday, 9 May 2008

No Honour Please


No honour please, you are Indian Navy Chief!
Natteri Adigal
08 May 2008, Thursday
TEN YEARS ago, the Indian Navy suffered a disgraceful defeat. The humiliation was inflicted not by any inimical foreign power, but by powers-that-be in New Delhi’s South Block. In December 1998, the then Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, was unceremoniously booted out at the instance of ‘honourable’ defence minister George Fernandes, who could not make him bootlick.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, a staunch nationalist, expected to be the last person to hurt the country’s honour, had his compulsions to back the Defence Minister. Fernandes was playing a key role in letting the government survive, acting as go-between with Tamilnadu chief minister Jayalalithaa. The Defence Minister’s main job, in fact, was to rush to Chennai to satiate her routinely. Bhagwat’s refusal to have vice admiral Harinder Singh, enjoying Fernandes’ confidence, as his deputy was the ostensible reason for the sack. Actually, the purpose was to teach a lesson to the service chiefs; they were harming entrenched interests doing deals in South Block.

In July that year, defence secretary Ajit Kumar had conveyed Fernandes’ instructions to the service commanders that they should seek prior approval of the ministry before intercepting any vessel suspected to be carrying narcotics and arms. The three service chiefs jointly wrote back that interdiction operations in the Andamans were ’mandated operations’, which did not require the ’prior approval’ of the ministry.

It was open secret, later caught in camera by Tehelka that the drug and arms mafia had links with socialites and ‘friends’ of George. The Admiral was bold enough to publicly ask, “Why are Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Burmese and the northeastern rebels operating from the house of the Defence Minister?” According to the Navy Chief, as per the policy framework, ‘civilian control’ does not allow criminals in Parliament and government to boss over the Armed Services. He asserted, “Never in the 50 years of our history since 1947 has the subversion of the chain of military command been carried out in such a blatant manner – destroying the entire civil-military relationship, undermining the disciplinary framework of an armed force of the union.” Sadly, it was the South Block mandarins who triumphed over the Navy Chief.

Ever since November last year, South Block had been uncomfortable again at the service chiefs asserting their dignity. They wanted to get honoured as much as Robert Vadra – son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi – without realising that even their ‘supreme commander’ has to pay obeisance to her! The civil aviation minister grudgingly admitted, “The men who guard our borders should not have to be frisked. There are already 11 people who are exempt. The chiefs of defence services come in at number 12.” Even that number 12 required a salvo from former Army chief Gen S Roychoudhary: “It’s a small symbolic gesture and the government should have gone ahead with exempting the three service chiefs. In public eye, men in uniform are iconic figures.” Indian netas, babus and their cronies, however, do not agree that they should be iconic figures!

It is now the turn of Navy Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, to be shown his place by South Block babus and defence minister. Significantly, Admiral Mehta happens to be the senior-most among the heads of the three services. As the chairman of Chiefs of Staff (CoS) committee, he is the vital contact point between civilians and the military. Humiliating him must teach a lesson to others!

Officials of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and armchair strategic affairs pundits have not been too happy in recent years with initiatives taken by Manmohan Singh’s government. Recently, inaugurating the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) at New Delhi, the PM pointed out that it was not a military pact where a set of nations joined forces against another; it aimed to bring regional states together to fight terrorism, piracy and natural disasters. Singh urged the gathering of naval chiefs to develop a “comprehensive cooperative framework of maritime security.” Admiral Mehta contrasted IONS – a collective grouping of states that are arrayed against common security challenges and threats – with cold-war constructs of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact.

Indian Foreign Service (IFS) babus, with a mindset belonging to cold war time warp, do not find the doctrine palatable. Also, high-science babus in outfits like Defence Research and Development (DRDO), adept at siphoning off monstrous sums to unveil fictitious breakthroughs to drum up hollow national pride, are alarmed at the prospect of exposure of their real prowess. Left Front politicians – chief beneficiaries of ‘deals’ with their old Russian masters – too resist the change in attitude.

MEA has been taking exceptions to the Navy taking decisions, which have ’foreign policy implications’ without consultation. Antony, at their instance, had earlier reprimanded the Admiral for not defending the retrofitting of the junked Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov at huge expense and renaming it as Vikramaditya. His ‘friends’ from Kerala and Bengal had also bitterly opposed the Indo-US Malabar exercises, in which ships from Japan, Australia, Singapore participated. The comrades organised ‘dharnas’ (protest road shows) along the coast.

At the instance of the comrades, Antony recently criticised the naval headquarters for embedding a US warship – USS Cole – in the Indo-British Konkan 2008 exercise – part of UK’s Orion 08 Deployment. It was the Royal Navy that considered USS Cole eminently suited to be an observer. It symbolises the cooperation of navies across the world to jointly foil terrorism at sea. Suspected Al Qaida suicide bombers had attacked it in October 2000 at the Yemeni port of Aden. But it is back. The pro-Iran lobby in MEA found its presence offending during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s India visit.

The Royal navy’s decision to embed USS Cole in replacement for a Spanish ship had, in fact, been conveyed to the defence ministry two days in advance. But, Antony was probably busy in powwows with the Left and could not see it. He instructed that from now on, contours of naval exercises with any country must be spelled out to the last detail and ’well in advance’! That ominously smacks of his predecessor George Fernandes, who insisted on obtaining ‘prior approval’ by the babus before catching arms traffickers!

Like Vajpayee’s government in 1998, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Singh too survives with ‘outside support’ from the Left Front. Singh is reckoned as the proxy of Sonia Gandhi and the weakest and meekest PM India has ever had. The Congress is aware of the compulsion to maintain cordial relations with the Left to stay in power. No wonder, Manmohan Singh, like Vajpayee, chooses to look the other way when his defence minister, who is the go-between with ‘outside supporters’ to prop his government, causes to the Armed services worse humiliation than any enemy country!

This month, Antony shot down the Navy’s recommendation to give a two-year extension to Commodore M Gidwani, the present Judge Advocate General. The babus of his ministry judged that the Judge Advocate General was not fully qualified to head its legal branch. Captain Harinder Gupta, the senior most officer from the Navy’s legal cadre, has instead been appointed to take charge from July 1. This reminds one of what Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat said 10 years ago about ‘civilian control’ of the country: “It relates to issues of war and peace; it relates to matters of strategic consequence. It prohibits day-to-day interference in matters of appointment, posting and promotion.”

Defence and MEA babus, who were taken aback at the frigid reception to Pranab Mukherjee and Antony given at Moscow last year, were also furious at Admiral Mehta’s 12-day long trip to the US recently. They feel that the absence of a service chief during Parliament session is against ’democratic norms’! Next, they may want the Armed Forces bosses to be compulsorily present in the House to watch how convicted criminals, supari-takers (hired murderers), movie stars, and just plain goons make war while transacting business of enacting law!

It is now learnt that the Navy Chief has been asked to take a commercial flight, like any ordinary chap, for his upcoming visit to Thailand, which is part of Manmohan Singh’s strategy spelled out at IONS. The defence minister does not want Admiral Mehta to use one of the four Embraer VVIP planes available.

Speaking on a report this week in Janes’s Defence Weekly about the ongoing construction of a formidable, state-of-the-art marine and submarine base by China, Antony bragged, “Whether in sea lanes or in the land bodies, our armed forces are always taking all precautions to protect our security interests!” What better way to protect the country’s interests than to deny basic honour and esteem, deserved by the officers directing the armed forces! And how long is the farce going to continue?

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