The misleading presumption of a coup

We lose the middle when we debate the extremes

Here’s an excerpt from a report in The Hindu filed by its New Delhi bureau.

Precisely why the government ought to have been alarmed by the presence of two additional formations on New Delhi’s outskirts, when tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed in and around the city, also remains unclear.

Intelligence sources told The Hindu that the political apprehensions might have emanated from assessments given to the government as its conflict with the Army Chief on the age issue escalated in early January. Tens of thousands of soldiers were arriving in Delhi for the Republic Day parade, even as Gen. Singh was preparing to move the Supreme Court, and the Intelligence Bureau feared the inflamed public discourse on his date of birth might spark an embarrassing incident.

The movement of the two units was noted with concern in this context, a senior Intelligence Bureau official admitted to The Hindu, but insisted that “at no stage was the possibility of a coup, or any attempt to overawe the government, ever discussed. We worried about indiscipline, or a show of support by some elements — and it’s our job to consider those possibilities.”

Though the Intelligence Bureau routinely monitors troop movements in sensitive areas across India, the sources said, it had not been conducting surveillance operations seeking signs of threatening military movements. It was only after the 50 Brigade or 33 Armoured Division’s detachments were noticed on the capital’s outskirts that the government was notified of their presence. [The Hindu]

In yesterday’s blog post and tweets, I had warned that the presumption that the Indian Express report only indicated a coup would close our minds to other “in-between” possibilities.

Note what the senior IB official says—it was not a coup they feared, but rather ‘indiscipline or a show of support by some elements.’ Street protests have become increasing common over the last few years not least because the UPA government has succumbed to political negotiations conducted by such means. As the officer said, it’s the Intelligence Bureau’s job to consider those possibilities. The atmosphere of mistrust would have played on those risk assessments and set off the chain of events.

What is of public interest, then, is what caused civil-military trust to break down? What mistakes did the civilian establishment make in the days and hours leading up to January 16/17? What mistakes did the army make? These questions need to be examined dispassionately in order for us to be able to attempt to restore that trust. [Troop movements of the curious kind]

A breach in the defence ministry?

It is too early to point fingers (especially without evidence)

Last year there was an eavesdropping controversy supposedly targeting the finance minister and his aides. It has now been reported—and denied—that the defence minister’s office might have been bugged. If it is indeed true that A K Antony’s conversations were being overhead, this is not a trifling matter. We still do not know what became of Pranab Mukherjee’s case. That obfuscation might have good reasons (in the public interest) and bad ones (in the partisan political interest). So it becomes all the more troubling to know that yet another important cabinet minister might have been targeted for eavesdropping.

While good journalism would investigate the matter, making allegations without evidence is dangerous. Most media reports somehow find it relevant to mention the recent controversy over the army chief’s date of birth in a report of suspected bugs in Mr Antony’s office. They insinuate a connection without any evidence.

India Today’s, Sandeep Unnithan goes a step further. “The needle of suspicion,” he writes using the passive voice, “has been pointed at the army. Sources say it is possible that the MI (military intelligence) team stumbled upon the bug planted by another team”. We do not know who these ‘sources’ are? We do not know why they think the MI team should ‘stumble’ upon a bug instead of ‘finding’ it as part of their professional routine?

He then says “Defence Ministry officials believe that the Army was snooping on phone conversations around South Block.” This is better. We know that it is defence ministry officials who are making these allegations, although we do not know if it is a gossiping clerk or a top official leaking information to the media in the public interest. It could be anyone.

Mr Unnithan then goes on to provide evidence that the Army has equipment that can listen in to phone conversations. But there’s a, well, bug in his story. If the Army has “off-the-air” interceptors and “passive cellular surveillance systems” why would it need to plant a bug in Mr Antony’s office? Intercepting cellphones does not require planting of bugs in the defence minister’s office. If we presume that the Army already has the ability to tap fixed line telephones, then why would they need plant a bug at all? Also it’s not only the Army that has these devices. There were at least 73,000 such passive interception devices in government and private hands last year.

The bug might have been placed to eavesdrop into offline conversations. In which case, the whole story of the Army’s surveillance equipment and ‘shadowy’ military intelligence divisions is as irrelevant or relevant as any other explanation. The needle of suspicion has many directions to point at. At this point we just do not know.

There is no doubt that recent events have increased mutual mistrust and antagonism between the civilian and uniformed defence officials. So suspicions and conspiracy theories are to be expected. Journalists have an important responsibility to ensure that these are not unduly stoked by the manner of their reportage.