Troop movements of the curious kind

Understanding the unusual movement of two army units towards New Delhi

The byline of the report shows its seriousness. It could not have been filed without the approval of the highest levels of the Indian government. It is deeply worrisome. In January 2012, almost 60 years after the Indian republic was established, some people in the government were concerned about a military c-, well, curiosity.

The report presents a set of facts saying “(it) is too early to answer all the ‘hows, whys and the what-nexts’ of this.” It is not even clear if all the relevant facts are out in the open. Even so, at this time, what should we make of these disturbing revelations?

The two most important questions at this time are the following. First, why were the two military formations moved in an ostensibly unusual manner? Second, why did the government permit this report to be published at all, and why now?

The first question has three broad explanations. The most innocent is that this was a tragedy of errors brought about due to the atmosphere of mistrust between the army chief and civilian government officials. Triggered by the timing—General V K Singh’s petition to the Supreme Court—the civilian establishment panicked and overreacted to the unusual but unthreatening events. A crucial point is the allegation that the army headquarters did not notify the defence ministry of the movements of the two units towards New Delhi, which is the required protocol. Army commanders do not need authorisation to move troops on exercises, but need to notify the ministry when the geography of the National Capital Region is involved.

A less innocent explanation is that the movement of units was deliberate designed to unsettle the civilian establishment and nothing more. The third, and the least palatable explanation is that some people in the army thought they could pull off a political stunt, much like the dharnas, gheraos and public protests that you see in the capital on a daily basis. (No, there is no fourth explanation, this is India.)

While we do not know if any of these reflect what actually happened, the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the innocent explanation. That’s already cause for deep concern. It remains to be seen if the defence ministry will investigate the unusual troop movements further. Ideally, it ought to. At this time, however, it is unclear if this can take place without exacerbating the atmosphere of mistrust that has been created.

The second question is this: why is it that the government allowed this report to be published? On a matter as sensitive as this, it is highly likely that the Indian Express would have accepted a request not to publish such a report if the government would have made it. So why wasn’t such a request made? The honourable reason is that it is just as well that the public is kept informed of the slightest risks to our democratic setup. The political reason might be to get back at General V K Singh.

Again, we do not know the answer to this question either. What we do know is that the situation has been allowed to reach to such a point that the banana flavour is palpable. Things have gone far enough. We need a new Defence Minister. Considering what might come next under this government, it is just as well that he stays on.


Update: Framing the debate

Since this post was published earlier this morning public discourse has gravitated around two issues: on the motives and propriety of the Indian Express in publishing this story and on whether or not a military coup was attempted.

Let’s get the first out of the way—unpalatable, unsavoury and unbelievable as it may well be, the newspaper acted in the public interest by publishing it. You might quibble about the size of the headline or the sensationalisation, but unless you think bad news and potential risks ought to be hidden from public view, it is hard to justify an argument against its publishing. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write op-eds for the paper, including one last week on restructuring the armed forces)

Next, while the article alleges that the army undertook unusual movements without notifying—and notification is different from authorization, a point that many commentators have missed—the defence ministry as it was required to, it does not suggest a military coup. This is a very important distinction. Presuming that a coup could be the only motive behind the alleged mobilisation precludes us from considering other possibilities.

The report is not only about what the army did or didn’t do. It is also about what the civilian establishment did. It should be quite easy to establish whether a terror alert was sounded in New Delhi on January 16-17th, and whether the defence secretary flew back from Malaysia to meet the DGMO and send the troops back. The Indian Express cannot be fabricating these easily verifiable facts. If indeed these events occurred, then the objective reality is that of severe mistrust between the uniformed and civilian leadership in the defence ministry that had serious consequences on the ground.

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.

The defence minister dismissed the report as baseless. The prime minister uttered two brief non-committal sentences, warning us of “alarmist reports which should not be taken on its face value” and reminding us of the obligation to “do nothing to lower its dignity and respect in the public”. This is no trifling matter. It behoves on the UPA government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to spell out—both in parliament and in public—what it intends to do to restore trust between the armed forces, the civilian establishment and the people of India.

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.