Media's alarmist interpretation of innocuous, routine Army drill
Indian Express caused a huge sensation in the country by carrying an over-blown story spread over the entire front page of the newspaper’s April 4 issue with an alarmist 8-column headline claiming that troop movements towards New Delhi in mid-January had “spooked” the Government. The story appeared credible to the common man in the context of the tensions between the Government and the Army Chief over his date of birth. What lent more credibility to the story was that Express is known for its investigative journalism. Security experts and former Generals, however, doubted the veracity of the story from day one and picked huge holes in the coup theory, though the newspaper hadn’t mentioned the dreaded word. Subsequent revelations made by the Defence Secretary in his testimony to the Parliament and briefings to prominent MPs contradicted every aspect and interpretation in the controversial story excepting the minor fact that two small army contingents based in Agra and Hisar did move out for an exercise that fateful night and camped on the outskirts of the national capital.
Most questions raised by the Express in its explosive story that caused widespread distress among citizens have been rubbished by the Government. The assertion that the Defence Secretrary SK Sharma was asked to rush back to India cutting short his business trip to Malaysia late in the night and opened his office after midnight to deal with the panic created by the “movement of troops towards NCR”, is factually wrong. The Government claims that Sharma had returned to the capital in the afternoon not because of the “panic in the Government” but to hold discussions on legal issues involved in the General’s petition to the Supreme Court. Again, the Prime Minister was not woken up at the break of the dawn to inform him of the troop movements but was only informed about the “night’s events” by NSA Shivshankar Menon in his routine morning meeting with the PM to prepare him for any questions that may be raised in Parliament.
The only grey area is whether the Government asked the Director General of Military Operations to order the small contingents numbering a few hundred that were camping outside the capital to return after completing their exercise or were ordered to return to their bases immediately. If the latter is true, the theory of panic in the Government gets some support. Yet the story doing the rounds in the capital is that sections of civil bureaucracy, that are no admirers of the General, and a few disgruntled uniformed men and retired generals had indeed created the hype in the Government over an innocuous routine drill to discredit the General. Media reports suggest that the IB was alerted by an army commander about the movement of troops. As is usual with intelligence agencies, IB vigorously followed up the tip, consulted the J&K Governor NN Vohra and several other experts. That, it is said, created a flurry in official circles. In any case, it was a short-lived scare that the Express used to create a national sensation.
Official spokespersons issuing clarifications and contradictions are routine. No one expected the Government to confirm the report and admit that its functionaries spent a sleepless night. But the vehemence with which everyone in the Government from the Prime Minister down to the Raksha Mantri and the Defence Secretary (tensions between the latter two and General VK Singh are no secret) denounced the report leaves one with the impression that the Express dug a mountain out of a molehill.
Dr Manmohan Singh, who was as usual, restrained in his response, dismissed the Express report as “alarmist” while advising everyone – presumably including the media – to ensure the dignity of the office of the Army Chief. Defence Minister AK Antony dismissed the report as “absolutely baseless” and went on to say that the armed forces were fiercely patriotic and committed to the Constitution and democratic system. Defence Secretary SK Sharma told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that the troop movements in mid-January were part of a routine drill and that Express story contained “wrong inferences, conclusions and conjectures”. He insisted the exercise was not unauthorised and that no rules were violated. On his part, the General, the aggrieved party and the target of the elements that provided “inside information” to the Express, trashed suggestions about an attempted coup as “fables of a sick mind”. He insisted that there was no need to notify the Government for such routine drills and that no one had sought a clarification from him.
In an interview he gave to a weekly in March, the General had expressed apprehension about certain elements who might misinterpret a routine movement by troops as “something else” (read coup). The most startling part of this particular interview was his observation that certain people “in uniform and not in uniform and some civil servants who have their own axe to grind” were feeding all kinds of wrong things to the media. The media may put such juicy information on the front page and nobody even looks whether there is any truth in it…You have already thrown muck on somebody. There are lots of people doing that I don’t know what their motives are,” the General lamented. Certain elements referred to by the General may have motives to malign him but hopefully the media has no such nefarious design. Journalists often err even with the best of intentions. The moral of the story is that media need to exercise greater restraint while reporting on highly sensitive issues to ensure that no damage is caused to national fabric.
The Prime Minister and his wobbly Government miserably failed to quietly resolve the controversy over General’s date of birth and allowed the tensions between the civil bureaucracy and the Army Chief to become an issue of public discourse. It must take part of the blame for the widely held perception that all is not well between the Government and the military. For a change, the political establishment handled the highly explosive issue of so-called attempted coup with great restraint. It promptly rubbished the report to disabuse public mind of any scare while the BJP responded with great maturity and acted as a responsible opposition. Its comment that it was “re-assured by the categorical denials by the Government and the army” came as a great relief to the people. However, there is no denying the fact that the relationship between the political bosses and the military is not as it should be. Alas, good governance is not the priority of this Government.