A newspaper report on the movement of two key army units towards New Delhi on the night after the Army Chief moved the Supreme Court (Jan. 16-17) sent shivers down many spines. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister AK Antony called the report “alarmist” and absolutely baseless, insisting that there was no rift between the Government and the Armed Forces. The Army Chief, Gen VK Singh himself dismissed the story as “Stupidest”. Media reports say that Antony himself was wondering what the troop movements meant and that very night had enquired about them.
The newspaper which did the reportage was The Indian Express. The report was written by a team of journalists that included the paper’s editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta. The Express said intelligence agencies had sent an alert to the government after a unit of the 33rd division based in Hissar moved with their equipment on tank transporters towards the capital. A major element of the Para Brigade had also moved towards the capital and billeted at Palam. The Indian Express (April 4) said it stood by its report that was written after investigation of over six weeks. A statement issued by the newspaper quoted by The Telegraph (April 5) said: “The report is a meticulous reconstruction and a very sober interpretation of the movement of two key army units towards New Delhi on the night of January 16-17”. Two questions arise: One, what persuaded The Indian Express to check out on the Armed Forces movement for six weeks? Two, was it wise on its part to give the troop movement an entire front page crowding out all other news stories of the day? As The Asian Age (April 6) put it, “the impression of suggesting sotto voce was that the disgruntled in the Army has reached such levels that the prospect of a military coup is not inconceivable.”But the paper, however, added: “In the reality of India’s circumstances, such a thought is bizarre and not sustainable even for a minute”. It said: “That is why the story—as constructed—does not stand. If the subliminal suggestion it sought to make was not intended, then there is no real story, especially given the manner of its writing, the collation of particular facts…. “The paper conceded that “the journalistic output was the result of painstaking work” but added that “with the same set of facts a differently done news story would have deserved front page”. That, added the paper “indicated an error of judgment, not of reporting content and it would be wrong—and dangerous—to suppress journalists who gather such information”. And, by way of a final judgment the paper said: “Any coup d’etat needs ideological preparation over time and considerable organisational planning. Nothing that has ever happened regarding our Armed Forces point that way. Our military accepts the democratic order just like all other patriotic citizens.”
What all this indicates is that there are in the Army two disconnected groups: a Rogue Group and a ‘disgruntled’ Group. Both need to be attended to. The Telegraph (April 5) recalled that the late Field Marshall Sam Manockshaw was once asked by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, soon after the Indian victory in Bangladesh was achieved and he called on her, whether he was going to take over the country. He is reported to have said: “You run the country, I run the Army”. Writing in a national paper, Gen SK Sinha remembers that “the coup phobia persisted during the Emergency” when he was the Chief of Military Intelligence, especially after Sheikh Mujibhur Rehman of Bangladesh was assassinated by some Army Officers in Dacca on August 15, 1975. Gen. Sinha put it: Along with civil intelligence, we were alerted to take suitable preemptive action to prevent a repeat of what happened in Dacca. I need not disclose the various measures taken”. As for the political reaction to the most recent events Gen Sinha rightly observes: “The BJP, the main Opposition, has done well to exercise restraint and not exploit the present crisis for political gains”. But at this stage may one raise a point? One thing the ‘disgruntled’ element in the Armed Forces must know is that India is not Pakistan, nor it is Bangladesh or Myanmar. No coup will ever be tolerated by the Indian masses. If any in the Army attempts to try to foment one, the entire country will rise to defend its democracy.
Incidentally, and this is very important, Gen. VK Singh brought the accusation that some one had tried to bribe him, while being interviewed by Vidya Subrahmaniam of The Hindu, almost incidentally. In an edit page article in her paper (April 2) Vidya wrote: Ï do not know if his (Gen. Sinha’s) intention all along was only to disclose the bribe attempt, but at that point (during the interview) my overwhelming concern was that he should not retract”. Here, one comes to the responsibilities of a reporter. Vidya writes: “Journalists know when they have a scoop and they also know how far to push their source”. Suppose Vidya had asked whether Gen. Singh was on record when he spoke of the bribe attempt, what, one would think, he would have said? Would he have realised that he is treading on dangerous grounds? If he had said that he is off the record, the story would have ended there. And the electronic media which ran riot would have had nothing to toss around. The electronic media played up the story for all its was worth. One only hopes that we have heard the last of the crisis-that-was-not, and Gen. Singh would walk into the sunset in peace.
One commentator in Hindustan Times made the point that Defence Minister Antony may be a good man, an incorruptible man and what else, but also he is a weak man, meaning that he is not fit to be a Minister anywhere, even after noting his record as Chief Minister of Kerala. One is tired of finger-pointing, attempts at personal defamation and what else and we all need some respite. What has happened, has happened. The UPA-2 government will not resign, come what may. Thank God, the BJP and the RSS, of all people and parties, reacted with a high sense of responsibility, when it was all too easy to take sides. They of all people deserve an ovation. India has a long way to go and the media has a responsibility to bear, which it will do well to remember.