NEW DELHI: With the government admitting that “mischief” by an insider was responsible for the scare over a routine movement of two Army units, demand for a probe into the matter is gathering momentum amid indications that the Army headquarters itself may seek an inquiry.
The issue figured in the meeting of Parliament’s standing committee on defence on Monday. Asaduddin Owaissi of UPA component MIM demanded a probe for getting to the bottom of the mysterious way in which a normal military exercise on the night of January 16 was portrayed as a sinister development fraught with implications for the civilian-Army equation.
Owaisi made the pitch before defence secretary Shashikant Sharma who had to appear before the panel for the second time to clear the air over the way sections of the government cranked up a routine military movement into an extraordinary and dangerous maneuver by sections of the Army.
The UPA member’s demand coincided with a similar stand taken by the BJP. “What has the government done about the mischief makers?” asked party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar. The day also saw retired Army and Navy chiefs, Gen. V P Malik and Admiral Arun Prakash, respectively, asking for a probe.
Defence secretary repeated to the House panel the government’s stand: the suggestion that the army units involved in the exercise were actually flexing their muscle was based on “wrong inference” drawn from “conjectures”. He also rejected the premise of panic that the concerned units did not inform the defence ministry in violation of protocol. Sharma said there was no procedure requiring units to inform MOD of routine movements.
On Sunday, minister of state for defence Pallam Raju confirmed the widespread suspicion in the top echelons of the government that it was somebody, seen as reliable, who misrepresented an exercise by a mere two units consisting of a few hundreds of soldiers as a potentially dangerous situation.
The subsequent alert saw police being directed to slow down the “advancing” columns. Although CRPF sources have denied that their elite COBRA units were deployed and a ‘lookout’ was mounted at railway stations, many in the government consider it frightening that insiders could precipitate such a situation.
Eventually, it took an intervention by defence minister A K Antony to quell the panic. Antony is learnt to have dismissed the alert sign hoisted by the authorities as misplaced.
Significantly, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi parried a question on Raju’s statement in a TV interview.
Sections in the government seem to have come around to suspect that the artificial scare may have been scripted to prejudice the government against the Army chief, General V K Singh As it happened, January 16 was also the very day when General Singh had , in an unprecedented development, moved the Supreme Court to challenge defence ministry’s rejection of his claim for the revision of his date of birth.
Several senior military officers are of the belief that the government should promptly fix responsibility and take action against those who created the unnecessary scare over routine military movements. The “apolitical and disciplined” Army has been “insulted”, either because of ignorance or deliberate design, they contend.
This sentiment was also reflected in minister of state for defence M M Pallam Raju’s interview to a TV channel on Sunday. Raju said he would “like to read it that way”, when asked if someone was trying to create mischief. “It is a possibility that people would try to cr eate a little bit of confusion in the current scenario,” he said.
Former Army chief V P Malik called for an inqurity.”The incident has had far reaching implications. The fact that there is so much suspicion within the government and panic is itself worrisome. Whoever spread it should be taken to task. People in the army and veterans are feeling insulted. It has affected their morale.”
Another Army officer pointed out that a comprehensive inquiry was necessary to ensure that such an alert is not generated again. “When almost every day we have troop movements, why was such a scare created just on that day?”
Another former military chief , who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also supported the demand for an inquiry.“If it happened once it can happen again”, he said arguing “something is seriously wrong within the system.”
Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, however, is not too sure if a probe would bring out anything. “The Army is right in feeling indignant, asking for a probe. I do not know if anything would come out but I personally feel that we need to find out if someone planted the information and similarly it was also important to know how the Army chief’s letter to the Prime Minister came out in the media.”
A senior MoD source pointed out that when the IB warning reached Antony, he promptly dismissed it as a misinformed alert. It was at the MoD level that the seeming panic ended. When asked why the MoD has not initiated action against those responsible for creating the scare, one senior official said, “It is not our ministry.” The IB, which issued the alert, comes under the home ministry.
A senior officer pointed out that the alert, over the movement of a unit each of the 50 Para Brigade from Agra and the mechanized infantry from Hisar, was reflective of the lack of appreciation for the Army’s “commitment to democracy and Indian Constitution”.