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|December 30, 1998||
Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat sacked; wife blames 'communal politics'
Two days after he took over as chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, Chief of the Naval Staff, was sacked by the government.
The prime minister approved Admiral Bhagwat's dismissal and transferred Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar just before he set off for a year-end holiday to the Andamans.
Giving the marching orders to a service chief for the first time in Independent India's history, the government said a series of actions from Admiral Bhagwat "were in deliberate defiance of the government."
The unprecedented and much publicised row between the government and the admiral began after the Cabinet appointments committee appointed Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh as deputy chief of the naval staff.
Refusing to accept the Cabinet order, Admiral Bhagwat went public with his opposition to the government's decision.
While defence analysts say the government has set a bad precedent by sacking a service chief, Niloufer Bhagwat, the admiral's lawyer wife, accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of playing communal politics.
"The removal of a service chief on the reasons put forward by the government is totally illegal and unwarranted," Niloufer Bhagwat told Rediff On The NeT on Wednesday night.
"The prime minister and the defence minister have behaved like the kings in school books stories who were beheaded for having opposing view points," she said.
By sacking Admiral Bhagwat on the appointments issue, she said the Vajpayee government has violated the Navy Act of 1957.
"It is sad and tragic that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandes refused to listen to the rational view points submitted by the naval chief," Niloufer Bhagwat, who is a wellknown Bombay lawyer, said.
Former generals and defence analysts blame both the government and Admiral Bhagwat for precipitating the crisis. While the government did not act wisely on the issue, they say the naval chief was foolish to go public with his complaints.
"The naval chief acted in excess of his authority. He should not have gone to the press and television by blasting the government on the appointments issue," Major General Ashok Mehta (retd) told Rediff On The NeT.
When the admiral declined the Cabinet appointment and returned the file, the government sent it back to him to reconsider Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh's appointment.
A senior official at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses said the defence ministry consulted experts before sacking the admiral. "The Cabinet appointments committee is a political body headed by the prime minister. The government had no other option but to sack the naval chief because he repeatedly questioned this apex body," he told Rediff On The NeT.
Defence ministry officials said there was no political motive behind Admiral Bhagwat's removal.
One senior defence ministry officials disclosed that the government had 'encouraged' Admiral Bhagwat to 'voluntarily quit' to settle the controversy. "But he precipitated the crisis and took the matter to the court. The government could not continue to behave like a passive spectator when the controversy raged between him and the bureaucracy," he said.
Even as the controversy resulted in Admiral Bhagwat's removal, questions are being raised whether the Cabinet appointments committee was furnished with the full facts of the case.
On two occasions in recent months, the Delhi high court passed strictures against the defence ministry for not acting "in accordance with the law" and acting "unreasonably and irrationally" while making out cases of senior level appointments in the Indian Air Force.
Both judgments pertained to Air Vice Marshal P K Ghosh who challenged the appointments committee's decision to promote Air Marshal S Raghavan, ignoring his claim of seniority and suitability.
It is not the first time chiefs of the service staff have had conflicts with the government in power. The first such incident occurred in 1959 when the then army chief General K S Thimmayya resigned on the issue of appointments and promotions of army personnel.
But General Thimmayya withdrew his resignation after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru amicably settled the controversy.
In 1992, members of Parliament demanded the removal of the then army chief, General S F Rodrigues when he declared that the governance of the country under Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao was 'very bad' in an interview to The Pioneer.
General Rodrigues was compelled later to apologise to the government and Parliament for his remarks against the government.
Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar, flag officer commanding-in-chief, Southern Command, Cochin, has succeeded Admiral Bhagwat as naval chief.
Admiral Bhagwat was served with the order terminating his services with immediate effect at about 1730 hours in his office at South Block. Minutes later, Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar took charge as the new naval chief.
Admiral Bhagwat left office without ceremony. A guard of honour, normally associated with an outgoing chief of staff, was denied to him.
In a related move, Defence Secretary Ajit Kumar was transferred to the department of industrial policy. T R Prasad took over as the new defence secretary.
The government said the services of Admiral Bhagwat, who was to retire in September 1999, were terminated because he had been taking a series of actions in deliberate defiance of the established system of Cabinet control over the defence forces.
"The government is fully conscious of the gravity of such a decision and is aware that it might give rise to uninformed speculation. It is necessary, therefore, to clarify that adequate, careful and serious consideration was given to the matter at the highest levels," the statement said.
The defence ministry had taken a serious view of Admiral Bhagwat's contention that all senior-level appointments must be made on his recommendations.
The crisis was aggravated with Admiral Bhagwat asking Vice-Admiral Madanjit Singh to function as deputy chief of staff for the last 10 months, ignoring the Cabinet appointments committee's decision to install Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh in the post.
On its decision to sack the naval chief, the government said it recognises the need to insulate the defence forces so as to preserve their identity, forged over many decades, but deliberate defiance of the Cabinet could not be accepted in any democratic society.
"There are a number of cases where democratic countries have had to exercise such a prerogative," it said.
"There is a need to preserve a balance between the interests of national security and the right of the people of this country to be informed of the compulsions which have led the government to take such a decision.
"It is in this context that it is reiterated that the decision was taken, consciously and deliberately, in the face of action which threatened the established structures of democracy, the traditional neutrality and objectivity of our armed forces as well as national security.
"It also needs to be emphasised that in our democratic country, it is the central Cabinet which has the responsibility of ensuring that our armed forces function effectively, objectively, and with their traditional neutrality, within the democratic set-up."
Admiral Bhagwat told reporters that he had done his duty as a soldier, but his wife Niloufer Bhagwat blamed the BJP and the Akali Dal's "communal politics" for her husband's dismissal, in an interview with television reporters. She said her husband had expected the government's decision for some time now. However, she revealed that the admiral would not contest his dismissal -- which she described as illegal and violative of the Constitution -- in the Supreme Court.
Admiral Bhagwat, she revealed, had met the prime minister, the home minister and the defence minister three weeks ago and briefed them that the Cabinet's decision to appoint Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh as deputy chief of the naval staff was not correct. Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh, a Sikh, had accused Admiral Bhagwat of being anti-Sikh in his petition before the Calcutta high court.
Additional reportage: UNI
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