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|April 6, 1999||
Fernandes denies calling Bhagwat a security risk
Suhasini Haidar in New Delhi
Defence Minister George Fernandes today publicly attacked dismissed naval chief Vishnu Bhagwat, calling him "insubordinate" and accusing him of withholding information.
But Fernandes also clarified that he had never called the ex-admiral a "national security risk", and that he had been misquoted on that remark.
Addressing a press conference in New Delhi, Fernandes said there was more than one reason for Bhagwat's removal.
His charges against the ex-admiral included deliberate insubordination, interference in the defence minister's orders on specific postings, and intimidation of subordinates.
"I would ask for files, and not get them," explained Fernandes. "I would issue orders for transfers and postings, which were not carried out."
The minister also read out a note from Bhagwat, which said certain naval functions were "entirely vested with the naval chief" and were not open to comment from the defence ministry.
Bhagwat has denied writing the letter, and told Rediff On The NeT on telephone, "He [Fernandes] was even interfering with the postings of commandants and lower-grade officers. Now, traditionally, those are not the problem of the defence minister."
During his press conference, Fernandes also referred to Operation Leech, a naval operation in the waters of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to capture boats carrying arms to north-east India and Burma.
According to papers leaked to two national dailies, Fernandes issued orders in July 1998 to curb all army and navy raids on boats traversing the Palk Straits and the waters of the Andamans, saying "no precipitate action should be taken" without his concurrence.
Fernandes today clarified that he had only asked to be kept informed of operations in the area, as the government had received complaints of human rights violations during the raids.
"During the operation," Fernandes explained, "73 persons were taken into custody in the Andamans and kept in prison there. Thirty-seven of those people were actually innocent fishermen who had been hijacked on to gunrunning boats. All I asked was that their trials be expedited."
The defence minister said anyone who claimed that he was abetting the passage of arms into Burma was undermining the good work done by the Coast Guard in sealing Indian waters.
He seemed to get emotional as he recounted how the reports that he was giving a free hand to gun-running in the North-East had had a demoralising effect on the Indian Army units serving in the area. "I felt very distressed," he said, "that my troops in the North-East felt they had been let down by their defence minister."
Fernandes also accused Bhagwat of "selectively leaking" his orders.
Asked about a report in India Today this week, which said Bhagwat is suspected to have leaked secrets pertaining to India's nuclear submarine programme, Fernandes said he would not comment on issues of security. "I have said as much to the magazine in question, that I will not be able to discuss this leak for a long time."
But defence ministry sources revealed that Fernandes might divulge his information on some sensitive issues to Parliament when the Budget session resumes on April 15.
Bhagwat, however, said, "There are more than 700 articles published and put out on the Internet on the subject of nuclear-propelled submarines. Why is it top-secret if I give the same information that is contained in them?"
The defence minister, who was accompanied by Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan and Parliamentary Affairs Minister P Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, said there was no danger to the BJP-led government in the light of recent political developments, including the resignation of the two AIADMK ministers.
But he refused to say why he had been unable to convince AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalitha of his reasons for Bhagwat's dismissal.
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