Rediff Logo News iLeap - intelligent internet ready indian languages Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 02, 1999


The Rediff Interview/ Rear Admiral (retired) K R Menon

'If Bhagwat has actually leaked secrets, they are no longer secrets. So let the government say what they are.'

E-Mail this interview to a friend

Rear Admiral (retired) K R Menon is a close friend of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, who was recently dismissed by the government. The controversy now rages on, as government sources selectively leak news to the press to justify the move. Bhagwat has so far maintained a studied silence, though his lawyer wife Niloufer has blasted the decision.

Menon, who writes on strategic affairs, knows what had happened in the past few months. He shared his story with Amberish K Diwanji. Excerpts from the exclusive interview:

First, do you think Admiral Bhagwat's dismissal could have been avoided?

Certainly! Political leaders have come up saying that the entire controversy started way back in August 1998. This is quite incredible because from August to now is five months. All this time, the defence minister did not call Bhagwat even once. Not once, even though it was that problem that led to the eventual sacking. So this act has been done in a manner like thieves in the night, cloak and dagger. I have never seen any chief being dealt with like this.

There are people who compare Bhagwat's dismissal with that of General [Douglas] MacArthur [by President Harry Truman]. But MacArthur was not sacked by a bunch of thieves in the night. It was done very openly; very clear reasons were provided for his dismissal. Not like in Bhagwat's case.

Can you throw some light on the controversy?

There are two aspects to the fiasco. First, most people think there are only two players in the drama: Bhagwat, representing the navy, and the civilian government. This is very wrong. There is a third actor, the bureaucracy, which really has no role in all this.

The bureaucracy has appointed itself the guardian of Indian democracy that has to be protected from the armed forces. Over the last 50 years, it is quite clear that if Indian democracy needs any protection, it is from the bureaucracy rather than the armed forces, which surely is the last and best surviving institution in the country today.

The second point is that Bhagwat saw this. Not that the other chiefs earlier did not, but Bhagwat had decided to do something about it. Which is to say that civilian supremacy means the supremacy of Parliament as represented by the raksha mantri [defence minister], not the supremacy of the civilian bureaucracy. This is the issue. And who has really come out the winner in all this is the bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy should have been put in its place as had been done earlier. The defence secretary was moved out in 1970, another was moved out when he decided to confront the chiefs. Now, not only has a chief been sacked, but here is a man who screwed up the ministry of defence now being given another chance to screw up the ministry of industry.

How did this aspect of bureaucratic control come about?

It started in 1950 when India became a Republic. I once wrote about this, and I received letters from bureaucrats of that time who told me how right I was. In 1950, H M Patel as defence secretary was given the task of reducing the powers of the military because it was feared that the military might take over the country. Also, because it was believed that the military should not enjoy the position it had during the British Raj [when the commander-in-chief of the armed forces was second only to the viceroy), which is understandable.

Patel did two things. First, he isolated the armed forces from the minister, placing the bureaucracy as a stone wall in between. To do this, the bureaucrats took control of the file system. Thus every file that went to the minister was the bureaucrats' file and not the service headquarters' file.

After two or three decades, this shadow file system was abolished, making it clear that a service headquarters file cannot be isolated from the defence minister. But I believe the shadow file system has been resumed in selective cases. In fact, what I would really like to see to ensure justice is the defence secretary to state on affidavit that the shadow file system does not exist.

The other thing Patel did was to separate the service headquarters from their money. Parliament passes the defence budget every year, which is divided into two: capital and revenue. The former is for buying capital goods, the latter for running the services. But after Parliament passes the budget under detailed heads for each of the armed forces, the service headquarters has still to put up each case, case by case, to the defence ministry.

Defence ministry means what? Bureaucrats who simply don't understand what the case is all about. For instance, if the navy wants an electronic warfare system, what does this bureaucrat know about an electronic warfare system? But he will sit on it and delay it. Last year, nearly Rs 4 billion from the army budget was surrendered because of delays created by bureaucrats.

In all these years, why have the various chiefs of staff, most of whom were brilliant people, not stood up?

You are absolutely right. The chiefs have not stood up adequately. If you conduct a poll among the armed forces middle seniority level and ask them who is the greatest obstacle to the military, they will not say Pakistan, but the bureaucrats. The performance of many of the chiefs too has been very spotty. There are some chiefs who are still held in great reverence, and there are many chiefs for whom the public memory in the armed forces is not very good. I would not like to give names. Let each chief think if he is of the former or the latter kind.

Ask military officers in the middle seniority level what makes a chief good. They are unlikely to say things like strategic or tactical or financial expertise. They will say a good chief is one who stands up to the ministry of defence. It has become that bad.

How bad is this bureaucratic control?

You really have to understand the levels of humiliation suffered by officers who have to get financial sanction for their armed forces. They have virtually got to walk files, and very often to bureaucratic officers who are years junior to them, who sit there exercising this power and thinking they are actually defending the country. And [Defence Minister George] Fernandes has allowed this system to continue.

Tell us something about Bhagwat.

Bhagwat had made it clear that he was not going to accept this system. I have always maintained that this vice-admiral [Harinder Singh] case is not the main issue. The issue is much larger. Bhagwat's contention is that he should be the chief adviser to the defence minister on issues of the country's maritime security. And there should be no ignorant bureaucratic buffers in between.

When Defence Minister George Fernandes sent two obfuscating bureaucrats to Siachen, I felt that here might be a minister who won't let the bureaucrats interfere too much. But with his latest act, Fernandes has done a complete flip-flop.

Why do you think this happened?

I simply can't imagine. But if you have been in defence circles, as I have been, you find that in the early days, the access of the chiefs to Fernandes was fairly good whereas in the last few months, the access the chiefs enjoyed has diminished considerably. I don't know what it is that has changed his attitude. But for some reason, Fernandes seems to have erred on the side of the bureaucracy. I think this will damage the system irretrievably if it is not brought back on line.

Do you think Fernandes is to blame?

I'll remind you of an incidence concerning Fernandes. In 1992-93, the army was being asked to fan out everywhere: Babri Masjid, the North-East, Kashmir and the still unsettled Punjab. The then army chief, General S F Rodrigues, was driven round the bend and he made a statement: 'Good governance is not the job of the army alone.' Rodrigues also added something about bandicoots.

There was a big uproar about these statements in Parliament. Yet, what did he say wrong? And I clearly remember that one of the members of Parliament who made an unseemly noise about a perfectly just remark was George Fernandes. I don't know if Fernandes has a bee in his bonnet about the armed forces officers who have a certain intellectual capacity and who tell the truth, but when this present incident occurred, I remembered the Rodrigues case.

'The bureaucrats are a millstone around the national security apparatus'

Tell us what you think of this interview