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January 9, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Kuldip Nayar

Why was Bhagwat sacked?

The round of accusations and counter-accusations is more or less over. Now is the time to determine the truth. Let us wear wigs and act as judges.

The case before us is that of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat's dismissal from the office of naval chief. The general charge against him is that he committed a series of acts of disobedience, defiance, lies and threats.

Specifically, 1. he seriously jeopardised national security concerns; 2. lodged a written protest directly with the Pakistan high commission against a Pakistani surveillance aircraft tailing an Indian naval vessel; 3. publicly criticised the Research and Analysis Wing; 4. defied civilian authorities on a sustained basis; 5. deliberately kept from the defence minister the representations by Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar, now the naval chief; 6. and went out of the way to stall the appointment of Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh.

Let us take up charge by charge. The first, that of endangering national security, is the most grievous one. A top officer found tampering with security eight months before retirement is, indeed, disturbing. If it is true, he deserved to be court-martialled, not just dismissed. The government has given no evidence to prove how Admiral Bhagwat acted against India's security. Official statement says his 'series of actions' threatened 'national security' but does not tell how. Defence Minister George Fernandes refrains from elaborating in his television interview. All that he says is that he cannot talk about it 'as it concerns national security.'

They are meaningful words. But they suggest more than what they say. With great difficulty I have obtained from official sources some 'evidence.' This is an interview by Admiral Bhagwat that was printed in The Hindu on October 2. The allegation is that he leaked out information regarding nuclear submarine. The pertinent part of his interview is: 'The world has no better vehicle for ensuring second strike or retaliatory capability than the nuclear submarine. These are, of course, principles we are theorising about.'

How this observation violates security considerations is not understandable. Firstly, Admiral Bhagwat revealed nothing; secondly, he emphasised that he was only theorising. The impression that the government has left in the minds of people is: if he was passing on defence secrets to the enemy. It is a pity that the defence ministry should stoop so low to question the patriotism of a person like Admiral Bhagwat on the basis of an interview, which even stretched, does not disclose anything.

The second charge is that he approached the Pakistan high commission directly to lodge the protest. This betrays his unfamiliarity with the rules of diplomatic corps, not disloyalty to the country. He authorised his directorate of naval intelligence to write to the naval advisor to the Pakistan high commission in New Delhi. He sent copies of the communication to the defence and external affairs ministries. When the ministry of external affairs advised him not to employ such channels, he issued instructions not to engage the Pakistan high commission directly. "It was a procedural mistake. To interpret it as an act of subordination is a deliberate act of vindictiveness by the defence ministry."

Admiral Bhagwat's remark that the RAW was incompetent is indiscreet, but by no means does it violate national security demands. As an officer of long standing, he may have come across examples of RAW's ineptness. He gave vent to his annoyance. At worst, it was an outburst, which should have been ignored as it was done when he made it. The defence minister could have mentioned it at one of his weekly morning meeting with the service chiefs. Why to pick up peccadilloes to make a case?

The government's unhappiness over not forwarding as many as six representations by Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar has a point. He wanted to be posted to an operational command. But the representations were addressed to the naval chief. Sushil Kumar did not even want to pursue his statutory complaint to the defence minister. Admiral Bhagwat should have been told not to stall any representation in the future. But this is too flimsy a ground to be construed as a challenge to the civilian authority. Admiral Bhagwat denies Fernandes's charge that Sushil Kumar was threatened with court-martial. "It is a lie," he says. He is ready to face an inquiry. Is Fernandes prepared for it?

Finding fault with Admiral Bhagwat for having sat over the appointment of Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh does not tally with facts. In a letter to Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar, Bhagwat has written: "It is respectfully reiterated/clarified to the honourable members of the ACC (Appointment Committee of Cabinet) through the Cabinet secretary that the chief of naval staff has never once stated that the directions of the ACC will not be implemented."

Admiral Bhagwat is a stickler for rules. He said the order was "unimplementable" because the appointment was "violative of the relevant/basic features of the Constitution of Indian Navy Act, 1975." His grievance was that the rules had not been brought to the notice of the ACC members.

The most reprehensible part of the entire episode is that no disciplinary action has been taken against Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh, who tried to communalise appointments and promotions. He went to the extent of alleging that Admiral Bhagwat was prejudicial because of his wife, Niloufer, half Muslim and half Parsi. By attending the New Year eve party at Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh's headquarters in the Andamans, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has committed an act of indiscretion, which is neither explainable nor forgivable. When Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh's allegation had appeared in the press, former defence minister Sharad Pawar had written to the prime minister to take action against Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh for introducing communalism in the services. That Agriculture Minister Surjeet Singh Barnala met Fernandes on Harinder Singh's behalf supports the allegation that the Akali Dal had interfered in the matter.

There is nothing in the allegations levelled against Admiral Bhagwat. He, in turn, has alleged that "the BJP-led government has punished him for his secular views." As far back as August, his wife wrote to Fernandes: "What is particularly disturbing and inexplicable is that the ministry of defence officials have not deemed it appropriate to direct Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh to explain the violation of his oath to the Constitution of India and his mala fide referring to the religious roots of the family of the incumbent chief of the naval staff."

It appears the matter was simmering for several months. The Congress wanted to raise it in the last session of Parliament but did not do so because it expected an early settlement. Why didn't the defence minister take timely steps to sort it out? Instead, the government went ahead with Admiral Bhagwat's dismissal and then tried to cover up by raising unrelated questions.

The feud between the services and the defence ministry is nothing new. The ministry cannot justify Admiral Bhagwat's dismissal by issuing a press note that the government "has the responsibility of ensuring that our armed forces function effectively, objectively and with their traditional mentality, within the democratic set-up." There was no basis for this type of thinking in the first instance.

If the government was still determined to find fault with Admiral Bhagwat, he should have been given notice to explain his conduct. It cannot stage a coup as it did. Admiral Bhagwat came to know about his dismissal 15 minutes before his successor walked in. A RAW plane flew in the latter from Kochi. He had no permission from the naval chief to move away from his headquarters. Under whose authority did he travel to Delhi?

And it is intriguing how Admiral Sushil Kumar came to be selected from among the four equally ranked officers. The dossiers of all the four were lying in Admiral Bhagwat's safe custody. Were the other three considered and rejected? The hush-hush operation does not suggest that.

Where does the government go from Admiral Bhagwat's dismissal? The two Congress leaders, Sharad Pawar and Manmohan Singh, who were "consulted" on the dismissal, have denied it. The entire Opposition, including the coalition partner J Jayalalitha's AIADMK, has criticised the dismissal and demanded an inquiry.

Even President K R Narayanan has reportedly said it was a mistake. That the morale of the armed forces remains high is no credit to the government. They have refused to get involved in politics. They are professional, committed to the dictates of democracy. Someone in government must make amends for the mistake committed in Admiral Bhagwat's dismissal.

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