The avoidable political storm
Former Army Chief V K Singh is again in news. Of course, one may ask when he was not in news. He had a stormy innings as the Army Chief( March 2010 – May 2012), during which not only he led a crusade against some major incidents of corruption within the 13 lakh-strong Army, which is the world’s second largest, but also fought an unsuccessful legal battle against the UPA government over his controversial date of birth. All told, General Singh had a strong case. He is not only the first commando to become the chief the Army, he also has the unique distinction of being promoted to the rank of Lt. General on one date of birth but becoming the Army Chief and then subsequently retiring from that post on another date of birth. He lost one year of service in the process. The Supreme Court of India ultimately went with the Government of India, which, in effect, meant supporting the decision of the present UPA regime on the vexed issue. General Singh and many analysts, including this writer, are yet to comprehend the rationale behind the Supreme Court’s decision to legitimize in effect two different dates of birth of a single individual.
General Singh says that he has not yet made up his mind on carving a political career as yet, but then the fact remains that if he does, then he will not be the first of his kind to do so.
Since his retirement, General Singh has been keeping himself busy by giving lectures on the military matters in universities, think tanks and public forums. Besides, he has lent his voice to burning issues on governance, particularly those relating to famers, ex-servicemen. But what has discomforted most the present government the most is that he has also been a crusader against corruption by sharing daises with the likes of Anna Hazare and Swami Ram Dev. He also shared the podium last month (September 15) with the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in a public rally in Haryana, a rally that was organised by the ex-service men, leading to speculations that he could be a BJP candidate in the forthcoming general elections. General Singh says that he has not yet made up his mind on carving a political career as yet, but then the fact remains that if he does, then he will not be the first of his kind to do so.
Some retired service chiefs have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the government and one retired Major General, B K Khanduri, became first a union minister and then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand. But if one talks of officers of lesser ranks, many of them have been successful politicians and parliamentarians. Former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh also has an Army background. Of course, unlike in some major western democracies, in India former Chiefs of the armed forces have not become the chief political executives of the country. For instance, General Charles de Gaulle became the President of the French and in the United States, two Generals, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, turned out to be very powerful Presidents.
Coming back to General V K Singh, there is now a growing impression in the country that an uncomfortable central government has hit a popular “soldier” below his belt with mischievous intentions of ruining his political ambitions. A report ordered by the present Army Chief General Bikram Singh( with whom General V K Singh is rumoured not to have a cordial relationship; after all, had General Singh got one more year extension on the basis of his real age in his school certificate, General Bikram Singh would have retired as only the Chief of the Eastern Command) to look into the activities of a super-secret military intelligence wing, the Technical Support Division (TSD), which had became operational in the year 2010 during the tenure of General VK Singh as army chief, and submitted to the Ministry of Defence(MoD) in March this year, was selectively leaked to the Indian Express newspaper, a newspaper that has been “hostile” to the former Army Chief. It may be noted that when General Singh’s date of birth case against the government was pending in the Supreme Court, the Indian Express had carried a report, written jointly by its Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, suggesting that General Singh was planning a coup against the government, a charge the overwhelming majority in the country’s strategic community had termed as outlandish.
…the government has not explained that whether the leaked report in the Indian Express is authentic.
The probe into the alleged irregularities by the TSD during V K Singh’s tenure was led by Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, in September 2012. In December 2012, all the TSD officials were transferred, as part of the investigation. Bhatia submitted the final report to the then defence secretary SK Sharma, with original army documents, noting its findings and recommending the disbanding the TSD wing. The report alleged that secret Military Intelligence (MI) funds were funneled to TSD. The unit spied on government functionaries and General Bhatia says that the TSD records showed funds marked for ‘Operation Kashmir’. But there are no details about the nature of these expenditures. Bhatia alleged that bribe was paid to a Jammu and Kashmir minister “to enable the change of state government”. A sum of Rs. 1.19 crore was transferred to Ghulam Hasan Mir, Jammu and Kashmir agricultural minister. He further alleged that a Kashmir-based NGO, “YES Kashmir” landed with substantial part of the TSD funds and that a sister NGO called J&K Humanitarian Service Organisation had filed a petition over an alleged fake encounter against the present army chief General Bikram Singh.
Bhatia also alleged that in the last 2 years, the TSD had spent close to Rs. 20 crore, out of which Rs. 8 crore were unaccounted for. The TSD unit was also accused of conducting covet operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was trailing the 26/11 mastermind and Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed. Accordingly, the MoD had dismantled the TSD unit. It is also said to be reviewing the works of the Military Intelligence (MI) overall. The MI now has been asked to submit quarterly expenses statement to the MoD. It has also been asked to engage only in counter-intelligence and anti-militancy operations on border. It has been barred from conducting covet operations.
However, three points emerge from the above. First, the government has not explained that whether the leaked report in the Indian Express (subsequently other papers and television channels followed) is authentic. In fact, General Singh has now filed a RTI to seek the details of the report. Secondly, how come a confidential report like this was leaked selectively? Thirdly, why was it then a report submitted in March were leaked in late September? Was it a coincidence that the report was leaked after General VK Singh joined hands with Narendra Modi? Fourthly, and this is most important, have the government spokesmen done the right thing by saying that the establishment of the TSD was wrong and that the MI must not indulge in covert activities ? Further, has some unnamed official done the right thing a special briefing to the press by denigrating the whole system of intelligence system and threatening that action will be taken against the “guilty” (presumably General V K Singh)?
Bharat Verma said: “ I hope the Government understands this-that the politicisation of such issues of top secret military operations is not the kind of issue that should be politicised, because it can destroy the well being of the armed forces”.
Predictably General V K Singh has reacted, rather strongly. He says that the Army has been funding various activities, all developmental in nature (such as schools, sports, peace and communal harmony, road building and communication networks) through the local politicians right since the days of independence in 1947. He says that by “politicians in Kashmir” he did not mean that money paid was meant for their personal or political purpose. “The aim was to organise activities to wean away youth from the separatist cause and generate goodwill in the strife-torn border state”, he said, adding, “It was meant wholly and solely for stability… for social schemes to win hearts and minds of people under the overall umbrella of sadbhavana (harmony). When a state is in bad shape then all resources are used to stabilize it, so what more revelations do we want?”
In a subsequent tweet, General Singh also hit out at the government by counter-questioning, “”If someone were to ask for details of resources made available by IB (Intelligence Bureau, which works under the Home Ministry) then very many will run for cover. So less we say the better.” General Singh has further attacked those behind the leak of the internal Army report on the TSD for indulging in “anti-national activities”. He has demanded that those responsible for the leak must be charged under the charges of treason against the country. “Do we reveal how IB and RAW work? If we discuss the functioning of intelligence agencies in the public domain, then it is treason… it should be probed how this report leaked and action should be taken against the persons.” In fact, the former Army Chief has gone to the extent of saying that had the TSD not been disbanded by his successor Gen Bikram Singh, the beheading and other such incidents along the Line of Control in the recent months would not have taken place.
According to him, TSD was set up by the government itself after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. As a matter fact, the decision to establish the controversial intelligence unit was taken by the former Chief, General Deepak Kapoor, Singh’s immediate predecessor, and that too after obtaining the required approval of the defence minister A K Antony. Similarly, General Singh says that all the money allocated to the TSD was “supervised and accounted for” with the Army chief, defence secretary and director-general of military intelligence signing to approve it every quarter. “Some people who say this unit of 100 personnel was my private army should discard such ideas. It was functioning under the Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI). As Army chief, I was commanding 13 lakh men. I was not micro-managing things,” he said.
However, the government and the Congress party are not convinced. Top government officials say that the General’s revelations could have grave consequences for the credibility of India’s peace initiatives in the Kashmir Valley. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had expressed similar concerns, saying, “His accusations have made our jobs more difficult and have dealt a blow to the credibility of the people working in my government and political parties.” Similarly, the Union Home Minister has said, “General V K Singh must name the politicians who received funds from the Army. We can then investigate the matter”.
Are intelligence-gathering and covert operations for national defence wrong? It seems that the present UPA government thinks so under the spurious concept of “political correctness, given the way General Singh is being hounded.
Amidst these allegations and counter-allegations, General Singh seems to be a stronger wicket. All told, what he has done is to protect his honour and dignity after the report was mysteriously leaked to the Indian Express, a biased party itself in the controversy that started when he was in uniform. It will not be wrong to say that the enquiry has now been terribly politicised. And that is unfortunate for the national security. As a former Army officer Bharat Verma, editor of the Indian defence Review and a frequent contributor to this magazine says, “politicising the enquiry ordered against former army Chief General VK Singh would damage and destroy the morale of the armed forces, and compromise national security. If we are going to be such a small nation and going to fall down to such low standards of politicising issues like this, which concern the security of the nation, I am afraid it will totally deter the military from protecting this country for times to come”, adding, “ I hope the Government understands this-that the politicisation of such issues of top secret military operations is not the kind of issue that should be politicised, because it can destroy the well being of the armed forces”.
Verma has a point when he says that all military intelligence operations are top secret operations. They use secret funds. There is no intelligence operation where you will be told how much fund was used for anything. If you start compromising military intelligence operations or intelligence bureau operations, then there will be a direct threat to the security of India. According to Col (retd) NR Kurup, who is an RTI activist, “When our Secret Ser(vice) Fund is so secret that it is not even audit-able by CAG it is suicidal to expose its spending details in public. When we expose our secret service fund expenditure in a bid to fix Gen VK Singh, it is pathetic that we are not realising the damages it can inflict. “I wish our Hon’ble Defence Minister should have spared some time to learn about Tech Support Group sanctioned by him before making the issue public,” he tweeted.
Bharat Verma argues that “the defence intelligence agencies are totally away from army headquarter, defence headquarter and naval headquarter. There is no proof that any chief was using to monitor anything in Delhi. I strongly believe that this is an apolitical Indian Army, which continues to be apolitical except that there may be rivalries between Generals for various reasons which is most unfortunate”. He criticized the Defence Minister, saying the minister should have acted with more maturity, as the ‘top secret’ operation dealt with the security of the country. “”Mr. Antony should be mature enough to not allow this to be blown out of proportions, because if he does that, nothing will be proved. The only thing will be that the security of the nation will be compromised because these are top-secret operations”.
…the intelligence agencies should pursue a legitimate mandate in a legitimate manner.
The likes of the Verma also take strong objection to the fact that the TSD was launching covert operation, if at all, in Pakistan. All told, it is important to know the designs of hostile elements in Pakistan – what are their plans? Where are they likely to launch terrorist attacks? How are they preparing for border incursions? How are they indulging in the supply of illegal arms and narcotics to the terrorists in India? Unfortunately, the Indian Army is in a precarious position on gathering intelligence from Pakistan, particularly after in one of the suicidal decisions that late Prime Minister I K Gujral had taken in 1997, all covert activities in Pakistan were closed and the list of our intelligence-gathering details in Pakistan was shared with Islamabad. The result was that the local agents in Pakistan were eliminated, one after another, by the Pakistan government. Against this background, if General V K Singh had revived some intelligence-gathering in that country, he was doing a great national service, said one highly placed government source. ““Our main task was to combat the rising trend of state-sponsored terrorism by the ISI and we had developed contacts across the Line of Control in a bid to infiltrate Hafiz Saeed’s inner circle,” an official associated with the controversial TSD said.
Are intelligence-gathering and covert operations for national defence wrong? It seems that the present UPA government thinks so under the spurious concept of “political correctness, given the way General Singh is being hounded. The main functions of intelligence services are to predict, detect and analyse internal and external threats to security and to inform and advise the Executive about the nature and causes of these threats. The services are thereby expected to contribute to preventing, containing and overcoming serious threats to the country and its people. And, in order to fulfill their vital functions, intelligence services throughout the world are able to operate secretly and have special powers to acquire confidential information through surveillance, infiltration of organisations, interception of communication and other methods that infringe the rights to privacy and dignity.
Of course, there are chances that politicians and intelligence officers can abuse these powers to infringe rights without good cause, interfere in lawful politics and favour or prejudice a political party or leader, thereby subverting democracy. They can intimidate the government’s opponents, create a climate of fear and manipulate intelligence in order to influence state decision-making and public opinion. Given these dangers, democratic societies are confronted by the challenge of constructing rules, controls and other safeguards that prevent misconduct by the intelligence services without restricting the services to such an extent that they are unable to fulfill their duties. In short, the challenge is to ensure that the intelligence agencies pursue a legitimate mandate in a legitimate manner.
In the case of General V K Singh, the very facts that the TSD was approved and created under the approval of the Defence Minister Antony and that its activities were periodically shared with the MoD suggest that it was pursuing a legitimate mandate in a legitimate manner. Therefore, if he is hounded today, it is not because of military but political reasons. And that is sad. No wonder why I am reminded of the observations of Charles de Gaulle, former French President, that “politics is very important, so important that it cannot be left to the politicians alone”.