The war within
India’s top soldier and judge have some serious explaining to do. The nation’s next generation is listening, writes Samar Halarnkar.columns Updated: Jan 13, 2010 21:40 IST
Teenagers thrive on half-truths and absolute realities.
India was still Indira when I first saw those army regiments marching down Rajpath. To a small-town boy who came from the baking, backward Deccan — a land of quiet desperation, black magic and lost glories — a Republic Day parade conveyed an absolute reality: That these magnificent men marching to Saare Jahan Se Achcha were a cut above, that they could do no wrong.
A half-truth mired in a perceived reality fades hard. Whatever I may write today, I guess I still like to believe that India’s defence forces, and its judiciary, are the nation’s last bastions of righteousness.
With the judiciary closer to our lives, the incorruptibility of judges is a weaker half-truth, but it endures. For this I blame my father’s old friend, the late James Sequeira Esq., a morally upright district judge in Karnataka. In a time before self-made tycoons and powerful politicians, the judge, collector and superintendent of police were the most prominent men in town. Yet, Judge Sequeira travelled in his personal car, a white Fiat. His wife usually travelled by a tonga or cycle-rickshaw. He practised all that he often preached to wide-eyed me, about simple living and high thinking.
Understanding a teenage state of mind is important because India is younger now than ever before. More than 550 million are below 30 years of age, and in their formative years, they will form warped realities from the half-truths on offer today.
The army chief is now accused by his rank and file of being soft on some of his generals in a dubious land deal. The Chief Justice of India is not only refusing to open himself and his justices to the Right to Information Act — as politicians and bureaucrats are — but is also seen as reluctant to clean up an admittedly overburdened but increasingly dishonest and opaque system.
If these gentlemen do not act immediately, they should never blame young people in this age of media-delivered reality for instant beliefs that permanently damn both institutions and damage India’s strongest foundations. General Deepak Kapoor must realise that even modest hopes of filling his 11,000 officer vacancies will quickly evaporate.
Absolute realities don’t die easily. So, it is important that the truths on offer not just look, but are, complete.
Even a depressing first brush with the dark side of the defence forces eight years ago wasn’t enough to scrub my reality.
In consternation, I watched a neat patch of green — called the Field Marshall Cariappa Park, no less — being demolished in Mumbai’s Colaba military area in collusion with a builder. All manner of law was sidestepped and ill-considered permissions granted by an unholy confluence of army officers, bureaucrats and politicians. Not surprisingly, representatives of all three branches of government got flats. My colleague Shailesh Gaikwad (now bureau chief at the Hindustan Times, Mumbai) and I reported the dark deal as it unfolded. The apartment block was delayed, but it was built, and even as I wrote it, I kept asking myself, “Have we got it wrong? How could army and navy officers be a part of this?”
So, I was less disbelieving but still crestfallen when news broke last year that four top army generals helped reverse an army objection to the transfer of 70 acres of land near an army base in West Bengal to a dubious educational trust run by a real-estate developer called Dilip Agarwal, a friend of Military Secretary Lt. Gen. Avadhesh Prakash, an officer who the Eastern Army Commander says must be dismissed. That may still happen, but why has he been spared a court martial, under which all army officers accused of wrongdoing, except murder and rape, are tried? As embittered junior officers point out, many have been court martialled for less: fake allegations of sexual harassment and pilfering the odd shipment of supplies.
Only one of the generals, Lt. Gen. P.K. Rath (once slated to be Deputy Chief of Army Staff, now thankfully dropped from consideration), faces a general court martial. The others, Gen. Prakash, 11 Corps Commander Lt. Gen Ramesh Halgali and Major General P. Sen, have been asked to explain their actions. The Eastern Army Commander said last month in an internal inquiry that Lt. Gens. Rath and Sen should face a court martial.
It is certainly true that these officers have not been proven guilty. But the Indian Army’s summary court martials, introduced after the Indian mutiny of 1856, don’t require counsel, detailed judgement or evidence.
In trying to find out why their regular army units had rebelled when the Punjab Irregular Force (PIF) — its origins in the old Sikh army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh — had not, the British found that a PIF commanding officer also served as judge and civil authority, feared and respected by his men. The army chief’s actions presently invoke no fear among his officers or respect in the young nation beyond the cantonments.
Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan will see a greater erosion of faith, a process accelerated in his tenure, unless he starts doing the right thing quickly. As a three-judge bench of the Delhi High Court — an institution that has been a particularly strong votary for justice and truth this past year — said on Tuesday: “A judge must keep himself absolutely above suspicion.” If Justice Balakrishnan appeals this judgement in his own court, the suspicion that he has something to hide will stay.