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In defence of the defence of the nation

india Updated: Jan 31, 2010 22:55 IST
Pankaj Vohra

The controversy after the directive of Union Defence Minister AK Antony to Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor to institute court-martial proceedings against his military secretary Lieutenant General Avadhesh Prakash for his alleged role in the Sukhna land scam has several dimensions to it.

First, Antony by his action has, perhaps, inadvertently given the issue an element of civilian authority over military authority. The army chief had sought his military secretary’s explanation through a show cause notice. Until that avenue had been explored, the intervention of a senior authority was not required. The minister could have acted before the chief had sought the show cause notice and not while the process was still on.

An authority as senior as the army chief cannot be seen consulting or acting through intervention in a case already before him. The intervention is seeking to pre-judge an issue and would create controversies between the civil and military administrations.

Lt Gen Prakash is the senior-most army officer who will now face court-martial proceedings. Two days before his retirement, he has been asked to be attached to the Eastern Command for the purpose. The court-martial can be seen both as an opportunity by the officer to clear his name and for those who insist he is guilty to prove their charges. This could become a landmark case in the annals of military files and could even go up to the apex court after the court-martial proceedings reach a conclusion.

There are several curious turns in the case which are being portrayed as an example of a trial by media. It is possible that serious rivalry between top Army generals could be behind the case being reported as a major scandal. First, the land in question does not belong to the Army but to the West Bengal government. It is not covered under the Defence Act as Sukhna is not a cantonment but a military station. Third, no money has changed hands.

The MoU signed by the Army with four parties to which the land was leased by the state government was a fall-out of a meeting that took place in the secretariat of the West Bengal government. The MoU was cancelled on the orders of the Eastern Command Commander Lt Gen V.K. Singh in March last year.

By some coincidence, the inquiry ordered into the dealings was six months later soon after Lt Gen PK Rath — in-charge of Sukhna — was named as the Deputy Chief of Army Staff. Prior to him, Lt Gen

PC Bhardwaj was named as the Vice-Chief. Bhardwaj and VK Singh are course mates (June 1970) though the latter is senior. The inquiry, which was conducted, did not fulfil the mandatory requirement since it had one Lt General and two officers junior to him in place of all the three Lt Generals since it was an inquiry against a sitting Lt General. The Indian Army could have surely spared two out of the 70 Lt Generals on its rolls or two out of the five in the Eastern Command. Therefore, the recommendations could be challenged.

The military secretary’s role also was made part of the recommendations, which led to Rath being taken off from the line-up to the deputy’s position. Meanwhile, Lt Gen VK Singh has been named as the next Chief of Army Staff to take over on March 31 when General Kapoor retires.

The defence minister’s intervention has made both his position and that of General Kapoor untenable. There is a view that the chief should step down after this but his detractors feel that he is not going to do so since he is eyeing a top assignment like his predecessor J.J. Singh, now a Governor.

But the controversy is perhaps beginning to show that the fight among the generals is only a tip of the iceberg. Between us.