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The army’s agony

The army chief has been criticised for recommending different punishments for the four indicted officers. It’s claimed this is ‘proof’ he was treating Lt Gen Prakash leniently, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2010 23:22 IST

I don’t know if you’ve been following ‘the Sukhna Land Scam’ but the more I read the more dismayed I become. It’s been presented as a dark smear on the good name of the Indian Army. I’m not sure if the facts support that conclusion but, alas, the handling certainly appears to. As far as I can tell, no one is accused of graft or misappropriation. This seems to be primarily an issue of propriety. But despite that — and this is the rub — it’s hurt the army’s reputation for transparency and cleanliness.

I assume the details are well-known. Therefore I shan’t repeat them. It’s the way they’ve been pursued that raises disturbing questions. That, today, is my concern.

First, the army’s handling of this issue. Given that Army Rule 180 requires that any witness whose ‘evidence’ could harm the reputation of an officer must depose in his presence, why did the court of inquiry not ensure that Lieutenant General Avadhesh Prakash was present when such ‘evidence’ was heard? Retired army chiefs maintain this rule is sacrosanct. So why did the court of inquiry overlook it?

Next, given this was a high profile and controversial case, did the army chief consult Defence Minister A.K. Antony before deciding what action to take against the four indicted generals? In an interview to me, broadcast tonight on CNN-IBN’s Devil’s Advocate, he suggests he did. In that case, did the defence minister fail to make clear he disagreed? Or did the chief ignore him? Worse, did the defence minister first concur but then, influenced by the press, change his mind?

The army chief has been criticised for recommending different punishments for the four indicted officers. It’s claimed this is ‘proof’ he was treating Lt Gen Prakash leniently. But General Deepak Kapoor says to have treated all four similarly would be disregarding their different degrees of culpability. Quite frankly, it’s a credible argument. But why was it not presented to the press in the chief’s defence? Failure to do so permitted the media to persist with the claim he had erred.

Second and most importantly, why was the defence minister’s advice to the chief to order disciplinary action against Lt Gen Prakash made public? And let me add, I don’t believe this happened without Antony’s concurrence. Yet, the defence minister knew this would be interference with the prerogatives of the army chief and, worse, it would undermine the sanctity of his office. So did he intend to slight Gen Kapoor? It’s difficult to conclude otherwise.

This is why many believe that when Gen Kapoor, after issuing a show cause notice for administrative action against Lt Gen Prakash, changed his mind and ordered disciplinary action, he was acting under pressure. The chief denies this and has told me his decision was influenced by the quality of Lt Gen Prakash’s reply. That could well be the case but Antony’s indiscrete behaviour has made it difficult for many to accept.

These questions apart, this matter has now gone into a court martial. Hereafter it will be argued by lawyers, headlined by the press and could drag on. Worse, if the Armed Forces Tribunal, where Lt Gen Prakash has appealed against the court martial, finds that the prior court of inquiry was mishandled, the whole disciplinary process could be declared infructuous. All of this can only add to the army’s agony.

Whatever be the outcome for the four concerned officers, the army is suffering. Could that not have been avoided?

The views expressed by the author are personal