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Uproar over veterans’ note against forces’ political use

The President’s office said it had not received the missive and two of the eight former chiefs initially denied that they were signatories to the letter, but later admitted that they endorsed its content.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2019 07:23 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
India news,President,Ram Nath Kovind
The letter was released late on the night of April 11, hours after the first phase of elections to 91 parliamentary constituencies in 18 states and two union territories ended. (Reuters file photo)

A letter purported to have been written by 165 veterans, including eight former services chiefs, to President and Commander-in-Chief Ram Nath Kovind, complaining about political parties using the armed forces to seek votes, gave rise to some confusion on Friday in the middle of a heated general election.

The President’s office said it had not received the missive and two of the eight former chiefs initially denied that they were signatories to the letter, but later admitted that they endorsed its content.

The letter was released late on the night of April 11, hours after the first phase of elections to 91 parliamentary constituencies in 18 states and two union territories ended.

The authors said they were against “the unusual and completely unacceptable practice of political leaders taking credit for military operations like cross-border strikes, and even going so far as to claim the armed forces to be ‘Modi ji ki sena’.”

They added that “this is in addition to media pictures of election platforms and campaigns in which party workers are seen wearing military uniforms; and posters and images with pictures of soldiers and especially of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman displayed.”

On Friday, the office of the President of India denied having received the letter. “There is a format of sending such letters,” a senior official in the President’s office said.

The veterans said they deliberately released the letter late in the night of Thursday to ensure that polling in the first phase of elections was not influenced.

“The letter was emailed to the official address of the President,” Major Priyadarshi Chowdhury (retd) said, releasing the email to counter the claim by the President’s office.

The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have put national security at the vanguard of their election campaign following the February 14 Pulwama terrorist attack in which at least 40 paramilitary troops were killed. The attack was followed 12 days later by an Indian Air Force strike on a terror camp run in Pakistan’s Balakot by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

On February 27, after a dogfight over the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, Wing Commander Varthaman was captured by Pakistani armed forces. Varthaman, who became a social media phenomenon for the confidence with which he handled Pakistani interrogators in videos made public by Pakistan, was released on March 1.

In March, the Election Commission directed political parties not to display photographs of defence personnel in advertisements or otherwise as part of their election campaign. The directive came after the ministry of defence complained that photographs of defence personnel were being used by political parties, their leaders and candidates in election advertising.

Last week, addressing an election rally in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath referred to the Indian Army as “Modi ji ki sena.”

“Congress used to feed biryani to terrorists but Modi ji ki sena (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s army) gives them only golis and golas (bullets and bombs). This is the difference,” the chief minister said. He was subsequently cautioned by the Election Commission.

Then, news agency ANI reported that two senior veterans — former Air Chief Marshal N C Suri and former Chief of Army Staff Sunith Francis Rodrigues — had denied endorsing the letter.

“Consent for all those named in the letter was taken on email, they may have developed cold feet subsequently” Vice Marshal (retd) Kapil Kak said. “The letter was shared amongst us and we were asked to give an endorsement or expressly disassociate,” he added.

The emails from Suri and Rodrigues, endorsing the letter to the President, were subsequently shared with the media.

The two veterans then clarified that they had indeed endorsed the contents of the letter. Rodrigues said that while he was not aware that the concerns would be aired in the form of a letter and sent to the President, he was “deeply concerned about the politicisation of the armed forces and wanted it to be communicated to the President.”

In addition, he said, “both the air chief and I have gone public and we have said that, yes, we should approach the President and that we should not politicise the armed forces.”

Suri ,when contacted, said: “I am of the firm view that the armed forces must continue to be apolitical and oriented to serve the country through the democratically elected government. This would be in the larger interest of the country. It is in this context that I endorse the appeal to the Supreme Commander.”

The government did not offer any comment on the controversy.

The Congress on Friday approached the Election Commission against Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah for allegedly “dragging” the armed forces into politics. Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi told journalists afterwards that the PM, the president of the ruling party and other leaders were “shamelessly” using the armed forces to engage in “cheap politics.”

Earlier, defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, after the initial denial by Suri and Rodrigues, that the letter was fake. “It is very worrying if people are writing fake letters and allegations are being levelled by vested groups. It is highly condemnable. It is happening at the time of elections,” IANS quoted Sitharaman as saying.

First Published: Apr 13, 2019 07:23 IST