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Shameful naval-gazers

Equally, I think it is fair to say that despite the bravery of the combatants in this battle against terror, the armed forces have been let down by their desk-jockeys, by officers who take the salute at parades, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2008 23:15 IST

At a time when the armed forces remain among the few institutions that educated Indians still respect, it is incumbent on senior officers to behave in a manner worthy of that respect. And by and large, our forces make us proud. One of the most heartening aspects of the Bombay operation was the way in which relatively senior officers led from the front, risking their lives.

The death of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan while trying to protect one of his soldiers was tragic, but it also told us something about the commitment of India’s officers. When it came to facing fire, they were more than willing to take bullets meant for their men.

Similarly, who can forget the modesty of the National Security Guards’ commandos? These are men who were denied basic facilities by the Indian State but who still went in and risked their lives for us, simply because it was the right thing to do. The NSG’s Director-General was direct and modest each time he faced the TV cameras, never once drawing attention to the extraordinary bravery of his men or demanding the credit that was rightfully their’s.

Most of us will recall the TV pictures of NSG commandos being lowered into Nariman House by helicopter for as long we live. I know that I will also remember the cheers and the applause that greeted the commandos when they emerged from the building, having ended the siege. When TV reporters asked them how they felt, their response was simple: “We did our job.” When people congratulated them, they said “Don’t congratulate us. We were just doing our duty.”

Contrast the bravery and modesty of the commandos with the attitude of the Chief Minister of Kerala. You could argue that perhaps Major Unnikrishnan’s father should not have shouted at the Chief Minister. Most of us, however, would understand that he was overwrought and upset. And some of us might say that he was simply expressing the rage that ordinary Indians felt towards politicians during this crisis.

But even if you believe that this obviously emotional man should not have yelled at the Chief Minister, how can anyone possibly justify the CM’s response? His contemptuous claim that even a dog would not have visited Unnikrishnan’s house in other circumstances tells us something about how India’s politicians view its people.

Equally, I think it is fair to say that despite the bravery and valour of the combatants in this battle against terror, the armed forces have been let down by their desk-jockeys, by officers who sit in offices and take the salute at parades.

The behaviour of the Chief of the Naval Staff over the last two days has been regrettable, shocking and on a par with that of the worst cowbelt politicians who blame the media for their failures.

The navy has reason to be defensive. There are well-documented allegations to the effect that it failed to police our borders. My own story in this paper two days ago revealed that R&AW had provided the exact coordinates of the vessel that was bringing the terrorists to India.

It may well be, as the Chief now claims, that this information did not reach the navy. But until an inquiry establishes this, it does nobody any good for the chief to hold forth about the media’s interference in an operation in which the navy was largely not involved, except for first few hours when its commandos prowled the Taj till the NSG arrived. If there are criticisms of the media’s role, they should be made by the NSG and by the others who actually conducted the bulk of the operation.

Nor can the navy complain about publicity. It’s commandos actually held an ill-advised press conference at which they revealed sensitive information. And its officers gave TV interviews during the crisis. If the media were so bad, then why use us to get publicity for yourselves? Why not exhibit the restraint of, say, the NSG?

The Naval Chief’s press conference will go down among the sadder episodes in this crisis. At times , he appeared to have lost it entirely, berating a channel for running an interview with him ahead of the broadcast time he had asked for and then shamefully, rehashing old, discredited lies about the media and Kargil, going so far as to concoct details of Bofors guns being fired for the cameras that have no foundation in fact.

If this is the level of the navy’s leadership, are we surprised that the terrorists came in so easily? The navy chief should ponder over the damage his foolish press conference has done his service. The Navy deserves better.