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April 13, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Bhagwat may have started the distillery for fermenting defence services and politics

It is well known how Mani Shankar Aiyar jumped from India's diplomatic service to the Congress party, became a poodle of Rajiv Gandhi, skipped from Kesri's Congress to Mamata's Trinamool, and then flittered back to Sonia's side. Not so well-known is how, a year or so ago, Aiyar pranced away with a pretext when a foreign education foundation in New Delhi insisted on his payment of Rs 100 for a docketful of info regarding various programmes of various universities in Clinton country.

Meanwhile, Aiyar's acrobatics with facts and the English language have attained some permanence in the print media. His latest foray was in The Indian Express of April 6 wherein he used I'affaire Bhagwat to make the burlesque charge that 'To the BJP goes the credit of being the first government to run a coup d'etat against the armed forces.'

Reiterating his Madam's shrill cry for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to examine the whole Bhagwat business, Aiyar wrote that 'The demand for a JPC must be seen for what it is… an indictment of the entire Cabinet for their collaboration in subverting tried and tested systems of keeping politics out of the armed forces and the armed forces out of politics.'

Aiyar is not content with gunning for Defence Minister George Fernandes 'who has much to answer,' but also the prime minister who, he says, 'will have to explain why the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet chose to appoint as a deputy chief of naval staff an officer who had earned the ''outstanding" grading during but 16 months of a career spanning upwards of three decades.' If his Madam shrieks, Aiyar barks and asks, 'Is the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet to be treated as a puppet of inconvenient coalition partners -- moreover, in matters relating to the defence of the nation?' So acrobatic is Aiyar's felicity with words that he overlooks to inform his readers that his rhetoric relates to the promotion of Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh effected by the Vajpayee government.

Let that pass for the moment, and let's go back into history when the poisonous potent of politics and armed forces was first concocted. General Thimayya's resignation in the early fifties consequent to the appointment of a senior officer not of his choice is the earliest known dose of this accursed cocktail which resulted in the prime minister persuading the great general to withdraw his resignation. But Rear Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was the one who may be said to have started the distillery for fermenting defence services and politics. He did that with his writ petition of September 1990 protesting against the denial to him of the post of Fleet Commander, Western Command, with the rank of Vice-Admiral.

In that lengthy petition before the Bombay high court, Bhagwat berated and belittled all and sundry -- the chief of naval staff, two vice-admirals, the Cabinet Secretary of the Government of India and the nation's prime minister who was castigated as 'not being in a position as defence minister to apply his mind to the developments taking place in the defence ministry.' That was, remember, in September 1990 when, not the BJP, but V P Singh's Janata Dal was running the country.

The fall-out of Bhagwat's writ petition was an avalanche. Admiral J G Nadkarni, the naval chief, replied strongly to the petition on September 28, 1990 pointing out, inter alia, instances of Bhagwat's failure to follow orders not to his liking, his trait of panicky over-reaction, his inability to relax, and his overall lack of fitness to hold the highly responsible post of fleet commander.

The then most senior Vice-Admiral Subimal Jain, holding the post of Flag Officer, Commanding-in-Chief, filed a statutory complaint under Article 35 of the Navy Regulations Act, alleging, among other things, that 'Bhagwat is a disgruntled officer who is also mentally unbalanced. He is a schizophrenic and needs psychiatric help.' (sic). That complaint was dated October 30, 1990, when V P Singh's Janata Dal was still in power in New Delhi.

And then came the recommendation from Admiral Nadkarni to the Government of India. He stated therein that 'The FO C-in-C Western Naval Command has further informed me that Rear Admiral V Bhagwat has been in the habit of unauthorisedly obtaining and making photocopies of classified official documents for personal use… I am, therefore, of the opinion that the only course which is expedient, speedy and commensurate with the gravity of the misdemeanour of the Flag Officer is to invoke the 'pleasure doctrine' contained in Article 310 of the Constitution and Section 15 (I) of the Navy Act, 1957. I, therefore, recommend that the services of Rear Admiral V Bhagwat be immediately terminated under this clause.'

That mother of all recommendations was made on November 26, 1990 -- when, Aiyar should remember, the prime minister was, not Vajpayee of the BJP, but Chandra Shekhar of the Janata Party propped up by our poodle's master, Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress party.

Neither Chandra Shekhar, nor the succeeding Congress defence minister and prime minister since June 21, 1991, took any action on Admiral Nadkarni's recommendation. Rear Admiral Bhagwat's distillery was allowed to continue.

Indeed, it was allowed to flourish when, in September 1992, the defence minister promoted Bhagwat to the position of Vice-Admiral. That was the time when, Aiyar should note, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet was, to use his own words, 'treated as a puppet… in matters relating to the defence of the nation.' For, believe it or not, Pawar enacted his own acrobatics by elevating Bhagwat without even constituting the ACC! Tellingly enough, the upright home minister, S B Chavan, was not even consulted on the coup.

That brings us to the recent controversial promotion of Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh to the position of DCNS by the ACC comprising Prime Minister Vajpayee, Home Minister Advani, and Defence Minister Fernandes. Aiyar believes that Harinder Singh got the 'outstanding' grading only during 16 months of his naval service of 30 years and more. Aiyar chooses not to specify those 16 months, but never mind. All he should do is get hold of the Navy Promotion Board (1 to 96) findings that assessed Harinder Singh as being 'a consistently outstanding officer with an excellent track record.' Indeed, the Board gave him grading 1 among the five considered for promotion. Among those who signed those findings was… Vishnu Bhagwat!

Since that happened in February 1996 when Narasimha Rao's Congress was still in power, Aiyar should find it easy to get hold of that Navy Promotion Board document -- and he probably will not have to pay Rs 100 for it.

But Aiyar might resort to legal gymnastics and say that Harinder Singh was not even recommended by Bhagwat, chief of naval staff, and, therefore, his promotion approved by the present government's ACC, is, as Bhagwat has said, 'not implementable' under the Navy Act regulations. While George Fernandes in his television interview the other day said that the attorney general of India does not subscribe to Bhagwat's views, let us, in the context of this promotion, recall the order of June 23, 1998 passed by the division bench of the Calcutta high court on a writ petition filed by Harinder Singh.

That writ contained, as exhibits, three statutory complaints earlier made by the petitioner. The essence of these complaints was that Harinder Singh was being denied the post of principal officer, Naval Headquarters, essentially because the chief of naval staff (Bhagwat) seemed to have 'an apparent bias against those wearing a turban' because of what a Sikh midshipman officer is supposed to have done when Bhagwat was in command of INS Ranjit during the post-1984 period after Indira Gandhi's assassination.

While the division bench, comprising Chief Justice Gupta and Judge Bhattacharya, did not rule on the petitioner's prayer for the court martial of Bhagwat and refused to post Harinder Singh to the naval headquarters, it significantly ordered that "the chief of naval staff shall have nothing to do whatsoever with any matter relating to the order arising out of the complaints/representations made by the appellant or in any other manner in proceedings relating to these complaints/representations or pursuant to issue of show cause notice." (Issued by the defence ministry).

Note, please note, how the two learned judges ordered a virtual "Hands off" to Bhagwat in the matter of Harinder Singh's promotion. And there is no record of Bhagwat having appealed against the judgment.

Nor had he filed an affidavit-in-rejoinder to Admiral Nadkarni's volatile reply to Bhagwat's infamous petition of September 1990 but, instead, had quietly withdrawn it in April 1991. Nor did he judicially challenge his own sacking from service on December 30, 1998. All that he has done is to continue with his allegations against the present defence minister and swear to a public notary another affidavit containing more insinuations and innuendoes.

Indeed, the respected defence analyst, K Subramanyam, has already publicly refuted two of that points made in that affidavit. One of them is Bhagwat's reference to General T N Raina as being the army chief in 1997; Subrahmanyam told The Indian Express that this just could not be because Raina retired in 1978 and died in the early 1980s. Bhagwat has not reacted to that refutation till the moment of writing this column.

In keeping with this "shoot and scoot" style of Bhagwat is the response of his naval headquarters to the ex-defence secretary's letter No 8046 (ISCN)/Desy/98 dated June 4, 1998 and addressed to the CNS, i e Bhagwat. That letter of Ajit Kumar arose from several promotions which in his opinion were in apparent disregard of rules, regulations and conventions, and expressed his disturbance at complaints of several naval officers; the letter cautioned Bhagwat that all this might result in demoralising the services. Bhagwat's reply was almost instantaneous but made through one of his favourites, Jacob, his vice-chief.

In that letter No VCNS/70/98 dated, Jacob pointed out, inter alia, that 'the responsibility for morale and fighting efficiency of the navy is entirely vested in the chief of the naval staff and the reference by the defence secretary to this aspect over which he has no direct knowledge, control or jurisdiction is considered inappropriate.'

If that is not deliberate defiance of civilian authority, what is, Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar?

What the nation is being held to ransom at the moment is a JPC for the man who, going by Admiral Nadkarni's assessment, has been dismissed eight years too late. The JPC is being demanded for the man who has exhibited fragmentary delusions or hallucinations, negativism, rigidity -- symptoms all of one who, over eight years ago, Vice-Admiral Jain, the FO C-in-C, summed up in just one word: 'schizophrenic.'

It is to Aiyar's Congress then that the credit must go for enabling the first such man to be at the helm of the nation's maritime defence.

Arvind Lavakare

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