The unprecedented sacking of a brilliant but temperamental naval chief for 'defiance of civilian authority' bodes ill for the armed forces and the polity.
By Prabhu Chawla and Manoj Joshi
In an evolving democracy like India, there are few certitudes. One that has withstood 50 years of turbulence is the delicate relationship between the government and the armed forces. It was a partnership based on trust, mutual respect and gentlemanly conduct. The Constitution clearly established the principle of civilian supremacy but in operational terms the armed forces enjoyed a phenomenal degree of autonomy. There was a code and a Lakshman Rekha that neither side wilfully violated or transgressed.
On the afternoon of December 30, the settled order was jolted. As the chief of naval staff (CNS) was preparing to leave his South Block office for the day, he was handed a terse five-line letter from Additional Secretary, Ministry of Defence (MOD), Subir Dutta. "The President, in exercise of powers conferred by Section 15(1) of the Navy Act 1957 ... is pleased to withdraw his pleasure for continuance of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat in the Naval Service on account of loss of confidence in his fitness to continue as CNS and he is relieved of his services with immediate effect." Almost simultaneously, Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar, who had been rushed to Delhi earlier that day from his post in Kochi, was appointed the new CNS.
For the 59-year-old Bhagwat, who topped his National Defence Academy class in 1958 and won the coveted sword of honour as the best midshipman of the fleet, it was an abrupt end to a brilliant but controversial career. Yet, the man who sought to redefine the military-civilian relationship in the belief that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government was a pushover, wasn't in a mood to go quietly. Accompanied by his lawyer-wife Niloufer he drove to Rashtrapati Bhavan and demanded a meeting with the commander-in-chief. What could have led to another controversy was prevented by President K.R. Narayanan meeting the Bhagwats in the company of the first lady. He heard the couple out by extending them social courtesy.
An angry Bhagwat then decided to go public. Speaking on his behalf, Niloufer accused the Government of "communal" designs. A lawyer who was the CPI's counsel at the Srikrishna Commission inquiry into the 1992-93 Bombay riots, Niloufer also detected "capitalist" retribution, an Akali conspiracy and even questioned the competence of her husband's successor. Following suit, CPI General Secretary A.B. Bardhan saw Bhagwat as a victim of the "saffronisation of politics". A left-wing critic of the Government compared the Bhagwat dismissal to the Dreyfus affair in 19th century France, although others feel it is a farcical replay of General Douglas MacArthur's dismissal by US President Harry Truman in 1951.
The Government hit back with uncharacteristic ferocity. It said the decision was taken "consciously and deliberately, in the face of action which threatened the established structures of democracy, the traditional neutrality and objectivity of our armed forces as well as national security". On his part, Prime Minister Vajpayee added that Bhagwat had to go for his "deliberate defiance of the established system of cabinet control over the defence forces". Vajpayee didn't elaborate on the grave charge that Bhagwat had also harmed national security, but MOD sources attributed two improprieties to the former CNS: his comments on the Sagarika anti-ship missile project and the disclosure of the undercover Operation Leech in the Andaman Islands. A minor lapse also included violating protocol and communicating directly with the Pakistan High Commission after an incident involving the violation of naval airspace.
That quiet discretion has never been a part of Bhagwat's personality is conceded even by those who feel he has been wronged. He found it difficult to keep his emotions under check and this soured his relationships with his fellow officers. Among the reasons cited by Defence Minister George Fernandes in his cabinet note of December 26 for seeking removal of Bhagwat was his boorishness. On December 2, for example, Sushil Kumar complained to the defence minister that Bhagwat "shouted at me in an angry and belligerent tone and threatened me with words to the effect that if I sent my statutory complaint to MOD/RM (Raksha Mantri), he would discipline me/ call me to order". There are a dozen similar charges before the MOD of vengeful conduct by Bhagwat.
To this was added a curious trait. Bhagwat was pathologically litigious. With a wife who also doubled up as his lawyer, the former CNS had a preference for taking internal military disputes to the courts and using the legal process to his advantage. Overlooked in 1990 for the position of commander of the Western Fleet, the then Rear-Admiral Bhagwat filed a 400-page writ petition in the Bombay High Court levelling accusations at CNS Admiral J.G. Nadkarni and other senior officers. Although the matter was resolved out of court to Bhagwat's advantage, it is felt that the petition enabled Vice-Admiral L. Ramdas to prevail over Vice-Admiral S. Jain as Nadkarni's successor in December 1990. With Ramdas at the helm, Bhagwat's appointment was cleared in October 1991. Ramdas is now a prominent anti-nuclear activist campaigning against the Vajpayee Government.
In his 1990 petition, Bhagwat made an observation which he may be loath to now acknowledge. "Appointments to decision-making/higher command posts have always rested on the principle that while the CNS may recommend, it is the Government at the level of the defence minister/Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) which must exercise its judgement". He further stated that "within the framework of the Indian Constitution, Navy Act and ... Rules of Government Business and Appointments, no CNS can seek to be a dictator/despot as the ... Constitution doesn't recognise military rule".
Bhagwat was stating the obvious. There are examples of the ACC overturning the recommendations of the CNS. In November 1990 the Chandra Shekhar government's ACC ignored the CNS' recommendations in the appointment of three vice-admirals. The CNS had suggested Vice-Admiral H. Johnson as commander of the Southern Fleet but the ACC preferred Vice-Admiral K.A.S.Z. Raju. Likewise, Vice-Admiral Jain was chosen to head the Western Fleet without the CNS' blessing.
As CNS, Bhagwat developed selective amnesia. His confrontation with the Government began in June last year over the appointment of three principal staff officers (PSOs). When Bhagwat forwarded his one-man list -- Vice-Admiral Madanjeet Singh who was officiating as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff (DCNS) since April -- the MOD found that he had ignored the claims of other officers. On June 4, defence secretary Ajit Kumar asked Bhagwat to reconsider because the list was "not in accordance with the established practice of giving due consideration to seniority". The CNS was, however, in a combative mood. On June 8, Naval HQ replied that "suitability and fitness" took priority over seniority in this case. The letter further asserted that "responsibility for morale and fighting efficiency of the Navy and the reference by the defence secretary to this aspect over which he has no direct knowledge, control and jurisdiction is inappropriate". Finally, it charged the MOD with delaying appointments and "encouraging an undesirable trend in some individuals to use devious means to attain their ends".
The "undesirable trend" was probably a reference to the case filed by Fortress Andaman Commander Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh in the Calcutta High Court. Angry over certain adverse notings made in his annual confidential report (ACR), he sought redressal from the MOD, which upheld his complaint and expunged the offending sections. Naval HQ, however, failed to formally communicate this to him, upon which he went to court. The court, in turn, asked the MOD to do the needful and referred his claim to a PSO vacancy to the "appropriate competent authority". This prompted Bhagwat, through Niloufer, to file a contempt petition in Calcutta last September where wild charges of conspiracy were levelled against Harinder Singh and defence secretary Kumar. The court rejected it but Bhagwat refused to entertain the MOD's right to include Harinder Singh's name as a candidate for the DCNS' post. He wrote to the MOD that "verbal appraisals, directions and directives issued by the CNS in the overall interest of the service are not subject to any scrutiny. It is considered inappropriate to question any deliberate and considered opinion of the CNS".
It is conceivable that the Naval HQ-MOD battle began as Bhagwat's way of showing the babus their place. Ever since the Fourth Pay Commission elevated the defence chiefs to the rank of the cabinet secretary, a war of precedence has broken out in South Block. Although the defence secretary symbolises civilian authority, the armed forces have been reluctant to accept his supremacy. Matters have taken such a ridiculous turn that meetings between the defence secretary and the military top brass are held in the neutral venue of the MOD's conference room. Against this, the armed forces are hamstrung by their dependence on the MOD for routine clearances. A cat-and-mouse game -- which Fernandes tried to resolve to the advantage of the forces -- has vitiated the defence establishment.
However, in contesting the very principle of civilian supremacy, Bhagwat went too far. By August, Fernandes had concluded that this was an impossible situation. However, the prime minister urged caution and attempted to make Bhagwat fall in line using more persuasive means. The CNS, however, saw conciliation as a sign of the Government's weakness and became even more obdurate. When the ACC cleared Harinder Singh's name as DCNS on December 9, Bhagwat refused to implement the order. The good offices of other political leaders like Leader of the Opposition Sharad Pawar were used but had no effect. Others like former prime minister I.K. Gujral and Congress leader Manmohan Singh were also taken into confidence. Finally, on December 26, Fernandes wrote to the Cabinet asking for Bhagwat's dismissal. On December 28, the Cabinet Committee on Security met and decided to sack Bhagwat. Immediately afterwards, the ACC met to appoint Sushil Kumar as the new CNS. To assure the forces that this was no unequivocal bureaucratic triumph, the defence secretary was also changed.
"Hopefully some good will come out of this unfortunate incident", says former CNS Admiral V.S. Shekhawat. He is merely echoing the general disquiet felt by most people at the pathetic state of the defence establishment. After the Bhagwat incident, civilian supremacy has been reaffirmed but the factors fuelling the soldiers' anger against the babus haven't been fully grasped. And totally ignored is the question of reforms that would make the armed forces truly autonomous but strictly accountable to Indian democracy. This is what Fernandes needs to address after this most unfortunate controversy that showed the armed forces have been infected by the general rot of India.
© Living Media India Ltd