01 January 1999

L'affaire Bhagwat: The Armed Forces are not a 'Disputed Structure'

1 January 1999
The Times of India

Armed Forces Are Not a `Disputed Structure'


THE dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat as Navy chief is an act without
parallel in the history of our `Secular Republic'. If anything, the communalist
overtones and arbitrariness of the government's decision are reminiscent of the
Dreyfus Affair, when an upstanding officer of the French army was vilified and
falsely accused of betraying his country because he happened to be Jewish. The
stated accusation against Admiral Bhagwat is no less defamatory. And the real
reasons for his ouster no less obscure.

No one is questioning the right of the government to sack a service chief. But
has it substantiated the grave charge that Admiral Bhagwat ``threatened the
established structure of democracy, traditional neutrality and objectivity of
the armed forces as well as national security''? The mere assertion of
``civilian control'' does not, by itself, make the government's decision
democratic. Indeed, other than referring to Admiral Bhagwat's ``defiance of the
established system of Cabinet control over the defence forces'', the defence
ministry has revealed nothing. All it says is that there is a need to preserve
the balance between the interest of national security and the right of people
to be informed.

What the government feels it is not in the ``interest of national security'' to
divulge is the fact that Admiral Bhagwat has been dismissed for refusing to
accept as his deputy Vice Admiral Harinder Singh, a man who -- in a writ
petition -- has given ample proof of communalist, anti-Muslim bias. No matter
what spin is put out, this is the long and short of the entire affair.

In a letter to Defence Minister George Fernandes on August 13, Ms Niloufer
Bhagwat, wife of Admiral Bhagwat and a leading civil rights lawyer, drew
attention to certain objectionable statements made by Vice Admiral Singh in his
petition filed in the Calcutta high court on June 10, 1998. In that petition,
the vice admiral complained that Admiral Bhagwat had ``a hidden denominational
agenda'' in rejecting his appointment as deputy naval chief and made the
`accusation' (if that word can be used in this context) that: the navy chief's
wife is ``half-Muslim''; she had served as counsel for the CPI before the
Srikrishna Commission investigating the Bombay riots; Admiral Bhagwat did not
perform the proper funeral rites for his father (and hence was not a proper
Hindu); Cdr A A Lone, staff officer of the navy chief and the only Kashmiri
officer in the Indian Navy, is ``related to a terrorist''; `Muslim' naval
officers are ``close'' to the family of Adm Bhagwat.

No Reply

Such `allegations', Ms Bhagwat pointed out, ``are not only malafide but
uncalled for as they have the potential of dividing the Armed Forces on
religious grounds''. The defence minister, however, did not reply to her.
Instead, he and the Prime Minister insisted that Vice Admiral Harinder Singh be
foisted on the Navy chief and made no attempt to discuss the matter with him.

Even though the present controversy has ramifications that go beyond the fate
of one man, it is unfortunate that a service chief with a broad vision of
security policy in an increasingly complex global environment has been eased
out in this manner. In a speech entitled `The Emergence of the Indian
Scholar-Warrior' in November, Admiral Bhagwat said that there are vested
interests who would like the military to be ``hide-bound, hawkish, inflexible
... and ignorant of the subtleties of issues other than military''. He berated
the culture of anti-intellectualism prevalent in the bureaucracy and the armed
forces and said that unless there was a change in attitude, India would not be
able to face up to the challenges of defending its sovereignty in the 21st
century. Elsewhere, he has spoken of the link between social justice and
national security.

Serious Risk

Apart from explaining why it chose to violate the Navy Act -- which states that
senior appointments are to be made on the recommendation of the service chief
-- the government must tell the country why it wants to promote a man whose
`allegations' smack of disrespect for the Constitution. Indeed, by sacking
Admiral Bhagwat for asking the Cabinet to reconsider its decision to appoint
Vice Admiral Harinder Singh, the government wittingly or unwittingly projects
an image of sanctioning the communalisation and politicisation of the armed
forces. Tomorrow, there is no telling which political group will knock on North
Block's doors with its wish list and blacklist. Unless this process is nipped
in the bud, the armed forces run the risk of being turned into another
`disputed structure'.

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