June 14, 2021
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Night Of January 16

Night Of January 16

On March 13, rediff.com carried what seemed then to have been an innocuous story,India's elite paratroopers meet their match in fog, traffic during mockup, which talked about the elite Parachute Brigade of the Indian army, based in Agra playing out two different scenarios depicting " the need for a quick operation almost akin to the situations that obtained in Maldives last month and the consequences of the mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles (now Border Guards, Bangladesh) two years ago:

During the exercise, elements of the brigade travelled by road from Agra to Delhi to link up with the Indian Air Force base at Hindon on the outskirts of the capital, since the recently acquired medium lift transport aircraft, the C-130 Js are stationed there.

Army itself held an official briefing on the subject two days after that—on March 15, 2012—in Agra.


But the innocuous story (along with another instance of troop movements towards Delhi on the same day) found itself featuring in a three-deck, four-byline, eight-column banner headline by the Indian Express today— The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt— to a full front-page story that was authored by none other than the paper’s editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta, jointly with Ritu Sarin, Pranab Dhal Samanta and Ajmer Singh, which, inter alia, also went on to state: 

Nobody is using the “C” word to imply anything other than “curious”. All else is considered an impossibility.

The thrust of the report thus —if we go by what the editor of the paper has also later gone on to say in at least two TV interviews —was not on the "non-notified" (though not " unauthorised")  troop movement but that it was seen by certain sections in the ruling dispensation as something sinister, highlighting the nadir the civil-military relationship had reached.

But did the government actually panic —needlessly or otherwise? The story makes it a point, however, to say:

It was still a cause for curiosity and some confusion — more than much concern — because, over the decades, New Delhi has come to be totally relaxed and trustful of the apolitical and professionally correct nature of its military leadership...

Immediately, the Centre put in motion an old contingency plan to delay just such a move.

It issued a terror alert with instructions to police to carefully check all vehicles on the highways leading to Delhi. The objective was to slow down traffic. The Prime Minister was informed at the crack of dawn on January 17. Quiet checks carried out on the location and status of key formations and their commanders, particularly in the northwestern region, revealed nothing abnormal at all. Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma was asked to cut short his visit to Malaysia. He returned.

The story then goes on to detail how the defence secretary "opened his office late at night and asked Lt Gen. A K Choudhary, Director General Military Operations, to see him and explain what was going on" and ordered that both the units be sent back. "Both formations were halted, and sent back within hours."

Earlier, on January 18, the same newspaper had reported that the defence secretary's return from Malaysia was because of the Army Chief's age-row hearing in the Supreme Court.

Had there been real panic at any serious level of the government, would it actually wait for the defence secretary to return from Malaysia till late at night? It remains unclear what the coup-planners were up to before they were ostensibly halted — waiting docilely for the defence secretary to return so that he could direct them to return to wherever they came from? Clearly, it is all far too over the top to be taken seriously. So why this overblown and over-hyped treatment of the story?


What made all these laboured insinuations about the '"C" word' even more intriguing was the fact that it isn't as if the chain of command works so simply that the COAS or some people working at his behest could so easily move two units to Delhi for whatever purpose. Even if we take it at face value, at the most the two reported "movements towards Delhi" would have entailed less than a thousand troops. Senior army generals and defence analysts laugh off the very possibility of such a thing being considered with any degree of seriousness as ridiculous. The army, they point out, has upwards of 25,000 troops stationed in Delhi, so if a coup —or even just  muscle-flexing was required —a thousand odd troops would not have to be brought in all the way from Agra or Hissar, providing fodder for speculation to these "intelligence agencies". Net-net, if someone was indeed spooked, they would have to be really ill-informed and silly, not that one considers the "central intelligence agencies" that "reported an unexpected (and non-notified) movement" to be otherwise.

Indeed, the very Express story mentions, albeit to point out the government's scepticism, that between Army Day (January 15), and Republic Day (January 26), many Army units are involved in parades in Delhi. So why should the movement of a paltry few men be taken seriously? Unless, of course, someone wished to spread panic or paranoia... Or the suggestion is that those in charge of these outstation units were the ones who could be trusted to conspire in a coup, and not those already in Delhi.


That the civil-military relationship has reached its nadir is not a piece of breaking news. The government's stout denial should also be taken as par for the course (and they are interestingly not specifically denying being spooked, all you have are pieties about the army and how “alarmist reports" should not be taken at face value and how exalted the office of the COAS is). But IF a certain section of the civilian establishment was indeed so easily and so badly spooked, perhaps we need to understand why such men are in charge and who managed to spread this paranoia. If it is indeed an elaborate wag the dog operation, then the story definitely deserves to be followed up to expose who they are. It  might also add a layer of understanding as to why the whole might of the system was used to tarnish the COAS, right from why he was sought to be retired 10 months before his term came to an end,  to many manufactured controversies about his date of birth, to the scripted and persistent misreporting on what the SC said on his petition, or that he was tapping the ministry of defence, or the more recent leak of his letter to the PM, or various insinuations that have been tried about why he might have raked up the bribe issue now.

And that of course brings us back to the issue of what the General himself has hinted more than once:  the real important "C" word — Corruption— and the presence of an arms lobby that wanted — and wants —him out. That the General has not exactly made himself popular to the scamsters with his action in the Sukna or the Adarsh cases is, again, not breaking news. His recent charge of a bribe has already exposed a big unfolding story about the hitherto hidden scam in the purchase of Tatra trucks worth many thousands of crores that had seemingly been going on at least since 1986. 

Today's news report, like any other text, can of course be parsed in many ways — and, on a lighter note, perhaps it is fitting for a report based on the events of the Night of January 16 —but no matter how one chooses to read it, given the sequence of unfolding events, this much is clear: the system has already been manipulated to get the General out by May 31, and the next in line seems to be the defence minister, who despite his many other faults, is also seen as a roadblock in the way of the arms lobby.
Cynics also point to a pattern to this government's dirty tricks department . At the height of the Anna movement, prominently placed stories against the Bhushans had been prominently played up which later were demonstrated to be patently false, they point out.


Post Script

True to form, Byzantine Delhi is already abuzz with speculation about faction-fights, gossip and usual intrigue about the possible stories behind the story. Here is one: Senior minister Sutradhar of coup report?

Sources involved in tracking sensitive developments claim that a senior minister of the UPA government was the mastermind of the April 4 front page item in a daily newspaper about a suspected coup attempt. The sources claim that the minister is connected - through his close relative - with the defense procurement lobbies gunning for Chief of Army Staff General V K Singh, and that the decision to "trick the newspaper into running a baseless report was to drain away support for General Singh within the political class", who could be expected to unite against any effort at creating a Pakistan-style situation in India. However, the minister in question appears to have miscalculated the response of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defense Minister to the report." The minister assumed that both would decline comment on the report, in view of their strained relations with the Army chief, but instead both came out foursquare against the newspaper. This surprised both the minister as well as journalists who relied on him for the initial information," a source claimed. [Read on at the Sunday Guardian]

Fairness demands that it be pointed out that at least two of these journalists are too senior to be "tricked" easily. Nor does the story explicitly endorse the possibility of a coup, despite all the innuendo and insinuations. After all the fire and brimstone, the report explicitly goes on to say that "the MoD’s considered view now seems to be that it was a false alarm caused by some non-adherence to Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) by the Army and an alarmist civil/political reaction on a particularly distrustful day."

The army, on its part, insists that "routine training at the formation level is carried out to check mobilisation according to standard operating procedure” and went on to say that the January 16 movement was to test the readiness to deploy and move through heavy fog. Noting that all army units carry out this procedure at regular intervals, the army said that in this case too “the troops were called back according to SOP”.  Senior retired officers confirm the army's stand. Former Defence Secretary Ajay Prasad maintains he is not aware of any need of informing the MoD. Lt Gen Satish Nambiar (Retd.), a former Director General Military Operations, assents, mentioning that no such protocols were followed in his time.

The Indian Express, however, insists that it stands by the story, calling it "A meticulous reconstruction and a very sober interpretation of the movement of two key Army units towards New Delhi"

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