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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"

26 May 2012, 11:40:37 PM | Buzz

26 May 2012, 11:45:37 PM | Buzz

Indian Express paraphrases General V.K. Singh's interview to the TimesNow news channel: Army Chief alleges Govt role in letter leak

The Army Chief also criticized The Indian Express report of April 4 about how troop movements near the capital on the night of January 16 — the day General Singh moved the Supreme Court — rang alarm bells in the highest levels of the government. (The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying government.)

General Singh said that this report was part of an “agenda” and said that the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, who was one of the authors of the report, had met him over lunch and asked him “questions” about the troop movements. Asked if this conversation was on the record, General Singh said: “He (Gupta) was not recording it but I am quit sure there is no journalist in this world who is ever off the record.” Asked whether his “side of the story” was taken, he said, “No.”

“I told him what the facts were...So where was this spooking thing? Look at the way the story has been written. So what was the agenda? I don’t know but surely there was an agenda,” he said.

When his attention was drawn to the remarks of Minister of State for Defence M M Pallam that “probably someone down the line (in the government) may have read too much” into the movements, Gen Singh said: “The (Minister) did not say the government was spooked. What he said was that a lower functionary created an alarm. Now who that lower functionary is, I think, the Honourable Raksha Rajya Mantri will be knowing very well.”

26 May 2012, 11:33:37 PM | Buzz

In a tell-all interview given to CNN-IBN, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General VK Singh said that Defence Minister AK Antony could have done much more in the Tatra-BEML deal controversy, adding that the minister could have moved against Lt General (retd) Tejinder Singh

02 May 2012, 08:02:52 PM | Buzz

And now Adolf Hitler Finds Out About the 'C' Word Report:

04 May 2012, 11:02:36 PM | Buzz

Chauthi Duniya story saying the PM and the next Army chief are related -- General`s Age Row: PM, his Wife and Sister-in-Law. And the @PMOIndia's denial

19 Apr 2012, 11:46:49 PM | Buzz

Santosh Bhartiya of Chauthi Duniya, who had first carried the explosive interview of COAS General V.K. Singh in which the latter revealed that an attempt had been made to bribe him: The Spook Conspiracy Exposed

07 Apr 2012, 08:44:51 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Prashant Jha in the Hindu:

Responding to a question whether the civilian authority on the night of January 16 — the date of the reported movement — had asked him for a clarification, General Singh said, “It was not like that. No clarification was asked for. These were routine issues. I don't think one or two units should ever bother anyone. It was not as if the whole of the armoured division was marching towards Delhi. This is just a figment of imagination.”

General Singh rejected any link between the timing of the troop exercises, and his petition regarding his date of birth in the Supreme Court. “How is there any connection?” When pointed out that there were suggestions that the movement was meant to ‘scare' the government or exert pressure, he responded, “You have gone to the Supreme Court. What is there to scare the government for? These are fables of a sick mind. Anyone who makes a connection needs to see a psychiatrist. I had followed the laid down norms of a democratic constitution and gone to the SC. Where is the doubt left?

06 Apr 2012, 11:10:50 PM | Sundeep Dougal

RSN Singh goes over and reiterates some well-known aspects of the case in a useful roundup in the FirstPost:

Some sources have revealed to this author that Antony had almost decided to rule in favour of Gen VK Singh in respect to the date of birth controversy after the first opinion of the law ministry, which categorically upheld the general’s contention. It was then that powers in positions superior to Antony compelled him to readdress the case to the law ministry.

06 Apr 2012, 09:15:33 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Seema Mustafa in the DNA:

Sections of the media have reported that home minister P Chidambaram was pushing Lt General Tejinder Singh’s case for the NTRO top post. Significantly, the reports have not been denied, giving credence to speculation within the army that the retired DIA chief has high levels of political patronage...

Senior defence officers, including former chief of naval staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, claimed that the army chief was the target of a politicians-arms dealers nexus. Significantly the public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court by a retired naval chief, a senior journalist, a retired chief election commissioner, a former bureaucrat and three officers goes into details of the larger politics surrounding General VK Singh’s so-called age controversy.

06 Apr 2012, 09:11:33 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Malvika Singh in the Telegraph:

It is alarming that the government panicked because of an army exercise that was taking place. That it began to monitor the ‘movement’ instead of picking up the phone and speaking to the chief to find out what the movement was all about was equally shocking. Since the ‘fog operation’ was being conducted in and around the capital, surely the army just needed to inform the government to prevent the onset of any panic. Good governance is about good practice and good sense. To hear ministers and other functionaries cry themselves hoarse that there is no problem between the army and the defence ministry is unacceptable.

05 Apr 2012, 02:40:40 PM | Buzz

The Business Standard editorialises:

The army must demonstrate that the facts are wrong, or misinterpreted. Otherwise, it must explain what happened on the night of January 16-17, and tell India’s justifiably concerned citizens what action has been taken to ensure that it does not recur.

05 Apr 2012, 02:44:38 PM | Buzz

The Economic Times editorialises:

That the government has systems in place to monitor even unreported troop movements and to slow them down is reassuring: not so much because it averts a possible military coup as because it signals an institutional capacity that is rare in this count...

The overall fallout of the story is to lower both the army chief and the defence minister in public esteem, as those who bumble into a messy civil-military standoff.

05 Apr 2012, 06:38:20 AM | Buzz

The Hindu editorialises:

...the Indian Express is entirely within its rights to write about a sensitive matter like this, even if its treatment was overblown. Just as it is unfair for anyone to cast aspersions on the Indian Army, it is unfair to question the motives of the journalists who wrote the story...

...why was the report, which consumed the entire front page and was accompanied by a sensational headline, so overplayed? In doing so, it has run the risk of being read for innuendos and insinuations rather than for the facts — which is exactly what has transpired given the reaction to the story.

05 Apr 2012, 05:26:45 PM | Buzz

MT @nitingokhale: According to The Week the COAS had an inkling in mid-March that a story akin to one in the Express was coming!

05 Apr 2012, 05:24:47 PM | Buzz

NDTV plays audio of interview with COAS by the Week on Mar 13 in which he rubbished insinuations against routine exercises

05 Apr 2012, 03:42:29 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Josy Joseph in the Times of India on War within: Did Army chief’s rivals spook govt on troop movements?

The insinuation of a dark plot was based on the alleged factional loyalty of the two senior officers controlling the movement of these troops: Lt Gen Ashok Singh, who heads 1 Strike Corps based in Mathura, and Lt Gen A K Choudhary, the DGMO. Both are regarded as staunch allies of the chief, and probably believed that an injustice had been done to their boss.

Singh and his supporters have maintained that he was born in 1951 and should have been in the saddle until March next year. They also feel that he was denied his due to ensure a particular line of succession that favours officers belonging to the rival lobby. In fact, Gen Ashok Singh had a good chance of becoming the Army chief had the government allowed Gen Singh to continue till next year.

The chief's rivals have retaliated by accusing him of changing his version on his age as well as of targeting those who are not his favourites. The first public display of the ugly divisions came when an anonymous complaint reached the defence ministry alleging that the Army chief had used his faction in Military Intelligence (MI) to deploy off-the-air interceptors for listening in on conversations of the defence minister A K Antony and others.

Sources in the government feel that the complaint was baseless as any diversion of interceptors was unlikely to go undetected. Yet, a nervous government ordered a probe. The charge of dirty tricks hasn't yet been established. However, Gen Singh's supporters feel that those behind the plot succeeded in portraying the Army chief - contrary to his track record - as a reckless officer, desperate to hang on.

05 Apr 2012, 03:37:09 PM | Sundeep Dougal

The Hindu's New Delhi bureau corroborates that at least some were indeed spooked -- or were made to:

Intelligence sources told The Hindu that the political apprehensions might have emanated from assessments given to the government as its conflict with the Army Chief on the age issue escalated in early January. Tens of thousands of soldiers were arriving in Delhi for the Republic Day parade, even as Gen. Singh was preparing to move the Supreme Court, and the Intelligence Bureau feared the inflamed public discourse on his date of birth might spark an embarrassing incident.

The movement of the two units was noted with concern in this context, a senior Intelligence Bureau official admitted to The Hindu, but insisted that “at no stage was the possibility of a coup, or any attempt to overawe the government, ever discussed. We worried about indiscipline, or a show of support by some elements — and it’s our job to consider those possibilities.”

Though the Intelligence Bureau routinely monitors troop movements in sensitive areas across India, the sources said, it had not been conducting surveillance operations seeking signs of threatening military movements. It was only after the 50 Brigade or 33 Armoured Division’s detachments were noticed on the capital’s outskirts that the government was notified of their presence.

In 1984, the Central government had laid down guidelines for troop movements around Delhi, but the sources said these rules had fallen into disuse for over a decade.


05 Apr 2012, 03:27:45 PM | Sundeep Dougal

Sheela Bhatt of rediff has a series of tweets today that seem to corroborate what the grapevine has been abuzz with since yesterday:


05 Apr 2012, 01:58:00 AM | Sundeep Dougal

On CNN-IBN, a discussion:

Rahul Bedi: It is a purely routine movement. I see it as a mischievous news report which should not have merited more than a single column in the Indian Express. However, having said that, I think there is a trust deficit, that exists between the Army and the Ministry of Defence and that has broken down for a variety of reasons, which I think go beyond General Singh and Antony.

Admiral Bhagwat: I am sorry, this is not a rattled government. While the Defence chief and the Defence Minister may not be buddies, they respect each other. They mean well for the country. They will do everything to protect the country....

I will also warn those who are trying to separate the Army chief from the Army. This would be a very big mistake for the Indian polity. There is a need for a sense of maturity here.

05 Apr 2012, 01:27:09 AM | Sundeep Dougal

Just because the UPA is paranoid does not mean that they aren't out to get it | Many a ‘Coup’ out there http://nyti.ms/HdGMzA

05 Apr 2012, 01:25:29 AM | Sundeep Dougal

RT @vinaytalwar: Krishna Prasad of Outlook says if a movie were to be made on this episode it could be called: Kab Coup aur Kahaan :)

05 Apr 2012, 12:46:45 AM | Sundeep Dougal

RT @madversity: Outlook editor Krishna Prasad on Times Now brilliantly summed up the  (s)coup that was not. #coup

05 Apr 2012, 12:46:17 AM | Sundeep Dougal

RT @madversity: Outlook editor Krishna Prasad on Times Now brilliantly summed up the  (s)coup that was not. #coup

05 Apr 2012, 12:37:51 AM | Sundeep Dougal

Shashank Joshi in the WSJ: Indian Civilian-Military Distrust is Nothing New:

Civilian distrust of military intentions in India is as old as the republic, making The Indian Express’s claim that this was the most serious alarm in Indian peacetime history seem fanciful to say the least.

In the 1950s, rumor of a coup – compounded by Gen. Ayub Khan’s takeover in Pakistan – was one factor that prompted the elevation of Krishna Menon, a loyalist of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, to the position of defense minister. The Nehru government and its successors viewed military-to-military ties, particularly with the U.S., with great suspicion.

There are plenty of other examples of alarmism from the government about military intentions, most of them demonstrating not much more than civilian neuroses.

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