Former army chief Gen V.K. Singh has acquired the knack of staying in the news for the wrong reasons. In his last year in office, he kept himself in the spotlight, ostensibly in the organisational interest. In fact, he was battling the government over his age, and hence, retirement date. Never before has an army chief belittled that high office as much, undermining the ethics and values of the profession of arms and the spirit of service before self. His supporters, a now receding band, had then highlighted his honesty, integrity and courage to take on a corrupt and failing government. It was because the government gave him a long rope and was overtly generous that he took it to court and later went to the media to justify his questionable actions. But the government did nothing.
The army has had its Thimayya and Manekshaw moments, but that was when a redoubtable defence minister, Krishna Menon, was gunning for the army chief and others (like Manekshaw), who weren’t toeing his line. Still, they behaved impeccably, and turned into military icons. And it isn’t that governments haven’t acted firmly: in 2001, navy chief Adm Vishnu Bhagwat was dismissed when he challenged cabinet orders, saying the Navy Act took precedence.
Gen Singh’s actions—then, as in the last fortnight—have had a different flavour altogether. Reacting fiercely to leaked reports in the media, Gen Singh, in an act of pre-emption, has covered his flanks, but done irreparable damage to national security, especially to covert operations and efforts at bringing tranquility to Jammu and Kashmir. The Technical Services Division (TSD), now in controversy, was operationalised during his tenure. According to him, this was on a directive from the defence ministry. Thanks to an internal inquiry of the army into the mission and tasking of the TSD—and the general’s own misplaced vibrance on the media—little remains concealed or left to the imagination.
Briefly, the TSD has executed covert operations in the Northeast, in Jammu and Kashmir and in neighbouring countries. Such exposure will curtail our deterrence capabilities. The revelation that has set the cat among the pigeons is that intelligence funds were siphoned to named politicians in Jammu & Kashmir. In Gen Singh’s words, this was to “secure goodwill and peace”. He even said that all ministers of the state were paid; that the practice had been on since independence; and that it ended street protests in 2010 and ensured peaceful panchayat elections in 2011.
This has caused a flutter in the political classes, both in Jammu & Kashmir and New Delhi. If true, the action is tantamount to the army’s direct interference in the governance of the state. Not one to miss an opportunity, the jklf’s Yasin Malik has moved court alleging that the 2010 street protests were organised by the army.
The leaked inquiry report also says Gen Singh tried to use an NGO to block the path of Lt Gen Bikram Singh (who eventually did succeed him and is the present army chief) by incriminating him in an old “fake encounter” case. It’s widely known that, in service, Gen Singh was determined to change the chain of succession—two deep—to keep even Bikram’s likely successor (Lt Gen Dalbir Singh) from becoming army chief so that his own nominees could take the post.
The recent value-added leaks are the army’s most serious self-inflicted peacetime catastrophe. In this tragedy, Gen Singh is a pivotal player. The other culprit is the government—the PM, the NSA, the defence minister. None has acted or spoken except the defence ministry’s spokesman Sitanshu Kar, whose inanities include “Steps have been taken to prevent such undesirable activities but we are yet to decide on the use of the CBI”. The inquiry report has been lying with the defence ministry for six months—and it is still to decide. Silence and indecision have become the hallmark of the higher command, which has abdicated from the task of providing political guidance and direction to the military. It’s a shame that all you get is the home ministry asking Gen Singh to name the recipients of the funds (the report has the names).
Some parties have fished in troubled waters, attributing the leakage to Gen Singh’s sharing the dais with Narendra Modi in Rewari. As a party espousing national security, the BJP should have roundly condemned Gen Singh’s going public on the state’s covert activities. It’s no coincidence he has used the media as a force multiplier. His statements have undermined the democratic process in Jammu and Kashmir and strengthened the enemy. In such matters, the way to prevent peacetime accidents from turning into tragedy is to depoliticise national security, rejig civil-military relations—and keep the likes of Gen Singh on leash.
(The writer is a retired major-general.)