Such is the strong apolitical image and impeccable reputation of the Indian Army that even the thought of a military coup in the country seems ludicrous. So when Indian Express broke the story about two Army units closing in towards the capital on a dark, cold January night, it never suggested the C word. It tantalizingly left the obvious connotations to the active imagination of the readers. It hoped that the readers would leap to the same conclusion that the high and mighty in the government had when they had heard that a battalion each of Mechanized Infantry and Paratroopers were heading from opposite directions towards the capital.
It is difficult to say who was quicker to deny the implied connotations of the story – the government or the army. And they both did so independently and vehemently. The outrage expressed on talk shows by enraged veterans, red faced and whiskers quivering, lasted a couple of TRP rich evenings. And with the recent revelations by the then DGMO, recently retired, has sparked the debate afresh. The basic premise of the outraged veterans is that even the suggestion of such an eventuality casts a slur on the image and honour of the army, questioning it’s patriotism and respect for democracy. It seems they are either deliberately or mistakenly missing out the woods for the trees. The question here is not about the loyalty of the organization as a whole, but the atmosphere of extreme distrust that was prevailing largely due to the unprecedented acts of the incumbent Chief of Army Staff.
Attributing the troop movements to a plan to overthrow the government would be ridiculous to say the least. But passing off the sudden mobilization of paratroopers and an entire Mechanized Infantry battalion complete with 48 Infantry Combat Vehicles to the outskirts of the capital as a ‘routine training exercise’ would also be extremely naive. Mobilization exercise would make sense if taken along the route westwards, for induction into the operational area of the unit, not 180 degrees opposite towards the national capital. The reason given for this subsequently – that moving westwards was not possible since as per norms prior intimation needs to be given to Pakistan – seems rather lame. Units move towards the field firing ranges located in that direction all year around. Besides, the options of moving north towards Kaithal or south towards Churu were also available (see map below).
So, if it was not a possible coup attempt, nor a very routine training move, what was the reason behind the controversial mobilization? The following series of tweets from Lt Gen CS Panag, a straight shooting and highly respected former Mechanized Infantry officer himself, just about sums it up:-
So what happened on that night was probably an attempt at psychological warfare, a ‘feint’ to cause confusion in the minds of the ‘enemy’. Possible aim was to pressurize and embarrass the government and forestall any thoughts of summarily dismissing the chief like Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had been. The beauty of the plan was that it could be indignantly passed off as a routine training move – just like it was – irrespective of the fact that it was highly unusual and unprecedented. And the government would be too embarrassed to admit to being apprehensive about a coup – as it was. Especially a weak government which was already reeling under multiple corruption scams and was quite visibly short of public support and sympathy.
While the absolute truth may never come out – at least not in the foreseeable future – there are no doubts that the incident has done irreparable damage to the already precarious civil-military relations. It has done a lot to fuel the dying fires of the scare of a military takeover that prevailed amongst political leaders in the years immediately after independence, a strong distrust which was largely responsible for the gradual but substantial erosion in the status and privileges of the armed forces.
Whatever may be the emotional assertions of the veterans on television channels against the media and the government – we have only the ambition and actions of one man to blame for this – a man who’s sacred charge was to be the highest custodian of the interests of the organization.