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Scapegoat for the system

The Army has dismissed Brig. Surinder Singh for his conduct during and after Kargil, shifting the focus from `intelligence' issues on which it could be vulnerable, says Atul Aneja.

IN SACKING Brigadier Surinder Singh earlier this month, the Army has risked reopening certain aspects of the Kargil operations which could backfire on it.

Significantly, Brig. Singh, who was commander of the 121 independent infantry brigade in charge of Kargil in the summer of 1999, has not been charged for failing to detect the Pakistani intrusions in his sector. His dismissal was based on two grounds. First, for unprofessional conduct after fighting with the intruders commenced. Second, for vacating Bajrang Post in the Kaksar sector in Ladakh.

The embattled Brigadier has also been reportedly accused of leaking military secrets to the media. These charges have been levelled on the basis of an in-house inquiry conducted by the Leh-based 3 Division, under whose jurisdiction, Brig. Singh's brigade fell.

An investigation by the Army's northern command was conducted by Lt. Gen. A. R. K. Reddy. This probe reportedly faulted the Brigadier for inadequately patrolling the area under his operational control.

Brig. Singh has threatened to move court to seek redress. At a press conference in Chandigarh, he sought to counter the charges. The crux of his defence is that he has been a victim of deliberate discrimination. Though he has blamed the former Chief of the Army Staff, General V. P. Malik, for the treatment meted out to him, the main target of his counterattack is Major General V. S. Budhwar, commander of 3 Division during the Kargil war.

Countering the charge that he vacated Bajrang Post, Brig. Singh put the blame squarely on Maj. Gen. Budhwar. According to the Brigadier, it was the Major General who ordered the vacation of Bajrang Post. Brig. Singh added that Maj. Gen. Budhwar overruled the request by him and the commanding officer of 4 Jat subsequently to reoccupy the Post at the earliest.

Discrimination against him is evident on other counts as well, Brig. Singh contends. He points out that intrusions into the Turtuk sector, handled by the neighbouring 102 Brigade, were not probed deliberately. Brig. Singh's explanation is that, had this investigation been carried out, it would have dragged two brigades into controversy. In that case, the 3 Division, which handled both brigades, would have been implicated as well.

In other words, the sub-text of Brig. Singh's response is that investigation in the Turtuk sector was deliberately avoided to prevent Maj. Gen. Budhwar becoming the focal point of the Kargil investigations.

The Turtuk sector, incidentally, is of high strategic importance. Intrusions into it can threaten parts of Siachen, as it is not far from a major supply route to the glacier. A road out of Turtuk also leads to Khalsar, a key junction from where one of the roads leads to the Nubra valley that begins from the snout of the Siachen glacier. Another road from Khalsar heads towards Leh, Ladakh's capital.

In assessing the larger fallout of the Surinder Singh affair on the Army, much would depend on what transpires in court. The focus of course will lie on Brig. Singh's ability to substantiate his accusations against Maj. Gen. Budhwar.

For instance, it will be difficult for him to fix responsibility on Maj. Gen. Budhwar for withdrawing from Bajrang Post, unless he can produce the required evidence in court.

Brig. Singh may also have to go into lengthy explanations for his supposed laxity in undertaking vigorous patrolling in the Kargil area. In the past, Brig. Singh had cited the unavailability of specialised troops for undertaking winter patrols in the high- altitude area as a reason.

Maj. Gen. Budhwar's response, in case he is asked to testify in court, on the happenings in Turtuk will also be closely scrutinised. The commander of the 3 Division is the main link between the forces on the ground and the higher authorities at the Srinagar-based 15 Corps as well as Army headquarters.

His deposition, therefore, has the potential of drawing in the Army ``big-wigs'' into the controversy.

It is, however, unlikely that the debate surrounding Brig. Surinder Singh's ouster can damage the Army's reputation beyond a point. This is on account of the nature of charges levelled against him. For instance, he is not being held responsible for any ``intelligence failure'' in detecting an intrusion.

His dismissal, instead, is based on his conduct during and after Kargil. Consequently, the focus of the ongoing controversy is unlikely to revolve around ``intelligence''-related issues, on which the Army may still find itself vulnerable. Instead, the debate has been steered to operational matters where the Army stands on solid ground.

This is because the Army, from an operational point of view, was successful in ousting the intrusion from Kargil, Kaksar, Dras, Mushkoh and Batalik. Its successes on the ground have also been well recorded by the Kargil Review Committee. Its alleged lack of performance in the early days of the war in Turtuk is, therefore, only one part of what appears to be a larger success story.

In the past, Brig. Singh's defence after he was removed from command of his brigade during the Kargil war revolved around ``intelligence''-related matters. He has gone on record that sensing the vulnerability of the Kargil sector, he had sought surveillance equipment, including gun-locating radar and unmanned aerial vehicles from Army headquarters to keep vigil on enemy activity behind the Line of Control (LoC).

Besides, he has pointed out that the ``intelligence failure'' on Kargil has been on a national scale and not at the local level. No one in the Army, he points out, had anticipated a Kargil-type intrusion. Consequently, none of the war games used for training anticipated a Kargil- type scenario.

But by skirting all aspects related to the contentious ``intelligence'' matters, the stage appears to have been set for reducing the row to a slanging match between Brig. Singh and Maj. Gen. Budhwar.

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