In a move that could ignite controversy, the Union Government has appointed Admiral RK Dhowan as India’s new navy chief, ahead of his senior, Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha. The navy has been without a chief since the resignation of Admiral Devendra Joshi in August, owning moral responsibility for a series of lethal accidents on board
Having been commissioned in 1975, Admiral Dhowan has commanded several frontline warships, including the INS Delhi and INS Khukri in the course of his 40-year career. He commanded the Eastern Fleet, as Flag-Officer-Commanding of the Eastern fleet, and was Chief of Staff at the Headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command. He has, however, not been Flag-Officer-Commanding-in-Chief of any of India’s naval commands—a significant departure from practice in all three services.
The Ministry of Defence picked Admiral Dhowan ahead of Admiral Sinha, saying the senior officer had direct supervisory command at the time of the submarine accidents which led to Admiral Joshi's resignation.
Admiral Joshi’s resignation came after a fire on the INS Sindhuratna, which left two sailors dead—the consequence, an official investigation has found, of their failure to adhere to mandatory protocols to wear gas masks during such incidents. Last year, the INS Sindhurakshak exploded and sank, killing 18 crew members.
Following Admiral Joshi’s resignation, Admiral Dhowan was made acting chief, while the government weighed the competing demerits of Admiral Sinha’s supervisory responsibility for the submarine accidents, and the now-chief’s lack of experience as commander of the Eastern, Western or Southern navies.
The Ministry of Defence’s decision to appointment Admiral Dhowan is a rare departure from the decades-old principle that the senior-most officer eligible is appointed service chief. The last departure from the seniority principle in the navy was made in 1990, when Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas was made chief ahead of his immediate senior, Admiral S. Jain.
Admiral Ramdass’ was preceded by a damaging power struggle within the navy, which included the filing of a 400-page writ petition by his close professional associate, then-Real Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat alleging high-level corruption. Admiral Bhagwat himself rose to be chief, only to be dismissed from service under controversial circumstances in 1999.
In an interesting irony of history, Admiral Dhowan served as staff officer to Admiral Ramdas. Like Admiral Sinha, moreover, Admiral Ramdas had direct supervisory command at a time of a major naval disaster—serving as Flag Officer commanding-in-chief of the Eastern Naval Command when the INS Andaman sank in 1990, the worst peace-time loss until then.
The Indian army has had no departure from the seniority principle since July, 1983, when General Arun Vaidya was appointed its chief, ahead of Lieutenant-General Srinivas Sinha, later Governor of Jammu and Kashmir.
In theory, the government is entitled to pick the senior-most eligible officer for a position—but, in an effort to minimise lobbying, have generally worked on the assumption that all senior officers are equally qualified to hold the top job. “The armed forces have backed this”, a senior officer told The Hindu, “because it minimises the possibility of political interference in appointments, which degrade the institution”.
Precedent shows governments have been loath to depart from the seniority principle—even when failures have taken place on the watch of the chief-designate. In 2006, for example, Admiral Suresh Mehta was appointed navy chief even though the Naval War Room scandal took place under his supervisory authority. Admiral Mehta, the government at the time argued, did not have any direct role in the scandal, and was thus not bypassed.
Vice-Admiral Sinha was not available for comment, but naval sources said he may protest Admiral Dhowan’s appointment by filing a representation before the Ministry and then going to court.