In briefings to MPs, government denies it panicked because of January troop movements
Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma has told Parliament that troop movements around New Delhi in mid-January — movements which the government is reported to have been "spooked" by — were in fact part of a “routine drill”.
In a testimony before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, he also denied claims that the troop movements were not authorised by the government. He said there were no standard operating procedures in place for reporting exercises at the level of army corps and below — and thus, no rules were violated.
Earlier this month, The Indian Express reported that exercises by troops of the 50 Independent Para Brigade and a Hisar-based mechanised infantry formation sparked “panic” in the government. The movements took place, even as Chief of the Army Staff General V.K. Singh moved the Supreme Court, seeking an emendation to his date of birth, which would have given him several more months in office.
In an interview to The Hindu, General Singh described claims that the Army was plotting a coup as “fables of a sick mind.” The Army earlier said the movements were intended to rehearse its preparedness to move special forces and tanks to airbases in heavy fog.
From background briefings provided to individual members on the Standing Committee, some new facts have begun to emerge on the events of January 15-16.
Late on the evening of January 15, the MPs were told, a senior officer serving at the Chandimandir-based Western Command notified the government of troop movements around New Delhi. The Western Command —responsible for the security along the India-Pakistan border from Abohar-Fazilka to Jammu — had learned of the troop movements from the Jaipur-based South-western Command, which controls 50 Para and the Hisar-based formation.
“The officer,” said a senior intelligence official who corroborated this account while speaking to The Hindu, “said he was merely flagging the development for the government's attention. He did not attribute motives.”
For days before this notification, however, both the Intelligence Bureau and senior politicians had worried that the fraught atmosphere created by General Singh's confrontation might lead to indiscipline.
Intelligence Bureau Director Nehchal Sandhu was, therefore, charged with investigating the officer's claims. He sought counsel, among others, from Jammu and Kashmir Governor N.N. Vohra, and India's most experienced defence bureaucrats, early on the morning of January 16. Key military commanders were also contacted.
Intelligence Bureau officials, however, denied claims that there was panic. “If someone called up the police and said there was a suicide-bomber standing outside the Prime Minister's house,” one officer said, “we'd have to take it seriously, even if the chances were slim. You can hardly expect us to have been laid back about a possible crime against the Constitution.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Standing Committee was told, was only informed of the night's events at a routine morning meeting with National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. Government sources insisted that this was not because the troop movement was seen as a threat, but to prepare him for any question he might face in Parliament.
Mr. Sharma himself returned to New Delhi on the afternoon of January 16 from a business visit to Malaysia. MPs have been told that he rescheduled his journey on January 15 after learning that General Singh was preparing to move the Supreme Court. He spent much of the day discussing legal issues connected to the case, before meeting the Director-General of Military Operations, Lieutenant-General Ashok Chaudhury, late that night.
The Defence Secretary, the MPs were told, asked General Chaudhury to have the troops moved out once their exercises were complete. However, two senior officials The Hindu spoke to said the exercises were immediately terminated and the troops were ordered out of their positions.