The last departure from seniority principle in Navy was in 1990

The government's decision to appoint Vice-Admiral R.K. Dhowan as the Navy chief is a rare departure from the decades-old principle that the senior-most officer is appointed a service chief. The last instance of departure from the seniority principle in the Navy was in 1990, when Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas was made chief ahead of his immediate senior, Admiral S. Jain.

Admiral Ramdas's appointment 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 Rear Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, alleging high-level corruption. Admiral Bhagwat himself rose to be the chief, only to be dismissed from service under controversial circumstances in 1998.

In an interesting irony, Vice-Admiral Dhowan served as staff officer to Admiral Ramdas. Like Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha, Admiral Ramdas had direct supervisory command at the time of a major naval disaster — serving as Flag Officer commanding-in-chief of the Eastern Naval Command when 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 Lt.-Gen Srinivas Kumar 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, it has 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.”

Seniority principle

Precedent shows governments have been loath to depart from the seniority principle — even when failures have taken place under the watch of the chief-designate. In 2006, for example, Admiral Sureesh 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 Navy sources said he may protest Vice-Admiral Dhowan’s appointment by filing a representation before the Ministry and then going to court.

The government had to name a Navy chief as Admiral D.K. Joshi resigned in February after a fire on INS Sindhuratna, which left two sailors dead. An official investigation found that the sailors had not adhered to the mandatory protocols of wearing gas masks.

Last year, the INS Sindhurakshak exploded killing 18 navymen.

Following Admiral Joshi’s resignation, Vice-Admiral Dhowan was made acting chief, while the government weighed the competing demerits of Vice-Admiral Sinha’s supervisory responsibility for the submarine accidents and Vice-Admiral Dhowan's lack of experience as commander of the Eastern, Western or Southern navies.

More In: National | News