Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has lashed out at media reports that the government panicked for several hours in the face of unexplained troop movements near Delhi in January, saying they were “alarmist” and ought not be “taken at face value.”
The Indian Express reported on Wednesday that the government had, for 18 hours starting from the night of January 16, feared possible action by soldiers in support of Army Chief V.K. Singh, who earlier that day moved the Supreme Court seeking a revision of his date of birth.
“Unauthorised” movements by the Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division and the Agra-based 50 Para Brigade on the outskirts of Delhi, the newspaper said, caused “confusion and unease in the government.” The newspaper was careful to say the movements were not seen as precursors to a coup, but proclaimed that “Raisina Hill was spooked” and got the soldiers to leave the National Capital Region (NCR) immediately.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony attacked the report, asking “all to honour the respect and dignity of the armed forces.” He added that “on the issues of national security and the Indian armed forces, we can’t take the luxury of controversies.”
Reacting to the story, the Indian Army said "routine training at the formation level is carried out to check mobilisation according to standard operating procedure”. Almost all army units carry out this procedure at regular intervals, it noted, and the January 16 movement was to test the readiness to deploy and move through heavy fog. “Once effectiveness is checked, the troops are called back. In this case too the troops were called back according to SOP”.
Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad asked the government to “ensure that there is no room or apprehension for any sponsored story. The relationship between the Army and the political leadership of the country is at an all-time low.” He would not elaborate on what he meant by a “sponsored story” —an evident reference to rumours in Delhi political circles that the news had been leaked by someone in government to discredit the army.
Meanwhile, retired army officers and civil servants have disputed a central premise of the news report—that the Army should have informed the MoD about its exercise in the NCR. Lt Gen Satish Nambiar (Retd.), a former Director General Military Operations, insisted no such protocols were followed in his time and Ajay Prasad, who retired as Defence Secretary in 2004, said he was not aware of this requirement.
It is also unclear whether Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma was summoned back from Malaysia to deal with the supposed crisis, as reported. Mr. Sharma arrived in New Delhi on the morning of January 17, instead of that evening — but media reports at the time said this was so that he could help draft the government’s response to the Army Chief’s petition.
Precisely why the government ought to have been alarmed by the presence of two additional formations on New Delhi’s outskirts, when tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed in and around the city, also remains unclear.
Intelligence sources told The Hindu that the political apprehensions might have emanated from assessments given to the government as its conflict with the Army Chief on the age issue escalated in early January. Tens of thousands of soldiers were arriving in Delhi for the Republic Day parade, even as Gen. Singh was preparing to move the Supreme Court, and the Intelligence Bureau feared the inflamed public discourse on his date of birth might spark an embarrassing incident.
The movement of the two units was noted with concern in this context, a senior Intelligence Bureau official admitted to The Hindu, but insisted that “at no stage was the possibility of a coup, or any attempt to overawe the government, ever discussed. We worried about indiscipline, or a show of support by some elements — and it’s our job to consider those possibilities.”
Though the Intelligence Bureau routinely monitors troop movements in sensitive areas across India, the sources said, it had not been conducting surveillance operations seeking signs of threatening military movements. It was only after the 50 Brigade or 33 Armoured Division’s detachments were noticed on the capital’s outskirts that the government was notified of their presence.
In 1984, the Central government had laid down guidelines for troop movements around Delhi, but the sources said these rules had fallen into disuse for over a decade.