The Indian Express's exposé of Raisina Hill getting “spooked” by the supposedly unexplained movement of two army units earlier this year has generated such a furious debate that it is best to get two toxic notions out of the way right at the start. The government may or may not have panicked but there was, in fact, nothing unusual or suspicious about the movement of two Indian army units towards Delhi on January 16. Second, the Indian Express is entirely within its rights to write about a sensitive matter like this, even if its treatment was overblown. Just as it is unfair for anyone to cast aspersions on the Indian Army, it is unfair to question the motives of the journalists who wrote the story. That two units comprising roughly a thousand men — hardly a number that should spook anyone — embarked on a training op on the same day Army Chief General V.K. Singh went to the Supreme Court over his age issue was obviously a coincidence. But it is possible that some officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs, the PMO and the Ministry of Defence completely misread this as an attempt to mobilise uniformed opinion in favour of the Chief's claim. If they did, this is unfortunate. What remains indisputable from the facts presented by the newspaper and by other information in the public domain is that the civilian and military establishments in India are not communicating properly and have become distrustful of each other.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the news report as “alarmist” and it is hard to disagree with his assessment. The bureaucratic and intelligence establishment was wary of General Singh but the worst it feared were speeches, not a display of public disaffection, let alone a mutiny or, most far-fetched of all, an attempt at a coup by a handful of soldiers! Any government that gets “spooked” by troop movements does not wait for the Defence Secretary to return hurriedly from Malaysia to seek an explanation from the Army about what is going on. That is why the suggestion that the government was in a state of absolute panic was something of an exaggeration. “Nobody is using the ‘C' word to imply anything other than ‘curious'. All else is considered an impossibility,” the Indian Express wrote. If this is so, then why was the report, which consumed the entire front page and was accompanied by a sensational headline, so overplayed? In doing so, it has run the risk of being read for innuendos and insinuations rather than for the facts — which is exactly what has transpired given the reaction to the story. The controversy over General Singh's age, which seems to have morphed into unrelated disputes about bribery and leaks of sensitive documents, has strengthened the impression that civil-military relations are inflamed. It is important to lower the temperature at this moment, not fan the flames.