Manmohan, Antony lash out at mediareports claiming government feared military was acting in support of Army Chief

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has lashed out at media reports claiming that the government believed India was close to a “coup” for several hours 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 Tuesday, 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.”

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 luxuries of controversies.”

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.”

Mr. Prasad 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 a senior Congress minister.

Muddy facts

Few facts have become available on the alleged panic on Raisina Hill. For example, it remains 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 to draft the government's response to the Army Chief's petition.

Precisely why the government ought have been alarmed by the presence of two additional formations on New Delhi's outskirts, when tens of thousands 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.

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