New Delhi/Visakhapatnam, Apr 4: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Defence Minister A K Antony today rubbished a news report on “unusual” troop movement towards Delhi in the middle of January as “alarmist” and “absolutely baseless”.
“These are alarmist reports. They should not be taken at face value,” the Prime Minister told reporters on the sidelines of a function at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
To a question on the stand off between government and the Army Chief, he said, “the Army Chief's office is an exalted office. All of us have an obligation to do nothing that would lower its dignity.”
The Prime Minister was reacting to a report in the ‘Indian Express' which said that on the night of January 16-17 an entire mechanised infantry unit based in Hisar (Haryana) with its fighting vehicles began moving towards Delhi, the day Army Chief Gen V K Singh approached the Supreme Court on the age issue.
A sizeable section of the Agra-based 50 Para Brigade also moved to near Palam. Both were stopped and ordered to be moved back, the report said, virtually suggesting a possible coup attempt.
Defence Minister Antony described as “absolutely baseless” fears of coup by the armed forces and expressed confidence that they will not do anything to undermine democracy.
“Absolutely baseless. Army has already explained this. It is usual, natural activities. Nothing unusual. We are absolutely confident of the patriotism of the armed forces. Don't question their patriotism. They will not do anything to undermine Indian democracy,” he told a press conference in Visakhapatnam after commissioning ‘INS Chakra', a nuclear power submarine.
Antony was replying to a question on the ‘Indian Express' report. The questioner told him that the report raised considerable alarm and fears of a coup and whether the government was afraid of such a possibility and what did it do. Would he rule out the possibility of a coup.
Antony said the armed forces personnel were “true patriots” and “don't question the patriotism of the soldiers who are dying in the frontiers of the country.” “I am proud of the Indian Army, Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard,” he said.
He also urged the media not to lower the dignity of the armed forces on issues of national security. In a statement, Defence Ministry spokesperson Sitanshu Kar said, “the points raised in the report have already been clarified by the Army...such exercises are conducted by the Army from time to time.”
He also dubbed the report as “baseless and incorrect”. Minister of State for Defence M M Pallam Raju said the report was “highly irresponsible and anti-national”.
The Indian Express on Wednesday published what it called an exclusive report about how two key units of the Army moved towards Delhi on January 16 night, which the Army described as routine mobilisation.
The report begins with the lines : "This is a story you would tell with extreme care and caution. But it so starkly characterises the current state of top-level politico-military relations that it is a folly to keep it under wraps, as the entire establishment has tried to do for a full 11 weeks now."
The new report further says; "It has also taken this team of The Indian Express reporters that long to establish the story and the dramatic developments during, say, about 18 very difficult hours on January 16-17 earlier this year.
"While many, including the spokesmen for the defence establishment, say it was much ado about nothing, it is a story of a most unusual night when Raisina Hill was spooked as never before in peace time."
The report further went on to say: "Essentially, late on the night of January 16 (the day Army Chief General V K Singh approached the Supreme Court on his date of birth issue), central intelligence agencies reported an unexpected (and non-notified) movement by a key military unit, from the mechanised infantry based in Hisar (Haryana) as a part of the 33rd Armoured Division (which is a part of 1 Corps, a strike formation based in Mathura and commanded by Lt Gen. A K Singh) in the direction of the capital, 150 km away.
"Any suspicion was still considered much too implausible, but lookouts were alerted as a routine step. This was part of a protocol put in place in June 1984 when some mutineers from Sikh units had moved towards the capital in the wake of Operation Bluestar.
"The lookouts confirmed the movement of what looked like a sizeable unit. It was soon identified as an entire unit of Mechanised Infantry, with its Russian-made Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), carried on 48 tank transporters. The movement was towards the capital, which was odd.
"No such thing had been notified. The Army Day celebrations had ended just the previous day (January 15).
"It was still a cause for curiosity and some confusion — more than much concern — because, over the decades, New Delhi has come to be totally relaxed and trustful of the apolitical and professionally correct nature of its military leadership.
"The situation changed rapidly, though. Reports came in of yet another military movement “towards” Delhi. This unit was identified as a large element of the airborne 50 Para Brigade based at Agra. The lookouts were activated south of Delhi as well and the column was identified.
"By this time, both columns were being tracked and “watched”. A bemused establishment raised an alert of sorts. The Defence Minister was informed. Immediately, the Centre put in motion an old contingency plan to delay just such a move.
"It issued a terror alert with instructions to police to carefully check all vehicles on the highways leading to Delhi. The objective was to slow down traffic. The Prime Minister was informed at the crack of dawn on January 17.
"Quiet checks carried out on the location and status of key formations and their commanders, particularly in the northwestern region, revealed nothing abnormal at all. Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma was asked to cut short his visit to Malaysia. He returned.
"After the briefing, he opened his office late at night and asked Lt Gen. A K Choudhary, Director General Military Operations, to see him and explain what was going on. Gen. Choudhary, it seems, knew about the move of the Paras (the Para Brigade is controlled directly by the DGMO) and said it was a routine exercise.
"He was asked to return with full facts about the mechanised unit. This he did soon enough. The explanation was still the same: the Army was carrying out exercises to check its ability to make quick deployments of key units during fog. He was told to send the units back immediately. Both formations were halted, and sent back within hours.
"The mechanised unit, sources said, had parked itself at an industrial park near Bahadurgarh abutting West Delhi's Najafgarh. The Paras were staying put in the barracks of an artillery regiment — 79 Medium —not far from Palam.
"The Army's explanation that it was all a simple fog-time exercise was then viewed with scepticism at the highest level. The question: Why was the well-set protocol, that any military movement, at any time, in the NCR (National Capital Region) has to be pre-notified to MoD (Ministry of Defence) not followed?
"The Army's justification for the specific movements did sound plausible though. The mechanised units, they said, were checking out their ability to move and deploy rapidly in fog, should a contingency arrive. It could not have driven westwards (towards Ferozepur or Fazilka) as that would have alarmed Pakistan since the move had not been notified to them.
"There was a more elaborate explanation for the paratroopers' movement. The mandated time for the Agra-based Paras to get airborne in an emergency is just two hours. It was simpler when they were transported by aircraft based “in situ”, at the same military complex in Agra.
"The new designated transport for them is the faster, bigger and brand new C-130J Hercules. The IAF has based the C-130s at Hindon, across the Yamuna, east of Delhi. Since fog lifts in Agra much later (11.30 am) than at Hindon (8.30 am) in January, the Army was checking out the possibility of transporting the paratroopers to Hindon by road to “marry” them with the C-130s, rather than wait for the planes to land at Agra, and thereby save time.
"In the process, the Army said, they discovered many glitches. These are now being ironed out. For example, it was found that the shoulder-fired missiles, standard equipment with Para units, were stored not in Agra, as decided several years earlier, but at Bharatpur as was the case originally.
"So the columns were delayed by that detour and the stop at Bharatpur to pick up their missiles, and thereby also forced to take a longer route to Delhi. The good lesson learnt: all of the Paras' equipment must now be based where their home is, at Agra.
"But this was questioned too. Did the mechanised units have to come as far as the outskirts of Delhi to check out their readiness? And Hindon is a long distance from Palam/Gurgaon.
"Even on a reasonable day, an Army convoy might take longer moving from here to Hindon given the snarls on Outer Ring Road and NH-24, than if only it had crossed the Yamuna at Agra itself and driven through Uttar Pradesh, parallel to GT Road. Why was the IAF not informed of this exercise? Again, the Army's explanation is they did not want to hold an elaborate exercise involving the IAF etc, or cause alarm.
"The government also noted the fact that the C-130s were not even in Hindon then. They were in Jaisalmer, rehearsing at their staging base for the Republic Day flypast. Yet another reason some in the government were curious was that between Army Day (January 15), and Republic Day (January 26), when so many Army units are involved in parades, such exercises are rare, particularly around the capital."
The Indian Express report claimed that its reporters had detailed conversations with key people and sources at the very top of the political, civil and military leadership.
It further says: "The MoD's considered view now seems to be that it was a false alarm, caused by some non-adherence to Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) by the Army and an alarmist civil/political reaction on a particularly distrustful day."
The report further says that certain “important correctives” have been put in place.