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A coup, but that is a laugh

 | April 6, 2012

What was the real purpose of the Indian troop’s movement on the night of Jan 16 just outside New Delh?


A military coup in India is the last worry any citizen would have. After all, India is no banana republic.

It has had a stable democracy with peaceful change of governments. Even post-Emergency in the 1970s, the Congress and its leader, who was the prime minister then, Indira Gandhi, gracefully stepped down from power when they lost the election.

What is more, the country’s armed forces have been apolitical, scrupulously keeping away from the affairs of the government.

So, when The Indian Express carried a story on Wednesday, written by its editor-in-chief, Shekhar Gupta, about troop’s movement on the night of Jan 16 just outside New Delhi, questions and doubts began flying fast and furious. Was it a coup?

Gupta never called it a coup. All that he said was that the government of Manmohan Singh was spooked. But the term “spooked” alarmed hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, in the corridors of power.

Admittedly, the march of a key battalion towards New Delhi was described as “non-notified”. Hence Gupta’s story. Hence the panic.

Adding to the fear is the fact that it was on Jan 16 when General VK Singh, Chief of the Army Staff, had petitioned the Supreme Court against the government on the conflict arising out of his date of birth.

While he maintains that he was born in 1951, the government says no. He was born a year earlier, and must therefore retire this July.

The question, therefore, is whether those loyal to General Singh were rising in revolt or protest against the government’s decision.

Though India has never seen a military uprising in all its years of independence, there was a trace of rebellion when mutineers from Sikh army units advanced on New Delhi following Operation Bluestar, when Indira Gandhi’s Congress government stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out militants holed up there. The temple is sacred to the Sikhs.

Was it really a routine exercise?

After The Indian Express report, explanations and counter-explanations have been given.

The army said that its column was experimenting with moving quickly in foggy conditions, and it could not have headed towards Pakistan, for that would have caused anxiety in Islamabad. There were a few more reasons for the movement that night.

These were countered. Why did the soldiers have to go up to the outskirts of New Delhi? The route they took was strange; it was too congested.

Why was the Director-General Military Operations in the dark about this exercise? If the movement was routine, why was it stopped?

The media answered some of these questions. The army movement may have been “masterminded” by a senior minister in Manmohan Singh’s government.

The Sunday Guardian wrote that this might have been done to “drain away support for General Singh from within the political establishment”.

The paper also averred that the minister had “tricked the (Indian Express) into running a baseless report”.

The motive, according to the paper, was arms procurement. The report alleged that the minister’s relative had links to arms procurement lobbies, which had been “gunning for” General Singh. He had been fighting corruption in defence purchases.

Well, the troop march that night – which is being imagined, rightly or wrongly, as a “coup attempt” – was meant to discredit General Singh. So, we are given to understand.

Shady arms deals

For all that has been said and reported, the poor soldiers marching that night in New Delhi’s punishing cold might not even have had an idea of what a coup is all about. And did the army march at all?

What is a real issue, a real threat is the murky world of arms deals and procurements – which though are a global evil.

However, in India, the supposedly shady transactions may well be provoking tension between the army and the government – weaving a web of deceit.

The two have shared an excellent relationship for decades, and nothing must be allowed to destroy this.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at[email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.


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