Can the Indian Army afford a new chief mired in controversies?
By Rahul Bedi
WHEN LT GENERAL Bikram Singh takes over on 31 May as India’s 27th Chief of Army Staff, he will bring more than the glistening brass on his shoulders to the country’s top military job.
Unfortunately, he will also be hauling the explosive baggage of legal entanglements into the army chief’s understated, Burma teak-lined office in South Block that could disastrously detonate during his 26-month tenure that ends on 31 July 2014.
For despite the public interest litigation claiming Lt Gen Singh’s appointment as a communal conspiracy having been rightfully dismissed, his lingering and potentially lethal appurtenances could prove embarrassing to the already-troubled army and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s crisis-ridden administration, predicated as it is to unpredictable judicial timelines. Coincidentally, Lt Gen Singh’s duration as army chief coincides closely with PM Singh’s government that faces elections around April 2014.
Lt Gen Bikram Singh’s inflammable consignment includes his involvement as a defendant in an alleged fake encounter in Kashmir, currently at an incipient stage in the J&K High Court. It also comprises an incriminating Court of Inquiry (CoI) into charges of rape and sexual harassment involving children by an Indian army UN Peace Keeping Contingent in Congo in 2008, which then Major Gen Bikram Singh headed as deputy force commander. The more explosive cargo pertains to Gen Singh’s role in a firefight as 1 Rashtriya Rifles Brigade commander in Janglat Mandi in Anantnag district 11 years ago.
In the encounter, Abdullah Bhat, 60, an alleged Hizbul Mujahideen cadre was one of two terrorists who died alongside a lieutenant colonel and an army jawan.
In their petition filed last year, Bhat’s wife Zaitoona and sister Jana claimed he was a beggar and that he was shot dead in a staged shoot-out. Defence lawyers insist the encounter was genuine on grounds that Brig Singh was injured in the exchange of fire.
The petition is in its initial phase. But considering its innumerable complexities, it is replete with possibilities, as it unfolds, of embarrassing Lt Gen Bikram Singh during his tenure as army chief. The eventuality of him being summoned to court in some capacity cannot be entirely ruled out, raising perplexing and complex issues.
Legal experts concur that such litigation is “extremely toxic” with this particular case having “built-in ingredients” of denting the prestige of the army chief’s office.
The CoI in the Congo incident conducted some years ago in Meerut is yet another unresolved discomfort for Lt Gen Bikram Singh as prima facie it indicted the Indian troops of misconduct. Normally, under army procedure, all such CoIs indicative of wrong doing lead routinely to the institution of a court martial.
It is, however, debatable whether the army establishment would summon one in a case involving its chief, even tangentially in another unsavoury first-of-its-kind episode. Or, alternately, would the defence ministry intervene and rescue Lt Gen Bikram Singh headquarwere it to be convened as it has already declared during the CoI that Lt Gen Singh was not “directly involved” in the Congo incident.
The eventuality of Bikram Singh being summoned to court cannot be entirely ruled out
“How can the government clear Lt Gen Bikram Singh to take over as army chief when he has such incendiary cases outstanding against him that could prove to be awkward during his term in office?” asks former Lt General PC Katoch. It’s puzzling, he added. Another three-star officer declared that the government could have defused these “ticking time bombs” before making Lt Gen Bikram Singh the chief. The army, he stated plaintively but declining to be identified for fear of repercussions, was still smarting from its gruelling brawl with the defence ministry over Gen VK Singh’s date of birth controversy and could do without any additional adverse publicity.
There is unanimity in military circles that since Independence no service chief had assumed office under such problematic, convoluted and politicised circumstances as those bedeviling Lt Gen Bikram Singh. And though the gleaming shoulder brass of some in recent years had ended up tarnished following brazen regimental nepotism and corruption, the sanctity of the office of the service chiefs had remained largely intact.
MANY MILITARY officers and analysts believe that since Lt Gen Bikram Singh was assuming office in a milieu of controversy and hostility, it could compromise his capacity to operate freely and fearlessly as the head of a distressed force badly in need of comforting. It could also circumscribe his ability to bring about internal stability in the force and resolve widespread internecine fighting amongst senior ranks.
It is an open secret in official circles that the recent controversy over Gen VK Singh’s date of birth, the publication in a newspaper of his letter to the prime minister and the hullabaloo over the Tatra truck bribery scandal, has deeply divided the top army brass. Many senior and middle-rung officers supporting Gen VK Singh had profited professionally with plum postings. Others deemed to be supportive of Lt Gen Bikram Singh had been sidelined and are now on the ascendant as he casts about seeking “loyalists” to appoint as his principal staff officers in his tri-weekly trips to New Delhi from Kolkata.
Doubtless, Lt Gen Bikram Singh inherits a “poisoned chalice” with the traditionally secular and largely unprejudiced army increasingly riven by ethnic and regimental loyalties. In such a miasmic environment, he will need to exhibit personal leadership qualities and high professional standards of probity, objectivity and even-handedness. Will they be forthcoming or will Gen Singh, despite his seniority and deemed soldierly qualities, be subsumed by ominous circumstances skulking in the background?
Rahul Bedi is a Defence Analyst.