Frontline Volume 16 - Issue 7, Mar. 27 - Apr. 9, 1999
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

Table of Contents


The Admiral Bhagwat challenge

The Ministry of Defence has led a sustained campaign of attrition against Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, but the specific charges against him have been found to be of dubious value when examined against documentary record.


SINCE he was removed from his command by an abrupt and unceremonious withdrawal of "presidential pleasure", the case of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, former Chief of the Naval Staff, has been contested through a sustained campaign of attrition in the media. Specific charges against the Admiral were found to be of dubious value when examined against the documentary record. And as his ramparts crumbled in the battle against the recalcitrant military commander, Defence Minister George Fernandes sought recourse to the enigmatic slogan of national security. Fernandes alleged that Admiral Bhagwat had endangered national security through some of his actions, but that he was not at liberty to reveal these for reasons which should be self-evident (Frontline January 29, 1999).

Yet it was not as if the invocation of this mantra was deemed sufficient to silence the vigorous challenge from Admiral Bhagwat. On February 22 and 23, stories appeared in a Delhi-based newspaper, alleging that Bhagwat had during his tenure as the Navy Chief brazenly violated norms of personnel policy in the Services. He had protected a senior officer dealing with the pivotal function of naval logistics, despite serious allegations of financial malfeasance against him. And he had also "tampered" with the annual confidential reports (ACRs) of officers he was not favourably disposed towards.

These stories, evidently based on high-level leaks from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), were transparent in their intent. After several weeks of seclusion, Admiral Bhagwat had broken his silence on the circumstances of his dismissal at a meeting with the media in Delhi on February 22 (Frontline March 12, 1999). The stories which appeared on that and the following day were an obvious effort to influence public opinion to his disadvantage. The MoD then moved swiftly to capitalise on the supposed strategic advantage it had gained, by referring the newspaper's charges against Bhagwat to Naval Headquarters (NHQ) for a clarification.

On March 18, with both Houses of Parliament in a state of agitation over the Government's handling of the affair, Fernandes was called upon to answer a question dealing with these specific allegations. His response to unstarred question 3358 in the Lok Sabha left little room for ambiguity: "It has been brought to the notice of the Government that ex-CNS (Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat) had tampered with the ACR of an officer by crossing out the report of a previous CNS (Admiral V.S. Shekhawat), and superimposing his own adverse remarks. It is unprecedented for a CNS to alter the assessment report by a previous CNS." Ominously, Fernandes concluded with the assurance that the matter was "being examined."

Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. He seems to have lost little of his combative skills after his unprecedented dismissal from the armed forces. His sworn affidavit now threatens to ratchet up the intensity of his challenge.

Unfortunately for the Defence Minister, Bhagwat seemed to have lost little of his combative instincts after his dismissal from the armed forces. In response to a query from Frontline put on record his version of the event in question:

"The correct factual position is that as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief Western Naval Command, I had made a particular assessment of an officer commanding a sea-going ship. The then Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral V.S. Shekhawat, felt that the particular officer merited a higher grading, and discussed that particular report with me during one of my visits to Delhi. I stated to Admiral Shekhawat that this was my assessment based on my observations of the officer's performance at sea during exercises. I had no reason to change my assessment. However, Admiral Shekhawat, apart from making his endorsement, also wrote that he had consulted with me and I was agreeable to modifying my assessment. This was contrary to facts. However, the Chief of the Naval Staff as the senior reviewing officer has the prerogative to override the initiating and reviewing officers' reports, which he did.

"This report remains intact as per the endorsement of Admiral Shekhawat, without any change whatsoever. The Minister, in his reply to the question on this matter, has therefore misled Parliament."

From The Pioneer

Documents in the possession of Frontline indicate that NHQ had sent a detailed set of responses to the MoD's queries on the alleged irregularities. On the generalised complaint of meddling with ACRs, the position of NHQ was very clear. Seven officers, ranging in rank from Vice-Admiral to Lieutenant-Commander, had expressed "anxieties" about the handling of their ACRs by the former Chief of the Naval Staff. A committee of senior naval personnel had gone through the records on their request and concluded that the reviews done by Bhagwat were "as per regulations" and did not indicate any "mala fide intentions".

As for the more specific case of allegedly "scratching out" an ACR written by Shekhawat, the response of NHQ was unequivocal: "As far as Naval Headquarters is aware, there was difference of perception between Admiral V.S. Shekhawat and the ex-CNS regarding the performance assessment of Cmde (Commodore) R.F. Contractor. The ex-CNS recorded his disagreement with Admiral Shekhawat, on the officer's ACR, stating that this issue has not been discussed with him, without giving any numerical grading to the officer's performance. Hence the gradings and performance of Admiral Shekhawat stand."

Sources contacted by Frontline confirmed that this is routine procedure. Performance reviews in the armed forces are an ongoing process. If errors are detected in an earlier assessment, the reviewing officer is at liberty to record these, normally by pasting a sticker over the ACR. These stickers are meant for the personnel section of the service headquarters and do not amount to a substantive change in assessment. In this sense, they do not normally enter into consideration when decisions on the career progression of the officer are made.

Clearly, there is a gulf which separates this reality from the portrayal of dark deeds that Fernandes provided Parliament. There has been no "tampering", nor has there been any "crossing out" or "superimposition" of adverse remarks. What has been recorded is a plain matter of fact - that Shekhawat as the senior reviewing officer had overruled Bhagwat and this difference of opinion, to the extent that it was of material circumstance, was not reflected in the records. If the Defence Minister has drawn his inferences from sources other than NHQ, then these remain unspecified. If he has wilfully misrepresented the factual position as obtained from NHQ, then he clearly owes Parliament an explanation.

Fernandes' most recent exertions cap a consistent record of evasion and obfuscation. Ever since he administered his infamous final solution to the problem of Vishnu Bhagwat on December 30, he has specialised in the art of manoeuvre. Rather than frontally take on the serious dimensions of the matter, he has chosen to run a campaign of selective leaks and disinformation through faithful proxies in the media. These efforts gained in ardour when Parliament convened for its Budget session. The Defence Minister obtained a temporary reprieve on account of initial political preoccupations with the situation in Bihar. Once that matter was dealt with, he has worked strenuously behind the scenes, sparing no threat or blandishment to avoid the basic norms of accountability to Parliament.

On March 4, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called in leaders of all the major parties in the Rajya Sabha to explain why a debate on the Bhagwat issue was inadvisable. Although he initiated the discussion, Vajpayee only sat by in silent solidarity as Fernandes reportedly read out select extracts from confidential files. Parliamentarians were not given the privilege of examining the documents themselves on grounds of their sensitivity.

The purpose of this intervention from Fernandes was to provide the MPs with a hint of the grave national interests that were supposedly threatened by Bhagwat. Specific citations were read out from files pertaining to Operation Leach, a campaign launched in 1998 by all three wings of the armed services to curtail the flourishing traffic in illicit arms through the Andamans Sea. The campaign had yielded notable results, but one of the operations - in May 1998 - had resulted in six casualties. Elliptically, Fernandes sought to suggest at his meeting with the MPs that innocent civilians had been killed in the tri-service operation, warranting a thorough inquest into the conduct of the armed forces. But Admiral Bhagwat, he claimed, had blocked this perfectly reasonable demand.

Suggestions were also thrown out that the operation in the Andamans Sea endangered a sensitive intelligence operation. But the MPs were unconvinced. Fernandes' gambit had failed - few people were prepared to concede that his unprecedented dismissal of a military chief merited the waiver of parliamentary scrutiny on grounds of national security.

The Government remained unyielding for a while. When Parliament met shortly afterwards, Vajpayee came up with the caustic remark that having exhausted its ammunition on Bihar, the Opposition was now reciting the "Bhagwat purana" to sustain its flagging morale. That only served to deepen the sense of agitation. As the prospect of a paralysis of parliamentary business loomed, a more generous-sounding offer was made from the Government side: the presiding officers of the two Houses would constitute an informal committee drawn from both the Treasury and Opposition benches, to examine the relevant material and determine whether a debate would be appropriate.

This formula seemed for a brief while to enjoy unanimous assent, encouraging Parliamentary Affairs Minister Rangarajan Kumaramangalam to announce the composition of the committee. This was by all accounts a unilateral move, devoid of any prior consultations. Needless to say, the confidence of the Opposition in the efficacy of the proposed mechanism plunged, on account both of the procedure adopted and the composition of the committee. For instance, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar was designated the convener of the group, though he was by his own avowals in Parliament opposed to a debate. Others such as former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav too had made no secret of their aversion to a discussion on the matter. Perhaps most damagingly, Fernandes himself figured on the committee though his conduct was supposedly under its direct scrutiny.

Defence Minister George Fernandes.

Within the Congress(I), Sharad Pawar seemed inclined to give the committee a chance to function, though his view was not shared by any other leader of substance. Somnath Chatterji of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) and Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India (CPI) - both nominated to be on the committee - remained non-committal about their participation in its deliberations. A debate was unavoidable, they pointed out. What the committee could at most do was set down the parameters that both Houses should follow, to avoid any unseemly intrusions into matters of national security.

By March 15, the committee proposal was in tatters. The following day, Congress(I) MP Rajesh Pilot raised the matter in the Lok Sabha, claiming knowledge of an affidavit that the former Navy Chief had filed which pointed to certain gross abuses of power by the Defence Minister. His party colleague Suresh Pachauri was concurrently pressing for a decision on his notice for a discussion in the Rajya Sabha.

The tide had by now begun to shift. In an ostentatious show of outrage on March 17, Fernandes dismissed the Bhagwat affidavit as a scurrilous and self-serving document. Speaking at a meeting of the informal committee that morning, he accepted the demand for a discussion in both Houses. The parameters of the debate, he said, could be set by the inherent sense of restraint of the members.

Fernandes convinced nobody with his new-found spirit of candour and transparency. The Opposition was insistent that the discussion should not be routine or cursory in nature, leaving all its key concerns unassuaged. Rather, it should entail a vote in both Houses of Parliament on the conduct of the Government. It was willing to relent in the case of the Lok Sabha, since the slender majority of the Government had just been put to test and found to hold in the matter of Bihar. But there was no way that it would be similarly accommodative in the Rajya Sabha.

After days of acrimony, Parliament went into its mid-session recess on March 19 with the matter yet to be resolved. The Lok Sabha is scheduled to discuss the Bhagwat matter on April 12. The Rajya Sabha is yet to agree on the date for its debate, or the rules of procedure under which it will be conducted.

THE parliamentary recess provided the occasion for a fresh offensive from the MoD. An official release was conjured up from the Press Information Bureau which virtually echoed the Defence Minister's reply to the parliamentary question on tampered ACRs. It claimed the endorsement of NHQ for the Minister's stand, though this seemed clearly to be at variance with the facts as revealed by the detailed communication from NHQ sent to the MoD just days prior (A copy of the 14-page communication is in the possession of Frontline). Seeking to draw the naval command hierarchy further into complicity, the official release of March 20 claimed that NHQ was studying the legal implications of Bhagwat's supposed actions, with a view to initiating necessary punitive action against him.

The case of Commodore Contractor had also figured in the Redressal of Grievance petition that Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh filed in March 1998, initiating the cycle of events that was to culminate in Bhagwat's dismissal. Harinder Singh had then avowed quite categorically that Bhagwat had confirmed both to him and the then Chief of Personnel in NHQ, Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar, that he was in concurrence with Shekhawat's opinion and had no reservations about the altered gradings. Today, a committee of senior naval officers appointed by Admiral Sushil Kumar - who rose to the position of the Chief of the Naval Staff in the wake of Admiral Bhagwat's ouster - has recorded that there was indeed a difference of perception that was not adequately reflected in the official record. If the incumbent Chief of the Naval Staff has any recollection of the event, he has chosen not to express them.

There are broad areas of concord between the allegations that Harinder Singh chose to level against Bhagwat beginning in March last year, and the MoD's current offensive against the former Chief of the Naval Staff. This lends credence to the view that Harinder Singh was designated specifically as the instrument of a particular agenda against the command hierarchy in the Navy. He levelled the most scurrilous charges against his Service Chief seemingly without fear of reprimand. The notice he was issued to show cause why he should not be subject to disciplinary action remained unanswered. Rather, he was encouraged to approach the judiciary for quashing the notice. And when this attempt failed, his patrons stepped in to retrieve the situation - assuring the court that the matter would be handled directly by the MoD rather than NHQ.

Harinder Singh's appointment as the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff on December 9 accelerated the pace of events, leading finally to Bhagwat's removal. Significantly, one of Sushil Kumar's first public statements after taking over as the Chief of the Naval Staff was that this appointment would be reviewed. But the MoD was averse to any such process, since that would effectively have meant an admission of wrongdoing. With Fernandes having successfully converted the matter into one involving the very prestige of the Government, Harinder Singh finally took over as the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff on March 15.

The DefenceMinister's answer to unstarred Question No. 3358 in the Lok Sabha on March 18 raises a host of questions.

WHEN Parliament resumes on April 12, the Opposition is likely to deploy another big gun in its battle. Bhagwat's sworn affidavit, which was obliquely hinted at on occasion, is known to be in the possession of a Congress(I) member of the Rajya Sabha. If this is tabled in the House, it would impart a new dimension to the debate on the dismissal of the former Chief of the Naval Staff.

It is known from the affidavit, for instance, that Bhagwat had not thought Harinder Singh fit for appointment to a senior position in NHQ for a variety of reasons. Aside from sharing links with arms dealers and being absent from command during Operation Leach, he had only earned the "outstanding" grading for a cumulative period of 16 months in a 36-year career. By contrast, Bhagwat's own choice for the position of the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Madanjit Singh, had a consistent record of earning this grade. It is a mystery why his appointment, sent up for Cabinet approval in June 1998, was not cleared - inscrutable unless it is viewed as part of an elaborate strategy centred on Harinder Singh.

The affidavit makes a forceful claim for unravelling this mystery. The facts that were placed before the Appointments Committee of Cabinet, says Bhagwat, are not known: "What kind of documentation was prepared and what selective material was put forward and what withheld, is a matter which can only be answered by looking at the official records. As the former CNS, I can say with some authority that in normal circumstances an officer who has the kind of record (as Harinder Singh) ... would not have been even considered for appointment as DCNS. The issue is not whether certain officers have moved a court of law. The issue is institutional. The issue relates to the integrity of the armed forces. The issue relates to its politicisation."

Contrary to the Defence Minister's claim at his in camera meeting with members of the Rajya Sabha, Bhagwat states in his affidavit that he had few reservations about the need for a civil inquest into the conduct of Operation Leach. Rather, all that he indicated, with the endorsement of the other defence chiefs, was that the Service personnel called upon to provide evidence in the case should be given the protection that was their due. This was in accordance with the precedent established in the case of m.v. Ahat, the ship that was interdicted on the high seas by the Indian Navy in 1994 and was later found to be ferrying the Tamil Tiger Kittu. Several casualties were incurred in that incident and in October 1998 Bhagwat insisted that the procedures followed then for recording the testimony of the armed forces personnel should be followed in the inquest into Operation Leach. At this, he records, "the Defence Minister appeared to be very upset and wanted expeditious completion of court proceedings in respect of the accused persons on trial."

THE motivations of the Defence Minister, as also of the MoD, remain opaque. But these revelations come as part of a sequence of damaging reports about the conduct of the Ministry in relation to Operation Leach. There was first an effort to restrain the armed forces and to impose on them the condition that they obtain the prior clearance of the Ministry before initiating their combing operations. When the Service chiefs unanimously turned down this condition on grounds both of legality and operational viability, the MoD sought to contain their activities within the country's Exclusive Economic Zone, again with no obvious rationale.

Deputy Chief of the Navy Staff Harinder Singh. He finally took charge on March 15.

Various suspicions have been floated in the last two months, without the slightest effort at explanation from the MoD. Bhagwat's affidavit now threatens to ratchet up the intensity of the challenge. It crystallises a series of responses to the grounds that Fernandes has adduced since December 30 to justify the dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff.

It is a basic principle of natural justice that no individual can be convicted on the basis of evidence that he is unaware of. In the three months since his ouster, Bhagwat, and indeed the nation, have been at a loss to comprehend the reasons behind the unprecedented action. In the vacuum of reason that the MoD and the Minister in particular have created, Bhagwat has intervened with a special vigour. He has been blunt, as a soldier or a sailor is apt to be. And he has been forceful to the point of being considered '' tactless'', as a man seeking to vindicate his honour is entitled to be. But the points he makes raise serious questions about the management of the national security apparatus.

There seems no realistic option now but a thorough and impartial inquiry in the appropriate forum - whether parliamentary or judicial. Stonewalling on grounds of national security will simply not carry any further credibility. The recent actions of the Defence Minister show how easy it is for low intrigue to flourish behind a camouflage of national interest.

[ Subscribe | Contact Us | Archives | Table of Contents]
[ Home | The Hindu | Business Line | Sportstar ]
Copyrights © 1999, Frontline.

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of Frontline.