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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
B. JAYACHANDRAN/THE WEEK
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
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.