Wednesday’s report in The Indian Express of events that purportedly occurred on the night of January 16-17, 2012, throws open many questions that deserve answers. The newspaper says that central intelligence agencies told the government that two military units, one of mechanised infantry based at Hisar and another of paratroopers based at Agra, were moving towards New Delhi. This was on the very day that civil-military relations had hit a new low, with the army chief, General V K Singh, petitioning the Supreme Court on the matter of his date of birth. According to the report, New Delhi responded by putting little-known procedures into effect — lookouts, status checks, traffic slowdowns. The prime minister was apparently informed, and the defence secretary flew back from Malaysia. The government’s stated position now is that these were justifiable movements for training purposes — to test reaction times in the fog that blankets the North Indian plains. It should go without saying that India is not vulnerable to coup attempts. Its polity is too strong, its armed forces too diverse, and its institutional history too deep for any such speculation. Yet a binary choice should not be forced on this discussion. Talk of a coup might be absurd; yet there are still questions that must be addressed.
The civilian authorities have come out in full damage-control mode. In a strong statement, the prime minister said that the report was “alarmist”, and that “nothing should be done to lower the dignity” of the army chief’s office. The defence minister said the report was “absolutely baseless” and the movement was “nothing unusual”. The minister of state for defence said the report was “highly irresponsible and anti-national”. However, the government’s certification is simply not enough. Any halfway responsible government, attempting to repair a civil-military chasm that is partly of its own making, would do the same. No explanations can come from them. It is incumbent on the army, in fact, to answer the specifics of the claims that are now in the public domain. India’s army is accustomed to the luxury of reduced scrutiny, thanks to high moral ground it customarily occupies and to the fact that national security can be argued to require a higher degree of secrecy. However, the interests of national security are only served here by openness. Anything less than direct engagement with the substance of the Express report would serve to further undermine public trust in the institution.
The questions that the report raises are valid. If the ministry of defence was not notified of troop movements so close to the capital, why not? The army has stated that permission was not necessary. However, there is a difference between waiting for authorisation and simple notification. If the paratroopers from Agra were heading to Hindon Air Force Base as part of a preparedness exercise, why was the air force not informed? Why did they end up in Palam, a river’s width and a city’s breadth from Hindon? The army must demonstrate that the facts are wrong, or misinterpreted. Otherwise, it must explain what happened on the night of January 16-17, and tell India’s justifiably concerned citizens what action has been taken to ensure that it does not recur.