NEW DELHI — India’s government and army on April 4 furiously denied an “alarmist” front-page newspaper report detailing how troop movements towards the capital in January had spooked the cabinet.
The Indian Express claimed the nocturnal deployments had sparked concern about a possible coup at a time when relations between the head of the 1.13-million-strong army and the government are strained.
It said the government had taken measures as a precaution on the night of Jan. 16-17, including asking lookouts to identify the troops involved and ordering police to slow traffic on the highways into the capital.
“These are alarmist reports and should not be taken at face value,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said outside parliament, adding that no one should work to lower the “dignity and respect” of the army chief position.
Defense Minister A.K. Antony, speaking at the launch of a nuclear-powered submarine in south India, told reporters the suggestion the government had been worried was “absolutely baseless”.
“[The Army} will not do anything against Indian democracy. They are true patriots,” he declared.
The deployments — by a column of mechanized infantry traveling in armored personnel carriers and a separate column of paratroopers — were “usual, natural activities”, he said.
Indian Army spokesman Col. Jagdeep Dahiya said that the newspaper story was “baseless and incorrect”.
“Certain troops’ movements which have been reported were part of routine training as per standard operating procedures,” he said.
The Express cleared its front page for the story under a dramatic three-line headline stating: “The January night Raisina Hill (the political establishment) was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt.”
Quoting several unnamed sources, it said that the defense minister and prime minister were informed, and the troops were ordered to halt. They were then sent back to their bases in states neighboring the capital area.
The army explained that the deployments were meant to test the capabilities of the infantry to operate in fog and for the paratroopers to link up with their planes.
While these reasons were initially “viewed with skepticism,” the Express reported, the defense ministry had since come to the conclusion it was “a false alarm caused by some non-adherence to standard operating procedures.”
The incident was important because it underlined the distrust between the Army and the government, the paper stressed in the story, which was written in part by its high-profile editor, Shekhar Gupta.
“The relationship between the army and political leadership of the country is at an all-time low,” the spokesman for the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ravishankar Prasad, told reporters. “The equilibrium between the civilian leadership and the army must be restored and respected.”
India’s army chief, V.K. Singh, has had a public falling out with his civilian bosses, sparked by his bid to stay in office for an extra year.
In January, the same day as the maneuvers that were detailed in the Express, Singh took his case to the Supreme Court, asking unsuccessfully for his birth date as registered in Army records to be changed.
Singh, who faces mandatory retirement this May at the age of 62, had claimed his birth date had been wrongly recorded.
Since this dispute, he has embarrassed Antony by detailing how he was offered a $2.8 million bribe in 2010 to fix a supply contract, a complaint that was not followed up by the government.
And last week, a letter he wrote to the prime minister complaining how India’s tank fleet lacks ammunition, its air defenses are “97 percent obsolete” and its elite forces need essential weapons was leaked to the media.
Uday Bhaskar, a security analyst and former head of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, told AFP that India’s military was “one of the most apolitical armies in the world. I don’t give any credit to this.”
The country has very little history of its disciplined Army interfering in political affairs.
After a 1984 Army onslaught against Sikh separatists in northwestern Punjab state, some Sikh soldiers mutinied, leading the government to put in place safeguards against a coup.