Thursday 26 May 2022 | 00:19 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 May 2022 | 00:19 | SYDNEY

New Delhi: The coup that never was?

17 April 2012 17:45

David Brewster is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Intriguing details are beginning to emerge about some events involving the Indian Army and the Indian Government last January. Some have claimed that unusual troop movements near New Delhi amounted to a threatened coup by the Indian Army Chief VK Singh. Others see it merely as evidence of trust deficit that has grown between the Government and military leadership.

On 4 April, the Indian Express, a usually reliable source in the otherwise unruly Indian media, reported that the Indian Government had become alarmed about troop movements towards New Delhi on the night of 16 January this year. There was an unexpected movement by a mechanised infantry unit based to the northwest of New Delhi in the direction of the capital. The column included some 48 armoured fighting vehicles, carried on tank transporters. This was followed by further reports of an unexpected movement towards the capital by a large element of the airborne 50 Para Brigade, based at Agra.

These reports were made by lookouts positioned by Indian intelligence services around New Delhi since 1984 when some mutineers from Sikh units had moved towards the capital in the wake of Operation Bluestar.

According to the Indian Express report, the Indian Government then implemented a contingency plan involving the establishment of roadblocks by the police to slow all traffic into the capital. On the instructions of the Ministry of Defence, the Army halted both formations and sent them back within hours. While the Army has given explanations as to why it was conducting these training exercises, there were no explanations as to why it failed to follow a protocol requiring it to notify the Ministry of troop movements near the capital.

The episode has been linked an unusual dispute between General VK Singh and the Ministry of Defence over Singh's birth date.

The Ministry claimed Singh was born in May 1950 and was therefore required to retire as Army Chief this May. Singh claims he was actually born in May 1951 and that there had been a typo in his file in the Army's records. On 16 January, the day of the incident, Singh filed a lawsuit against the Government in the country's Supreme Court.

Both the Indian Government and the Army are falling over themselves to deny that any 'incident' occurred. However, another retired army general, Lt General HS Panag, has since claimed that the troop movements were orchestrated by Singh as a pre-emptive demonstration against the Government's decision to relieve him of his post. Many don't quite know what to make of these events. According to the Indian Express:

There is unanimity over General V K Singh’s impeccable reputation as a sound, professional soldier, earned over nearly 42 years of distinguished service to the Army. Nobody is using the “C” word to imply anything other than “curious”. All else is considered an impossibility.

This 'curious' incident certainly demonstrates the cumbersome nature of communications between the Indian Army and the Government. Since independence, the Indian military has played a highly subordinate role to the civilian leadership, with a layer of bureaucracy sitting firmly over the top of the military. India's founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was reputedly concerned about the influence the military could come to exercise in a newly independent and developing state, a concern that has certainly played out in neighbouring Pakistan. 

However, this subordinate arrangement has also had strategic implications. For example, it contributed to a near military disaster in 1962 when Nehru refused to allow his senior generals to advise him about India's vulnerability to Chinese invasion in the lead-up to the Sino-Indian border war.

Whatever actually occurred on the night of 16 January, the incident (or non-incident) seems to point to what some have called a 'trust deficit' between the Government and the Army. Even analysts who steadfastly reject claims about unauthorised troop movements as 'conspiracy theories' agree there was clearly nervousness within the Government when the controversy about the Army Chief's age reached the Supreme Court.

Photo by Flickr user JK.