The Indian Express this morning carried a bombshell of a story about two key military units moving unexpectedly towards Delhi on the night of 16 January. The report says the government had not been informed of the midnight deployment. The story by the newspaper’s editor Shekhar Gupta and two senior reporters, Ritu Sarin and Pranab Dhal Samanta, was splashed across the entire front page:
This is a story you would tell with extreme care and caution. But it so starkly characterises the current state of top-level politico-military relations that it is a folly to keep it under wraps, as the entire establishment has tried to do for a full 11 weeks now.
It has also taken this team of The Indian Express reporters that long to establish the story and the dramatic developments during, say, about 18 very difficult hours on January 16-17 earlier this year.
While many, including the spokesmen for the defence establishment, say it was much ado about nothing (see box), it is a story of a most unusual night when Raisina Hill was spooked as never before in peace time.
Essentially, late on the night of January 16 (the day Army Chief General V K Singh approached the Supreme Court on his date of birth issue), central intelligence agencies reported an unexpected (and non-notified) movement by a key military unit, from the mechanised infantry based in Hisar (Haryana) as a part of the 33rd Armoured Division (which is a part of 1 Corps, a strike formation based in Mathura and commanded by Lt Gen. A K Singh) in the direction of the capital, 150 km away.
Any suspicion was still considered much too implausible, but lookouts were alerted as a routine step. This was part of a protocol put in place in June 1984 when some mutineers from Sikh units had moved towards the capital in the wake of Operation Bluestar.
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Defence Minister AK Antony has said that the Indian Express report was “absolutely baseless”. The Prime Minister told reporters on the sidelines of a function at Rashtrapati Bhavan, ”These are alarmist reports. They should not be taken at face value.”
In The Hindu:
Meanwhile, retired army officers and civil servants have disputed a central premise of the news report—that the Army should have informed the MoD about its exercise in the NCR. Lt Gen Satish Nambiar (Retd.), a former Director General Military Operations, insisted no such protocols were followed in his time and Ajay Prasad, who retired as Defence Secretary in 2004, said he was not aware of this requirement.