The revelations made by V.K. Singh raise the disturbing question of the extra constitutional power wielded by the army. Yet, the revelations are on their way to becoming another opportunity lost in probing the Indian army. By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal.
A decade after the Kargil war that also displaced people living on the Akhnoor borders, the southernmost tip of the Line of Control between the two divided parts of Jammu and Kashmir, people began returning from the shabby camps to their homes ravaged during the skirmishes between the Indian and Pakistani troops. Their return wasn’t quite out of willingness, as hostilities and desertion had completely destroyed their homes and schools, left their cattle killed or lost and their fields fully or partially mined, and, in some cases, also fenced out. Many of them said that they came back either because the government was winding up the temporary tent camps where they had been putting up for a decade or because the army wanted them back. In one of these Hindu dominated villages, men rendered completely idle, sitting and gossiping or playing cards under a huge banyan tree said: “We had to come back, after all we are the army’s shield.” The remark wasn’t made out of sarcasm but out of a sense of responsibility and importance. They, however, refused to be explicit about how they could be of any use to the army.
About 150 kilometres to the north, right in the middle of the Poonch borders, is a village that was ravaged by earthquake in 2005 when I went there for a visit. While I sat chatting with Fazl Haque in his home, just few yards away from the Line of Control, a soldier in civvies shouted from outside his compound, “So when are you going to the other side?” “Whenever, major sahib, wishes,” came the response.
Locals in the village talked in hushed whispers about the man being an army spy and informer. Living in a place along the Line of Control that straddles an unnatural divide, separating families and dividing villages – into Indian and Pakistan administered territories – it is easy for an army to co-opt, by way of intimidation or small monetary benefits, civilians to work as spies. Most of them have relatives on the other side of the border, making their survival on the alien side easier but at the same time also making them susceptible to turning into double agents. Such policies of roping in civilians have been common practice for decades.
In Jammu and Kashmir, where such stories are an open secret and have moved beyond the borders in the years after militancy, it really didn’t surprise anyone when Indian Express leaked, in late September, the news of an army inquiry report indicting former army chief General V.K. Singh of several irregularities. The charges included funding ministers in the Omar Abdullah government and other politicians–including one payment of Rs 1.2 crores to an influential minister– with the aim of toppling the Omar Abdullah government and even of getting the chief minister’s phones tapped. The Army in Jammu and Kashmir exercises a certain extent of power that goes beyond its proper role in a democracy. If army officers had all along been wielding their influence over civilians, using them as spies, informers and human shields, the shady connection with the politicians would seem as the only likely next outcome and not at all surprising, given the army’s increasing footprints and its excessive use– in the last two decades – in herding people from the villages and various localities to polling booths during elections to show impressive polling figures, if not to influence voting patterns.
So, when General Singh, the embarrassed former army chief, tried to fend off the allegations by stating that the policy of offering money to politicians and civilians was a routine, age-old practice that is meant to generate what he called “goodwill”, few here were outraged. Rather, his remarks were deemed to be the act of letting the cat out of the bag. The exception was the political class, who stood bitterly exposed by these fresh revelations – in both the inquiry report and Singh’s explanation. The debate in the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly that preceded the passing of the resolution against former army chief V.K. Singh was marked with guarded caution. His remarks in response to the leak of an inquiry report (the one indicting him of squandering money and trying to topple the Jammu and Kashmir government) were met with more disbelief than the reasons for the indictment. The minister who is said to have received a kickback of Rs 1.2 crores from the former army chief, Ghulam Hassan Mir, simply denied the charge and the chief minister, even as he raved and ranted about his phones being tapped, refused to take any action against his cabinet colleague.
Reports pointing to secret funds used in attempts to topple the J&K government shouldn’t have come as a surprise in the face of earlier revelations of the role of a section of army officers, both serving and retired, in funding and aiding Hindutva activities – as was demonstrated by the role of Col. Purohit in Malegaon blast. That the government made no special efforts to call for an in-depth probe into that angle is not only alarming, it reveals that the mess is too deep for a weak leadership to even question.
The uncomfortable questions that have been raised by the controversial reports and remarks, need – for the sake of both moral propriety and democracy –greater probing and introspection than a simple hushing up to salvage the ‘image of the army’ with layers of untruths. This cannot be a remedy to the damage that has set in. If the whole affair of paying money really was about goodwill, why should it have been funneled through a secret funding system with no system of accountability in the first place? The army already has in place the Sadbhavna schemes for wooing the local public; so, having secret funds and secret schemes for the same purpose simply defies logic. There have been massive complaints about some of the ill-planned Sadbhavna schemes and also about irregularities that keep surfacing from the rural areas across Jammu and Kashmir. Depending on the vision of the officers posted in their areas, some of these schemes have met with some success, though without the promise of sustainable development or goodwill. If the secret funds were aimed at goodwill operations, what additional goals were they expected to achieve beyond the cosmetic Sadbhavna measures? Also, why was the entire operation so covert as to rope in NGOs and ministers for generating the goodwill that is being pursued through secrecy and hush-hush manner. The inquiry report already points out to the missing Rs 8 crore rupees and destruction of some military equipment whimsically, puncturing the claims of the former army chief and putting a question mark over his frustrated outburst of ‘hang those who leaked the report’ by terming as ‘treason’ the unveiling of the murky affairs within the army.
Reports pointing to secret funds used in attempts to topple the J&K government shouldn’t have come as a surprise in the face of earlier revelations of the role of a section of army officers, both serving and retired, in funding and aiding Hindutva activities – as was demonstrated by the role of Col. Purohit in Malegaon blast. That the government made no special efforts to call for an in-depth probe into that angle is not only alarming, it reveals that the mess is too deep for a weak leadership to even question. It’s also important not to lose sight of the successive army chiefs, including V.K. Singh, striking down any discussion or review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives absolute immunity to the armed forces personnel, even when the political leadership both in the state and centre has hinted at some kind of flexibility over the issue.
The increasing powers of the army, the hobnobbing with politicians both in and out of service, the unlimited funds available in the name of covert operations and the attempt to stonewall probes or calls for accountability in the name of treason – all these do not augur well for democracy. Certainly, this one particular case or its relevant history may not be enough to shake the edifices of a democratic state. But complacency over these matters and unwillingness to probe them in-depth or to find remedial measures would surely set us on the perilous road from which democracy will eventually be well out of sight.
The issue at stake is not about individuals like V.K. Singh and Ghulam Hassan Mir, it is about the sanctity of both democratic institutions and the army, and it merits attention and thorough probes without the blinkered notion that patriotism and nationalism only come dressed in a uniform, which must appear respectable and clean, however much dirt it continues to shroud. It is not only the politicians of the state that come under a cloud, it is also those sitting in New Delhi who have blindly empowered the army and other forces to perpetuate a cycle of corruption in this state. For all this, the nation’s quest needs to go beyond the V.K. Singh affair and settle for nothing less than the absolute truth.