May-June 1999


Bhagwat Affair — Murky Deals and
Army Restructuring


Behind the veneer of political skulduggery taking place in the wake of the dismissal of the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vishnu Bhagwat, lies the murky dealings within the Ministry of Defence (MOD); the top echelons of the armed forces; the intelligence agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) and even the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The BJP’s desperate attempts to hide the facts, utilising the fig-leaf of ‘national security’, finds itself helpless in the face of acute contradictions enveloping the ruling classes.

But, even more important than the illegitimate and anti-national dealings taking place at the top, are the pernicious attempts to mould public opinion for a most dangerous transformation in governance — to incorporate the armed forces within the government structures. The media hype, by pitting an honest Bhagwat against a rasputin-like ex-defence secretary, Ajit Kumar, creates popular opinion in favour of the Chiefs of Armed Force’s longstanding demand to be incorporated into the MOD. With this change the armed forces will get a greater say in strategic planning, arms purchases and in the selection of officers.

Yet, the fact remains, that in these 51 years of so-called independence, this is the first time ever that a defence minister has sacked a Chief of Staff of the armed forces (infact, Bhagwat was then, not just CNS, but a few days earlier had taken over, by rotation, as Chairman of the Chief of Staff Committee — i.e., defacto the top man in the entire armed forces). This shows the extent to which contradictions have reached in the defence establishment. Here, we are not particularly concerned with the integrity or otherwise of the individuals involved (Bhagwat himself is being backed by a Bofors tainted Sonia Gandhi and notoriously corrupt elements like Jayalalitha and Sharad Pawar). What is of greater significance is that these revelations will help dispel any lingering doubt that may exist that these scum stand for the ‘national interest’.

This realisation is particularly important for the common soldier, sailor and pilot within the forces, who risk their lives, under the false illusion of fighting in the "national interest", when infact they merely act to protect these traitors from the people’s wrath.

In this article let us examine both points that have arisen through the Bhagwat affair — the murky dealings in the defence forces and also the proposed restructuring.

BJP, Fernandes and the Bhagwat Episode

On December 30, ’98 Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked. On the very next day, December 31, Air Marshal S.K. Sareen was forced to retire, though the retirement age had just been extended by two years. The only remaining Chief of Staff, of the army, V.P. Malik continued, due to his closeness with the Hindu fundamentalist lobby. Now, with the changes the entire armed forces is manned by pro-hindu fascist elements. The virtual coup by the MOD against two top chiefs of the armed forces is basically connected with three factors — (i) arms deals, (ii) gun-running off the Andaman coast and (iii) promotions. The three are closely interlinked; and though the third factor was the immediate pretext for the sacking, the first two were its major cause.

(i) Arms Deals

The villain of the piece here appears to be one Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh, close to both the MOD and PMO, whose promotion was the immediate cause of conflict. The battle between Bhagwat and Singh appears a reflection of a fight over arms purchases. Bhagwat apparently was for indigenous production while Singh is closely linked to arms dealers.

Bhagwat, it is said, was continuously battling with what has come to be called the Newport brigade — a lobby of senior officers who had attended the Naval War College in Newport, USA.

Singh was on two occasions denied promotions. The major reason given, besides incompetency, was his admission to having accepted lavish hospitality for two months in 1997, for himself and family of arms dealers in London, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Surprisingly, these major naval arms dealers were none other than top officers of the Navy, now retired. In fact the chief agent is a company called Crown Corporation run by ex-Admiral Nanda. That such top officers routinely become major agents of arm dealers, with full knowledge of the government, make the entire structure of the defence forces suspect. But what ensued in the navy in the last six months is not merely criminal it is anti-national making even the Prime Minister suspect.

After Bhagwat refused appointment of Singh as his deputy he was summarily sacked on December 30th. What is then particularly mysterious is that on the day of his sacking, Vajpayee, his foster daughter and son-in-law flew to Port Blair and spent the new year’s Eve at the home of vice-Admiral Harinder Singh. Bhagwat was replaced by an Ajit Kumar, a Fernandes stooge and by mid-March Harinder Singh took over as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. The path was thereby cleared for major arms deals.

In March 1999 itself two major arms deals in the Navy were struck with international companies, and, not surprisingly, Crown Corporation was the Chief agent. Both deals are highly suspect. For major purchases of submarine spare parts a deal was struck with the German company Marlog, with Crown as agent. It is said that the rates fixed were so exorbitant, that the items sold ranged from 20 to 100 times the normal market price. In the second deal of a huge Rs. 2,500 crores, the government contracted the construction of three warships to a Russian shipyard. This is the first time ever that the government has departed from its policy of placing shipbuilding contracts with Indian shipyards only. So much for the BJP’s ‘swadeshi’ credentials !! These purchases are just the beginning, mammoth deals are yet being negotiated.

If we look also at the forcible retirement of S.K. Sareen, we again find the dubious ‘foreign hand’ of arms dealers. In this case, it appears more as a fight for the spoils between Sareen and Kumar, in the purchase of satellite-based inertial navigation systems for the SU-30 fighter aircraft. Sareen favoured the French company Sagem, while Ajit Kumar pushed for another French company Sextan. The order went to Sextan.

But what has been disclosed is the mere tip of the iceberg and the net of corruption, double-dealing and kickbacks appear also to involve leading elements of the UF government.... who infact initiated the present feverish pitch of arms purchases. Deve Gowda has been aggressively lobbying for the outdated T-72S tanks, Mulayam Singh Yadav and I.K. Gujral have surprisingly supported the BJP in opposing a debate on the Bhagwat issue. This is not suprising, as it was during UF rule that the 1996 SU-30 MFI deal of Rs. 6,500 crores and the 1997 naval ships deal of Rs. 4,200 crores were signed. With Russia’s entire industry and trade in the hands of a mafia, and with Russia desperate to dispose of vast military stocks, the size of the kickbacks on such huge deals can well be imagined. No wonder these two were afraid of a debate .... many more skeletons in the cupboard may fall out !

(ii) Fernandes and Gun-running ?

The exposure on this is even more devastating for the BJP government. As it not only discloses its cloak-and-dagger operations against neighbouring countries, its gun-running to pro-government groups in the North-East, but also its involvement in narcotics smuggling. And the khadi-clad Defence minister together with his rasputin ex-defence secretary appear as the king-pins in these nefarious activities.

It was February ’98 .... ‘Operation Leech’ in the Andaman Seas. Earlier, in end ’96, Army Chief, Roychoudhary, had asked CNS Bhagwat for help in intercepting arms shipments from the far east being shipped to the North East via Cox Bazar. In the first week of February ’98 RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), in order to mislead the navy, informed that a shipment was on the way to India, coming through the Malacca straits, south of the Andamans. The Directorate of Military Intelligence, however, surmised that the route lay further north. The navy, acting on the latter’s information, intercepted three trawlers carrying arms for two ‘insurgent’ groups in the North-East and one in Myanmar. The navy, till then, unaware of RAW’s operations, was not able to distinguish between arms for the genuine insurgents and for the RAW-sponsored ones. Surprisingly, instead of commending a ‘successful action’, not only RAW but also the MOD displayed annoyance.

It was when the navy intercepted two more Thai trawlers on May 30, ’98 that the annoyance turned to anger. Fernandes was particularly incensed. In this action, when the trawlers attempted to flee, the navy sunk one. From the other it recovered ARMS AND 50 Kgs OF HEROIN. To stop such pre-emptive actions by the navy the Fernandes-Kumar duo issued the unprecedented order not to act against arms/narcotics shipments without their permission. When the BJP and their hangers-on say that a JPC probe or the reinstatement of Bhagwat, goes against the ‘national security interests’ they obviously mean against the "BJP’s interests" as all their nefarious actions will get further exposed.

In that order, issued on July 27, ’98 by the defence secretary, Ajit Kumar, the MOD stated that "the service headquarters may receive specific intelligence from time to time with regard to vessels carrying weapons,arms, et al. to Cox’s Bazar through the Andaman Seas. Keeping in mind the sensitivities involved, it has been decided that no precipitate action is to be taken. Service HQ IS NOT TO ACT on any intelligence relating to gun-running and other illegal activities in the Andaman Seas without approval of the government."

Not surprisingly, in the two months following this order three more shipments quietly passed through. Interestingly, at that time the Chief Commanding Officer in the Andamans was none other than the infamous Harinder Singh !

Lately, yet again in March ’99, inspite of a tip-off from the Sri Lankan government of an LTTE arms trawler, the navy acted in a manner that effectively prevented its capture.

With these revelation what has come to light are two important factors of government policy — its covert operations against neighbouring countries, and its ruthless methods in suppressing the just struggles of the North East. The chief tool for its implementation is RAW acting in conjunction with the MOD. It is not surprising therefore, that Ajit Kumar, the then defence secretary, had earlier served as a top RAW operator for four years. And with Fernandes’s dubious political links with so-called ‘pro-democracy’ movements in Myanmar the network becomes complete. Let us look at both these aspects of government policy.

In the pursuance of its expansionist interests with neighbouring countries the Indian government adopts a dual policy. First it seeks to establish control over the governments in power (or get a pro-India government elected); and, if not possible, indulge in covert operations to de-stabilise existing governments. Through the Bhagwat episode it appears RAW (with Fernandes and Kumar in tail) has been arming insurgency operations to destabilise the existing military government in Myanmar. What is particularly treacherous is that the Indian government while on the surface maintained good relations with the Myanmar government it secretly carried out covert operations. It, infact went to the extent of duping Yangon into participating in joint military operations against the North-East national liberation groups. Since April 1995, starting with ‘Operation Golden Bird’, such joint military actions have resulted in killing numerous fighters. Of course, with the exposure in July ’98 and the treachery revealed, such joint operations have ended.

With regard to the North-East liberation movements it appears that the government will go to any extreme to crush them. In addition to army and para-military terror, the government is not only arming counter-revolutionary forces and vigilant groups with sophisticated weaponry, but pitting one group against another to crush them all. Together with gun-running to such forces it has stooped to the level of narcotics dealings in order to corrupt and amputate their fighting capacity. If a massive 50 kg of heroin was discovered in just one vessel, what must be the level of narcotics pushed into the North-East by the Indian government, can well be imagined.

The Indian government has now surpassed even the British colonialists in its methods of suppression. The arms purchased by RAW were said to be for groups in Nagaland and a pro-government group in Tripura. The government is arming such fake ‘liberation’ groups to crush the real fighters and unleash terror on the people. It also gives the appearance that the people are fighting amongst themselves.

These outfits can comprise the most cruel and ruthless elements (like SULFA) through which the government can resort to the worst kind of terror without fear of any law or condemnation from human rights organisations. But what is more terrifying, through these disclosures is the revelation that huge consignments of heroin are being pushed into the North East by the very government itself. Their purpose is to drug the entire population into passivity. They have even surpassed the British who in the last century sought to drug the Chinese with narcotics supplied from India (by Tata). The Indian comprador bourgeoisie appear to have a long tradition in such nefarious dealings. While Tata made his initial fortune in narcotics it is yet to be revealed how much has been made by RAW and MOD officials. With thousands of families destroyed by heroin in the North East, these government ‘pushers’ deserve nothing less than the firing squad.

(iii) Promotions – Favouritisms – Commissions

Till now, the government accused naxalites, Kashmiris, North East and Punjabi fighters, Muslims or anyone who revolted against injustices .... as anti-national. Now such accusations are even being leveled at their own chiefs of the armed forces. At the time of sacking Bhagwat, Fernandes said that he was a "national security risk." This charge has been repeated by the PM and home minister. If the chief of the armed forces was a "national security risk" what about an ordinary citizen who opposes the BJP ? The way these charges are thrown around shows not only the utter irresponsibility of the top BJP leaders, but their total intolerance of any who do not bow to their hindu fascist agenda. What is more, the extent to which India has been converted into a police state is indicated by the fact that intelligence sleuths of the IB and CBI were put after, not only Bhagwat, but also the ex-Air Marshal, Sareen.

With Bhagwat and Sareen out, the BJP/Fernandes/Kumar combine has acted to communalise the armed forces further by promoting favourites. Bhagwat’s place is taken by Sushil Kumar, a man groomed by Kumar for years. His deputy Harinder Singh is a known communal element having placed written charges against Bhagwat — of his ‘half-muslim’ wife and for not conducting the last rites of his parents. The Army Chief of Staff Malik has a history of links with the communalists. As far back as in January ’96, while he was Officer Commanding in Chief, Southern Command he had invited Bal Thackeray to the Army Investure Parade. Also, in March ’98 he blatantly presided over the Veer Savarkar Award function. The ‘award’, the second presented so far, was incidentally given to the BJP stooge, K. Subrahmanyam — a man notorious as a nuclear-hawk and an open spokesman for regional hegemonism. This same Subrahmanyam was made convenor of the newly formed Advisory Board of the National Security Council.

As seniority in the armed forces entails not only tremendous power, but also the possibility of making fortunes, these posts are strongly contested. The vast amounts involved will indicate their desperation to have only their men at the top and not re-instate the Bhagwat types.

Gigantic Leaps in Military Spending

The Indian ruling-classes, given their size, see themselves as a regional bully with the right of domination over all countries of South Asia. Any resistance leads to sabre-rattling and threats. Of late, with ‘economic liberalisation’ and the huge investments of the comprador big bourgeois -TNC combine, and with continued stagnation in the Indian market together with a slump in exports, there is a desperation to flood neighbouring countries with Indian (i.e. comprador / TNC) goods. To promote this, expansionist policies become an urgent necessity, which necessarily entails increased military might. That is why there has been a major step-up in arms purchases in the last few years. In just the 18 months from early 1996 contracts worth Rs. 10,000 crores were concluded.

Another reason for the burgeoning military budget is the increased utilisation of the army against the Indian people itself, to quell the rising tide of discontent against their exploitative rule. At present it is officially stated that 72,000 defence personnel are directly deployed in counter-insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, while 47,000 are deployed in the North-East states. This, of course, in a gross understatement; the numbers are, in reality, much more. According to their own admission the army has spent as much as Rs. 17,500 crores between 1990 and 1997 in such operations; and currently spends Rs. 2,650 crores annually on counter-insurgency.

It is then, these two factors that are the main cause for the gigantic increase in the defence budget which has nearly doubled in just three years from Rs. 26,856 crores in 1995-96 to as much as roughly Rs. 47,500 crores in 1999-2000 (inclusive of Rs. 2000 crores promised later in the year). The 1999-2000 defence budget has itself allocated a massive Rs. 17,000 crores for purchase of hardware. In addition is the huge expenditure (included under revenue) on spares, repairs, upgradation etc. The size of this can be imagined from the fact that just the IAF last year spent Rs. 1,652 crores in purchase of spares.

So, if we consider the total purchases involved, it would be to the tune of Rs. 22,000 crores ($5 billion). With kickbacks amounting to a minimum of 7% on total value, the huge booty over which squabbles are intensifying would be about Rs. 1,500 crores. This is for just one year.

This rampant corruption in arms deals has led to the purchase of sub-standard equipment .... particularly from Russia. As a result of this, in just the last 2 years, since January ’97, 39 IAF planes have crashed (mostly MIGs) leading to the death of pilots and enormous waste of funds. Probably not in any war with Pakistan has India lost so many fighter planes as in the recent crashes..... three have occurred in the first four months of the current year itself. Yet India continues purchasing such sub-standard materials. Surely, this one factor alone should open the eyes of the rank-and-file within the armed forces, to the fact that they are made to give their lives in order that their bosses reap fortunes in kickbacks. No wonder discontent is growing.

Restructuring in the Defence Establishment

We have already seen what incorporation of the army within the administration means in Kashmir and the North-East. A brutal terroristic rule, under the garb of democracy and "elected government." If this is now to be repeated at the centre it can only mean more brutality and greater fascistic terror.

Bhagwat had proposed the setting up of a separate defence intelligence agency. Malik, while speaking at a probationers meeting in February ’99, blasted the prevalent system for its red tape, archaic procedures and lack of financial and operational autonomy for the service chiefs. He said that the service chiefs should be included in security-related decision making... and called for greater delegation of authority to the three service chiefs in financial and personnel matters, terming it as the "most important reform" that the defence establishment needed.

These contradictions between the armed and civilian wings of the defence establishment indicates the pressures that exist for restructuring. This is particularly reflected in the sphere of appointments to top posts. There are, at present, 5,281 pending writ petitions in the high courts challenging promotions, transfers etc. Appointments are done by the ACC (Appointments Committee of the Cabinet). The ACC comprises the PM, the home minister, finance minister and the head of the ministry concerned. The particular departmental secretary is the secretary of the ACC.

Two recent examples of court decisions have sent shock waves into the MOD civil bureaucracy. In December ’98 the court quashed the appointment of Lt. General HRS Kalkat as the general officer commanding-in-chief of the army’s Eastern Command ordering Lt. Gen. Kayan to the post instead. A little earlier, a division bench of the Delhi court issued a contempt of court notice to Ajit Kumar and two other MOD officials for not acting on a court decision calling on the government to promote Air-vice Marshal PK Ghosh to the rank of Air Marshal... Such conflicts have taken an acute form when, in September, 1998, the three chiefs of staff jointly wrote a letter to the defence minister saying that they could no longer work with his defence secretary, Ajit Kumar.

The proposed restructuring will not only act to diffuse these contradictions, but will also act to give the military greater political teeth. It is proposed along the following lines : First, setting up the NSC (National Security Council) as a permanent body equipped to deal with external and internal ‘security’, packed mostly with political (and military) hawks. Second, revamping the MOD to include service chiefs. Third, making the COSC (Committee of Service Chiefs) a functional body with a permanent chairman.

The BJP version of the NSC is a three-tier one. The NSC itself is headed by the PM, and contains the Home Minister, the Defence Minister, the Finance Minister, the External Affairs Minister and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. The NSC will also be served by a National Security Advisor, a post awarded to the Cabinet secretary, Brajesh Mishra. The present Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) is to be the NSC secretariat. The next tier is the ‘strategic policy group’, consisting of the cabinet secretary and the secretary of key ministries, besides the Chief of the Army, Navy and Air force, the Governor of the RBI and the Director of the IB. The third tier is the 22-member National Security Advisory Board, comprising of non-government ‘experts’ from various fields. It has been packed with hawks (like KPS Gill) and pro-liberalisation economists. This fusion of the military and civilian structures, will create a dangerous fascist-like military rule. Ofcourse this NSC got off to a rather poor start with the 22 member ‘Advisory Board’ squabbling furiously, not only at their two meetings, but also publicly in the media.

The MOD is proposed to include the Chiefs of staffs with greater say in planning, financial policy and in appointments. Fernandes has already announced that the army from April 1, ’99 can operate its revenue budget entirely on its own. With the army accounting for 73% of the total revenue expenditure to the defence forces the pro-BJP, Malik stands to gain control over a yearly amount of about Rs. 24,000 crores.

The COSC, which today has a rotating chairman from amongst the three Chiefs, if it now has to have a permanent head, it defacto means introducing the colonial-style structure of a ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of the entire armed forces. Revamping this body will give it more teeth for purposes of aggression — whether on a neighbouring country or on people in revolt within the country.

With such restructuring of the defence establishment, the Indian ruling classes hopes to more effectively realise its dream of regional hegemony, and more efficiently implement policies of fascist repression within the country. Unfortunately, the present media hype in favour of Bhagwat indirectly acts to create public opinion in favour of this transformation — by showing service chiefs of higher integrity compared to the civil bureaucracy.

The reality is quite different. Besides, one or two exceptions the bulk of the top echelon of the armed forces are deeply involved with international arms dealers. The earlier examples of ex-naval officers acting as their agents was just one such example. In addition, the armed forces are still deeply engrained in colonial traditions with strong bonds with the imperialists. Besides, training of top personnel abroad, joint military exercises and dependency on foreign suppliers for the bulk of the purchases, tightens this bond. They will always remain a reliable instrument of the imperialists within the country, ever keen to live upto their servile traditions of serving their foreign bosses, in return for a life of grandeur and luxury.

A Ruling class Pipe-Dream

Such restructuring, though, will not take place easily. Firstly, the age-old entrenched powers of the bureaucracy will not easily be shared with others. Second, with the growing liberalisation and privatisation in the economy the existing dog-fights amongst individuals and lobbies will multiply a hundred fold. Third, unless one imperialist power dominates over the country at the expense of others, till then, the numerous arms lobbies, all reflected by their representatives in the political parties, the bureaucracy and the armed forces, will be continuously scrambling for contracts, widening the divisions locally. And fourth, the intensifying economic crisis, both worldwide and in India, will make the scramble for a diminishing cake all the more ruthless, all the more desperate.

This is one aspect. The other is the rising tide of people’s movements against these rulers.....this discontent will also be reflected within the armed forces. Already, last year, there was a near-mutiny in the Indian Air Force. Dissatisfaction amongst the armed forces is growing. The army has not, for years, been able to fill officer postings of as many as 13,000 vacancies. And with the growth of the revolutionary forces and the gradual development of a people’s army, the rank-and-file of the armed forces are bound to find greater justice in the people’s armed strength. And when, one day, a section breaks off, to join the people’s forces, the rulers’ dreams will turn into a nightmare. The restructuring will then take place from below — not at the top.




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