A "war declared"-style article splashed across the entire front page of Wednesday's Indian Express newspaper has ignited a firestorm of controversy in India by claiming that the government interpreted some unorthodox troop movements this January as possible mobilization for a military coup d'etat.
"This is a story you would tell with extreme care and caution," the article begins. "But it so starkly characterizes 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."
Most of the paper's rivals say so. FirstPost calls the article "Shekhar Gupta's fiction," for instance, while the ministry of defence has already denied the crucial facts of the story -- that two army units marched toward Delhi without notifying the government in advance -- and claimed that such movements are "routine procedure," according to the Times of India. Meanwhile, on twitter, Indian journalists and commentators have been blasting away, calling the article irresponsible, exaggerated, inaccurate, and biased -- an "anti-army plant" amidst the ongoing spat between army chief Gen. V.K. Singh and the government. (Which I reported about Tuesday for GlobalPost).
It does seem like the Express has made a lot out of a little, in some respects.
Not until well down in the piece does the article, which is co-authored by editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta, reveal: "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."
And this after the timing of the "incident" is linked in the first few paragraphs to the army chief's notorious court case against the defense ministry (he'd sued to try to gain additional time before his mandatory retirement, claiming that his age was incorrect in the military records).
"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," the report reads.
Soon, "Reports came in of yet another military movement “towards” Delhi. This unit was identified as a large element of the airborne 50 Para Brigade based at Agra." Both columns were watched, and eventually the military explained that the deployment was part of a test of the troops' capability in north India's heavy winter fog. But the Express reports that elements in the government remained suspicious and on edge until the army put all its toys back in the box.
Whether or not the troop movements are "curious," though, the article -- and the excessive drama in devoting the entire front page to it -- certainly is.
The Express has not been terribly anti-army in the past, and Gupta himself has recently penned an editorial arguing against the ongoing tar-and-feathering of General Singh and company -- claiming that the army is neither as ill-equipped nor as dishonest as the recent panic might suggest.
So what's the deal? Likely we'll never know.
FirstPost makes a pretty convincing case that the story may well have originated with the ministry of defense, or the government, in a bid to discredit General Singh -- now perceived as an embittered loose cannon gone "berserk" rather than a sincere whistleblower, as I reported earlier.
But it does seem just possible -- not likely, but possible -- that somebody wanted to rattle the saber a little bit back in January, even if there was never any intention of using it.