India’s armed forces have a history with the courtroom

Vice Admiral Bimal Verma Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Controversy courts the country’s Navy chiefs, the the latest example being Vice Admiral Bimal Verma challenging the appointment of Vice Admiral Karambir Singh as the Navy Chief designate. Vice Admiral Verma took his case to the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) on the grounds that he is six months senior to Singh. Now, the former has withdrawn his petition. The AFT, which is headed by a former judge along with a panel of retired senior military officers, deals with matters that aren’t under the jurisdiction of civil courts.

The military ethos and culture is largely based on the principle of seniority that fosters a command culture where a senior officer’s orders are not questioned but obeyed explicitly. To, therefore, violate this principle and promote an officer junior in service distorts the sense of justice and fairness. It disturbs the harmony in the military hierarchy that is so integral to the organisational culture.

Not the first time

Unfortunately, the Indian Navy has, since the mid-1990s, faced a couple of cases where vice admirals who hold a three-star rank take legal recourse to obtain their promotion. Former navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat went to the Bombay High Court against Vice Admiral Tony Jain, who was guilty of re-writing his annual confidential report in order to adversely impact his promotion from two-star to three-star rank.

When former Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi resigned before his term of service was complete, the government again violated the principle of seniority. Vice Admiral Robin Dhowan was appointed the Navy chief in lieu of Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha. Admiral Joshi resigned owing moral responsibility for the series of fatal accidents on naval platforms and Vice Admiral Sinha headed the Western Naval Command under which the accidents had taken place.

Vice Admiral Verma was the principal director of naval operations in 2004 when the naval war room leaks happened and, to that extent, was indirectly responsible for such an act of commission. However, if he was incompetent, the Navy would not have promoted him from one-star rank of Commodore to three-star rank of Vice Admiral. The armed forces officer corps resemble the structure of a pyramid where only the best of the best are promoted. Accordingly, Verma — even after the war room leak — he was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, a two-star rank, and eventually to three-star rank.

Therefore, if Verma was eligible for promotion earlier what makes him ineligible now? Clearly, this move to select Singh over Verma suggests an ad hoc approach in the appointment of a military chief. There are established guidelines and norms to select a military chief that include criteria like seniority, operational experience, integrity and leadership qualities. In view of this, to overlook an officer for the position of a military chief and instead select his junior amounts to injustice and lack of fairness.

In the 1980s Lt General SK Sinha was overlooked and his junior was appointed Army chief. Even the present Army chief was appointed over an officer senior to him in service. However, in both cases the aggrieved officers did not go to court to challenge the appointment. In one case during the late 1980s, a government representative asked a former Eastern Army Commander if he would go to court if not appointed Army chief as a Northern Army Commander was chosen instead of him.

Choosing sides

In a democracy like India the choice of military chiefs has always been a cause for concern since Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister, a period which witnessed the nadir of civil-military relations. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the fall out between then defence minister Krishna Menon and Army chief General Thimmaiah rocked the country. Military officers manage armament and weaponry that could be turned against the government to capture political power. This explains why the government tasks its security intelligence service to keep track of senior military officers. All their acts of omission and commission are recorded and raised at an opportune moment to ensure that they do not rock the boat. The appointment of a military chief in the country has to do with the nature of an individual and how he would align with political decisions of the government.

For instance, the manner in which the government attempted to harass former Army chief General VK Singh highlights politico-bureaucratic interference in military matters. Former Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was unceremoniously deposed from office because he disagreed with the government over an appointment of a vice admiral. As a result, professionalism suffers and the politicisation of the military has begun to take shape. The latest developments in the Navy appears to be a repeat of civil military relations which culminated in the Himalayan humiliation of 1962 when the Chinese forces defeated the Indian Army — which had given a great account of itself in the World War II under British leadership.

While the government may have the prerogative to decide who the next Chief of Naval Staff would be, it is incorrect to exercise this decision without taking into considerations the wider ramifications. The fact that Vice Admiral Verma was compelled to take legal recourse only because the government, in its wisdom or lack of it, decided to deny him the appointment that was rightfully due to him. Moreover, the fall out of such an erroneous decision to overlook Verma for elevation to the naval chief would certainly affect the morale of the rank and file of the Indian Navy, which would unfold over the long-term for a fighting navy. The government has to respect the armed forces and avoid unnecessary interference in their affairs just because it has the power to do so.

(The writer is a Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ
Deemed to be University, Bengaluru.)