Opinion Columnists 21 Dec 2016 Supersession in forc ...
The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.

Supersession in forces not new: Why the fuss?

Published Dec 21, 2016, 12:33 am IST
Updated Dec 21, 2016, 6:58 am IST
It’s a historical fact that succession battles in the armed forces had begun a long time ago.
The members of India’s armed forces are apolitical warriors, and professionalism is their dharma. Representational image
 The members of India’s armed forces are apolitical warriors, and professionalism is their dharma. Representational image

When a political leader reportedly tweets “that Mr Modi did not want Lt. Gen. P.M. Hariz, who would have been the ‘first Muslim to head the Army’ after Lt. Gen. Bakshi”, it’s not just sheer bad taste, but reaffirms how some Indian politicians can’t shed their below-the-belt tactics. To point out the futility of such public utterances, one is forced to dig out some key facts from the past to highlight the unpleasant and brutal truth. If only our leaders can appreciate it. It’s a historical fact that succession battles in the armed forces had begun a long time ago. Let’s face it: supersession is in-built into the promotion structure of military officers. From the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Army — and its equivalent ranks of in the Air Force (wing commander) and Navy (commander) — all promotions are fraught with the prospect of supersession as these are “selection posts”, which can’t be claimed as a matter of right.

Being a “steep pyramid structure”, the military officers’ non-battlefield “casualty rate” is thus far higher than their civil service counterparts like IAS and IPS officers, who have a huge advantage with virtually automatic “time scale” promotions or upgradation of rank after so many years of service. In the 1950s-’60s a bunch of “Anglicised” officers like S.H.F.J. “Sam” Manekshaw and Jayanto Chaudhuri (both of whom subsequently became victorious Army Chiefs) were virtually dumped by their political bosses till a “providential” 1962 Chinese invasion saved their careers and helped restore their lost military honour and self-respect. In 1972 came the next “big thing” when the government bypassed Lt. Gen. P.S. Bhagat, a Victoria Cross winner, who was in line to succeed Gen. Manekshaw as Army Chief. Lt. Gen. G.G. Bewoor was given a year’s extension to ensure that Bhagat went home during Bewoor’s extension period. In 1983 again, Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha was superseded, without any reason, by his junior A.S. Vaidya.

 

This happened in the Air Force too. Air Marshal O.P. Mehra became Air Chief (January 16, 1973 to January 31, 1976) by superseding Air Marshal Shiv Dev Singh. In 1988, S.K. Mehra became Air Chief (August 1, 1988 to July 1991) by jumping over his senior, Air Marshal M.M. Singh. What happened thereafter on the day Air Chief  Marshal S.K. Mehra retired should be permanently inscribed in black ink in the Air Force’s history. N.C. Suri’s “appointment as Air Chief Marshal required considerable hand-holding from a (June 1991) newly-installed government”. While Air Marshal N.C. Suri (number two in the hierarchy) was retiring the same day, July 31, 1991, along with his boss Air Chief Marshal S.K. Mehra, nevertheless the latter, for mysterious reasons, “obliged” his number two by demitting office in the forenoon of July 31, 1991. N.C. Suri became the chief after being on extension for four months, from March 31, 1991 to July 31, 1991, thereby denying an ace test pilot, Air Marshal P.K. De, the chance to be IAF chief.

The then government’s decision had its usual chain effect: De’s retirement in early 1992 left Air Marshal S.K. Kaul as the seniormost claimant for the chief’s job and ensured the exit of Air Marshal P. Jayakumar, who would have been Air Chief after De. Something similar could have happened on September 30, 2000, when then Army Chief Gen. V.P. Malik and his number two Lt.. Gen. Chandrashekhar signed off together, and again on September 30, 2007 when Gen. J.J. Singh and his number two Lt. Gen. Aditya Singh simultaneously left office; but nothing like the unethical and non-bonafide induction of July 31, 1991 took place.

Let’s turn to the Navy. On September 12, 1990, at the “ungodly hour of 3 am”, when Rear Adm. K.K. Kohli took over as Western Fleet commander, it was instantaneously followed by an unprecedented writ petition by (then) Rear Adm. Vishnu Bhagwat (who later became Navy Chief on October 1, 1996) in the Bombay high court alleging “he had been unjustly and fraudulently denied the fleet admiral’s post” by his boss. What then followed was truly obnoxious, as two senior vice-admirals, both in line for the Navy Chief’s post after the retirement of Adm. J.G. Nadkarni on November 30, 1993, tussled openly in a “naval civil war”, recalling the tales about the successors of Aurangzeb after the emperor’s death. A stupefied government kept mum and did not (or could not?) take any action against the senior officers destroying the Navy from within.

As a footnote, a petitioner before the Bombay high court even alleged Navy promotions were “being influenced by the US”, claiming that all key appointments in recent years had gone to the alumni of the US Naval War College at Newport. He said all 13 Indian officers sent to the US academy had got flag rank, much more than the proportion of American officers who had been trained there! Fast forward to April 2014. First, Navy Chief Adm. Joshi is virtually compelled to resign (after a submarine accident), and the senior most vice-admiral, Shekhar Sinha, an ace flier and upright officer, superseded by the government owing to the “avoidable accidents” under his command. Is a vice-admiral to run a ship himself? By that logic, why doesn’t the government sack senior Army officers for casualties at the border or IAF commanders for fighter crashes? This should suffice for now. The politicians behind tweets like the one mentioned above are humbly requested not to bring religion into the military, which is a characteristic of our western neighbour. The members of India’s armed forces are apolitical warriors, and professionalism is their dharma.

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