Saturday, July 30, 2011

Gen. V K Singh's age debate: Indian Army's honour at stake?

India has been hit hard by an unprecedented psychological shock following a controversy over the two dates of birth of Army Chief General V K Singh.

The question now agitating the public mind and the rank and file is as to when he was born actually. Since it creates confusion over his retirement and succession, the Indian Defence Ministry last week ruled that the Army Chief's year of birth would be taken as 1950, and not 51.

Indian media reports suggest that the government's decision on the date of birth (DoB) of the man who heads the Indian Army, may not provide the closure many have been hoping for. Experts say a complicated and lengthy legal battle could follow in the next few months.

The controversy first surfaced in 2006 when two different dates of birth were detected by the Army brass in two different sections. General Singh's year of birth in the military secretary's branch was May 1950 whereas the adjutant general's branch recorded his year of birth as 1951. Singh was elevated to the rank of Army Chief in 2010 and at that time 1950 was taken as his year of birth.
Right year of birth 
General Singh who has not only consistently claimed that his right year of birth was 1951 (10-05-1951 to be precise) as recorded on his matriculation certificate but has also secured legal opinion in his favour from as many as three former chief justices of India. The three Chief Justice of India in their legal opinion in writing have supported General Singh's stand that he was born in May 1951.

Within the last two years, the Army was hit by two land scams - Sukhna and Adarsh - involving many senior officers and the previous chief Gen Deepak Kapur. Now the new chief who came with the clean-up agenda is mired in controversy.

His well-wishers feel that general Singh is possibly being targetted for his hard stand in court-martialing two Lt Gen level officers in Sukhna land scam and against Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai that he wants demolished.
Personal integrity 
If the Army chief does challenge the government's ruling it would be a first for its kind case - at that level of seniority - in the Indian defence services and opinion is divided on whether or not that would be a wise course of action for someone like General Singh who is widely regarded as a soldier and leader of great virtue and impeccable credentials when it comes to personal integrity.

Opinion is also divided on the issue of how a possible challenge by General Singh would reflect on the professional culture and training of the Indian Army at the highest level.

Earlier, a section officer in the Union law ministry-responding to a right to information query - supported in writing General Singh's claim of 1951 as his correct year of birth. However, on the advice of the attorney general, the then law minister Veerappa Moily once again held 1950 to be the correct year of birth of Gen. Singh.

The opinions of Chief Justices of India in favour of General Singh followed the law minister's ruling that army service rules did not allow any change in the date of birth after two years of joining service. The law ministry had further stated that since General Singh had himself accepted 1950 as his birth year in a written undertaking the matter should be treated as closed.

Former Chief Justice of India V N Khare had in his written opinion challenged that line of argument on the grounds that General Singh - as a sitting Army officer bound by service rules and the strict protocol which marks defence services - had little choice but to accept the diktat of his superiors on the date-of-birth issue.

It is apprehended that General Singh had earned some displeasure from the ruling quarters on certain issues in recent time.
Ration supplies 
In an unprecedented case, the Chiefs of Army and Air Force had to appear before the Parliament's Public Accounts Committee in January in connection with alleged irregularities in ration supplies.

General V K Singh also faced political criticism by opposing the use of the armed forces in anti-Maoist operations. He argued that the Left-wing extremism or the Maoist problem is more of a law and order and socio-economic problem to be handled by the local police forces and the central police forces.

What message Sonia Gandhi left behind for Sheikh Hasina

A closer tie between Bangladesh and its big neighbour India is always a top priority from both sides but the most critical issue is how to build the foundation of the pyramid on which the framework of relations would be based.

The issue came to the fore once again following the just concluded visit of Indian National Congress president and the chief of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Sonia Gandhi to Dhaka last week.

It was basically a show of unity of the two ruling parties of India and Bangladesh on critical issues, but the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) here has welcomed the visit though Sonia Gandhi did not find time or the opportunity to meet BNP chairperson Begum Zia during her brief stay here.

Strategic analysts here say it is understandable why Sonia failed to avail of the opportunity given the nature of Bangladesh politics, but such a gesture could have made the building of future ties more smooth and workable.
Family ties 
Prof Mahbubullah of Dhaka University speaking on the issue has in fact divulged the dominating factors behind the guarded visit. He said the foreign relations between Bangladesh and India is essentially working at the moment based on party to party, not on state to state basis. So other political parties are not involved here or even not welcomed while the fate of Bangladesh is being negotiated.

Mahbubullah said even one may say that the present Bangladesh India relations has been largely dominated by a close family ties between the Gandhi and the Sheikh families of the two countries in which Indians are seemingly benefited immensely and Bangladesh stands to lose on critical issues.

He said it is feared that Sheikh Hasina is compromising vital national interests on personal ground as part of a deeper and far reaching political objectives, part of which may come to light after Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan's Dhaka visit in September next. To understand its overall ramifications one has to wait a bit longer.

Referring to a whole lot of outstanding issues with India like transit, water sharing, Tipaimukh dam, maritime and land boundaries, border killing, terrorism etc, Prof Mahbubullah said their solutions need extensive homework exercise and consensus building.

A single meeting of two powerful ladies or closed door negotiations dominated by a powerful party will not deliver any lasting results. One cannot expect any dramatic development in state to state relations without taking the nation on board, he emphasized.

BNP standing Committee member and former Army Chief Gen. Mahbubur Rahman believed high profile meetings like the one held between Sheikh Hasina and Sonia Gandhi is always welcomed because their understanding on basic issues can only find the path to resolving problems.
'Hidden agenda' 
But the way this meeting has been organised it has created more suspicions than hopes. This is because of total secrecy on the core issues of discussions is being maintained while the opposition has deliberately been kept in the dark.

Speculations suggest that both the ladies had 'hidden agenda for discussion' has is breeding even more suspicion. It is being speculated that Sheikh Hasina had signed a 'hidden defence agreement' during her visit to Delhi in January last year. Rahman said BNP hoped these are mere speculations but lack of transparency and the absence of government's initiative to remove suspicions to restore confidence are feeding more suspicions.

Gen. Rahman said responsibility to make things transparent lies not only on Prime Minister Hasina, it lies equally on the other party to make it known to the people and assure them that nothing is amiss.

He said Sonia's visit is a prelude to Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan's visit here and her exchange of views with Sheikh Hasina on critical issues may make Manmohan Singh's visit smooth. He is scheduled to sign a number of important agreements including the transit one while in Dhaka.

Indian home minister P Chitambaram and water resource minister and communication minister are also is expected to come to Dhaka before the Singh visit. Earlier Indian foreign minister SM Krishna visited Dhaka to prepare the ground work of his prime minister's visit. He had however met BNP chairperson Begum Zia on that visit.
Gen. Mahbub said Bangladesh wants a 'win-win' solution to all problems but the way it is moving appears to be 'win for one and loss for the other.' This may prove counterproductive at the end. This is especially true in case of transit, he said suggesting that Bangladesh should not make hurry; it should carry out extensive home work on financial and strategic maters and agree on anything on the basis of a national consensus. It should not compromise on basic issues.
Prof Mahbubullah and CPD fellow Dr Debapriya made similar comments demanding more cautious moves on transit issue.

They ask why Sheilh Hasina is in such a hurry?

Only last month Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh voiced concerns on Bangladesh's 'changing political landscape' meaning the looming danger of a regime change. Sheikh Hasina was even warned of 'unknown consequences if she ever closed her eyes' indicating the danger lying ahead.

This may partly explains why both sides are in hurry. But Bangladesh politics has already become volatile throwing challenges to the Sheikh Hasina government in all fronts. Kolkata's Anandbazar Patrika commented that Sonia Gandhi's visit may just bring some oxygen to the embattled Hasina regime.

This is why analysts wonder what message Sonia Ghandi may have left for Hasina when she faces troubled days ahead. It is not unusual for friends and well-wishers in global politics Mahbubullah said, especially in view of the family ties both have developed in the meantime.

It may be recalled that during the February 2009 BDR mutiny Hasina made the first phone call to the then Indian foreign minister and present finance minister Pranab Mukherji for help. India had also acted quickly at internal level, however keeping watch on development. This is how Sheikh Hasina may have built her response mechanism against any terrorist attack on her or her government from home and abroad, they say.

India And Its Near-Abroad : New Humility For The Hegemon

NO ONE loves a huge neighbour. For all that, India’s relations with the countries that ring it are abysmal. Of the eight with which it shares a land or maritime boundary, only two can be said to be happy with India: tiny Maldives, where India has the only foreign embassy and dispenses much largesse, and Bhutan, which has a policy of being happy about everything. Among its other South Asian neighbours, the world’s biggest democracy is incredible mainly because of its amazing ability to generate wariness and resentment.

Until recently it operated a shoot-to-kill policy towards migrant workers and cattle rustlers along its long border with Bangladesh. Over the years it has meddled madly in Nepal’s internal affairs. In Myanmar India snuggles up to the country’s thuggish dictators, leaving the beleaguered opposition to wonder what happened to India’s championing of democracy. Relations with Sri Lanka are conflicted. It treats China with more respect, but feuds with it about its border.

As for Pakistan, relations are defined by their animosity. One former Indian diplomat likened reconciling the two nuclear-tipped powers to treating two patients whose only disease is an allergy to each other. The observation underscores the fact that it takes two to have bad relations, and to be fair to India plenty of problems press in on it—many of them with their roots in India’s bloody partition in 1947. Pakistan has used a long-running territorial dispute over Kashmir as a reason to launch wars. It also exports terrorism to India, sometimes with the connivance of parts of the Pakistani state. India thinks Bangladesh also harbours India-hating terrorists.

With the notable exception of India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who has heroically persisted in dialogue with Pakistan in the face of provocations and domestic resistance, India’s dealings with its neighbours are mostly driven by arrogance and neglect. It has shared shockingly little of its economic dynamism and new-found prosperity with those around it. Just 5% of South Asia’s trade is within the region.

Too little and too late, the neglect is starting to be replaced by engagement. This week Sonia Gandhi, dynastic leader of India’s ruling Congress Party, visited Bangladesh—a first. And on July 27th India’s foreign minister hosted his Pakistani counterpart, the first such meeting in a year. He promised a “comprehensive, serious and sustained” dialogue.
A new regional engagement is prodded by two things. China’s rapid and increasingly assertive rise challenges India’s own regional dominance. As a foundation for its rise, China pursued a vigorous “smile diplomacy” towards its neighbours that stands in contrast to slothful Indian energies. The smile has sometimes turned to snarl of late. Even so, China’s engagement with its neighbours has allowed it both to prosper and to spread influence.

Second, dynamic India can hardly soar globally while mired in its own backyard. Promoting regional prosperity is surely the best way to persuade neighbours that its own rise is more of an opportunity than a threat. Yet India lacks any kind of vision. A region-wide energy market using northern neighbours’ hydropower would transform South Asian economies. Vision, too, could go a long way to restoring ties that history has cut asunder, such as those between Karachi and Mumbai, once sister commercial cities but now as good as on different planets; and Kolkata and its huge former hinterland in Bangladesh. Without development and deeper integration, other resentments will be hard to soothe. It falls on the huge unloved neighbour to make the running.

Geopolitical drive behind Manmohan's Dhaka visit

Pakistan's first female foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, on a visit to Delhi for Indo-Pak dialogues declared jointly with her counterpart Indian external affairs minister SM Krishna that "a new era of bilateral cooperation between the two countries" have begun "indeed", and the "desire of both governments (is) to make it (dialogue) an uninterrupted and uninterruptable process." Recent multiple bomb blasts and casualties in Mumbai by yet-undetected perpetrators did not derail the talks as in the past, although far-right demonstrators dangling "no talks" and "go back" festoons and shouting anti-Pakistani slogans were very much there on the streets of New Delhi. Confidence building measures for traffic across the Line of Control in Kashmir and containing terrorism were at the top of the agenda. Hina Khar went so far as to say in an interview with New Delhi Television that there has been a marked "change of mindset" (in Delhi as well as in Islamabad).

Last week, Sonia Gandhi, Chairman of Indian National Congress, the ruling party of India was on a short visit to Dhaka to attend a conference and to receive the highest national award of Bangladesh posthumously for Indira Gandhi, her late mother-in-law who took the political decision as the-then Prime Minister of India to join the on-going liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. The main opposition party in Bangladesh, the BNP joined the chorus of the ruling alliance in welcoming the visit of Sonia Gandhi as a positive step towards "strengthening" India-Bangladesh relations, albeit on the footing of sovereign equality and with the promise of "fair" resolution of bilateral disputes. At the height of a snow-balling public agitation over tyranny and misrule in Bangladesh, the regular opposition parties of Bangladesh altogether appear to have given signal that no political disturbance will be there until the conclusion of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Dhaka visit immediately after Eid, which "is expected to infuse fresh dynamism into the multi-faceted and multi-dimensional relationship between the two countries". A contrary signal from a section of Indian power structure, by killing not by bullet this time but by barbaric beating and chopping of a Bangladeshi youth at the hands of India's Border Security Force, was sent the very day when Sonia Gandhi arrived in Dhaka.

Nevertheless, a new ambience of regional cooperation and hints of change of mindset in South Asian capitals under strong American persuasion is unmistakable, as particularly evident from comments in Indian media suggesting that India needs the cooperation of its smaller neighbours more than the neighbours may themselves need. Some analysts suggest that a lot diplomatic spadework on the part of US State Department and pentagon officials has been done to obtain this wind of change.

Asif Ezdi, a Pakistani analyst goes to the genesis of this geopolitical turn as follows: "The decision to sponsor the rise of India as a major player on the geopolitical landscape was taken by the US early in the second term of George W Bush. It was communicated to Manmohan Singh in March 2005 by Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, who told the Indian prime minister that Washington wanted to make India a global power.

This effort was launched against the background of the growing political, economic and military power of China, seen by Washington as a challenge to its position as the sole superpower. India's assigned role in the US strategy was to serve as a counterweight to China and to stem its assertiveness."

 But global situation and Asian developments did not go the way the sole superpower divined. Analyst Ezdi observed after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Delhi and Chennai visits in India enroute to ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia:

"On her visit to India for the second round of strategic dialogue with India, Hillary Clinton promised some more help for India's great power ambitions. In a major speech in Chennai on a vision for the 21st century, she called upon India to become a more assertive leader in Asia and pledged Washington's support in assisting India to expand its influence beyond its immediate neighbourhood and in particular in China's backyard in South-East Asia and the Pacific rim, as well as China's western flank in Central Asia.

"Since India does not lie on the Pacific and has no capacity for power projection in the region, Clinton had to resort to some verbal acrobatics to declare India qualified for a role as a Pacific power. India, she declared, straddled the waters from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean. That is dubious geography because it is not India but Malaysia and Indonesia that sit astride those waters. But Clinton was obviously not prepared to let that come in the way of her argument. The US and India, she said, had invested deeply in shaping the future of the region that they connect, and with the US, India was a steward of these waterways.

In urging New Delhi to take a stronger role across Asia, Clinton told India, It is time to lead. She pushed Delhi to translate its Look East policy into a stronger action: 'We encourage you not just to look east, but continue to engage and act east as well,' she said. Clinton urged India to start in its immediate neighbourhood by using its influence to promote democratic reforms in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal and increasing its engagement with Bangladesh and Maldives.

"Clinton's other project - building up India as a counterweight to China in Asia-Pacific - is much too grandiose. The fact is that India is having a hard time holding its own in its immediate neighbourhood, as China's growing links with Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal show. To expect India to match China in Southeast Asia and the Pacific rim, where China enjoys numerous longstanding built-in advantages, is not realistic, even when these plans are backed by Washington."

Earlier in April this year, Robert O. Blake, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs had testified before relevant subcommittee of House Foreign Affairs Committee highlighting the following. "With the fulcrum of geopolitics shifting quickly to Asia, India plays an increasingly critical role in our strategic thinking.

The rise of India is in our best interest, and its growth redounds with benefits to our own economy. For instance, during the President's historic visit to India in November, he announced commercial deals that exceeded $14.9 billion in total value with $9.5 billion in U.S. export content, supporting an estimated 53,670 jobs.

One core facet of the U.S-India global strategic partnership - and one that will reap extraordinary dividends both in economic and security terms - is our increasing defence ties.
   Two American aircraft, the F/A 18 Super Hornet and F-16IN Viper, are among the contenders for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition, an $11 billion tender which we hope will further enhance strategic, military, and economic ties between the U.S. and India."

The MMRCA orders, however, were lost by USA to French competition, and as BRICS member, India also withheld its support to NATO actions in Libya. The Clinton visit appears to have swung back this Indian drift away from the superpower fold. In the joint press conference with SM Krishna in New Delhi, Hillary Clinton was fully backed by her Indian counterpart in her essential comments as follows: "We discussed the challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan and our efforts to assist them.

We discussed our shared interest in peaceful and stable Asia, Pacific and the Indian Ocean region, and the evolution of an open, balanced, inclusive architecture in the nation. We will continue to work together and with other countries towards this goal through various mechanisms such as our bilateral dialogue, the regional forums, and our trilateral dialogue with Japan. Secretary Clinton and I will continue this engagement in the ARF meeting later this week.

Reference trade and investment, we think as much progress as we've made, both the United States and India can take further steps to reduce barriers, open our markets, and encourage new business partnerships to create jobs and opportunity for millions of our people while strengthening both of our nations' economic competitiveness.

On security cooperation, we are deepening and expanding our efforts and making great strides together on behalf of counterterrorism, but also with respect to maritime security, we believe strengthening our military-to-military ties, including through the sale of defence technologies, will assist the Indian and American militaries to work together in a constructive way on everything from patrolling the seas, combating piracy, providing relief to the victims of natural disasters.

And finally with regard to our civil nuclear agreement, this represents a major investment by both of our countries in this critical bilateral relationship. We need to resolve those issues that still remain so we can reap the rewards of the extraordinary work that both of our governments have done."

Questioned about June NSG meeting, which raised apprehension that India might again be subjected to restrictions when it comes to transfer of sensitive technology like the ENR, Clinton said "Nothing about the new enrichment and reprocessing transfer restrictions agreed to by the Nuclear Suppliers Group members should be construed as detracting from the unique impact and importance of the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement or our commitment to full civil nuclear cooperation. But I have to add that we are looking forward to India ratifying the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage during this year, before the end of this year. And we would encourage engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that the liability regime that India adopts by law fully conforms with the international requirements under the convention." And she added: "As President Obama has said, we believe this relationship will be a defining partnership of the 21st century, and we wholeheartedly support the rise of India as a regional and global leader. I will be in Chennai tomorrow and I will speak at greater length on our view of India's role in the region and the world."

In Chennai, her essential message was "Foreign Minister Krishna and I will attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, and we will there be working in conjunction with ASEAN partners and others, and we will soon inaugurate a trilateral U.S.-India-Japan dialogue. America's treaty alliances with Japan has long been a cornerstone of security in East Asia, and as a fellow democracy with us and India, we believe enhanced cooperation will be beneficial. We are also committed to a strong, constructive relationship among India, the United States, and China. Now, we know this will not always be easy. There are important matters on which we all disagree, one with the other. But we do have significant areas of common interest. We could begin by focusing on violent extremism, which threatens people on all - in all of our countries. Ultimately, if we want to address, manage, or solve some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, India, China, and the United States will have to coordinate our efforts."

Analyst Asif Ezdi observed "While leaving little doubt that Washington would like a rising India to be a partner in countering China's assertiveness, Clinton took care not to name China as a rival or competitor in her public statements, and she emphasised - to the delight of the Indians and the dismay of the Japanese, America s principal Asian allies for six decades - that India, China and the United States (but not Japan) would have to coordinate their efforts as they all seek to build Asia's future."

In this geopolitical context, one may reasonably expect that if Bangladesh is ready with necessary exercise for fruitful bargains, the Manmohan visit may indeed open the door for "multi-faceted and multi-dimensional" Indo-Bangladesh relationship. But in toeing the Krishna-Clinton roadmap, Bangladesh ought to be wary of the pitfalls already surfacing in Indo-US strategic partnership, and we must not send the wrong signal to China, who has been techno-strategically assisting our national defence.