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Military has history of controversial supersessions

Unmatched in drama was the story leading to the supersession of Vice-Admiral Sukmal (Tony) Jain by Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas in 1990.

VISHAL THAPAR  New Delhi | 3rd May 2014

Admiral Ramdas

he supersession of Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha in the appointment of the new Navy chief on 17 April has cast the spotlight again on controversial appointments at the highest levels in the Indian armed forces, where seniority is the established norm for selection of service chiefs.

In 1972, the Indira Gandhi government side-stepped the very popular and professionally respected Lt General P.S. Bhagat, one of the handful of Indian Victoria Cross awardees from World War II, who was in line to succeed General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw. This was done by giving his junior, General G.G. Bewoor a year's extension, during which time Bhagat retired. Bewoor, thus, succeeded Manekshaw.

Indira Gandhi again altered the Army's succession chain in 1983. This time, there was no resort to artifice or manoeuvre. She simply superseded Lt Gen S.K. Sinha by naming his junior, A.S. Vaidya as Army chief.

There have been supersessions in the Indian Air Force and the Navy (before the current one) too. Air Marshal Shiv Dev Singh was overlooked in 1972-73, paving the way for O.P. Mehra to be installed as Air chief. His namesake, S.K. Mehra too reached the highest slot in the IAF by superseding Air Marshal M.M. Singh in 1988. As in the most recent case of Vice-Admiral Sinha, the government had an explanation in most of these cases, not all of which were convincing. For instance, M.M. Singh was reportedly overlooked on the grounds that his companion was not married to him.

Air Chief Marshal Nirmal Chandra Suri's appointment as Air chief in 1991 required considerable hand-holding from a newly-installed Narasimha Rao government. As Air Marshal (and No. 2), he was retiring on the same day, 31 July 1991, as the then Air chief, S.K. Mehra, but the latter obliged by demitting office in the forenoon of 31 July 1991, to enable Suri, handpicked by the government, to take over as chief in the afternoon before his retirement at the end of the day. Thereafter, Suri picked up an additional two years of service which a service chief is entitled to.

There have been at least two other recent instances when a chief and his No. 2 were retiring on the same day, but the government appointed No. 3 as the new chief. Gen V.P. Malik and his No. 2, Lt Gen Chandrashekhar both retired on 30 September 2000, and Gen S. Padmanabhan (No. 3) was made chief the following day. Similarly, Gen J.J. Singh and Lt Gen Aditya Singh both retired on 30 September 2007, and Gen Deepak Kapoor became Army chief.

But unmatched in drama was the story leading to the supersession of Vice-Admiral Sukmal (Tony) Jain by Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas in 1990. The story began in the alleged manipulation of the Navy's line of succession in 1987. The then chief, Admiral R.H. Tahiliani, reportedly wrangled an extension for Vice-Admiral J.G. Nadkarni to ensure his elevation as chief upon Tahiliani's retirement in November 1987. Without this brief extension as Vice-Admiral, Nadkarni would have retired before Tahiliani. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, then also Defence Minister, approved Nadkarni's extension and appointment.

According to documented versions, the intention in appointing Nadkarni as Navy chief was to change the line of succession audaciously to ensure that Vice-Admiral Tony Jain and, later (then) Rear Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat were brought into the reckoning.Image 2nd

But fireworks started off soon after Nadkarni took over as Navy chief on 1 December 1987. Rear Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was overlooked by the Nadkarni Navy HQ for appointment as Commander of the Western Fleet. Appointment as fleet commander is a pre-requisite for the highest ranks, and the move was seen as Bhagwat's removal from the succession chain for Navy chief. Bhagwat's junior, Rear Admiral Kailash Kohli was made to take over as Fleet Commander at Mumbai. Bhagwat challenged the appointment in the Bombay High Court. Nadkarni is reported to have bought peace with Bhagwat by appointing him Eastern Fleet Commander as an assurance to him that his future would not be tampered with. Bhagwat withdrew his petition in a quid pro quo.

But Tahiliani's succession chain was jolted again in November 1990. Just before demitting office, the V.P. Singh government superseded Vice-Admiral Tony Jain and named his junior Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas as the successor to Nadkarni.

The last link in the alleged Tahiliani succession chain, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat did make it as chief in 1996, but was ousted mid-term on 30 December 1998 for defying the Atal Behari Vajpayee Cabinet, becoming the first Indian service chief to be unceremoniously sacked. Bhagwat, who had bitter run-ins with Defence Minister George Fernandes, met his nemesis when he refused to accept Cabinet orders appointing Vice-Admiral Harinder Singh as deputy chief.

Admiral Sushil Kumar was flown in from Kochi (where he was the Southern Navy Commander) amidst secrecy in an aircraft operated by the Aviation Research Centre, the airborne wing of India's external intelligence agency, the R&AW, and immediately installed as Navy chief.

Although Sushil Kumar was the senior-most after Bhagwat, there was some comment among his detractors that he hadn't headed an operational command, and questions were raised about his eligibility. The Southern Command, of which he was Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, is only a training command. Although this became a talking point, it was not procedurally a disqualification.

So, Admiral R.K. Dhowan is an unlikely but not an ineligible Navy chief, despite not having headed an operational command. The controversy in the present case lies in the UPA government's decision to supersede Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha, the senior-most Navy officer, in the context of the string of accidents under his command and the connected resignation of former Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi on moral grounds on 26 February, without first establishing his responsibility in an inquiry.

Post-script: The unexpected resignation of Admiral Joshi as Navy chief has dramatically changed the succession line in the Navy. One of the beneficiaries is Vice-Admiral Bimal Verma, the younger brother of former Navy chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, who retired in 2012 and is now India's high commissioner to Canada. Although Joshi's resignation shows how fragile and fanciful the succession chain can prove, Bimal Verma is, at the moment, in line to be Navy chief in 2019. If he does become Navy chief, the achievement of two brothers attaining the position of a chief will be a feat unparalleled in Naval history. With the Verma star on the ascendant, a popular chant, after the popular 1990s Vimal suiting ad jingle, in the Indian Navy is, "Only Bimal, Only Bimal, Only Bimal, Bimal!"

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