A POLITICALLY AMBITIOUS GENERAL AND A BUNGLING GOVERNMENT PUT NATIONAL SECURITY AT RISK
A politically ambitious general and a bungling government put national security at risk.
Organising eight bomb attacks in a neighbouring country. Subsidising secession on enemy territory. Sponsoring ‘ friendly’ ministers to destabilise an indigenous state government. Eavesdropping on senior government functionaries including India’s defence minister. Former army chief Vijay Kumar Singh allegedly used the Technical Support Division ( TSD), a clandestine collective of handpicked military intelligence personnel, to settle scores on both sides of the contentious Line of Control ( LOC) between Pakistan and India. It was a secret war conceived by a reckless general between 2010 and 2012. And even 16 months after his unceremonious retirement, the general has not stopped fighting. Now the target is the Government, which is matching the general’s tricks with its own. The collateral damage of the dirty war between the two is national security.
Barely 24 hours after his I- know- it- all proclamation on national television on September 23, that the Army had “transferred funds to all ministers in Jammu and Kashmir since 1947”, Singh scurried for cover. His comments triggered a firestorm of indignant counter- allegations all the way from Delhi to Srinagar. The payouts, he insisted, were not “bribes” or for “political purpose”, but part of the larger initiative to promote stability in the insurgency- ridden state. On September 27, just hours before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New York, the tenuous peace was shattered yet again when terrorists struck with twin attacks on a police station and an army post in Jammu killing 12 persons including four soldiers and two policemen. The attack underscored ground realities in India’s most sensitive state. The general’s clarifications, an almost surreptitious monologue delivered to select reporters on the lawns of his Sector 30 home in Gurgaon, are however only a brief pause in his long shoot- and- scoot war that has simmered since the Government refused to
amend his date of birth in 2011. This would not only have given him 10 more months in office but also changed the expected line of succession for the Army’s top job.
Hostilities between Singh and the Government, that had festered over the past year, exploded after a September 20 newspaper report exposing “unauthorised covert operations” by TSD, which was set up under Singh’s direct control in May 2010 barely a month after he took over as the army chief. Stark among the list of misdemeanours was Rs 1.19 crore the intelligence unit had reportedly paid Jammu and Kashmir Agriculture Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir to “topple” Omar Abdullah’s government in the summer of 2010.
Though Mir rejected the charge and offered himself for an “open, timebound” investigation in a written statement on September 25, Singh’s claim that the Army had transferred money to “all” J& K ministers sent mainstream politicians and political parties into a tailspin. Former deputy chief minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig of the Peoples Democratic Party ( PDP) said “the former chief has, in a single day, harmed pro- India politics in Kashmir more than Pakistan’s Inter- Services Intelligence ( ISI) had managed in several decades”. Shocked into silence for nearly a week since the first revelations, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah also admitted, “The general has created untold problems for mainstream parties working in the Valley.” The general should have been more restrained on matters of national security, especially while speaking about covert operations in Kashmir.
The Government, too, not only sat on a damning inquiry report on TSD by Lt- Gen Vinod Bhatia, director general, Military Operations, for six months but added to the suspicion that the leak was timed with the general’s open alliance with BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi at Rewari in Haryana on September 15. There are no winners in this battle. India’s national security and the reputation of the armed forces are the losers. Both the general and the Government are answerable. On September 25, senior government officials who accompa- nied Prime Minister Singh to the US, announced yet another probe: Into General Singh’s allegations and the assertions in the Army report.
At the core of the controversy is TSD. Sometime after General V. K. Singh took over as the 26th chief of army staff in early 2010, army circles began buzzing with whispers of a mysterious new organisation, a spy agency within a spy agency. It comprised six officers, five JCOs and 30 men and operated out of an unmarked two- storied building within the Delhi Cantonment dubbed the ‘ Butchery’, that was a refurbished slaughterhouse of colonial times. The division was headed by Colonel Munishwar Nath Bakshi, a tall, flamboyant intelligence officer in his early 40s, better known by an unusual nickname, ‘ Hunny’. TSD fulfilled none of the mandatory government requirements. It was what the army calls an ‘ ad hoc’ raising with no formal sanction, no ‘ war establishment authorisation’ which would allow personnel to be posted to it and hence no ‘ unit statisti-
cal number’ which would allow the Government to disburse salaries. TSD staff was shown as attached to the Military Intelligence’s MI- 25, an intelligence unit within the Delhi Cantonment, headed by a brigadier.
The origin and mandate of TSD are unclear. Army officials say it was meant for operations in ‘ countries of interest’ and in J& K and in the North- east where the Army was involved in counter- insurgency roles and protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act ( AFSPA). The unit was so secret that Colonel Bakshi reported directly to the chief, unprecedented in a hierarchical Army. Bakshi’s proximity— he had served with General V. K. Singh in his previous appointments in J& K and later in the North- east— sparked peer envy. It quickly turned to hatred when field intelligence units operating along the borders found that their secret service funds, the annual allocation of around Rs 50 crore which was distributed among the various liaison units for paying informants and spies, had been halved by the Directorate of Military Intelligence in Delhi. The funds began to be diverted to TSD. Formation commanders found TSD personnel operating in border areas without their knowledge, sometimes carrying out counterterrorist operations mirroring their own. At least one general complained to Singh about TSD’s activities in Kashmir. Over the next few months, as Singh battled the Government over a change in his date of birth, references to TSD repeatedly cropped up in the media, only to be denied by the Government.
In early 2012, an Intelligence Bureau ( IB) report said the unit had illegally purchased two ‘ off- air interceptors’, portable laptop- sized gadgets costing over Rs 1.5 crore each, that could pluck mobile phone conversa- tions. IB warned that the machines had been deployed in the vicinity of South Block. This led to concerns that they were being used without authorisation to snoop on phone conversations. In May 2012, TSD stopped functioning, as soon as Singh retired.
General Singh denies the allegations and calls them ‘ gimmickry’ linked to the forthcoming elections. He has accused arms lobbies and bureaucrats within the ministry of being responsible for leaks of the report. TSD was formally disbanded in December while Lt- Gen Bhatia’s inquiry, which found discrepancies in its functioning, was still underway. The inquiry, however, was only a Board of Officers, which, unlike a mili-
The general’s lingering grudge has now taken political overtones. Aformer army commander predicts that Singh will be used as a tool to target political parties.
tary Court of Inquiry ( CoI), has no legal standing— one general says it was done to escape the embarrassment of calling General V. K. Singh to depose before it.
Lt- Gen Bhatia submitted his findings to the Army chief General Bikram Singh. Parts of the report accessed by Headlines Today showed that between October and November 2011, TSD had claimed money “to try enrolling the secessionist chief in the province of a neighbouring country” and “Rs 1.27 crore to prevent transportation of weapons between neighbouring countries”. In early 2011, TSD claimed an unspecified amount for carrying out “eight low- intensity bomb blasts in a neighbouring country”.
TSD was linked to the creation of Youth Empowerment Services ( YES) Kashmir, a previously unheard- of NGO which petitioned the J& K High Court alleging that the 2001 Janglat Mandi encounter in Anantnag where General Bikram Singh, then a brigadier, was grievously injured, was fake. The unit had been used almost exclusively, one army official says, as a “dirty tricks de-
partment” to ensure that General V. K. Singh settled the age row in his favour. The unit was to also prevent General Bikram Singh from succeeding as army chief by raking up the age row. Both attempts failed but they came at a price.
In just two years, TSD had spent Rs 20 crore in secret service funds. This was nearly twice the amount the rest of the Northern Command, the Army’s largest command, spent during the same period. More importantly, the unit could not account for a Rs 8- crore spend, a defence ministry official told INDIA TODAY. The covert operations of the unit were wrapped in a sheath of deniability, making it difficult to prove several of its activities, an official familiar with the inquiry said.
Lt- Gen Bhatia’s inquiry also confirmed TSD destroyed the illegal interceptors after newspaper reports said these were deployed in the Capital. An MI team including its director general flew into J& K to supervise the operation in March 2012. The machines were broken up and tossed into the fast- flowing Chenab river in Jammu.
In July 2012, two months after General Singh retired, Colonel Bakshi admitted himself into the psychiatric ward of the Army Base Hospital in Delhi. It was an unspectacular retreat for an officer who publicly boasted about the covert operations. Colonel Bakshi alleged harassment by his senior officers. His fears of persecution were belied. General Bhatia’s report, over 200 pages thick, submitted to the Army headquar- ters in March 2013, had already turned into a political hot potato.
The Army, led by the play- safe General Bikram Singh, swiftly transferred this ticking bomb to the civilian bureaucracy and political leadership that month. The report flew across the tables of then defence secretary Shashi Kant Sharma and finally Defence Minister A. K. Antony. The Army chief recommended a CBI inquiry into the charges raised in the report. Antony sent the report to the national security adviser and the Prime Minister. The report has been with the Prime Minister’s Office since then. The Government has inexplicably chosen not to act on its findings even as Antony is convalescing at the Army’s R& R hospital in Delhi after a September 15 surgery. “The report impinges on matters of national security and, as such, the Government will take a decision and further actions after a careful examination of the report,” defence ministry spokesperson Sitanshu Kar said.
THE ECHOES IN KASHMIR
The fire has singed not only the Army but also democracy in Jammu and Kashmir. Omar is inclined to let the Congress high command in Delhi take a call on Ghulam Hassan Mir, who was inducted into the state cabinet in January 2009 as an “associate of the Congress party”, but the Chief Minister’s uncle and the ruling National Conference General Secre-
tary Mustafa Kamal is unforgiving. “He ( Mir) is a rogue and a well- known tout of the security establishment,” he says. Significantly, Kamal concurs with the army inquiry report about Mir colluding in attempts to topple the government in 2010. On September 13, 2010, security forces shot and killed seven people in a 3,000- strong crowd in Mir’s constituency, Tangmarg, protesting a reported desecration of the Quran in the US. The firing was ordered after the mob set fire to several government buildings and a Christian missionary school. Kamal claims, “Both the protest and the subsequent shooting was orchestrated by the Army and IB using the good offices of Mir and his cronies.” He insists this was part of the Army’s ( and General V. K. Singh’s) plan “to force the state government to resign”. This was around the same time Mir is alleged to have received Rs 1.19 crore from TSD.
Senior PDP leaders in the Valley also confirmed that well ahead of the incident in Tangmarg, Mir had sought the party’s support as an alternative chief minister in the event of Omar stepping down. “Yes we offered him support. That is precisely what any Opposition party would do,” says a senior PDP man widely viewed as a party ideologue.
Politicians like Kamal have already aligned themselves with the pro- azadi ( independence) separatists in insisting that “a large majority of the killings of civilians in Jammu & Kashmir have been driven by India’s rogue army”. On September 24, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik petitioned the state high court seeking a probe into the killing of 117 Kashmiris in the summer of 2010.
FIRESTORM IN THE CAPITAL
Even as the Government dithers over the findings of the army report, General V. K. Singh has been busy. He looked for a shield that would protect him from the fallout of the inquiry report which led to him. He found it in the rough- and- tumble of politics. The former army chief first surfaced at Anna Hazare’s rally in New Delhi in November last year. Days later, he shared stage space with Indian National Lok Dal leader Om Prakash Chautala in Rewari ( he clarified it was to oppose a nuclear power plant in the
Ghulam Hassan Mir has rejected the Rs 1.19 crore pay- off charge and offered himself for an “open, time- bound” investigation.
district). In August this year, V. K. Singh announced plans for a nation- wide campaign with Hazare even as he met with leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party. “If the nation is to be strong, you need to move in step with your soldiers,” he thundered before thousands of ex- servicemen at the September 15 rally in Rewari. When the government hit back, BJP rushed to his defence. “Whatever V. K. Singh has said is correct,” BJP President Rajnath Singh said on September 21. “Why are they holding investigations one year after his retirement and that too soon after he shared the dais with Narendra Modi?”
General V. K. Singh says TSD was created based on capabilities listed in the ‘ raksha mantri’s operational directives’ issued after the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attack. “Everytime you talk of TSD, you are compromising national security,” he told Headlines Today, berating the Government for shutting the unit down. “Lot of things happening on our borders today are happening because a decision was taken to close TSD.”
General V. K. Singh’s war has left the Army aghast over the way secret operations are being publicly discussed and anguished at the damage it has caused the office of the chief. It has restarted a war they thought had ended when he stepped down. The general’s lingering grudge has now taken political overtones. A former army commander predicts that the former chief would be used as a tool to target political parties. “The office of the army chief is a pious institution,” he says, “VK doesn’t realise the damage he is doing to it.”
General V. K. Singh, the only Indian officer to complete the US Army’s 61day Ranger course, once told his closest advisers about the Ranger credo: “Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.” Today General Singh is determined to survive the war he is waging with vengeance in the treacherous terrain of politics. If it goes on, the end can be nothing but MAD— mutually assured destruction.
V. K. SINGH WITH NARENDRA MODI ATAN EX- SERVICEMEN’S
RALLY IN REWARI, HARYANA
CHIEF OF CONTROVERSY
High drama has marked V. K. Singh’s transition from army chief to political activist
SOLDIERS DURING AN ATTACK BY MILITANTS ON AN ARMY CAMP AT MESAR IN JAMMU ON SEPTEMBER 26
J& K MINISTER GHULAM HASSAN MIR,
ALLEGED TO HAVE RECEIVED A PAY- OFF FROM THE ARMY DURING
GENERALV. K. SINGH’S TENURE