New Delhi: A “spooked” government, the Army and defence experts all came together on Wednesday to trash a newspaper report that said two key Army units had moved closer to the national capital in January without prior notice leading to coup fears on Raisina Hills.
The Indian Express said in a front page report titled “The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt” published this morning that Hisar-based Mechanised Infantry and elements from the airborne 50 Para Brigade in Agra had moved towards New Delhi on the night of January 16 – the same day Army Chief General VK Singh had moved the Supreme Court over his date of birth controversy.
The report said the movement took place without following the standard operating procedure of informing the Defence Ministry in advance.
The report said since this happened around the time when Gen Singh was waging a judicial battle against the government over his age row, it created unease and suspicion in Delhi.
Report alarmist: PM
Usually reserved in his reactions to media speculation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came out promptly to dismiss the news report, calling it "alarmist" and stating it should not be taken at face value.
"Well, the Defence Ministry has clarified the position. These are alarmist reports. These should not be taken at face value," Manmohan Singh said on the sidelines of the Padma awards function at Rashtrapati Bhavan here.
He also spoke on the reported tussle between the government and the Army Chief. "The Army Chief`s office is an exalted office. All of us have an obligation to do nothing that lowers its dignity," he said.
In Visakhapatnam, where he had gone to formally induct a nuclear-powered submarine, Defence Minister AK Antony trashed the report as "baseless", saying there was never any doubt about the patriotism of the Indian armed forces.
"(It is) absolutely baseless," he said. "It is usual, natural activity... nothing unusual, and we are absolutely sure of the patriotism of Indian armed forces," he added.
Antony also appealed to the media not to "question the patriotism of the soldiers, who are dying for the country".
Minister of State for Defence MM Pallam Raju said the report was "highly irresponsible and anti-national".
Referring to the news report which said the movement was without the knowledge of the government, Army sources said that there was no requirement for clearance from the ministry in case of movement of troops below Division level (comprising
more than 10,000 troops).
Ministry sources also said that Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma had spoken to the Director General (Military Operations) on the day and asked for a report on the issue.
Army sources said once the aim of the movement of troops was achieved as per Standard Operating Procedure, the troops went back to their respective locations.
Defence Ministry spokesperson Sitanshu Kar said, "The points raised in the report have already been clarified by the Army. Such exercises are conducted by the Army from time to time."
The issue also came under close scrutiny of a Parliamentary Committee today as top officials of the Defence Ministry and the Army appeared before it.
Members of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence questioned Defence Secretary Shashi Kant Sharma and Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen S K Singh on the media report about unnotified movement of the Army units in January but both dismissed it as a routine and rejected any connotations as baseless.
Sharma and the Vice Chief of Army, appearing before the Committee in connection with the budgetary allocations for defence for 2012-13, said the movement was normal process of testing the preparedness of the armed forces, sources said.
Express stands by report
Following all round criticism and denial, the newspaper issued a statement in which it said it stood by the report that came after investigation over six weeks.
"The report is a meticulous reconstruction and a very sober interpretation of the movement of two key Army units towards New Delhi on the night of January 16-17," it said, adding it was written by a team headed by Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta.
"The Indian Express stands by the report. And in the tradition of its commitment to journalism of courage and the readers` right to know, it will continue its investigation into the events of January 16-17 and the questions these raise," it added.
Opposition reacts cautiously
Political parties reacted with caution to the news story.
BJP said it was "assured" by clarifications from the Army and government on reports of troop movement to the capital but insisted that the Prime Minister should proactively restore the equilibrium between the Defence Ministry and armed forces.
"There are reports today in a newspaper of unusual movement of Army units around Delhi in January. Both the government and the Army have categorically denied it. We are assured to learn about this denial," BJP chief spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said at a press conference.
Terming reports about "unusual" troop movements towards Delhi as "very serious", the CPI asked Defence Minister Antony to clarify what had actually happened and sought a probe into the incident as well as the reported differences between the Army and the ministry.
"Unfortunately, this report has come in the backdrop of reported misgivings between the Army and the Defence Ministry. There has to be a comprehensive inquiry into all these things. These issues cannot be separated as these are matters concerning national security," new CPI general secretary S Sudhakar Reddy said.
The Congress, meanwhile, rubbished reports on troop movement to the capital, saying that those who speculate by innuendo cause serious damage to the national fabric.
"Army is the hallowed institutional pillar of Indian democracy and it is our pride and our neighbour`s envy. It is many of our neighbours` envy.
"Those who speculate by innuendo in sensitive matters must realise that they are causing serious damage to the national fabric," party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi told reporters.
(With agency inputs)