The Sukna Scandal Will The Army Come Out Unscathed?
Those who have read of the Sukna Scandal which has been hitting the headlines in the last few months must have noted with some dis quiet how army officers of the rank of Lt Gen seem to have been indulging into the rather unsavory business of property developers. The Indian Army one of the finest fighting forces of the world, has been in the eye of the storm. The issue concerns the granting of an NOC for a tea garden adjoining the 33 Corps Headquarters at Sukna in Darjeeling District of West Bengal in order that the garden be sold to develop an educational institution. The Court of Inquiry recommended by Lt Gen VK Singh GOC-in-C Eastern Army and Chief of the Army Staff designate into 3 Lt Gens( Avdesh Prasksh Military Secretary of Army Headquarters PK Rath GOC of 33 Corps and Ramesh Halgali former Chief of Staff of 33 Corps) was sought to be watered by the Army Chief Gen Deepak Kapoor who it is alleged sought to tide over an exploration by a Court of Inquiry into the conduct of Lt Gen Avdesh Prakash, Military Secretary in the issue of providing an NOC to an educational Institution to establish itself in the near vicinity of the Corps Headquarters on the land of a tea garden,involving 71 acres, by merely recommending “administrative action” against Lt Gen Prakash. It maybe noted that applications for NOC to sell the tea garden had been turned down for security considerations many times in the past and one time according to the Indian Express the garden owners were willing to sell the land in question to the army but negotitations broke down on the issue of the value of the land. In a stunning and unprecedented move the Defence Minister AK Antony reversed the Army Chief’s directives calling for a Court of Inquiry against Lt Gen Avdesh Prakash. Many believe it a virtual indictment of Gen Deepak Kapoor who was out to protect the Military Secretary, one the senior Principal Staff Officers at Army Headquarters who is virtually the chief of personnel of the Indian Army and deals with the posting and transfers of the officer cadre and personnel related planning.
In an interview to the “Devil`s Advocate”programme hosted by Karan Thapar and telecast on CNN-IBN Channel on 14 February, Gen
Deepak Kapoor said of Antony`s intervention, “first I would not like to comment of the Defence Minister being wrong.(as Karan Thapar had implied) Or comment on that. Secondly, it is a matter of advice. When we are interacting certain amount of discussion, debate does take place. And when I have to take a decision, I had to take all the factors into consideration. The Court of Inquiry, findings its opinion, the show-cause notice, the response to it and all other relevant facts when I come to the conclusion. Therefore, I have taken the decision and that is what has been promulgated.”
From the above statement, Kapoor has implied, the decision was his and Antony`s role if at all was advisory in nature. Scribes in Delhi and old Defence hands, however smirked at his statement, saying that anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the working of the Defence Ministry would know where the truth lay.
Rumours wild and some unfounded flew too and fro in defence and media circles, some said that Prakash was a blue eyed boy of Deepak Kapoor who was hell bent on saving him. Other reports suggested that Kapoor`s decision was as a result of his differences with his successor Lt Gen VK Singh who holds a grudge against Gen Prakash. Looming behind the scenes is the figure of businessman Dalip Aggarwal supposed to be close to Avdesh Prakash, who is the applicant for the land which was initiately done in the name of Mayo College,Ajmer on the plea that the Mayo College wanted to open a branch on the said land, the Mayo College has however in writing denied any connection with the whole affair. So much so, the Chief of Army Staff`s customary press confenrence on the eve of Army Day was covered by most of the national media both print and electronic featured as a Sukhna scam related item with little or no mention of his achievements and future plans for the army.
As far as the Defence Minister`s intervention is concerned it is well in place, as any political or military anaylst worth his salt knows, the Defence Minister in any democratic country is the head of the armed forces and his word is final. A person of Antony’s experience and stature would not take a decision without careful consideration of the matter. He is not given to knee-jerk responses.
For now the matter may be on the back-burner for a few days but some vital questions will continue to haunt the Indian army for a considerable time to come. First of all why was Avdesh Prakash given the key appointment of Military Secretary when his propencity to graft was well known according to reliable sources in the Army hierarchy? (He is also facing an inquiry of misuse of funds at the Kumaon Regimental Centre Ranikhet in his capacity as Colonel of the Kumaon Regiment in which businessman Dalip Aggarwal also features!), Secondly why did Gen Deepak Kapoor indulge in ‘operation scuttle’ disregarding the advice of his territorial army commander and advise mild ‘administrative action’ leading to Defence Minister AK Antony a man known for his great uprightness and integrity to upturn his decision, causing much embarrassment to the institution he heads? Thirdly, why did he allow his differences with his successor and Eastern Army Commander VK Singh reach the level of public debate and virtually divide the army into two groups?
One can only conclude from all this, that Gen Deepak Kapoor leaves behind some demoralisation in the force as he hangs up his boots, and for this he would not be blameless. He did seem to drag his feet on the issue of Prakash.
Meanwhile Lt Gen PK Rath, the officer who signed the NOC as commander of the 33 Corps, has approached the Delhi High Court for relief, which has in turned instructed to him to approach
The Armed Forces Tribunal which has the jurisdiction on these matters. Avdesh Prakash has also appealed to the tribunal to quash the Court Martial proceedings.
The time has now come for military officers to make themselves more transparent in their conduct. It is incorrect form as when hears nowadays being said at various quarters that the armed forces cannot be insulated from corruption taking place in other walks life, and therefore all the talk of alleged graft is “business as usuaul”.
The next Army Chief will be well advised to issue guidelines of conduct to his brother officers, in the same genre as the late Gen Sundarji had once done. Only unlike Sundarji he would be well advised to put in place a mechanism to monitor these instructions and ensure that the message goes down the line. With the proper use of the electronic and print media, these actions will undoubtedly go down a long way in bringing glory to the spirit-de-corps of the second largest standing army in the world.
By Arvindar Singh