By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
Indian Defence Minister, A K Antony says that the confidential letter written by Army Chief General Vijay Kumar Singh to the Prime Minister, articulating some of his concerns about serious shortcomings in India’s defence preparedness and combat capabilities, is nothing short of an “anti-national act”.
Not to be outdone, General Singh proclaimed that any attempt to link him with the process by which the letter made it to the press, was nothing less than “an outrage. Official communication with the prime minister, defence minister or anybody for that matter with the chief of defence staff is privileged information. The leaking of the letter should be treated as high treason.”
The Defence Minister further added: “The Intelligence Bureau has started the enquiry into letter leak. We will act after receiving the Intelligence Bureau report and strongest action under the Indian law will be taken against the person responsible for the letter leak.”
In the debate that has raged since the publication of the letter, the focus has been on two issues: firstly, how did the letter get leaked and by whom. Secondly, considerable energy has been spent on theorising about the possible motive of General Singh for writing the letter just days before his lid-opening interview alleging that a lobbyist had offered him a bribe of Rs. 14 crore in lieu of clearing a tranche of 600 sub-standard vehicles. The General also made it clear that he had reported the matter to the minister – a claim that has been corroborated by Antony.
The heart of the matter – whether the concerns articulated by General Singh to the other Singh (Prime Minister) have a ring of truth to them or not – is something that has been brushed aside. Defence is a Holy Cow and India does not discuss these things in public. Instead everyone plays to the gallery by making allegations and counter-allegations.
It has also been suggested in private conversations that the media – and journalists – must work within limits and that even if sensitive letters – or information – fall into their hands, there must be a code of conduct and journalists must know where to draw the line when national interests are involved.
The argument is a far cry from the episode of Pentagon Papers and the judgement of the American Supreme Court on the issue. For more than four decades the episode has remained the benchmark in debates on press freedom and rights of the media. In 1971, it resulted in a major victory for American papers – New York Times and Washington Post, when the US Supreme Court allowed by a majority verdict the right to publish the reports which the US government wanted blocked.
What were these reports? They detailed American involvement in Southeast Asia over four presidencies spread over more than two decades. The 47-volume official report was explosive and revealed miscalculation, bureaucratic arrogance, and – above all – deception on the part of US policymakers. All anti-national surely. Now are we hearing echoes of this in India?