There is some strange logic doing the rounds these days. It is that Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, being the Flag officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, is somehow “responsible” for the alleged spate of accidents that have afflicted the western naval fleet. By this reasoning, accepting the resignation of Navy chief Admiral D K Joshi was the right step, even though Defence Minister A K Antony has been roundly criticised for accepting his resignation with the alacrity that he did, without waiting for any inquiry, or a formal consultation with the Cabinet Committee on Security. A news report has suggested that a cable that caught fire may have caused the INS Sindhuratna accident that killed two officers. The responsibility for this does not rest with either Admiral Joshi or Sinha.
Subtle campaign? Neither former Navy chief Admiral D K Joshi nor Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, or for that matter the PM and the President are culpable for the recent accident, whose causes are yet to be determined
Because, if the former Navy chief D K Joshi and Shekhar Sinha are somehow culpable, so is the entire chain of command downward and upward — the Flag Officer who actually commands the western fleet, the Flag Officer Maharashtra Gujarat area, Commodore commanding submarines (west) and the Sindhuratna’s captain. Upwards, it leads to the now departed Chief of Naval Staff, and in parallel to the the Joint Secretary (Navy), the Additional Secretary, Defence Secretary, and then, to the Defence Minister, Prime Minister and, of course, the Supreme Commander of the armed force, the President of India.
Clearly, this would be an absurd construction. The reason why it is being played out is because people fail to differentiate between assuming “moral responsibility” for an accident, and “culpability” or even “constructive responsibility” for it. Neither Admiral Joshi nor Sinha, or for that matter the PM, RM and the President are culpable for the accident, whose causes are yet to be determined. They may share constructive responsibility, though, whether it requires their resignation is another matter. In the past ten years, some 110 Indian Air Force aircrafts have crashed, some due to human error, others due to manufacturing or maintenance defects. During Operation Parakram, hundreds of soldiers died, even though we didn’t have a war. Many were killed by defective mines and fuses. But no one took responsibility, either constructive or moral.
Admiral Joshi has insisted on taking moral responsibility and that is to his credit, but it is a deeply personal decision.
He was the one who insisted on the removal of the captain of the INS Talwar after it hit an unlit fishing boat off Mumbai a month or so ago. He has always set high standards, and he probably feels that he needs to live up to it.
There was probably another reason. There has been a subtle campaign of trying to show some recent naval incidents as institutional failures, rather than the accidents that they mostly were. Take just one example: earlier in February, a news agency report noted that the defence minister had hauled up the Navy chief over the malfunctioning of a boiler on the INS Vikramaditya that had joined the fleet in January after being refurbished in Russia. First, this ship has a history of boiler problems — the Ministry of Defence’s poor handling of the deal is the subject of a CAG report no 18, of 2008-09. Second, it had come after an arduous journey of nearly a month, covering 18,000 km. The malfunctioning of one of its eight boilers was hardly unusual, that is why it had a crew of 187 Russians to fix such problems. It could certainly not have been attributed to some fault of the Navy. Yet, read the tone of the report and you will see that it was.
What gave the game away was an associated complaint — that the ship’s crew were celebrating its journey through social media. This sounds very much like the ignorant babus of the MoD, because it betrayed the lack of understanding of what navies do and how they do it. While operations of war are at the heart of maritime strategy, one of its key aspects is to show the flag — awe and impress friends and adversaries through presence. It is for this reason that flotillas visit foreign ports, invite citizens of these countries on board for social functions and participate in activities on-shore.
In the last couple of years, the tasks of the Navy have been expanded without a corresponding expansion of personnel or equipment. First came the anti-piracy duties, which India was committed to along with other navies.
Recall that some pirates were even found close to Indian waters during the height of the piracy crisis. Second, after the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008, in a knee-jerk reaction the government ordered the Navy to take charge of coastal security.
There is little doubt that the developments are yet another manifestation of the poor state of the relationship between the civil and military sides of the Ministry of Defence. This is something only the political leadership can resolve through structural reform, as well as knocking a few heads.
Unfortunately, the perception is that the only heads being knocked are the uniformed ones.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi